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Isaac Watts

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The beating pulse

It was New Year's Eve in the dark cathedral, and the hymn surged as a thousand voices rose together like a great ocean swell -

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

When you hear the hymn sung, the words are as much a part of William Croft's music as waves are part of the sea.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote the words for 750 hymns, and they are still being sung - in Africa, Britain and America and other parts of the world. Watts was equally and passionately interested in logic, and his book about it is worth reading if you think reason has a role to play in your life.

When he was four years old, Watts studied Latin. When he was ten he mastered Classical Greek. At thirteen he had Hebrew under his belt. He loved to invent rhyming couplets in English, a habit that got on the nerves of his parents. While being punished for the fault of excessive rhyming, he is said to have cried,

O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make.

You have to love a kid like that.

Unwilling to attend Oxford or Cambridge due to his non-conformist religious views, Watts studied at an academy in Stoke Newington, and became a pastor. Before he was 30 he had written 750 hymns. They include Joy to the World! (music by Handel) and Jesus shall reign where'er the sun Tune: Duke Street (Duke Street).

Watts’ quatrains of three iambic feet beat like a pulse. You can find them in many other well-loved hymns and in the work of poet Emily Dickinson. She read his books in the family library, and borrowed the rhythm of O God, our help to write,

Parting is all we know of heaven
And all we need of hell.

We can also hear Watts' cadences in the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

After illness forced him to retire, Watts studied and wrote for the rest of his life while living with friends. He published the best-seller Logic in 1725. Its long subtitle exactly explains his challenge: The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. A Scott Cunningham of Athens, Georgia, thinks he succeeds.

Watts uses an 18th century syntax, but “for that reader who is willing and able to find a quiet cozy spot and finds meditating on ideas for hours on end pure bliss, this book will not disappoint. It is more than merely an elementary textbook on the rules of argumentation. The first 150 pages consist of Watts laying forth a theory of metaphysics that accounts for the nature of ideas, their objects, and the role of the senses in the collection and cultivation of knowledge. I found the book to be fascinating, precisely because Watts is such a careful and deep thinker.”

An ability to reason logically can be useful as it prevents us from being swept away by fantastical ideas and prejudices. But the wonderful thing about this achievement is that Watts saw no contradiction between logic and the lyrics of his hymns. He was working in a peculiarly British tradition which believed that God gave people reason to understand the world. Bishop Robert Grosseteste and scientist Roger Bacon are among the earliest advocates of this radical view.

Toward the end of his life Watt remarked, “It is the plain promises of the Gospel that are my support; and I bless God that they are plain promises; that do not require much labour and pains to understand them. . .” One of his most important contributions was encouraging his friend Philip Doddridge to write the Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. The book helped to transform William Wilberforce into a Christian and an abolitionist.

O God, Our Help was sung at the funeral of Winston Churchill.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

 

 

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