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On the Kalendar: Isaac Watts, Hymn Writer

Isaac Watts was a Congregational minister and a prolific and popular hymn writer. He is credited with over 750 hymn texts; the 1940 Hymnal contains eleven of his hymns. He is often called the “Godfather of English Hymnody”.

November from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“November”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

Because Watts and his family were nonconformists, Watts couldn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge, so he matriculated at the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690. He then took a post as pastor of an independent chapel in London, and then as a tutor for a nonconformist family in Stoke Newington, and finally as a member of the household of Sir Thomas Abney.

During the 16th century, Reformation hymns were generally paraphrases of Biblical texts, particularly of the Psalms. But Isaac was among a group of hymnodists who wrote “original songs of Christian experience”, and his popularity helped to establish this style of hymn writing. Still, Watts did not neglect Psalms as a source of hymn texts: in 1719, he published a metrical Psalter.

Watts wrote the texts for such great hymns as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Joy to the World”, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”, and “There is a Land of Pure Delight”.

Isaac Watts is commemorated on November 25th.

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