Now that you’ve put away “Joy to the World” for another year, try some of Isaac Watts’ other 600 hymns, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and “Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun.” As you do, remember that Watts’ very first hymn was based on Revelation 5.
The writing of hymns by an upstart teenager was a bold move, for in the years following the Reformation, Protestants were divided on the question of hymns. Lutherans and Moravians loved them. But most English churches, especially in the Calvinistic tradition, clung to the singing of Psalms alone.
One Sunday in 1692, Isaac Watts, 18, did not sing during church services. When his father rebuked him, Isaac retorted that the music wasn’t worth singing, that the Psalms didn’t rhyme, that they were wooden and awkward in form and phrase.
“Those hymns were good enough for your grandfather and father,” said the senior Watts, “and they will have to be good enough for you.”
“They will never do for me, Father, regardless of what you and your father thought of them.”
“If you don’t like the hymns we sing, then write better ones!”
“I have written better ones, Father, and if you will relax and listen, I will read one to you.” Isaac told his father he had been studying the song of the angels in Revelation 5:6–10, and had rewritten it, giving it rhyme and rhythm.
Behold the glories of the Lamb / Amidst His Father’s throne;
Prepare new honors for His name, / And songs before unknown.
His astonished father took his son’s composition to the church, and the following Sunday the congregation loved it so much that Isaac was asked to bring another the next Sunday, and the next, and the next, for over 222 consecutive weeks.
Today Isaac Watts is called the father of modern English hymnody. He did indeed bring much joy to the world.