The Death of Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts died on November 25th, 1748, aged 74, in Stoke Newington, Hackney.


Isaac Watts had gone to visit the Abneys thirty-six years before, in 1712, when they lived in Hertfordshire, intending to stay for a week, but he never managed to leave. He was buried, as he had chosen, in the London Dissenters’ cemetery of Bunhill Fields, north of Moorgate, where the goodly company included John Bunyan, George Fox and Daniel Defoe.

As Bunhill Fields filled up over the next century, Abney House was pulled down and in 1840 Abney Park Cemetery was opened in the grounds. On the site of the house today stands a statue of the great hymn-writer by Edward Baily (sculptor of Nelson in Trafalgar Square). An earlier monument by Edward Banks commemorates Watts in Westminster Abbey and another statue of him stands in Southampton, his birthplace.

‘The father of the English hymn’ wrote some 600 altogether, including ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘Come let us join our cheerful song’ and ‘There is a land of pure delight’, published in 1707. Only Charles Wesley and J.M. Neale were as prolific. ‘Jesus shall reign’ and ‘Oh God, our help’ (originally ‘Our God, our help’) were in Watts’s adaptation of the Psalms, which came out in 1719. The Methodist movement from the 1730s on, and the enthusiasm for hymn-singing of the Church of England evangelicals later in the century, gave his work wide circulation. Of the seventy hymns in John Wesley’s first hymn book, published in America in 1737, more than a third were by Watts, and Wesley’s Journal recounts death-bed after death-bed in which Watts’s hymns were the last words of the dying.

Watts followed Bunyan as a pioneer of writing for children, for whom in 1715 he published Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children. The songs were to be learned by heart as ‘a constant furniture for the minds of children, that they may have something to think over when alone, and sing over to themselves. This may sometimes give their thoughts a divine turn, and raise a young meditation.’ Though packed with moral purpose, they have pleasingly simple rhythms and an attractive gentleness. John Wesley criticised them for ‘speaking to children as children’. Perhaps because they did, the songs went into more than 600 British and American editions, and phrases from them did indeed become part of the furniture of young minds. ‘Let dogs delight to bark and bite’, for instance; ‘Birds in their little nests agree’, ‘Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do’ and ‘How doth the little busy bee improve the shining hour.’ So much so that Lewis Carroll parodied them in Alice in Wonderland (‘How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail’ and ‘Tis the voice of the sluggard’).

Watts lived a quiet, bachelor life. The eldest son of a wealthy Dissenting family, he learned Latin at four, Greek at nine, French at ten and Hebrew at thirteen. He served as pastor of a Congregationalist chapel in Mark Lane in the City of London but suffered from poor health and moved in with Sir Thomas Abney, who had been Lord Mayor of London in 1700 and was one of the original directors of the Bank of England. Abney died in 1722 and Watts moved with Lady Abney to Stoke Newington in 1735, where he spent his last years writing theology and philosophy.