by Al Maxey

Issue #347 ------- April 25, 2008
After silence, that which comes nearest
to expressing the inexpressible is music.

Aldous Huxley {1894-1963}

The Dissident Hymnist
Reflective Analysis of the Life
and Work of Dr. Isaac Watts

In every generation of the human race, and in virtually every culture, there are those who may fairly be classed as "dissidents." This is not necessarily a negative characterization, although that determination largely depends upon the person or group making the assessment. A dissident is simply one who disagrees with and/or rejects various doctrines, traditions and practices of a particular religious system or church. Jesus, for example, was a dissident, which the scribes and Pharisees regarded as a distinct negative, but which the multitudes, who were thoroughly fed up with the rigid religiosity of their leaders, viewed as a distinct positive. It is certainly true that some people are simply against everything. No matter what someone may propose, they don't like it. Basically, they don't like change. Others are opposed to anything that doesn't change. Neither extreme is really a responsible one. On the other hand, there are times when the presence of courageous dissidents is necessary if a group or movement is to experience much needed reformation. It is my personal conviction that God raises up such people for such times, calling them to be voices of reasoned, responsible dissent in seasons of spiritual stagnation. One such dedicated man of God was Dr. Isaac Watts.

Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England on July 17, 1674. His grandfather, Thomas Watts, was a noted naval figure, serving as the commanding officer of a British man-of-war. Tragically, he was killed in the prime of life when an explosion took place aboard his war ship. Isaac's father was a rather poor clothier in Southampton, although later in life he advanced his fortunes somewhat by operating a fairly prosperous boarding school there. His father also served as a deacon in the non-conformist Congregational Church (sometimes characterized as being a "Church of Christ"), which was very much opposed to the far more established Church of England. In fact, at the time of Isaac's birth, there was great animosity between the state church and these "godless dissidents," with the latter being viciously persecuted by the former. He truly came into this world during very turbulent times. Isaac was the oldest of nine (some biographers say eight) children, only six of whom survived to adulthood. His mother was a Huguenot, being of French Protestant ancestry (the Huguenots were members of the Reformed Church established in 1550 by John Calvin). His father was frequently the target of the Anglicans, and was twice cast into prison for the heinous offence of "refusing to conform to the worship practices of the established church." In other words, his father had the audacity to worship God according to his own convictions, rather than according to the traditions of the Church of England. In fact, when Isaac was born, his father was serving time in prison on account of his faith, and Isaac's mother would often take her infant son and nurse him on the cold stone steps of the prison during visits to see her husband.

Young Isaac proved to be a brilliant student, and he seemed to master virtually any subject with great ease. Indeed, as a mere toddler he would frequently beg his parents: "Book! Book! Buy a book!" He would rather have a book than toys. He learned Latin at the age of four, Greek at nine, French at eleven, and Hebrew at thirteen. He was composing poetry by the age of seven. He rarely ever went outside to play with the other boys, preferring instead to remain inside studying. During one of the family devotionals, when Isaac was just a young child, he suddenly burst out laughing during the Bible reading. When asked what he found so amusing, he said that he had observed a mouse climbing up a rope into the bell tower, and it caused him to compose this verse -- A mouse for want of better stairs, Ran up a rope to say his prayers. His love for rhyming was so persistent that he would often converse with his parents in rhymes, which drove them to distraction. One day, when his father was punishing him for this, young Isaac cried out: O father, do some pity take, And I will no more verses make. As an example of his tremendous talent, as well as his strict theological training (which was Calvinistic), consider the following acrostic poem he wrote when he was only seven years old (notice how he spells out his first name with the first letter of each line):

Needless to say, Isaac came to the attention of several wealthy people of the community. Dr. John Speed, a local physician, offered to fully finance his education at either Oxford or Cambridge, after which the graduate would likely be ordained as an Anglican minister. This was a phenomenal offer; a chance not many young men were ever given. Isaac's future would be secure. However, to attend these prestigious universities, he would have to renounce his non-conformist beliefs and pledge his allegiance to the Church of England. This was something Isaac refused to do, and as a result he was barred from admission into these universities. Therefore, at the age of 16 (in the year 1690) he entered the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington, a non-conformist institution of higher learning for those "unfit" to be in the presence of the youth loyal to the state religion. This was no second-rate institution, however, and gave Watts a very good education. The president of the school at that time was Thomas Rowe, who was also the pastor of a non-conformist congregation (a fellowship of which Isaac became a member in December of 1693). Of young Isaac it was said that Rowe never had any occasion to reprove him for his studies, and that he often held him up as a "perfect pattern" to his other students at the academy.

In 1694, Isaac Watts graduated from the academy and returned to the home of his parents, where he would spend the next two and a half years of his life. During this time he did a considerable amount of writing, both of hymns and of scholarly works on a variety of subjects. He is perhaps best known today, however, for his many great hymns, the majority of which were written during this period while living at home with his parents. Indeed, his hymn writing all came about somewhat as the result of a challenge by his father. Let me give a bit of background -- In England at that time, most churches (with the exception of the Lutherans) believed that "church music should consist of nothing more and nothing less than the Psalms of David." Indeed, it was regarded as "unscriptural" to sing anything else. As noted, the Lutherans had departed from this rigid restriction a hundred years earlier, but most other Christian denominations were still frozen in that mindset. The Calvinists insisted: "God has provided His people with a set of inspired hymns in Holy Scripture, chiefly in the Psalms, and it is not for us to pronounce His work incomplete or inadequate." This developed into a huge controversy. Should the music of the church be "confined," in the words of John Calvin, to "the actual language of the Bible," or was it permissible to allow Christians free expression of the devotion of their hearts in newly composed hymns and spiritual songs? A growing number of Christians, both in the Church of England and the dissenting churches, were becoming frustrated with the traditional musical experience in the worship assemblies. Isaac Watts was among that number of dissatisfied worshippers!

One Sunday, after the close of the service, and when the family had returned home, Isaac exploded in frustration over the singing. He said that he felt, "when these old Psalms were sung, as if a rusty saw were being sharpened close to his ear." He complained bitterly to his father about the state of the singing and the music in the congregation, saying that it was driving people away from the assemblies. "The texts were ludicrous, the mood was ponderous, the tone of the entire service dreary, and one day Watts discovered that he simply couldn't endure any of it a minute longer!" After expressing his disgust to his father, his father basically said to his son, "Well, if you are so unhappy with the singing, why don't you write something more suitable for congregational singing." Isaac spent the afternoon doing just that, and the congregation sang it that evening. They loved it so much that Isaac determined to write new songs each week for the group, and he did so for the next couple of years ... producing almost 700 hymns in all. These were "original songs of Christian experience," and were a departure from the Psalms of David, which Watts did not believe represented the Christian experience sufficiently. Watts' hymns became so popular that others took courage and followed his path. In so doing, this one man literally brought about a whole new era of Protestant hymnody. Indeed, Isaac has come to be known as "the father of the English hymn." The fact that we today sing hymns written by mere men, rather than the Psalms of David, is due in very large part to the boldness of a dissident named Isaac Watts. Many of his hymns are still among the most beloved in the church today: The Lord My Shepherd Is ... We're Marching To Zion ... When I Survey The Wondrous Cross ... Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed? ... How Shall The Young Secure Their Hearts ... I'm Not Ashamed To Own My Lord ... Joy To The World ... and a great many more!

Isaac Watts, at least at that time, was not just known for his hymn writing. He was also a wonderful preacher of the gospel and a phenomenal author, with many of his works becoming classics for generations to come. He was the author of a textbook on logic ("The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth") that was first published in 1724, and which became so popular that it went through twenty editions. In fact, it became the standard university text on logic at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale (actually being used at Oxford for well over 100 years). Ironic, is it not, that his work would be the standard text for these universities, when he himself was not considered "fit" to be one of their students! Watts also wrote numerous works on theology, metaphysics, geology and astronomy, as well as a book of children's poetry which went through 95 editions and was popular for over a century (the first such book of its kind to be published). With the help of such great men as Benjamin Franklin, the writings of Isaac Watts were introduced to early America. After the 1740's, with the Great Awakening, the noted preacher George Whitefield, in his evangelistic crusades, helped the hymns of Isaac Watts to gain in popularity on this side of the Atlantic. The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, in the year 1742, even commented that his own congregation regularly sang the hymns of Watts, "almost to the exclusion of Psalms." In recognition of his great body of work, the University of Edinburgh gave him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1728.

With respect to preaching, that was what Isaac regarded as his chief vocation -- "a minister in a Church of Christ in London." Indeed, on his tombstone appears an inscription he himself wrote, which begins: "Isaac Watts, DD -- Pastor of a Church of Christ in London." He loved to preach the gospel, and preached his very first sermon on the day he turned 24 -- July 17, 1698. The following year he was chosen to be the associate minister of that congregation. Then, on March 18, 1702, he was made the senior pastor. He was not yet 28 years old!! A year later, in July of 1703, Samuel Price was appointed as his assistant pastor. Isaac Watts remained in this position for the remainder of his life, although due to persistent illness and a weak constitution, he was frequently forced to be absent from the pulpit (often for extended periods of time). During those times, his assistant filled in for him. Isaac offered to resign, or even to take no pay during those periods of absence, but his congregation refused to agree to either. In fact, they gave him a substantial raise so that he might be able to pay his medical bills. This group of disciples loved and supported him for the remainder of his life, as they regarded his spirit and leadership and influence upon the congregation to be irreplaceable.

Dr. Watts had a view of the place of gospel preaching that was somewhat unique for his time, and which ministers would do well to reflect upon today as well. "I hate," he wrote, "the thoughts of making anything in religion heavy or tiresome." And that included far more than just the music and the singing of the congregation. It also included the preaching. He wanted preachers to be passionate about their message, and he wanted this to be reflected in their presentation. "How careless and indolent is a whole assembly, when the preacher appears like a lifeless engine, pronouncing words of law or grace, when he speaks of divine things in such a dry, in such a cold and formal manner, as though they had no influence upon his own heart. When the words freeze upon his lips, the hearts of hearers are freezing also." Watts once told a group of young ministers, at their ordination service, "Let not your chief design be to work up a sheet, or to hold out for an hour, but to save a soul." Watts felt preachers should NOT preach from prepared notes, but rather let the Spirit guide their message. "Do not confine yourself precisely to the mere words and sentences which you have written down in your private preparations, but pray and hope for the assistance of the Spirit of God." "Do not indulge that lazy way of reading your prepared paper, but speak to your hearers with freedom; not as if you were reading or repeating your lesson to them." Watts was convinced that if one was devoted to study of the Word, was knowledgeable of the Scriptures, and trusted in the Holy Spirit, that preaching would be effortless and inspiring, and this would tend to counter the "evident tendency of younger persons to be prejudiced against the observation of the Lord's Day, regarding the services as irksome and tedious." Good advice for a time in which we still face the loss of too many precious souls due to the "irksome and tedious" nature of too many worship assemblies. They need an infusion of passion on every level.

Isaac Watts never married, but remained single and celibate his entire life. This was not because he was uninterested in the opposite sex; indeed, there were several women with whom he truly sought a more intimate relationship. The problem was -- women tended to regard him as "too ugly" to marry, and thus they avoided him (at least romantically). In addition to being sickly, Isaac was only 5' tall, had a huge hooked nose, a head too large for his body, and small, piercing eyes. His voice was said to be thin and squeaky, and he typically wore bulky, loose-fitting garments to hide his twisted, almost dwarfish, bodily frame. The story is told of a woman who fell madly in love with Isaac from reading his poetry and from a long correspondence which took place between them. When they finally met face-to-face, she was very disillusioned. Isaac was very much in love with this woman, however, and so he asked her to marry him. She declined, declaring, "Mr. Watts, I only wish I could admire the casket (jewelry box) as much as I admire the jewel within." Nevertheless, they remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Because of his frequent illnesses and weaknesses, and also because there was no one to tend to his needs, Sir Thomas Abney invited him to come to his vast estate at Theobalds and spend a week. He thought perhaps "a change of air" might do this beloved pastor good. This was in 1712. Watts would remain with them for the next 36 years, living out his life with this wonderful Christian family under their roof, being the recipient of their loving care. "Thus was Dr. Isaac Watts adopted into a family which loved him for his personal qualities, admired him for his genius, and revered him for his piety. On their side there was no pride of patronage, on his there was no uneasy feeling of dependence. The bond between them was that of entire confidence and esteem, and their mutual regard was heightened on one part by the delight which they experienced in making him happy, and on the other, by a full and grateful sense of their constant kindness." So wrote one of Watts' British biographers, Robert Southley, on August 20, 1834. Because so many of Watts' earthly needs were being met by the graciousness of his wealthy hosts, he typically gave away the bulk of his earnings to the poor and to various charities.

Sir Thomas Abney, who was Lord Mayor of London for a time in the early 1700's, died in 1722, a decade after Watts had moved in with his family. Lady Mary Abney, and her daughter, who remained at home, continued to care for Dr. Watts for the rest of his life (and she then died just 12 months after him). A few years before his death, Isaac stated, "I came to the house of my good friend, Sir Thomas Abney, intending to spend a single week beneath his roof, and I have extended my visit to thirty years!" To this Lady Abney responded, "I consider your visit, my dear Sir, as the shortest my family ever received." It was truly one of those rare relationships in which the love of Christ was evidenced daily in their every interaction with one another. As the end of his life approached, friends would come and ask how he was doing. "Just waiting God's leave to die," would be his standard response. On November 25, 1748, at the age of 74, Isaac Watts passed peacefully from this life, surrounded by those who loved him. On his tombstone appears these simple words which he himself wrote: "Isaac Watts, DD -- Pastor of a Church of Christ in London -- After fifty years of feeble labours in the gospel, interrupted by four years of tiresome sickness, was at last dismissed to his rest." In England lies the remains of a great man, a bold disciple of Christ Jesus, a servant who truly transformed the worshipful expression of the saints. May God bless him with the joys of everlasting life in the presence of all the redeemed.

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SPECIAL BARGAIN --- My publisher and are presently in some kind of struggle over prices, and have been battling back and forth over the past several months. I do not understand the whole thing, but the result is that my publisher has decided to offer all of its books (for a very limited time) at 50% off. That means that my book right now (if ordered through my publisher) is selling for only $9.98 per copy. This will not last long, so if you have ever thought of buying a copy, or getting copies for friends or family, or maybe even copies for your church library (as a number of congregations have done), right now would be the time to act. In fact, when I got the email from my publisher on this offer, I ordered 20 copies myself (just to keep extras on hand ... I actually had four people come into my office this past week alone and ask to buy signed copies from me, so I always try to keep some with me). Anyway, I just wanted to let you all know about this special, one-time offer through the publisher. You may call them to place an order at (301) 695-1707. Or, you may order online at: PublishAmerica --- just click on the "Online Bookstore" tab and then type in my name or the name of the book: "Down, But Not Out."

From a Reader in Colorado:

Brother Al, I have enclosed a check for $50 to order all five of your Reflections on CD (plus the free offer of your PowerPoint Sermons for 2007 CD and your Maxey's Debates CD). Such a deal. As soon as I started reading your Reflections I knew that you were a kindred soul. Still, I have learned so much from you, and my own understanding of many things I believe has been sharpened on your sword! May God bless you with many more years of successful ministry!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Pastor Maxey, I had written to you many months ago. I am the Jewish believer who was new to the teaching on Conditional Immortality, and I had many questions for you on this subject. Thank you for taking the time to respond so kindly to me. I have done more studying on the subject, and have since made a web site defending Conditional Immortality. If you ever desire to take a look at it, the URL is: Blessings to you in the Messiah.

From a Reader in Indiana:

Dear Bro. Maxey, You have opened my eyes to a wonderful God I wasn't sure existed!! I am a member of a Non-Institutional Church of Christ in Indiana. For years I have wrestled with how a loving God could endlessly torture His creation. I have come to the conclusion, through your debate with Thomas Thrasher -- The Maxey-Thrasher Debate -- and your other writings on the topic of Conditional Immortality, that the wages of sin is indeed DEATH, and the gift of God is LIFE through Christ Jesus our Lord. Thank you so much for all your many years of studying and research which have helped other people like me so very much! May God continue to bless you in all your endeavors!

From a New Reader in Tanzania, Africa:

Dear Bro. Al, I am a missionary in Tanga, Tanzania. Another missionary here has passed on several of your articles. I would very much like to start receiving your weekly Reflections. Thanks, and may God bless you.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Bro. Al, With regard to Ex. 22:2/Matt. 24:43, you wrote, "How would the master of the house have stopped such an intruder? A number of means might prove to be effective, depending upon the circumstances, but the Law of God clearly stated that killing the thief was one option, and the one who killed him would not be regarded as guilty for using lethal force. Jesus at least implicitly endorsed this law." You're wrong, dear brother. The next verse makes things a bit clearer: "But if the sun has risen on him, there will be blood-guiltiness on his account" [Ex. 22:3, NASB]. Exodus 22:2 describes an accidental death: that of striking the thief in the night, as he is breaking in, to stop him. Verse 3 makes the accidental nature of the death clear, because if it is daylight and you've killed him (intentionally), you are guilty of murder. Death is not a biblical punishment for theft. I'm disappointed in your handling of this one, Al. But I still love you, brother.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Dear Bro. Al, Having been raised in an extremely legalistic Church of Christ, I could tell you many stories that other people (not familiar with the legalistic mindset) probably wouldn't even believe could actually happen!! One that stands out in my own mind took place at a funeral ... and in a mortuary, not even a church building. The preacher who preached the funeral had earlier baptized an elderly couple whose family were all Baptists. The elderly man died not too long afterwards. At the funeral service the children wanted organ music. This preacher would not even enter the building until the initial organ music had stopped playing, then he came in to begin speaking (so, as you can imagine, there was quite a delay). Then, each time another song began to play during the service, this preacher would literally RUN out of the building ... seriously; as fast as he could go!! He would stand outside the building until the organ music ended, then he'd come back in to continue his part of the service. When it was all over, and the organ began playing the final song for the viewing, and as the people came forward, this preacher took off again just as hard and fast as he could run, and remained outside. Bro. Al, it would actually have been funny, if it had not been so ridiculous. I was one of the few members of the Church of Christ at that service, and it was one of the most embarrassing scenes I've ever witnessed!! How did we ever get to this point in the Churches of Christ where even at a funeral or wedding we behave so irrationally over "instrumental music"?! I just don't get it! Anyway, thank you for giving us all hope and encouragement. I thank God for you, always!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, Today's article ("Welcome To Your Wings") sent chills down my neck. What a wonderful presentation. We have grown spiritually as a family since making our recent change of congregation. We followed your advice about how important it was to teach our children that being a Christian is joyful, and that we are not to be so legalistic about such things as praise teams, and other personal preferences, and it has made all the difference in our attitudes. We thank God for the gift of knowing you and your family over the years, and during the time you were our preacher in Hawaii.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Dear Brother Al, We plan to visit you again very soon, and we can't wait to see you again. I have often thought, as I have read the caustic, very inaccurate remarks from your critics regarding your motives and character, how these people really should make a point to actually get to know the Al Maxey that we came to know. It is really sad, isn't it, just how poorly we perceive things, and how dimmed our judgment becomes, when we wear spectacles that have been darkened by our fears and prejudices?! May God bless you, brother.

From a Minister in Oklahoma:

Dear Bro. Al, I have loved Charles Swindoll's writings for many years. He is one of a very small handful of writers with enough insight to cause me to reflect deeply on his message (you are also in the small handful). His two books mentioned by you in your article have been in my library for a long time, and are now showing the wear of repeated use. I have felt a much closer kinship to him than to many of my brethren who attend the various local congregations of which I've been a member. Also, Bro. Al, your article on concealed weapons in the assembly was simply excellent food for thought. I have made copies for each of our six elders, and I have requested that they carefully read it. Please keep up the good work. As age sets in on me, my mind needs the stretching!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I'm sure that you are going to "hear about it" from some of your readers for daring to call Charles Swindoll "brother." The content of his book "Simple Faith" (indeed, the content of each of his books that I have read) is "right on," and well worth reading and considering. And you are correct, Bro. Al, in that we too often simply refuse to hear a message from any source other than "our own brethren" (as we define the term "brethren"). Others may not always be right or have it "all together" on some points of doctrine (nor do we), but they often have a viewpoint we need to consider, as it may instruct and encourage us to dig deeper into God's Word. Keep up the good fight of faith.

From a Minister in Texas:

Brother Al, For 31 years, in addition to preaching, I was also a rural mail carrier. During those years, as I drove about 6 or 7 hours per day on my mail route, my radio was constantly tuned to the teaching and preaching ministries of Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, Adrian Rogers and John MacArthur. One of my legalistic brethren warned me repeatedly that I was allowing my mind to be corrupted by these "false teachers." However, I found that day after day I was being spiritually fed in ways that I had never known before during all the many years I had been so well-schooled in "pattern theology." I began to see the Scriptures far more as "fruit of the Spirit" than fruit which had to be strained through my Church of Christ doctrinal sieve. Bro. Al, I appreciate you more than you could ever know!

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