Isaac Watts was known as the “boy genius” of hymn-writing in the 18th century. Watts was 18 years old when he complained to his father about the dreadfully boring music of the Anglican Church. His dad promptly called his bluff: “You think you can do better?” Within hours Watts had composed a hymn that so impressed his local church, they asked if he would be willing to write another one. Watts composed a brand new hymn for 222 consecutive Sundays (that’s a span of more than four years) despite a crippling stroke that left him unable to write apart from the help of a secretary.
Watts’ hymns – which were dismissed at the time by some people as outrageous “contemporary music” – are still being sung around the world three centuries later. A number of his works, such as O God, Our Help in Ages Past and I Sing the Mighty Power of God, are featured in songbooks complied by Mormons and Christian Scientists. Besides more than 600 hymns, Watts published 52 major works, including a book on logic still valued in universities, along with volumes on grammar, philosophy, astronomy, and geography.
Surprisingly, Watts wrote not only one of the most famous Christmas carols (Joy to the World!) but one of the hymns most associated with Lent: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. When it was published in 1707, critics jumped all over him. Why did he make up his own lyrics, instead of directly borrowing the words of Scripture, which was the custom at the time? Generations of church attenders, however, have cherished these now-famous verses:
When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.
See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet? Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of Nature mine, that were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Isaac Watts is proof that even when we can’t stop the critics from being critical, our gifts – by God’s grace – can ultimately outlive them.