“When the Eternal bows the skies,
To visit earthly things,
With scorn divine he turns his eyes
From towers of haughty kings.
He bids his awful chariot roll
Far downward from the skies,
To visit every humble soul,
With pleasure in his eyes.”
– Isaac Watts
Born in Southampton, England, in 1674, Watts was brought up in the home of a committed religious Nonconformist; his father, also Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his views. At King Edward VI School, Watts had a classical education, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
Because he was a Nonconformist, Watts could not attend Oxford or Cambridge, which were each restricted to Anglicans, as were government positions at the time. He went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690. Much of the remainder of his life centred around that village, which is now part of the London Borough of Hackney.
Following his education, Watts was called as pastor of a large independent chapel in London, where he helped train preachers, despite his poor health. Isaac Watts held religious opinions that were more non-denominational or ecumenical than was at that time common for a Nonconformist; he had a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship than preaching for any particular sect.
Taking work as a private tutor, Watts lived with the Nonconformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House, on Church Street in Stoke Newington. Through them he became acquainted with their immediate neighbours, Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary.
Invited for a week to Hertfordshire, Watts eventually lived for a total of 36 years in the Abney household, most of the time at Abney House, their second residence. (Lady Mary had inherited the Manor of Stoke Newington in 1701 from her late brother, Thomas Gunston.)
On the death of Sir Thomas Abney in 1722, the widow Lady Mary and her last unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, moved all her household to Abney Hall from Hertfordshire. She invited Watts to continue with their household. He lived at Abney Hall until his death in 1748.
Watts particularly enjoyed the grounds at Abney Park, which Lady Mary planted with two elm walks leading down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook. Watts often sought inspiration there for the many books and hymns he wrote.
Watts died in Stoke Newington in 1748, and was buried in Bunhill Fields. He left an extensive legacy of hymns, treatises, educational works and essays. His work was influential amongst Nonconformist independents and religious revivalists of the 18th century, such as Philip Doddridge, who dedicated his best-known work to Watts.
Joy to the World
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross