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Those who have imagined he was just a hymn writer—albeit a very excellent one—are often surprised by his breadth of knowledge and wide-ranging writings. The Works of Isaac Watts (1674-1748) come in 9 volumes, the first comprised of his sermons in 773 pages. He is often called the “Father of English Hymnody,” but he was also a self-educated Renaissance man (denied an Oxford or Cambridge education due to his nonconformity).
His greatest hymn text, “O God Our Help in Ages Past” (St. Anne tune), is often sung at royal funerals and celebrations. Winston Churchill’s funeral was “magnificently choreographed,” writes Mark Tooley, with his clear specifications: “Certainly there will be lively hymns.” The first listed, “O God Our Help,” was also his hymn of choice for joint worship at a summit with FDR in 1941. Far more significant, however, are the millions of Christians worldwide who for most of three centuries have been singing Watts’ hymns in English and their native tongues. He couldn’t have known how one of those great hymns has helped tell the story:
Doth - Journeys
Doth his successive journeys run;
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Occasion - Illness - Time - Shall - Survey
Wondering on one occasion after an extended illness if it might be time for him to call it quits, he answered: “Shall I repine then, while I survey whole nations and millions and millions of mankind that have not a thousand’s part of my blessings?”
The oldest of seven children, he was born at a time when his father was imprisoned for nonconformity. In fact, the story is told that his mother nursed him while sitting on a rock near the prison steps. When he was nine, with several siblings, his father was hauled off to prison again—enough to prompt a boy to reject nonconformity. But he was never even tempted. A precocious child, he quickly...
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