Isaac Watts

17 July 1674–25 November 1748


Isaac Watts, from Edwin Long, Illustrated History of Hymns and Their Authors (ca. 1882), based on the portrait by Godfrey Kneller, National Portrait Gallery.

ISAAC WATTS was born at Southampton, July 17, 1674. He was a precocious child; learned to read almost as soon as he could articulate, and wrote verses when a little boy. He was firmly attached to the principles of the Nonconformists, for which his father had suffered imprisonment, and was therefore compelled to decline the advantages of the great English universities, which at that time received only Church of England students. He availed himself, however, of the privilege of attending a Dissenting academy in London, taught by Mr. Thomas Rowe, where he applied himself to study with uncommon diligence and success. During his school days it was his habit frequently to attempt poetry in English and in Latin, according to the custom of the time. In this manner he was unconsciously preparing himself for a long, brilliant, and useful career.

In 1705 he published his first volume of poems, Horae Lyricae, which was received with approbation in Great Britain and America, and gave the author, in the opinion of the learned Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, an honorable place among English poets. His Hymns and Spiritual Songs appeared in 1707; Psalms, in 1719; and Divine Songs for Children, in 1720.

He is bold, massive, tremendous. This was not his only style of writing; some of his hymns [contain great pathos]. For example, “When I survey the wondrous cross” and “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed.” Grandeur was his forte, but he could be as simple as a child and as tender as a mother. The same hand that wrote “Wide as the world is thy command / Vast as eternity thy love,” also wrote the familiar little cradle song, “Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber / Holy angels guard thy bed.”

He became pastor of an Independent Church in London in 1702. He was so feeble that much of the time the work of the parish was done by an assistant, but he held the place nominally until his death. Dr. Watts never married. In 1713 he was invited to the elegant and hospitable home of Sir Thomas Abney. Years later he wrote to Lady Huntingdon: “This day thirty years I came hither to the house of my good friend Sir Thomas Abney, intending to spend but one single week under his friendly roof; and I have extended my visit to exactly the length of thirty years.”

He issued many works in prose as well as in poetry, amounting altogether to fifty-two publications. He lived to be seventy-five years of age, and was for many years before his death recognized as a patriarch among the Dissenting clergy. He died November 25, 1748.

The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church (1911)
ed. Charles Nutter & Wilbur Fisk Tillett

Featured Hymns:

Alas! and did my Saviour bleed
Come, we that love the Lord
I sing th’ almighty power of God
Joy to the world; the Lord is come (Psalm 98)
My shepherd will supply my need (Psalm 23)
When I survey the wondrous cross

Collections of Hymns:

Horae Lyricae

1st edition (1705/6): PDF
2nd edition (1709): PDF

Hymns and Spiritual Songs

1st edition (1707): PDF
2nd edition (1709): PDF
5th edition (1716): PDF
7th edition (1720): PDF
9th edition (1725): PDF
15th edition (1744): PDF

Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children

1st edition (1715): PDF
2nd edition (1716): PDF

Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament

1st edition (1719): PDF
2nd edition (1719): PDF
3rd edition (1722): PDF
5th edition (1725): PDF
7th edition (1729): PDF
10th edition (1736): PDF
11th edition (1744): PDF
12th edition (1740): PDF
15th edition (1748): PDF

Sermons on Various Subjects

Volume 1 (1721): PDF
Volume 2 (1723): PDF
Volume 3 (1729): PDF

Reliquiae Juveniles (1734): PDF

The Remnants of Time (1736)

Editions and Collected Works:

The Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Isaac Watts, D.D., ed. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge (1753)

Volume 1: PDF
Volume 2: PDF
Volume 3: PDF
Volume 4: PDF
Volume 5: PDF
Volume 6: PDF

The Works of the Reverend and Learned Isaac Watts, D.D., ed. George Burder (1810)

Volume 1:
Volume 2:
Volume 3:
Volume 4:
Volume 5:
Volume 6:

Louis Benson, “The Early Editions of Watts’s Hymns,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society. Vol. 1, No. 4 (June 1902), pp. 265-279: PDF.

Selma Bishop, ed. Isaac Watts Hymns and Spiritual Songs 1707-1748: A Study in Early Eighteenth Century Language Changes (London: Faith Press, 1962): WorldCat

Chris Fenner, ed. The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D.D. (Frisco, TX: Doxology & Theology, 2016): Amazon


Life and Hymns of Isaac Watts:

Samuel Johnson, “Watts,” The Lives of the English Poets, vol. 3 (Dublin: Whitestone, 1779), pp. 15-27.

Thomas Gibbons, Memoirs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D.D (London: James Buckland, 1780): PDF

Edwin Hatfield, “Isaac Watts,” Poets of the Church (NY, 1884), pp. 629-646: HathiTrust

John Julian & H. Leigh Bennett, “Isaac Watts,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892; with appdx., 1907), pp. 1236-1241: Google Books

Thomas Wright, Isaac Watts (London: C.J. Farncombe & Sons, 1914): PDF

Arthur P. Davis, Isaac Watts: His Life and Works (London: Independent Press, 1948): WorldCat

Harry Escott, Isaac Watts, Hymnographer (London: Independent Press, 1962): WorldCat

Ronald Tajchman, “Isaac Watts’s communion hymns: An application of classical rhetoric,” The Hymn, vol. 46, no. 1 (Jan. 1995), pp. 18-22: HathiTrust

J.R. Watson, “The Hymns of Isaac Watts and the Tradition of Dissent,” Dissenting Praise: Religious Dissent and the Hymn in England and Wales. Isabel Rivers and David L. Wykes, eds. (Oxford: University Press, 2011): WorldCat | Amazon

The Legacy of Isaac Watts:

Louis Benson, “The American Revisions of Watts’s Psalms,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society. Vol. 2, No. 1 (June 1903), pp. 18-34: PDF

R.A. Stackhouse, The Language of the Psalms in Worship: American Revisions of Watts’ Psalter. Drew Studies in Liturgy 4 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997): WorldCat | Amazon

David W. Music, “Isaac Watts in America Before 1729,” The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, vol. 50, no. 1 (Jan. 1999), pp. 29-33: HathiTrust

Esther R. Crookshank, “We’re Marching to Zion: Isaac Watts in Early America,” Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology. R.J. Mouw and M.A. Noll, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004): WorldCat | Amazon

William T. Dargan, Lining Out the Word: Dr. Watts Hymn Singing in the Music of Black Americans (Chicago: Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, 2006): WorldCat | Amazon

Harry Eskew, “Isaac Watts and the Shape-Note Tradition,” Minds and Hearts in Praise of God: Hymns and Essays in Church Music in Honor of Hugh T. McElrath. J. Michael Raley and Deborah Carlton Loftis, eds. (Franklin, TN: Providence House, 2006): WorldCat | Amazon

David W. Music, “The early reception of Isaac Watts’ Psalms of David Imitated,” The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, vol. 69, no. 4 (Autumn 2018), pp. 14-19.

Related Links:

Isaac Watts,

Alan Gaunt, “Isaac Watts,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:

Isabel Rivers, “Isaac Watts,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

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