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Watts, Isaac locked

  • Esther R. Crookshank

(b Southampton, England, July 17, 1674; Stoke Newington, London, Nov 25, 1748). English hymn writer, clergyman, scholar, and author. Watts wrote hymns from age 20 for his Southampton congregation and from 1702 served as pastor in London. After giving up public ministry for health reasons in 1712, he exerted great influence on Puritan leaders in the American colonies through extensive correspondence and his published collections, which contained nearly 700 hymns and psalm paraphrases.

With The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719) he undertook large-scale reform of Dissenting (non-Anglican) worship by writing new “Christianized” versifications of the Psalms; he believed the Psalter required revision to fit it for New Testament worship. His reform succeeded far beyond his expectations for many reasons, including the strong appeal of his vigorous, singable lyrics to Puritan ministers and worshippers in colonial New England, where they took deep root. Called the “liberator of English hymnody,” Watts produced psalm paraphrases and hymns that broke the grip of strict metrical psalmody in use for over a century in Protestant Britain and North America. Dozens of American compilers produced Watts and Select editions of his books during the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the psalm tunes most widely published in US collections before 1810, more than two-thirds were printed with texts by Watts. Divine and Moral Songs (1715), his pioneering publication of hymns specifically for children, became a leading schoolbook in England and America well into the 19th century.

Watts’s output has remained influential in the United States since the 1700s, notably in the African American improvisatory, lined-out “Dr. Watts” or “long-meter” tradition and the shape-note, revivalistic, and denominational worship traditions. Among the many influenced by his hymns are Baptist pioneer poet Anne Steele, gospel hymn writers Fanny Crosby and Robert Lowry, evangelist E.P. Hammond, and hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill (“To Zion”). His hymns (including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” often regarded as his greatest work) remain standards in Protestant worship worldwide to this day. “Joy to the World,” which he originally wrote as a paraphrase of Psalm 98, has become, with its tune “Antioch,” by Handel, a Christmas icon in North America among millions who would not know its author’s name.


  • H. Escott: Isaac Watts: Hymnographer (London, 1962)
  • S.A. Marini: “Rehearsal for Revival: Sacred Singing and the Great Awakening in America,” Sacred Sound: Music in Religious Thought and Practice, ed. J. Irwin (Chico, CA, 1983), 71–91
  • R.A. Stackhouse: The Language of the Psalms in Worship: American Revisions of Watts’ Psalter. Drew Studies in Liturgy 4 (Lanham, MD, 1997)
  • J.R. Watson: The English Hymn: a Critical and Historical Study (Oxford, 1997)
  • E.R. Crookshank: “‘We’re Marching to Zion’: Isaac Watts in Early America,” Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology, ed. R.J. Mouw and M.A. Noll (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK, 2004), 17–41