“Who among us has not had heart and mind stirred by a Watts hymn? Here we learn the story behind the hymns. We learn of a Christ-centered life, a doxological life. And from that wellspring has come the hymns we love to sing. Watts’s hymns are a gift for the church, and so is this biography by Douglas Bond.”
—Dr. Stephen J. Nichols
Professor at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School
“We all know and love ‘Joy to the World,’ ‘Jesus Shall Reign,’‘Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,’ ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,’ ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past,’ and a host of his other compositions. And yet, most Christians know precious little about the author of these great hymn texts—the man history has dubbed as the ‘Father of English Hymnody.’ At least, until now. Thanks to the prolific and eloquent pen of Douglas Bond, we now have an insightful glimpse into the life, the faith, and the poetic wonder of this remarkable servant of the church: Isaac Watts. This delightful book needs to be put at the top of your must-read list.”
—Dr. George Grant
Pastor, East Parish Presbyterian Church
From the Introduction (Watts biography to release with Reformation Trust, September, 2012)
Doxology for All Time
It was an autumn Sunday evening in 1976 when as a seventeen-year-old the gospel of grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone became irrevocably real to my soul. I remember it vividly: the awakened hearing of truths I had been tenderly taught since my earliest recollections, but now the sense of wonder at divine grace, the experiential thrill of the reality of the cross and of Christ my Savior shedding His blood, suffering and dying in my place, for my sin and my guilt. I remember the hot tears stinging my cheeks as the genuineness of grace and the gospel washed over me that evening.
With a trembling hand and a heart nearly bursting with love and gratitude for the free grace of God, I reached for the elements of bread and wine, Christ therein pictured, symbolized, and made spiritually real before me.What was the means of so awakening a teenage young man that glorious evening? Was it the result of an entertaining sermon delivered by a celebrity preacher? Was it the result of emotional hype concocted by the latest Christian rock band? Was it the result of high-church ceremony attempting to fabricate the transcendent? No, it was none of these.
It was Isaac Watts.
I had sung the words of his hymn at communion every month for the past eleven years, but that evening Watts’ rich poetry dazzled my imagination, and made a deep and lasting impression on my heart. It’s not cool at seventeen to weep publicly, but I wept, and though I did, I managed to join Watts in his slack-jaw wonder at the cross.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
By his incomparable imagination, Watts had transported me back to hot, dusty Golgotha, where I heard the thudding of the hammer on the spikes, the taunting and spitting, the moaning and sorrow. With Watts’ words, I became the young man surveying that wondrous cross. With eyes of faith, I was the one seeing the Prince of glory forsaken by His Father and dying in anguish. And because I was now seeing it, I was the one resolving to count but loss all my aspirations to riches and greatness. It was I who was, for the first time, pouring contempt on all my delusional pride of body and mind.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the cross of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
Watts, by his own sense of wonder at the cross of Christ, and with skillful strokes of his poetic pen, showed me the absurdity of my view of the world. He deftly stirred up in me the ugliness and utter inappropriateness of my pride and boasting, my preoccupation with empty things that so captivated my teen world. By vividly holding before me the cross of Jesus, Watts demanded that I drop everything and reckon with that cross. By his words, Watts compelled me to join him, to see with him the One who hung on that cross for me.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Watts’ rhetorical question caused me to see how ridiculous my sense of value had been. I had been scrambling after the world’s riches, the world’s wisdom, the world’s entertainments. But here Watts held before me Christ--His head, His hands, His feet--the surpassing richness of His thorny crown. And it was as if I was there, could see it, could hear Him groaning, could feel the penetration of each thorn in His crown. And in that gracious seeing, I was compelled to respond.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.[i]
[i] Trinity Hymnal, Revised Edition (Atlanta, Philadelphia: Great Commissions Publications, 1997), 252.
Tour the Hymn Writers of England & Wales with Mr Pipes (actually, with Douglas and Cheryl Bond). Travelers on the 2012 Hymn Tour received a free, signed copy of my biography of Augustus Toplady. We explored places Isaac Watts saw as a child and later as an adult in London. We sang Watts favorites at Bunhill Fields, London, where he is buried--and daily as we rode from fascinating place to fascinating place. Travelers on a recent tour singing, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross in London.
Listen from the first chapter of THE POETIC WONDER of ISAAC WATTS
Evangelical Press (EP) Editorial Director, David Woolin cornered me at ICRS (CBA) in St. Louis, summer of 2010 and asked me to consider writing a biography for their new biography series. Through a rather circuitous route, we finally settled on AUGUSTUS TOPLADY (2012).
[We had thought of doing a companion Watts to my RT Watts, which was going to look like this along side my RT Watts book: I would take something of a different tack altogether on an EP Bitesize on Watts, which would look more at Watts as a preacher, logician, theologian, moral philosopher, etc, and as a man who was allured by but resistant to the Enlightenment, Age of Reason worldly philosophy; sort of an approach that looks at Watts as a model of a gifted Christian who was in the world but not of the world, capable of being a literary, philosophical giant but who preferred identity with the people of God over the passing pleasures of the world for a season. I see the two books as being complimentary. People who would be interested in one would likely be interested in the other to turn the diamond.]