Isaac Watts

The Life And Death Of Isaac Watts

J. A. Jones, “Bunhill Memorials: Sacred Reminiscences Of Three Hundred Ministers And Other Persons Of Note, Who Are Buried In Bunhill Fields, Of Every Denomination” (1849):[1]

Isaac Watts, Independent. Isaac Watts, D.D., Pastor of a Church of Christ in London; successor of the Rev. Mr. Joseph Caryl, Dr. John Owen, Mr. David Clarkson, and Dr. Isaac Chauncey; after fifty years of feeble labours in the gospel, interrupted by four years of tiresome sickness, was at last dismissed to rest, Nov. 25, A.D. 1748, set. 75.—2 Cor. 5:8, Absent from the body, present with the Lord.—Col 3:4, When Christ who is our lift shall appear, I shall also appear with him him in glory.

In unno Jesu omnia.

This monument, on which the above modest inscription is placed by order of the deceased, was erected as a testimony of regard to his memory, by Sir John Hartopp, Bart, and Dame Mary Abney. And replaced by a few of the persons who meet for worship where he so long laboured, and who still venerate his character, 1808.

Tomb, E. and W. 60,—N. and S. 14,15.

The particulars respecting this illustrious Divine, are so well known, as handed down to us by the pen of Dr. Gibbons and others, that a condensed transcript, adapted; to the space allowed in Bunhill Memorials requires much care in the selection.

Isaac Watts, D.D., was born July 17, 1674, at Southampton, where his father kept a boarding school. He was a Dissenter, and a Deacon in the congregation at Southampton. He possessed some paternal property, but his circumstances were injured by the persecutions of the times, having been more than once imprisoned for nonconformity. During his confinement, Mrs. Watts has been known to sit on a stone near the prison doer, suckling her infant son Isaac.

The Doctor was the eldest of nine children, and given to books from his infancy. Before he could speak plain, when he had any money given, he would run to his mother and cry, “A book! A book! buy a book!” At four years old he began to learn Latin; and about seven, to lisp in poetic numbers. Good Mrs. Watts, it seems, sometimes employed the pupils, after school-hours, in writing a few lines, for which she rewarded them with a farthing. On one of these occasions, her son Isaac, being required to do the same, his aspiring muse indited the following couplet:

“I write not for a farthing, but to try

How I your farthing writers can outvie.”

At an early age, he was placed under the care of Mr. Finhorne, a clergyman of the establishment, and master of the free-school in Southampton. His early proficiency in learning, being noticed by Dr. Speed the Physician, and some other gentlemen, they proposed to raise a subsciption for his support at one of the universities; but, not with­standing the disadvantages of the times, Mr. Watts chose rather to take his lot with the Dissenters. At sixteen years of age, he was sent to an academy in the vicinity of London, under the superintendence of the Rev. Thomas Rowe, pastor of an Independent Church then meeting in Girdlers Hall, of which his pupil became a member, in 1683; being then in his nineteenth year. While at the academy, he cultivated an acquaintance with the muses; or, as he himself modestly expresses it, was, “a maker of verses from fifteen to fifty.” 

Mr. Watts having finished his academical studies at the age of twenty, he returned to his father’s house, where he continued two years. Instead of entering immediately on his pnblic work, he employed this period in study and devotion. At this time a circumstance occurred which laid the foundation of his future popularity as a Christian poet. The composures rang by the congregation at Southampton, being of very humble glass, and so little to our author’s taste, he could not forebear representing the matter to his father; who, knowing his poetical turn, desired him to try if he could do better. He did so; one hymn after another was produced and approved; and he was encouraged to proceed, till in process of time, there was a sufficient number to fill a volume.

From under the roof of his father, he was invited to reside in the family of Sir John Hartopp, Bart., at Stoker Newington, as tutor to his son. In this employment he spent five years. He preached his first sermon on the birth day that completed his twenty-fourth year, A.D., 1698, and his ministry meeting with acceptance, he was, in the same year, chosen assistant to Dr. Chauncey, pastor of the Independent congregation in Mark Bane. His ministerial labours, however, were soon interrupted by a painful illness, of five months continuance. His health being, gradually restored, he received a call to succeed Dr. Chauncey in the pastoral office, which he accepted the very day on which King William III died—a day very discouraging and alarming to the dissenting interest. Ten days after, being the 18th of March, 1702, he was solemnly ordained. The ministers engaged on this occasion were the Revs. Matthew Clarke, Thomas Collins, Thomas Ridgley, Benoni Rowe, and Thomas Rowe his tutor.

In the Baptist Annual Register, for 1801, is inserted the names of 171 members of this ancient church, when under the care of Dr. Owen, Joseph Caryl, Dr. Watts, &c., with the dates of their deaths, &c. Among them are some persons of note in their day, such as Lord Charles Fleetwood, Sir John Hartopp, Mr. Serjeant Steele, Colonel Desborough, Lady Abney, Lady Thompson, &c., &c. In the same volume are also some long, but most interesting extracts from their Church-book. Also a letter written by Mr. Watts, to the Church, dated, Feb. 8, 1701-2, containing his view of pastoral duties, church order, &c. These ought to be reprinted.

“At his ordination, among other solemn things spoken by him, on his giving his public consent to the church’s choice’ of him, preserved in the Church-book, in his own handwriting, is the, following:—“Your choice of me, and your affections toward me, seem to be settled and unmoved. I have objected warmly, and often, my own indispositions of body, which incapacitate me for such service.

I have urged other things, till I have provoked you to sorrow and teras, and till I have been almost ashamed: but, your perseverance in your choice, and your love, your constant profession of edification by my ministry; the great probability you show me of building up this famous and decayed church of Christ, if I accept the call, and your prevailing fears of its dissolution if I, refuse, have given me ground to believe that, the voice of this church is the voice of Christ by you to me. And, to answer this call, I have not consulted with flesh and blood; I have laid aside the thoughts of myself to serve the interests of our Lord; I give up my own case, for your spiritual profit; I submit my inclinations to my duty; and, in hopes of being made an instrument in the hands of Christ, to build up this ancient church, I return this solemn answer to your call—‘That, with a great sense of my inability, in mind and body, to discharge the duties of so sacred an office, I do, in the strength of Christ venture upon it, and, in the name of our Lord Jesus, I accept your call; promising, in the presence of God and his saints, my utmost diligence in all the duties of a pastor, so far as God shall enlighten and strengthen me. And I leave this promise in the hands of Christ our Mediator to see it performed by me, unto you, through the assistance of his Spirit and his grace.”

“March 20, 1702. Our pastor administered the Lord’s Supper amongst us, having preached a preparatory sermon from 1 Cor. 10:17. We being many are one bread, and one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread. Here he showed how much our communion with each other, as well as with Christ, was set forth in this great ordinance: designed to unite all the hearts and affections of the church to each other; that this day of communion might be as a new covenant with the Lord, and with each other. We finished the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, by singing a gospel hymn, suitable to the ordinance, taken from Rev. 5:7-10, [Hymn 1, Book 1, Watts, with one heart and one voice, to the glory of our Redeemer, and our great consolation and joy.” This blessed union, thus commenced between pastor and people, continued unbroken, almost forty-seven years.

Not long after Mr. Waits’ entrance on his charge, he was again visited by a painful and alarming illness, which threatened an early period to his usefulness. His confinement was long, his recovery slow, and his constitution became considerably impaired. It was, therefore, judged necessary to provide him an assistant, and the Rev. Samuel Price was chosen to that office in July, 1703. In Sept. 1712, he was again seized with a fever of such violence, that shook his constitution, and left a weakness upon his nerves, from which he never wholly recovered, her more than four years he was entirely laid aside from the exercise of his ministry and it was not till Oct. 1716, that he was enabled to resume his public labours. The affection of his people during this season of trial, was strikingly exemplified in their solicitude for his recovery. Particular days were set apart to intercede with God in prayer for so desirable an event; and many of his brethren in the ministry, assisted on those occasions.

In the year 1728, Mr. Watts received, unsolicited, from the Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen, a diploma, creating him Doctor of Divinity. Mr. Toplady says, “learned seminaries would retrieve the departing respectability of their diplomas, were they only presented to (I will not say such men at Dr. Watts; for few such are in any age to be found; but to) persons of piety, orthodoxy, erudition, and virtue.”

The painful and distressing state into which Dr. Watts was reduced, inspired his friends with a tender sympathy, and engaged the benevolent attention of Sir Thomas Abney, Knt., and Alderman of London, who received him into his house, at Abney Park, Stoke Newington; where, with a constancy of friendship, and uniformity of conduct not often found, he was treated for thirty-six years, with all the kindness that Christian friendship could prompt, and all the attention that respect could dictate. So that whatever wealth could supply, or affection suggest, to alleviate his sufferings, he enjoyed to the full extent of his wishes.—Sir Thomas died about eight years afterwards, aged about eighty-three, but the Doctor continued with his lady, and her daughter, to the end of his life. Lady Abney’s life was also drawn out to a great age; she survived Dr. Watts rather more than twelve months.

The Countess of Huntingdon being on a visit to Dr. Watts at Stoke Newington, was thus accosted by him: “Your ladyship is come to see me on a very remarkable day. This very day thirty year, I came to the house of my good friend Sir Thomas Abney, intending to spend but a single week under his friendly roof; and I have extended my visit to the length of thirty years.” Lady Abney, who was present, immediately said, “Sir, what you term a long thirty years visit, I consider as the shortest my family ever received.” The plan of “Bunhill Memorials” obliged the Editor almost invariably to omit noticing the writings of those Divines whoso names are therein recorded. The works of Dr. “Watts are so well known, and so highly appreciated, that any enumeration here, is quite unnecessary. Dr.Gibbon says,—“Dr. Watts’ works have been so widely dispersed both at home and abroad, are in such constant use, and withal translated into suck a variety of languages, that, many of them will remain more durable monuments of his great talents, than any representation that can be made of them, though it were graven on pillars of brass.”

The closing scenes of Dr. Watts’ pilgrimage were such as might be expected from a life of such exalted piety and devotion. The delicacy of his constitution, and repeated sickness, soon brought upon him the premature infirmities of age; and these were greatly promoted by midnight studies. He was for several years together greatly distressed with insomnia, or, continual wakefulness. Very often he could obtain no sleep for several nights successively, except such as was forced by medical preparations; and, not unfrequently, opiates lost their virtue, and served only to aggravate; his malady. Yet, through the goodness of God, and the kind attention of friends, his feeble frame was lengthened out to a period beyond the common let of mortals. The taper of life burned slowly to the socket, and, its flame was brilliant to the last. He beheld his approaching dissolution with a mind perfectly composed, without the least dismay, or, shadow of a doubt as to his future eternal happiness. He observed, in conversation with a friend, that he remembered an aged minister used to say, that the most learned and knowing Christians, when they come to die, have only the same plain promises of the gospel for their support as the comfort and unlearned of the people of God; and so (said he) I find it. They are the plain promises of the gospel which are my support, and, I bless God that they are plain promises, which do not require labour or pains to understand them: for, I can do nothing now but look into my Bible for some promise to support me, and live upon that.”—“I should be glad to read more, yet not in order to be more confirmed in the truth of the Christian religion, or in the truth of its promises; for I believe them enough to venture an eternity upon them.” He would often declare, on retiring to rest, and that with the sweetest composure, “I bless God. I can lie down with comfort; not being solicitous whether I awake in this world or another.” Mr. Parker, who for above twenty years was the Doctor’s amanuensis, wrote the day before his death, “He passed through the last night in the main quiet and easy; but for five hours would receive nothing within his lips. I was down in his chamber in the morning, and found him quite sensible. He told me, that he lay easy, and bis mind peaceful and serene. The ease of body and calmness of mind, which he enjoys, is a great mercy to him and to us. We are ready to use the words of Job, and say, ‘We shall’ seek him in the morning, but he shall not be.’ “The day after his decease, Mr. Parker wrote again,—“At length, the fatal news is come. The spirit of the good man, my dear master, took its flight from the body to worlds unseen and joys unknown, yesterday, in the afternoon, without a struggle or a groan. My Lady Abney and Mrs. Abney are supported as well as we can reasonably expect. It is a house of mourning and tears. We all attended upon him and served him, upon a principle of love and esteem.”

Thus died, after an honourable and useful life, the truly great and excellent Dr. Watts, Nov. 25th, 1748, in the 75th year of his age. His remains were deposited in Bunhill Fields, and his pall was supported by six ministers, selected equally from the three denominations. Dr. Chandler delivered the Oration at the grave, and Dr. Jennings preached the funeral sermon to his bereaved church, from Heb 11:4, He being dead, yet speaketh.—W.

[1] The reader is encouraged to visit Bunhill Fields, a nonconformist cemetery located at 38 City Road, London, England.

Isaac Watts (1674 –1748) was an English Congregational preacher, theologian and hymn writer.

Isaac Watts Hymn Studies