This common but very great hymn was written by Isaac Watts (1676-1748), whom readers of “Music Notes” will recognize from previous weeks. It must be said that this writer possesses a great fondness for the hymns of Isaac Watts! This same individual owns a collection of Watts books which in its thoroughness is unequaled by any private collector at least in Texas.
Watts was known as the “Father of English Hymnody.” Before Isaac Watts, the Church of England sang psalms, as did the Church of which Watts was a part, the Dissenting Church. It was believed that one should not “add to” the words of the Bible—the psalms provided plenty of material to sing. Unfortunately, the psalm settings of the time were rather badly done, so Watts began to paraphrase the psalms himself. This hymn is based on Psalm 72, starting at vs. 5n Eventually, Watts moved from psalm paraphrases to “new” hymns of his own words not based on biblical texts, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
Isaac Watts did not simply write hymns—he wrote many volumes including The Improvement of the Mind, and Logic: Or, the Right Use of Reason and On the Separation of the Soul after Death. He even wrote books on astronomy, history and mathematics. For example, in his Logic, Watts provides the following metaphorical advice for the Christian (or anyone, for that matter) in regards to decision-making: “On a still day, one may see every detail of the pebbles at the bottom of a pond; but, when the water is agitated, there is much murkiness and discombobulation. So it is with the human being: When our souls are distressed and aroused with anger and fitful passions, we are not good judges of ourselves, of others, or of ideas. Only when we have the lucidity of calm and peace can we easily go about our lives.”
Apparently, people in the 18th century could be just as forgetful as those of us living 200 years later; Watts gives the following advice to aid our memory: “Sometimes a new or strange idea may be fixed in the memory by considering its contrary or opposite. So, if we cannot hit on the word Goliath, the remembrance of David may recover it. . .It has also sometimes been the practice of men to imprint names or sentences ontheir memory by taking the first letters of every word of that sentence, or of those names, and making a new word out of them. . . So the name Roy G Biv teaches us to remember the order of the seven original colors as they appears as cast through a prism, viz red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.”
From Logic: Or the Right Use of Reason. London: Lochhead and Gracie, 1802; The Improvement of the Mind. . . Washington: Wm. Cooper, 1813. (From the collection of Benjamin Kolodziej.)