Creativity Costs: Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts (Crowder-fied)

Isaac Watts was David Crowder before David Crowder was cool.

Watts (1674-1748) is typically referred to as “the father of English hymnody.” Over his life, he wrote over 600 hymns, including Joy to the World, Alas and Did my Savior Bleed, I Sing the Mighty Power of God, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Here’s the thing:

Watts was a revolutionary.

Theology, literacy, and learning were important to the Watts family – and young Isaac displayed an exceptional ability for learning: He had learned Latin (by age 5), Greek (by age 9), French (by age 11), and Hebrew (by age 13). As a boy, he had the annoying – although charming – habit of echoing his parents’ commands in rhyming couplets: “O father do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”

Yep – Isaac was one of those kids.

In the 18th century, the state church in England was growing stale. Church – and therefore corporate worship – was profoundly boring. Most churches sang slow, ponderous, march-like tunes that sounded more like freshman biology notes than a personal encounter with God. Consider this lyrical gem:

“Ye monsters of the bubbling deep
your Master’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye coddling peep,
and wag your tails about.”

Yikes. It occurred to young Watts that something had to change.

Isaac continually pressed his father (a respected deacon in a dissenting Congregationalist church) to initiate change, saying: “the singing of God’s praise is the part of worship most closely related to heaven, but its performance among us is among the worst on earth.” Half out of patronizing sarcasm and half out curiosity (knowing his son’s abilities), his father charged him: “Why don’t you give us something better, young man?

Before the evening service began, Isaac had composed his first hymn. Sadly, the identity of this hymn is lost to history. But here’s the kicker: Watts wrote a hymn every Sunday for the next two years.

But Watts’ innovation and creativity came at a cost. Because he chose to write hymns that centered on personal feelings and reflections, he was regarded as “too outside the box” for “normal” church – some even considered him a divisive radical.

Fortunately for us, Watts cared more about the art he was creating for God’s glory than the nay-sayers who would eventually lose worship war of the 18th century.


For worship leaders: Find the Watts’ in your church – there’s probably more than a few – and give them a platform. Writers, poets, musicians, and storytellers are all over the place. There are budding graphic designers everywhere. Find them. Develop them. Encourage them. Host an art fair. Hold a poetry reading (include your surrounding community). Give painters, sculptors, and visual artists a place in your Sunday morning worship. Just please, please, please – don’t do this half-baked. Do it well.

For the rest of us: It’s easy to complain. Especially about church music. It really is. But few of us will take the initiative to create. Creativity takes courage. Complaining just takes an audience. Take Watts’ father’s words as directed to you: If you’re discontent do something.


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