Waters are rising. Wars are raging. The President is tweeting. People are struggling. Some days it seems the whole planet is wobbling. Help!
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) penned a hymn for days like this. “O GOD, OUR HELP IN AGES PAST,” a paraphrase of Psalm 90, was written in 1714 when England was in crisis, faced with another wave of religious intolerance.
The Fight for Religious Freedom
Watts knew about intolerance. He was nursed on the steps of the Southampton jail where his father, a Protestant with “Nonconformist sympathies,” was imprisoned for worshipping with his family outside the state-sanctioned Church of England.
When he wasn’t fighting for religious freedom, Isaac Watts, Sr. ran a boarding school. There, he taught his frail and sickly son to love languages. Young Isaac was a good student, not one to waste time. By age four he had mastered Latin; by eight he knew Greek; then he tackled French and Hebrew.
At the time, Protestants in England were restricted to singing metrical psalms, “lined out” by a leader. One day, Isaac Jr. complained that psalm-singing was boring, to which his father famously replied, “Then give us something better, young man!”
That’s how young Watts began penning religious verse. He would become known as “The Father of English Hymnody” or, as hymnologist Erik Routley called him, its liberator.
When it came time for him to go to university, Watts chose a Nonconformist academy in London because Oxford and Cambridge were for Anglicans only. In 1702, he became the pastor of the prestigious Mark Lane Independent Chapel. By then, England was warily experimenting with religious freedom, although it was still illegal to deny the Trinity.
Playing with Notions of “Time”
One year, my children’s choir studied the life of Isaac Watts. The kids loved acting out the story of baby Isaac peeking through the bars of his father’s jail cell, the youthful rebellion against boring hymns, his habit of rhyming every sentence and, when reprimanded, his retort: “O father, do some pity take/ And I will no more verses make.” That really cracked them up.
What tickled them even more was a story from 1712, when Watts was a pastor in London. Exhausted by ongoing poor health, he accepted an invitation to spend a week convalescing in the country home of a well-heeled parishioner. He packed his bags for a seven-day visit, but stayed thirty-six years! (Instead of calling Watts “The Father English Hymnody,” my clever choristers dubbed him “The World’s Worst Houseguest.”)
At the country home of his generous parishioner, Watts wrote a number of books on topics ranging from philosophy to astronomy and completed over 600 hymn texts. Experimenting, he changed the notion of what is appropriate for Christians to sing in worship, believing that people of faith needed “hymns of human composure” to help express our beliefs. He also wanted to bring the spirit of Christianity into the Old Testament Psalms sung in worship.
In 1714, Queen Anne, a Protestant, became deathly ill. England was thrown into chaos. The era of conditional religious tolerance was suddenly threatened. To make matters worse, Parliament hurriedly passed the Schism Act designed to suppress dissent once again.
Watts promptly sat down to write a hymn of comfort for England’s panicked citizens, especially his worried fellow Dissenters. Paraphrasing Psalm 90, he reminded them that God takes the long view of Time, while humans are caught up in the trials and tribulations of our current crises.
A thousand ages, in thy sight, are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night, before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all who breathe away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.
As luck would have it, Queen Anne died on the very day the dreaded Schism Act would have become official. George I became king and repealed the Act before it could be enforced. For this reason, the queen’s death was called by some the “Protestant Passover.” Watts and other Nonconformists breathed a sigh of relief.
“Give ‘em Watts, Boys! Give ‘em Watts!”
Just over three decades after Watts lived, his hymns helped New World colonists win independence from Old World defenders, not by being sung, but by being ripped from the songbooks.
In June, 1780, Rev. James Caldwell, the “Fighting Chaplain” — a Presbyterian pastor whose wife had been killed by the Redcoats — was present at the Battle of Springfield in what would become New Jersey. The Continental Army and some militiamen put up a fierce fight. In the middle of the battle, the soldiers ran out of the wadding necessary to pack their gunpowder. Without paper for wadding, the muskets wouldn’t fire and the battle would be lost.
That’s when the parson ran into the church, grabbed songbooks full of hymns by you-know-who and ran out shouting, “Give ‘em Watts, boys! Give ‘em Watts!” The Patriots balled up pages from the precious hymnbooks and won the day.
To Go Deeper
The Gospel in Hymns; Backgrounds and Interpretations by Albert Edward Bailey (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950)
Hymns and The Faith by Erik Routley, (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, 1956)
“History of Hymns: O God, Our Help in Ages Past” by C. Michael Hawn, UMC Discipleship Ministries, website
“Isaac Watts” Songs & Hymns, Center for Church Music website
“Revolutionary War New Jersey: Battle of Springfield”
“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” sung at Westminster Abbey (with lyrics)