(17 July 1674 – 25 November 1748)
Watts was an English Christian minister (Congregational), hymn writer , theologian, and logician. He was a prolific and popular hymn writer and is credited with [over 600] hymns. He is recognized as the "Godfather of English Hymnody"; many of his hymns remain in use today and have been translated into numerous languages.
Watts was born in Southampton, England in 1674 and was brought up in the home of a committed religious nonconformist; his father, also Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his views. Watts had a classical education at King Edward VI School, learning Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
Watts could not attend Oxford or Cambridge because he was a noncomformist and these universities were restricted to Anglicans—as were government positions at the time. He went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690. Much of the remainder of his life centered on that village, which is now part of Inner London.
Following his education, Watts was called as pastor of a large independent chapel in London, Mark Lane Congregational Chapel, where he helped train preachers, despite his poor health. He held religious opinions that were more nondenominational or ecumenical than was common for a nonconformist Congregationalist. He had a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship than preaching for any particular sect.
Watts took work as a private tutor and lived with the nonconformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House on Church Street in Stoke Newington. Through them, he became acquainted with their immediate neighbors Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary. He eventually lived for a total of 36 years in the Abney household, most of the time at Abney House, their second residence. (Lady Mary had inherited the manor of Stoke Newington in 1701 from her late brother Thomas Gunston.)
On the death of Sir Thomas Abney in 1722, his widow Lady Mary and her unmarried daughter Elizabeth moved all her household to Abney House from Hertfordshire, and she invited Watts to continue with them. He particularly enjoyed the grounds at Abney Park, which Lady Mary planted with two elm walks leading down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook, and he often sought inspiration there for the many books and hymns that he wrote.
Watts lived at Abney Hall in Stoke Newington until his death in 1748; he was buried in Bunhill Fields. He left an extensive legacy of hymns, treatises, educational works, and essays. His work was influential amongst nonconformist independents and religious revivalists of the 18th century, such as Philip Doddridge, who dedicated his best-known work to Watts.
Watts led the change in [hymnody] practice by including new poetry for "original songs of Christian experience" to be used in worship... The older tradition was based on the poetry of the Bible: the Psalms.
Watts also introduced a new way of rendering the Psalms in verse for church services, proposing that they be adapted for hymns with a specifically Christian perspective. As Watts put it in the title of his 1719 metrical Psalter, the Psalms should be "imitated in the language of the New Testament." Besides writing hymns, Isaac Watts was also a theologian and logician, writing books and essays on these subjects.
Watts wrote a textbook on logic which was particularly popular; its full title was, Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. This was first published in 1724, and it was printed in twenty editions.
On his death, Isaac Watts' papers were given to Yale University in the Colony of Connecticut, which nonconformists (Puritans/Congregationalists) had established. King Edward VI School, Southampton, which he attended, named one of its houses "Watts" in his honor.
The Church of England and Lutheran Church remember Watts (and his ministerial service) annually in the Calendar of Saints on 25 November, and the Episcopal Church on the following day.
The earliest surviving built memorial to Isaac Watts is at Westminster Abbey; this was completed shortly after his death. His much-visited chest tomb at Bunhill Fields dates from 1808, replacing the original that had been paid for and erected by Lady Mary Abney and the Hartopp family. A stone bust of Watts is installed at the nonconformist Dr. Williams's Library, in central London. The earliest public statue, erected in 1845, stands at Abney Park, where Watts had lived for more than 30 years at the manor house, where he also died.