Today is the birthday of the great English hymn writer and educator Isaac Watts (1674–1748). It would be hard to overestimate Watts’ influence on the 18th-century musical and religious culture not just of England but also of early America, and his name and his work should be familiar to all educated people, both religious and secular.
Here is a wonderful introductory playlist of some of Watts’ best-known hymns, beautifully performed by the Coventry Singers of Pottstown, Pennsylvania:
Watts was a clergyman in the English Nonconformist tradition — the tradition of the 17th-century Puritans, and of the denominations that are usually called Congregationalist in the United States. The Nonconformists refused to adhere to the canons of the state-sanctioned Church of England (the Anglican Church), and although they were tolerated within society at large, in Watts’ day they were denied admission to English universities and could not hold many public offices.
Watts’ Nonconformist background made him especially popular colonial New England, and his music spread from there across much of the country. His hymn verses were not only sung in churches, they also appeared as inscriptions on countless gravestones in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they served as a literary models for many other poets and hymn writers. (Emily Dickinson’s poems, for example, although secular, are very much in the Watts tradition.)
The early hymns of many African American churches, before the “Gospel” style became popular in the 20th century, were often called “Dr. Watts songs,” whether or not they were actually written by Watts, and many of these are still sung today.
And as an indication of Watts’ prevalence throughout early American culture, when the whaling ship Pequod was being made ready for departure in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851), the crusty ship owner Captain Bildad admonished the crew that “no profane songs would be allowed on board,” and his pious sister, Charity, “placed a small choice copy of Watts in each seaman’s berth.”
Whether you are a religious or a secular homeschooler, take a few minutes this week to introduce your students to the vigor and clarity of Watts’ hymns, which have been an important part of the musical and literary landscape of the English-speaking world for nearly three hundred years.
What musical discoveries have you made in your homeschool lately? 😊
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