Isaac Watts’ “Psalm” Imitations

Isaac Watts Psalm Imitations

Robert Lathan, D.D.
History of the Associate Reformed Synod of the South
pp. 218-220

With respect to the version or “imitation” [of the Psalms], as it is rightly called, of Watts, it may be said that it is so named from its author. Dr. Isaac Watts was a Dissenting minister of England, born in 1674, and died in 1748. He was learned and pious, and although not worthy to be ranked among the first-class of poets, his works show that he was endowed with very considerable poetic talents. It has been asserted most positively, but how truthfully we will not undertake to say, that he was, during the latter part of his life, in sympathy with what was then known as the Arian party, or that he denied the divinity of our Saviour. The works by which he is best known are his version of the Psalms and his religious hymns. These were published about the latter part of the year 1718. The design which he had in view is best expressed in his own words: “I come, therefore,” he says in the Preface,

“to the third thing I propose; and it is this, to explain my own design, which, in short, is this, namely: to accommodate the Book of Psalms to Christian worship. And in order to this, it is necessary to divest David and Asaph, etc. of every other character but that of a psalmist and a saint, and to make them always speak the common sense [i.e. meaning] and language of a Christian.”

Such, in his own language, was the design of Dr. Watts. Whether he succeeded in making “David and Asaph speak the common sense and language of a Christian,” or not, it is not our province to say. We may say that he made a bold effort, in order to succeed, by changing the sense of the Psalms of the Bible. He was by no means afraid to tamper with the inspired songs. Some he excluded entirely; from others he lopped off what he no doubt regarded surplusages, and to others added what he conceived the Holy Spirit had either forgotten, neglected, or did not know. “Attempting the work with this view,” he says,

“I have entirely omitted some whole psalms and large pieces of many others; and have chosen out of all of them such parts only as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of the Christian life… […Why may not a Christian omit all those passages of the Jewish Psalmist that tend to fill the mind with overwhelming sorrows, despairing thoughts, or bitter personal resentments, none of which are well suited to the Spirit of Christianity, which is a Dispensation of Hope and Joy and Love?]”

He was not careful to give the exact meaning of David; or, to quote his own language:

“I have not been so curious or exact in striving, everywhere, to express the ancient sense and meaning of David; but have rather expressed myself as I may suppose David would have done, had he lived in the days of Christianity. [And by this means perhaps I have sometimes hit upon the true intent of the Spirit of God in those verses, farther and clearer than David himself could ever discover…]”

Such is, briefly and in his own language, the design of Dr. Watts in preparing a version of the psalms, and the rule which he adopted in order to effect his design.

He composed his hymns because “there are,” he says, “a great many circumstances that attend common Christians, which cannot be agreeably expressed by any paraphrase on the words of David.

It is the business of the theologian, rather than of the historian, to discuss the question of psalmody on its merits; but we may be permitted to say that Dr. Watts’ preface to his psalms and hymns is a most wonderful production to be penned by a man who, we suppose, believed that David and Asaph spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
The unguarded expressions in Dr. Watts’ preface to his psalms and hymns, and the ruthless manner in which he added to and took away from God’s Word, excited the fears of not a few pious men and women. They could have no confidence in the man who would dare to say that he had made David and Asaph “speak the common sense of a Christian.” To speak the language of David and Asaph, they thought, was to speak the language of heaven. There were, besides, many things in the language of some of Dr. Watts’ hymns which were very offensive to at least some, and consequently they could not and would not sing them in praise of God.

In his hymn entitled “A Song in Praise to God from Great Britain,” he says, in speaking of the blessings which God was bestowing upon Great Britain:

He builds and guards the British throne,
And makes it gracious like his own;
Makes our successive princes kind,
And gives our dangers to the wind.

Again, he says in another hymn:

The crowns of British princes shine
With rays above the rest.
Where laws and liberty combine
To make the nation blest.

These stanzas, however smooth, were not calculated to awaken the devotional feelings of those whose ancestors had experienced the cruelties of the Stuarts.

These and many other things of a similar character impelled Scotch Presbyterians generally to oppose the introduction of Watts’ psalms and hymns into the worship of God. In addition to this, if it were so that Dr. Watts, in his latter days, as has been often affirmed and was certainly believed, turned Arian, this of itself would have rendered anything he would have said or done objectionable to the members of the Associate and Covenanter Churches.

It will not be denied that at first the question discussed was the relative value of the two versions of the Book of Psalms [i.e. Scottish Psalter and Watts’]. It was not long, however, until the controversy assumed a different aspect.

Strictly speaking, Watts’ version is nothing but an imitation, and confessedly a very imperfect imitation. No one has ever claimed that it was a literal rendering of the psalms into metre. Its author did not make this claim for it. Neither has any one claimed for Rouse’s version [i.e. the 1650 Scottish Psalter] that it is absolutely literal. It was however, claimed for it, on good and solid grounds, that it was “translated and diligently compared with the original text and former translations,” and made “more smooth and agreeable to the text than any heretofore.” [cf. Preface to the 1650 Psalter]

It claimed to be agreeable to the text of the Hebrew Psalter, and to be smoother than any version of the psalms which had preceded it. That it is absolutely literal, and absolutely finished English verse, is a claim which has never been set up for it.

The version of Dr. Watts is smoother, but certainly not so poetic, unless the whole of poetry consists in something which both Shakespeare and Milton did not possess.

The relative merits of the two versions, however, is a matter of very little importance; for these were soon lost sight of, and one of far graver importance took its place. That question is correctly stated thus: “Have we any authority in the Scriptures for singing in the formal public and private worship of God any psalms or hymns or spiritual songs, except those which God has given to the church, all of which are contained in the Bible?” [cf. A Concise Case For Exclusive Psalmody]

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