Ten Thousand Watts and More
The Power of Isaac Watts
Isaac Watts. In his time, he was a vivid revolutionary. In our time, he seems a fading relic.
How to mitigate time warp? Ten Thousand Watts and More: The Power of Isaac Watts was an attempt to do this during the Faith Ablaze! vespers program at Andrews University in 1999 by using an interactive, fast-paced collage featuring a mix of readers’ theater, congregational song, and choral hymn and psalm. The readers, representing three generations, provided expressive excerpts from Watts’ poems, inserted expert commentary from established scholars, and lent coherence to the whole through narration that clarified both text and music. Poetic excerpts were read by AU undergraduate student Arthur Martens and Communication and English Professor Beverly Matiko.
Professor Emeritus Wilfred Futcher interspersed with dry wit and razor-sharp timing expert and insightful commentary from scholars. I provided the narrative context and coordinated the program. Music interwoven within their verbal framework included congregational singing of Watts’ hymn verses, along with four colorful early-American selections with Watts’ texts sung by a chamber choir conducted by AU graduate assistant Ritzu Oikawa.1 What follows is a summary of that program.
The reference to "10,000 watts and more" in reality is an understatement on the influence Isaac Watts had on Hymnody in colonial and post-revolutionary America. Watts’ spiritual poetry comprised not just 10,000, but some 15,000 published texts that were paired with specific hymn-tunes in America up to 1810, approximately sixty per cent of that repertory! Amazingly, compilers of these early American tunebooks chose some 1,250 different stanzas of Watts’ poetry for their books, with his psalms and hymns enjoying a near-monopoly status.
Foremost among these single stanzas is Watts’ paraphrase of one stanza from Psalm 50, a passage steeped in drama:
The God of glory sends his summons forth,
Calls the south nations and awakes the north;
From east to west his sovereign orders spread,
Through distant worlds and regions of the dead,
The trumpet sounds, hell trembles; heaven rejoices;
Lift up your heads, ye saints, with cheerful voices.
This text, "The God of Glory," was published and referenced some 215 times in American tunebooks published up to 1810, far exceeding any other text in frequency. This Watts text was common many decades before William Miller’s voice, starting in 1831, sounded an urgent message concerning Christ’s imminent second coming. The second-advent message in "The God of Glory" must have been prominent in the singing that stirred many a sturdy meetingplace in early America.
The focus of this vespers presentation on Watts was to define his power and influence through discussion of three primary points, namely, placement in time, perspective on tradition, and potency of language.
Placement in Time
Dr. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), an ungainly man said to have been an invalid all his life, often is described as the "Father of English Hymnody." An Englishman, Watts was born at a time of intense conflict between the Church of England and dissenters who were ostracized and punished as nonconformists. In spite of the fact that the Watts household were dissenters and not allowed access to the usual universities, Isaac had a remarkable early linguistic education and studied at a London "dissenting academy." He would throughout his life be a nonconformist in several spheres.
Perspective on Tradition
But an "aggressor?" Commentator Louis Benson states that Watts "wore the self-confidence of youth like a panoply, and advanced into what he knew would be a fray with full intent of being the aggressor." He took a revolutionary stance toward the attitude and tradition that only texts based directly on Scripture were worthy for churchgoers to sing. At least two venue-widening tendencies resulted: more freedom in his psalm paraphrases than traditionalists would sanction, and the embracing in his poems of the freely-composed devotional hymn.
Potency of Language
Reformer John Calvin said, "Music is an intensifier of the text that it bears." When allied with the creative spark of music, the intensity of Watts’ language becomes especially potent, evidenced in this series of couplets from several Watts sources:
"Plung’d in a gulph of dark despair
We wretched sinners lay";
"Is he a star? He breaks the night,
Piercing the shades with dawning light";
"Babel shall reel beneath my stroke,
And stagger to the ground"; and
"Swift as an eagle cuts the air,
We’ll mount aloft to thine abode".
This language emphasizes not only emotion, but also spiritual insight, in its vivid imagery.
Watt’s cumulative power sparked as he seized his placement in time by generating a fresh perspective on tradition and infusing his revolutionary tendencies with potent language. but were we to leave to the diminuative poet a summation of his contribution, would he not choose these lines from his perhaps most widely-known hymn, When I survey the Wonderous Cross?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an off-ring far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my life, my soul, my all.
Dr Kenneth Logan is an Asssociate Professor of Music at Andrews University where he also serves as Minister of Music in the University's Pioneer Memorial Church. He has been at AU since 1996.
1 Congregational hymns included verses from "O God, Our Help" (Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal #103); "Go, Preach My Gospel" #378); "With Sings and Honors Sounding Loud" (#35); "Come, Holy Spirit" (#269); "When I Can Read My Title Clear" (#464); "Nature With Open Volume Stands" (#94); and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" (#154). The Choir sang vibrant renditions of "My Shepherd is the Living Lord" with tune WELOLS; "Joy to the World, the Lord is Come" with fuging tune STRATFIELD; "'Tis by Thy Strength the Mountains Stand" with fuging tune RAINBOW; and "The God of Glory Sends His Summons Forth: with tune LANDAFF. Modern performing editions of these selections can be obtained by contacting Kenneth Logan, editor at Andrews University.
2 LouisBenson, The Hymnody of the Christian Church (NY; Doran, 1927), 88.
This summary of a program given by Kenneth Logan at Andrews University was printed in the Winter 2000 issue of Notes, an IAMA publication.