Here’s my interview with Chris Fenner about his edited book The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts. Frisco, TX: Doxology & Theology Press, 2016, 641 pp., hardcover.
Chris, thank you for editing The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts. I thought you did an excellent job. I have some questions for you:
1. Can you please tell us more about yourself and the occasion in which you edited this book?
I am the Digital Archivist in the archives office of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). My job in general is to digitize and preserve old media formats (audio and video tapes, LPs, etc.), but my academic research specialty is hymnology. I am also a minister of music at Green Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I have worked at SBTS for eleven years now, starting when I was a graduate student in the worship arts program. I finished that degree in 2011, then completed a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Kentucky in 2017.
In 2016, Matt Boswell, director of Doxology & Theology Press, had been preparing a new edition of hymns by Isaac Watts, and he asked my colleague Esther Crookshank to write a foreword for it. Crookshank shared a draft of the project with me, and upon examining the work, I had several ideas for how it could be improved, so I got in touch with Matt and persuaded him to allow me to help him craft the book into something that would reflect the highest standards of scholarship possible, something that would really stand out from what other publishers had done before.
For the work, I was able to examine digital copies of Watts’ original collections. We included both of his original prefaces (this is really two books in one volume, Hymns and Spiritual Songs with the Psalms of David Imitated). We included all of Watts’ original footnotes for the Psalms, which explain his methodology and theology. We added some detailed indices, with pastors worship leaders in mind. We also included a set of tunes that had never been reproduced in any edition of Watts over the last 250 years. The whole project is a major improvement over any other edition of Watts currently on the market.
2. Who was Isaac Watts and why did he write his hymns?
Isaac Watts was a pastor in the dissenting tradition (Protestant, separate from the Church of England). Watts had some serious concerns about the condition of congregational singing in his time. In Protestant churches, the norm had been to sing only from the Psalms and a few select passages from the New Testament (like the Song of Simeon, for example). If people are only singing from the Old Testament, then they are singing an incomplete theology, and a theology rooted in the Old Covenant. Watts found this unacceptable, for good reason. So for his poetic translations of the Psalms, he wanted to infuse the texts with New Testament ideas, making connections to the work of Christ, as if David had been a New Covenant believer. In this regard, Watts was charting new territory.
Watts also wrote new hymns intended for congregational singing, for similar purposes, because he felt the Psalms weren’t enough for a well-rounded theology. All of this came at a point in time in which Protestants had been debating about whether it was OK to sing hymns in church, because when people start writing their own songs, doctrinal error can creep into the church. People had written hymns and poems before (George Herbert was very well loved in the previous century, for example), but Watts was so good at what he did, that people embraced his hymns and abandoned the strict adherence to the Psalms.
3. What are the key features of his hymns?
In addition to his infusion of New Testament theology in the Psalms, Watts strove to make his texts understandable to the average worshiper by using plain language and avoiding complicated terminology. Even though he wasn’t happy with the pre-existing tradition of Psalm singing, he wrote his hymns in such a way that they could be sung using the old Psalm tunes. This meant most of his texts fit into three different syllabic structures: common meter, long meter, and short meter, with some other exceptions. This is partly why his hymns have endured, because they are easily understandable and singable.
4. What are the weaknesses and strengths of his hymns?
If his hymns have any weaknesses, it would be because the English language has evolved, and the world has evolved, so Watts isn’t able to keep pace with all of the issues and perspectives that worshipers face today. In his day, his language was plain and simple, but in our day, his language can be a little antiquated at times and require some adjustment. His hymn “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,” for example, is written from the perspective of someone who lived in a time of Colonialism and Imperialism, in which he was able to write about other nations being “barbarous.” Others are written very much from a British perspective and don’t work in other contexts.
5. Of all his hymns, what is your favorite? And why is this one your favorite?
I have a special love for his rendition of Psalm 23, “My shepherd will supply my need,” especially with the American folk tune known as RESIGNATION. It is a very thoughtful and tender paraphrase. In 2015, when my son Garrett died at the sweet age of 5, I sang this at his funeral. Where the psalmist had written “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” Watts wrote these beautiful lines:
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.
My eyes get watery and my soul burns just thinking about it.
6. What projects are you currently working on?
I recently finished a new edition of Charles Spurgeon’s Our Own Hymn Book for Matt Boswell at Doxology & Theology. It hasn’t yet gone to press, but it is going to be a beautiful, scholarly book, full of great insights into Spurgeon and the hymns that he loved.
This past summer, I launched a new website, HymnologyArchive.com, for the serious hymn lover and scholar, offering a visual history of great hymns, full of the best scholarship that simply isn’t available anywhere else. It’s still new and still growing; I add material almost every day.
Lastly, I am compiling and editing a new collection of essays related to the hymns of Charles Wesley, featuring contributions from many gifted scholars, to be published next year by Biblical Spirituality Press.