The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts

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.  Watts

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.

Watts

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Hymns Interview

A Proud Calvinist

In May of 2009 Dr. Joel Beeke and I were in the Philippines to attend a conference on reformed theology in which Dr. Beeke was the speaker. During the Q&A session one of the delegates asked, “Can you be a Calvinist and at the same time proud?” To this question Dr. Beeke initially replied, “To be a Calvinist and proud at the same time is an oxymoron.”proud calvinist

Indeed, a proud Calvinist is a combination of two terms that have opposite meanings. A true Calvinist is one who humbly submits to God’s sovereignty. A proud person is one who places himself above God. A Calvinist prays with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” A proud person prays with the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11-13).

I think the aforementioned question arose out of a concern that some of those who have discovered Calvinistic theology have become proud of themselves. What does a proud Calvinist look like?

  1. A proud Calvinist looks down on those who are not Calvinists. He thinks that he is superior to them. And when he refutes their unscriptural doctrines, he does so very sarcastically. He acts like the unbelieving criminal, who railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! (Luke 23:39). Likewise, when he defends his faith, he does so with harshness and disrespect. This proud Calvinist should learn from Peter: “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
  1. A proud Calvinist brags about his collection of reformed books. He gathers books for his self-glorification, rather than for his sanctification and God’s splendor. John Bunyan calls this kind of sin “the pride of the library.”[1] According to Bunyan, this particular sin is committed:

When men secretly please themselves to think it is known what a stock of books they have; or when they take more pleasure in the number of, than the matter contained in their books.

When they buy books rather to make up a number, than to learn to be good and godly men thereby.

When, though they own their books to be good and godly, yet they will not conform thereto.[2]

 

  1. A proud Calvinist is only concerned with theology (the study of God); he does not care about piety (the practice of godliness). For instance, with great diligence he reads a lot of books on reformed theology but only to increase his knowledge, so that he can show to others how theologically intellectual he is. This proud Calvinist should realize that the Reformers as well as the Puritans did not only write to inform the head (know God) but to touch the heart (love God) and move the hands (serve God). In fact, the very purpose of John Calvin in writing the Institutes, his great theological work, was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[3] In short, Calvin wrote to promote what John Murray called “intelligent piety,” spirituality that is rooted in Scripture. In Calvinism, theology and piety are inseparable. The study of God prompts the practice of godliness.

Are you a proud Calvinist? Does your study of reformed theology produce piety in your Christian life? Does your study make you love Christ more and hate sin more? Pray with Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.” Remember, a true Calvinist is marked by piety not pride, humility not haughtiness.

 

 

                 [1] John Bunyan, “A Holy Life,” in The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan, vol. 9, gen. ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 324.

                 [2] Bunyan, “A Holy Life,” 324.

                 [3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:9.

Holiness Hymns John Bunyan John Calvin Piety Puritan piety Robert Murray M’Cheyne Sanctification

I’m Thankful that I Became Blind

One of my favorite hymn writers is the blind hymn writer Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915) who wrote over 8,000 hymns including “Blessed Assurance” and “To God Be the Glory.”

Fanny_Crosby

Fanny Crosby

In her autobiographical book entitled Fanny Crosby’s Life-Story (1903), Crosby narrates the following account in which she expresses her thankfulness to God that, in His providence, she became blind. Crosby was not born blind. At six weeks old she had inflammation in her eyes. The physician, who tried to help her, mistakenly destroyed Crosby’s eyes. Consequently, she became blind for the rest of her life. However, she mentions in her book that if she could meet that physician, she would say, “Thank you, thank you—over and over again—for making me blind, if it was through your agency that it came about!” Why would Crosby do that? Well, in her own words here are two reasons why:

It seemed intended by the blessed Providence of God, that I should be blind all my life; and I thank Him for the dispensation. I was born with a pair of as good eyes as any baby ever owned; but when I was six weeks of age, a slight touch of inflammation came upon them: and they were put under the care of a physician.

What he did to them, or what happened in spite of him, I do not know, but it resulted in their permanent destruction, so far as seeing is concerned; and I was doomed to blindness all the rest of my earthly existence.

I have heard that this physician never ceased expressing his regret at the occurrence; and that it was one of the sorrows of his life. But if I could meet him now, I would say, “Thank you, thank you—over and over again—for making me blind, if it was through your agency that it came about!”

This sounds strangely to you, reader? But I assure you I mean it—every word of it; and if perfect earthly sight were offered me to-morrow, I would not accept it. Did you ever know of a blind person’s talking like this before?

Why would I not have that doctor’s mistake —if mistake it was—remedied? Well, there are many reasons: and I will tell you some of them.

One is, that I know, although it may have been a blunder on the physician’s part, it was no mistake of God’s. I verily believe it was His intention that I should live my days in physical darkness, so as to be better prepared to sing His praises and incite others so to do. I could not have written thousands of hymns—many of which, if you will pardon me for repeating it, are sung all over the world— if I had been hindered by the distractions of seeing all the interesting and beautiful objects that would have been presented to my notice.

Another reason is, that, while I am deprived of many splendid sights (which, as above mentioned, might draw me away from the principal work of my life), I have also been spared the seeing of a great many unpleasant things. The merciful God has put His hand over my eyes, and shut out from me the sight of many instances of cruelty and bitter unkindness and misfortune, that I would not have been able to relieve, and must simply have suffered in seeing. I am content with what I can know of life through the four senses I possess, practically unimpaired, at eighty-three years of age. Hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling, are still felt, in their fullest degree.

 

Fanny Crosby Hymns

The Cross, the Gospel, & Christ

As a technical term, the word cross has a deeper meaning. It represents the gospel of Christ, particularly His atoning death. In fact, sometimes the word cross and the word Christ are used indistinguishably. For example, Paul says in Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now you might say to Paul, “Remember it is not about the cross but about Him on the cross. Don’t boast in the cross but in Christ.” What do you think Paul would say to you? He might say, “I know that. But you seem to have missed my point. I am using the word cross here metonymically.” It is helpful to understand that in Paul’s mind to glory in the cross and to glory in the Lord Jesus Christ are equivalent in meaning. Why? Well, because Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians 1:31, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”     cross

Observe also that for Paul the preaching of the cross and the preaching of the gospel are one. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 we read, “For the word [or the preaching] of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” According to this verse, the cross is “the power of God,” and according to Romans 1:16, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”  Hence, here the cross and the gospel are the same.

What is the gospel? Interestingly, in Mark 1:15 Jesus speaks, “[R]epent and believe in the gospel” and you will be saved. Then when the Philippian Jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” they replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:30-31). Notice that Paul and Silas did not say, “Believe in the gospel,” but instead “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Note also that Jesus says, “[B]elieve in the gospel,” and not “believe in me.” Here then we see that the gospel and Jesus Christ are essentially synonymous. The gospel is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the gospel.

Here’s the key: in the Bible the terms cross, gospel, and Christ are sometimes used interchangeably.

Here are some of my favorite cross-centered hymns:

1. “It Is Well With My Soul” by Horatio Gates Spafford (1828–1888)

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

 

2. “Old Rugged Cross” by George Bennard (1873–1958)

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

 

3. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

 

Cross Gospel Hymns

My Resolution: “Though no one joins me, still I will follow”

“I have decided to follow Jesus”

“Though no one joins me, still I will follow.”

“The cross before me, the world behind me.”

 

These words are taken from the hymn titled “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” But, actually, the words came out of the mouth of the martyr who lived in India many years ago.

More than 150 years ago in a pagan village known for headhunting in northeast India, a family became followers of the Lord Jesus Christ under the ministry of a Welsh missionary. When the village chief had heard about this family’s conversion to Christianity, he asked the father of the home to recant his faith in Christ. With boldness, however, the Christian father responded, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” To force him to forsake Christ, a decree was made to kill his wife and two children. But, by God’s grace, the man proclaimed, “Though no one joins me, still I will follow.” The persecutors murdered his wife, but he remained faithful to his Lord and Savior. Finally, they killed him, but even his death did not shake his faith. In fact, during his execution, the persecutors found him saying, “The cross before me, the world behind me.” Deeply touched by this man’s life, the chief announced, “I too belong to Jesus Christ!” Eventually, the whole pagan village was converted to Christianity.

Sadly, many people do not appreciate “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” because of its mistaken association with Arminianism. I encourage you therefore to sing this precious hymn with the inspiring story above in mind. In doing so, you will appreciate the original meaning of the song. Thank God for enabling this Christian Indian father to be willing to die for the sake of Christ.

When the time of persecution comes to you, will you be able to sing by God’s grace?

I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus–
no turning back, no turning back.

The world behind me, the cross before me,
the world behind me, the cross before me,
the world behind me, the cross before me–
no turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, I still will follow,
though none go with me, I still will follow,
though none go with me, I still will follow,
no turning back, no turning back.

May the words of this song be our resolution!

 

Reference:

Hymnary.org

Arminianism Gospel Hymns Martyr

Songs of Suffering and Sanctification: The Hymnody of Anne Steele

This paper will examine the life and work of one of the greatest hymn writers whose heritage makes her a product of this movement, Anne Steele. Her family roots grow from the Dissenting tradition; Steele was a Particular Baptists of the eighteenth century. After a brief biographical sketch, her hymns will be examined as a source for better understanding her theology and experience, both personally and as a part of the Particular Baptist denomination. Specifically, the themes of biblical authority, personal conversion, and suffering and the sovereignty of God will each be considered in Steele’s life and compositions. Through evaluation of her biography and works, Steele’s spirituality can serve as an example to other believers seeking to cultivate and maintain their own personal piety.

 

The article is by Jake Porter, Senior Pastor of Mont Belvieu First Baptist Church, Texas, and a Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Click here, to continue reading his article.

Anne Steele Hymns Sanctification Spirituality Suffering

“I will sing unto the LORD”: Musical Autobiography

Philosophy of Music

As observed, music has been an important part of my life. I cannot imagine life without it. Martin Luther (1483-1546) expressed the significance of music this way: “Music is next to theology.” Of course, whenever I use the word music here I am not referring to worldly, God-dishonoring songs. While not all secular music is evil, we should be wise to discern and to avoid any secular and even “Christian” songs that displease God. Our music, first of all, must glorify the Lord; the musical tunes as well as the texts should be solemnly appropriate and theologically scriptural.

The importance of music in my life is best seen in my Christian growth. Music has been instrumental for my sanctification. Thus, I fully agree with Michael A. G. Haykin when he once said in our class that “hymnody is a vehicle for piety.” While I enjoy psalmody and classical music, I remain a great lover of hymns. Hymns comfort me when I am discouraged: “Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you.” When I sin and feel so unworthy to come to God for forgiveness, they remind me of the: “Wonderful grace of Jesus…, Broader than the scope of my transgressions, Greater far than all my sin and shame.” They challenge me to live a godly life: “Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” When Satan tries to question God’s faithfulness in my life, they tell me: ‘“Great is Thy faithfulness,’ O God my Father, There is no shadow of turning with Thee… All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—‘Great is Thy faithfulness,’ Lord, unto me!” Finally, they teach me to always sing with one of my favorite hymn writers Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915):

“To God be the glory, great things He has done!”

 

To read my entire essay, click here.

Autobiography Hymns