The Watts Controversy
On the wall in my study I have three portraits. All three are portraits of theologians who were also heavily involved with music. They are Martin Luther, J.S. Bach, and Isaac Watts.
All three men fought their battles in defense of high standards for worship music. All three had their share of controversy.
And all three are commonly compared to modern worship controversies, usually in defense of contemporary worship. “See,” the argument goes, “people in their day were afraid of new music, too.”
I’ll give you an example of this kind of comparison. In a workshop at the 2009 National Leadership Conference in Lansdale, PA titled “Revitalizing Your Worship Service: From a Prelude for the Preaching to an Encounter with God,” Peter Radford writes,
A new wave of music had hit the popular scene. A young composer had gone on a streak writing song after song for two years. Though many adored his new music, plenty of people did not. They took issue with one of his most popular songs calling it “man-centered” and “focussed on human experience” . . . The year was 1707, the composer was Isaac Watts, and the song was “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” It was at least 40 years after his death in 1749 before some churches in America would sing his hymns and even then there was no small protest. Yet the hymn “When I Survey” endures today as the crown jewel of hymnody. The point of this story is that great songs are great when they are written, though they are still great fifty years later.
This comparison of Watts to today’s controversies is quite common. A friend of mine recently asked a similar question with genuine curiosity:
Well, first all I adore Isaac Watts; he’s my favorite hymn writer and such a Godly example in so many areas, not just music. I read a bio of him by NA Woychuk from Scripture Memory Fellowship several years ago, and was just blown away by the fact that he was quite the ‘revolutionary’, if you will, of his time when it came to hymns and worship. During his time, it is my understanding, what hymns there were were only to be described by Watts as “cheap doggerel ” and “ugly hymns.” Here I quote from the bio:
“Such remarks incurred his father’s displeasure. ‘Isaac,’ the stern deacon said, ‘if you cannot be reverent, you can at least keep your mouth shut about things which do not concern you.” When Isaac and his brother Enoch remonstrated that they were not only criticizing the hymns that were being used, but that they hoped to prepare their own hymnal, the elder Watts laughed and said, ‘That old hymnal was good enough for your grandfather, and your father, and so I reckon it will have to be good enough for you!’ ” (italics mine)
We, in effect, say the same thing today when we encounter anything that challenges/changes what we’re used to. And further in the book:
“While Martin Luther, some 200 years earlier, gave great impetus to the movement of hymn singing in Germany, the Protestant churches in England and Scotland continued largely the practice of singing Psalms and resisted the introduction of hymns into any public service. This was in great measure due to the influence of John Calvin who disliked any songs ‘too human in origin.’ Finally, it was Isaac Watts who won the English over to the German practice of the singing of hymns.”
Doesn’t there seem to be a parallel/similarity between what Isaac Watts struggled through to improve worship within his culture at the time and what we are going through now with hymns vs. modern music? Granted, modern songwriters/hymnodists(?) aren’t necessarily seeking to improve worship, just express their devotion to Jesus Christ through the music of the time in which they live.
So does this comparison hold up? Are the controversies of Watts’ day properly used in defense of contemporary worship today?
I would argue that such a comparison is not tenable for several reasons:
1. In Watts’ day, the controversy was in no way over musical style. Contrary to Radford, Watts was not a composer; he did not write music. He wrote texts.
The tunes used for the metrical Psalmody that were common in churches in that day were then adapted for use with the new hymn texts once Watts and others began writing them. Those Psalm tunes were written in common meters, and the hymn texts were written in the same meters, so the tunes could easily be matched with the new hymn texts. The music didn’t change; only the texts changed.
2. Further, there wasn’t even such a thing as “pop music” in Watts’ day. “A new wave of music had hit the popular scene” makes sense only in an age of Pop culture, which did not exist during Watts’ lifetime.
Pop culture exists only with mass media, which did not exist then. The only forms of culture that existed were high culture (the culture of the concert hall) and folk culture (the culture of common people). Most hymn tunes (then and now) are written in folk traditions. So even when people did compose new tunes, they were still in the same tradition of tunes that came before. It is only in the last 50 years or so that people have begun to adapt pop forms for use in worship.
3. Neither was the controversy one of old vs. new. The controversy was not based upon when a particular song text was written. It wasn’t as if they favored old over new or anything like that. They were singing English paraphrases of Psalm texts, of course, written fairly recently. When the biographer above cites Watts’ father as saying, “That old hymnal was good enough for your grandfather…” it wasn’t as if he was defending old over new. Age had nothing to do with the controversy.
4. Rather, the controversy was over whether is was permissible to sing texts (old or new) written by mere humans, or if they were constrained to sing only the Psalms written under the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The common thought in England at that time (following the teaching of John Calvin) was that we must only sing inspired songs, that is, we may only sing Psalms. Of course, they weren’t singing Hebrew; they were singing English translations of the Psalms (something defenders of hymnody would later bring up; see below). But nevertheless, they argued that we may only sing adaptions of inspired texts.
5. Watts (and others) came along and argued that we should be permitted to sing non-inspired texts (old or new) as long as the truth contained therein was compatible with the Bible. They based their argument on several points:
First, they argued that since we are permitted to pray in our own words (i.e., we do not have to pray inspired prayers), we should also be able to sing in our own words.
Second, they argued that since the English Psalmody of the day was in all reality paraphrases of inspired Scripture, we should also be able to paraphrase other portions of Scripture or theological truths in hymn texts.
Third, Watts argued that as Christians, many of the Psalms don’t really apply to us since they have very specific references to Jewish life. Further, he wanted to sing about Christ, redemption, forgiveness, the Church, and other New Testament truths, none of which are contained in the Psalms (except perhaps in veiled prophetic sections). Christians should sing Christian truth, Watts argued. Even when singing the Psalms, he insisted, we should be able to interpret them in the light of the New Testament. So, his Psalms of David Imitated is a collection of Psalm paraphrases that add New Testament revelation to those Old Testament hymns. Many of the Watts hymns that we sing today are actually his Psalm paraphrases (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is from Psalm 90; “Jesus Shall Reign” is from Psalm 72; “Joy to the World” is from Psalm 98; etc.).
Fourth, they argued that the English Psalm paraphrases were very poorly written. The English grammar was awkward (because they were trying to stay as close to the original Hebrew as possible), and the poetry was poor. Actually, in this point, the metrical Psalmody of the day could probably be more accurately compared to modern praise songs that contain poor grammar and cheap poetry. Watts and others were arguing for texts of higher artistic quality!
So was Watts controversial? Absolutely! But not because he was advocating the use of pop forms of music or even “fresh, new, exciting” texts. He was arguing that we should be allowed to summarize Scriptural truth in our hymns rather than limiting ourselves to inspired Psalms, and that we should aim for a higher quality of English grammar and poetry in our sacred songs.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.