Three Variations on a Solitary Theme W. Zeitler
“O God, Our Help in Ages Past”
Isaac Watts (1674–1748) was an English logician, Christian theologian, and the author of some 750 hymn texts, including “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”. Watts was brought up in the home of a committed religious Nonconformist; his father, also Isaac Watts, was imprisoned twice for his views. Watts received a classical education, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
From an early age, Watts displayed a propensity for rhyme. Once, when asked why he had his eyes open during prayers, he responded:
A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.
Receiving corporal punishment for this, he cried:
O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.
Because he was a Nonconformist, Watts could not attend Oxford or Cambridge, which were then restricted to (Conformist) Anglicans. So he went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690. Following his education, Watts was called as pastor of a large independent chapel in London where he helped train preachers, despite his poor health. Watts held religious opinions that were more non-denominational and ecumenical than was at that time the norm for a Nonconformist, more interested in promoting education and scholarship than preaching for any particular sect. Taking work as a private tutor, Watts lived with the Nonconformist Hartopp family in Stoke Newington. Through them he became acquainted with their immediate neighbors, Sir Thomas Abney (Lord Mayor of London) and Lady Mary. Initially invited for a week, Watts eventually lived for a total of 36 years in the Abney household.
In addition to hymn texts and theological tomes, Watts wrote a textbook on logic which was particularly popular; its full title was, Logic, or 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. More generally known as just Logic, it was first published in 1724, printed in twenty editions, and was the standard text on Logic at Oxford for over a century. Watts followed Logic in 1741 with a supplement, The Improvement of the Mind, which also went through many editions and later inspired Michael Faraday — the 19th century physicist who made fundamental contributions to the field of electromagnetic fields. When C.S. Peirce, the great nineteenth-century logician, was preparing his own textbook, he wrote, ‘I shall suppose the reader to be acquainted with what is contained in Dr Watts’ Logick, a book… far superior to the treatises now used in colleges, being the production of a man distinguished for good sense.”
Other well-known hymns for which Watts wrote the texts include:
- Joy to the world (yes, the one sung to Handel’s melody)
- Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
- When I survey the wondrous cross
- Alas! and did my Saviour bleed
- This is the day the Lord has made
- I sing the mighty power of God
- My shepherd will supply my need