Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) was an English Puritan dissenter, hymnist, pastor, logistician, ancient linguist, and theologian. Most famous for his 700+ hymns, many of which are staples of modern worship, he was also an accomplished author on topics such as logic and Scriptural history.
Singing in 18th century churches
The “Precentor” was the singing leader in the colonial congregation. He stood before the congregation and sang the first verse to each Psalm, line by line. After each line the congregation would repeat the line until the first stanza was finished, and then the congregation would re-sing the first stanza together finishing the song.
The Precentor would choose a familiar tune for each Psalm sung (some psalters and hymnals had music, while others did not) such as “Windsor,” “High Dutch,” “York,” and “Saint David’s.”
Watts was a leader in the reformation of church music in the early 18th Century, Psalm-singing had devolved in many congregations into a loud mess of assorted noises and grunts, and many clergymen were anxious to correct this. Watts (himself an excellent scholar of the Biblical languages) was among those who proposed that Psalms need not be translated literally (a position that had cause some very accurate, but very poor Psalters to be published) to be used in churches. He also championed hymns entering regular worship services (before they had been relegated mostly to private and public devotions, but usually not used in Sabbath services). The result was a new, more melodic and controlled type of singing that was introduced into American and English churches beginning around the 1720s.
Watts’ hymns were first published in 1707, and his fresher, looser translation of the Psalms was published in 1719. This and the rise of music education in New England helped to reform the chaos of New England congregational singing.
- 1702 Isaac Watts, “the liberator of the English hymn”, becomes Minister of Mark Lane Church in London.
- 1705 Horae Lyricae first published collection of Watts’s verse
- 1707 Isaac Watts’s landmark Hymns and Spiritual Songs published
- 1712 Cotton Mather publishes hymns by Watts in the colonies
- 1715 Watts’s children’s hymnal, Divine Songs for Children, published
- 1719 Isaac Watts’s The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament published
- 1742 Jonathan Edwards uses Watts’s hymns in his congregation
- 1760s Conflicts in colonial churches: Watts’s hymns vs. Psalms
This hymnal was originally printed in Boston. We have purchased three original 18th century Watts Hymnals thus far. The one that we are reproducing that was printed in Boston did not have musical notation. So we purchased another that was printed in the same year, but in London. This 1767 version does have a small amount of musical notation. We have taken those pages from the London printing and added them to our replica from Boston. We hope that this addition will help you reproduce the actual songs and their tunes as they were heard in the 18th century. We believe that the first Isaac Watts Hymnal that was printed in America was printed in New York in 1767, but that one was made and used by the Dutch Reformed Church in America. This printer in New York was the first to import the type necessary to print music.
This painting is of a mounted James Caldwell handing out Watts to Continental soldiers at the Battle of Springfield. It is by Henry Alexander Ogden.
You may be familiar with the painting of Reverend James Caldwell, Chaplain of Col. Elias Dayton’s Regiment passing out Watts Hymnals from his Presbyterian Church, for use as gun wadding, during the Battle of Springfield, June 23, 1780, at Springfield, New Jersey. His cry of “Give Them Watts, Boys”, has lived on to become the motto of that battle. “The Battle of Springfield: Give ’em Watts, Boys,” by John Ward Dunsmore, is owned by Fraunces Tavern Museum, Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York. Visit their web site by clicking the following link: www.frauncestavernmuseum.org