Growing up in the late 1600s in Southampton, England, Isaac Watts was a prodigy who mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French as a teenager and was already writing poems and hymns. In his twenties, Watts was a rebel.
His rebellion had to do with church music. For centuries, psalm singing was the accepted form, the only accepted form. Although occasionally churches would sing hymns with texts that directly quoted other Bible passages, any newly created lyrics were met with deep suspicion. But young Isaac Watts had a dangerous notion: “If we can pray to God in sentences we have made up ourselves, then surely we can sing to God in sentences that we have made up ourselves.” And he was ready to make words for those songs.
Some of these involved paraphrases of psalms. “Jesus Shall Reign” is based on Psalm 72, and “Joy to the World!” on Psalm 98. Despite the psalm connection, Watts was roundly criticized for daring to alter the old-fashioned phrases of the psalter. He also wanted to focus on Jesus. Sometimes he applied Christian interpretation to the Psalms, but some of his best work resulted from his simple meditations on the sacrifice of Christ. Songs like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” bring us to the foot of the cross in worship, wonder, and love.
“I have made no pretense to be a poet,” Watts wrote. “But to the Lamb that was slain, and now lives, I have addressed many a song, to be sung by the penitent and believing heart.”
Of course, believing hearts have been singing his songs ever since. He provided a lyrical vocabulary for Baptist and independent churches in England, influencing Charles Wesley and the Methodists and, later churches in America and around the world.
In 1851, this hymn was sung at a revival meeting in a Methodist church in New York. A blind woman there was struggling with her faith. When she heard the line “here, Lord, I give myself away,” she later wrote, “My very soul was flooded with a celestial light. I sprang to my feet, shouting ‘hallelujah.’” That woman was Fanny Crosby, who went on to write hundreds of hymn texts herself.
So, with his pen and his fervent heart, the rebellious prodigy from Southampton had sparked a musical revolution that is still going on.
– Randy Peterson, Be Still My Soul, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2014), p. 9