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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: Isaac Watts on the KY frontier

Another Angle. Isaac Watts on the KY frontier was first published 16 July 2006 in the Hart County News-Herald.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier Another Angle: Proclaim Liberty

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

Isaac Watts on the Kentucky Frontier

Next Saturday, July 17, marks the birthday of Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Now viewed as the father of the modern English hymn text, he wrote verses that could be sung to the popular tunes of his day and used wherever English-speaking people gathered for worship. Born to parents who dissented from the Church of England, he began creating rhyming couplets when he was a child. Sometimes his constant rhyming drove his parents to distraction.

Isaac Watts wrote rhyming couplets as a child

Once, when he was discovered with eyes wide open during a prayer, he said that he had been watching a church mouse:
"A little mouse, for want of stairs,
Ran up a rope to say its prayers."
On another occasion, when he was being punished, he sought to defend himself:
"O Father do some pity take
And I will no more verses make."
Watts was an insatiable reader

An insatiable reader, he thrived on education, became a pastor of an independent chapel, and wrote essays and works of philosophy and theology. He also wrote verse, lots of verse, including many hymn texts as well as rhymes for children. He warned children against idleness in one famous passage:
"How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!"
Watts' hymns are still used, many based on the Psalms

Many of Watts' hymn texts were based on selections from the Book of Psalms, and they made the psalms accessible and familiar to multitudes. He is credited with over 750 hymns; the website lists 498 of his hymns that are in current usage. Some of his more familiar texts are "Joy to the World," "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun," and "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed." Another of his texts to which was joined a refrain written by Robert Lowry is now known as "Marching to Zion."

Watts lived his life in England; he died there and was buried in a cemetery for people who did not conform to the practices of the Church of England. His grave is not far from those of some other famous dissenters: John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim's Progress) and John Rippon (He was a renowned hymnist who helped to popularize the texts of Watts and Charles Wesley. Rippon edited and published the texts of hymns such as "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" and "How Firm a Foundation," making them famous).

Watts' texts were in hymnbooks settlers brought into Kentucky

Though Watts never came to the American colonies or to Kentucky, I think that he counts as one of the pioneers of our Commonwealth. When English settlers came down the Ohio River and through Cumberland Gap, they brought hymnbooks with them. Often these collections contained only texts, with no music other than a notation of the meter (rhythm pattern), which allowed the singer to select easily a commonly known tune of the same meter. Many of the texts in these early hymnals were the words of Isaac Watts.

Shape note hymnals appeared after 1800

After 1800 shape note hymnals began to appear. (And the term is shape note; I once made the error of saying shaped note in the presence of an aficionado; after the lecture I received I'll be sure never to make that error again.

I do persist in pronouncing our local beverage iced tea, even when many menus refer to it as ice tea.) Shape notes comprise a visual representation denoting the musical sounds of close harmony a cappella singing, and the early shape note hymn compilations are a priceless repository of American folk tunes.

Kentucky Harmony hymnal was one of most popular

One of the most popular and widely dispersed shape note hymnals of the age was Kentucky Harmony (1816). Compiled by Ananias Davisson from hymns already popular on the frontier, it was a publication that had great influence on later shape note hymnbooks, including The Southern Harmony, The Missouri Harmony, and The Sacred Harp.

Despite the title of his book, Davisson lived in Virginia, spending his life in the Shenandoah Valley. Nevertheless, his hymn collection was used all over Kentucky. (It is believed that The Missouri Harmony (1820) was the hymnbook most widely used in Indiana and Illinois when young Abraham Lincoln and his family moved into those areas.)

One look at Kentucky Harmony shows influence of Watts

One look at Kentucky Harmony lets us see the influence of Isaac Watts on frontier religion. There, tied to the folk melodies and frontier hymn tunes, are many of Watts' texts. Kentucky Harmony's first edition had almost 140 hymns listed; 124 of them can be traced either to texts written by Isaac Watts or published by John Rippon in his famous 1787 hymn compilation, A Selection of Hymns by the Best Authors, Intended to Be an Appendix to Dr. Watts' Psalms and Hymns

.What this tells me is that Isaac Watts was as much a presence at the settlement of Kentucky as some of the Commonwealth's more famous pioneer icons. Wherever people gathered to worship, wherever circuit riders established new outposts of Christianity, wherever people raised their voices to sing praise or seek consolation, the hymns of Isaac Watts were there also.

Isaac Watts' hymns have staying power

Watts never will be listed in Kentucky history books alongside Daniel Boone or Simon Kenton, but in my mind's eye, he'll be right there as I think about our state's trailblazers. His texts have staying power, and they have lasted long after much of the weaponry of the frontier has rusted and rotted away.

Birthday thanks for Isaac Watts! Kentucky should be grateful to him and for him.


This story was posted on 2010-07-11 05:26:31
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