Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Challenge of Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts was a well known evangelical hymn writer who lived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His well known hymns include

  •  When I survey the wondrous Cross
  •  Joy to the world and 
  • Sweet is the work, my God, my King. 

What is less well known is his education and his own role as an educator.

Watts' parents were not members of the Church of England, at a time when not worshiping in the local parish church was an offence. Watts' father was imprisoned for his non-conformist convictions. Isaac was 14 when the Act of Toleration was passed which gave freedom to worship to non-conformists (Protestants who were not part of the Church of England). What this Act did not give was the freedom to have a university education.

Young Isaac was a bright lad and wanted to be a minister. A wealthy friend offered to pay for his university education which at that time would be at Cambridge or Oxford. This would have meant joining the Established Church but Watts turned down the offer as he wished to stay loyal to his convictions.

Instead, Isaac went off to the Non-Conformist Academy in Stoke Newington.

Watts wasn't called to a church straight after his education but became a tutor. He wrote some books around education, including The Art of Reading and Writing English, and poems for children. His book on logic became the standard text at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale for many years. Yet, even though this was an important work, it pales into insignificance compared to the effect of his hymns.

Watts was faithful to his convictions and God blessed him.  That must be a lesson to us. Of course, most of us aren't educating children quite like Isaac Watts but his education is a challenge for us: that non-mainstream education was sufficiently high quality to prepare a young man to write a major text as well as to make a major contribution to hymnody. 

So for me as a home educator, the challenge from Watts' life is to

  • be faithful to the Lord even if that means being counter-cultural.
  • provide a high standard academic education so that children are able to use their God given abilities
  • remember that the spiritual outlasts, and outweighs, the academic.
If you enjoyed this post you may like to follow Delivering Grace by Google Friend Connect, G+,FacebookPinterest or e-mail.


  1. Yes, that is exactly the way I feel about Isaac Watts. Did you know that Faraday, the great scientist, used some of Watts books to educate himself? What a broad influence Watts had! And what an inspiration to all educators he is! Thank you for reminding me.

    1. Thank you. No, I hadn't known that Faraday had used Watts' books although I did know that he was largely self-educated. That reminds me that I need to introduce the children to the work of Faraday.

  2. Lovely post Sarah.
    thank you!

  3. This was very interesting Sarah, and your three points at the end are relevant to the book I'm reading at the moment- When You Rise Up, by RC Sproul jr. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. When you rise up is something that I must reread over the summer! Yes, I guess Watts gives us a similar sort of message.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. 'When I Survey' is my favourite hymn. I rarely sing it though as it is so very moving and meaningful to me; I like my heart to be right first. it's lovely to find out the history of the man who wrote it. And even better to find out that his work helped educate my favourite scientist and one of my heroes of the faith. Lovely post, thank you! xxx

    1. Thank you for commenting. Isaac Watts wrote some of my favourite hymns too. It is too easy to sing without really thinking.
      I've just popped over and looked at your blog. I'm looking forward to following your posts.