by Linda Ryan
Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home. — Isaac Watts, hymn writer, (1674-1748).
Today we commemorate a man who certainly has had an impact on the music of Protestantism, and even those of us who are Anglican or Episcopal. Isaac Watts is not exactly a household name, but over the course of his life he wrote hundreds of hymns and Psalms, many of which we still sing today and which have become standards in church music.
The music of the church, insofar as the laity was concerned, consisted of Biblical poetry such as was found in the Psalms and prophetic places. Watts believed that the time had come for the inclusion of “experience” based music in the church, and over the course of his life, he wrote between 600-750 (the number varies depending on which resource you use) hymns, many of which we still use today. His prolific output and his use of poetry outside the scriptures opened the door for something new in worship. He became known as the Father of English Hymnody.
One of his most well-known hymns is one of my very favorites. I’ve talked about it before, but “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (also known by its tune name, St. Anne) has been a hymn I look to when I feel I need an extra shot of comfort and strength. Based on Psalm 90, it talks about God being an eternal refuge, a source of hope, a shelter. And that’s just in the first verse! I’ve found myself thinking of it more and more often in these past few months, when things have seemed to go from somewhat solid to very very wobbly, politically as well as in other ways. That hymn has helped me keep my head on straight, so to speak. I wonder if Watts ever knew it had that effect on someone?
“Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” “Jesus Shall Reign,” “Joy to the World,” “This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” are just a few of his hymns of religious experience, but they span the church year and are sung by various denominations. They speak of experiencing the members of the Trinity in various ways, and promoting an emotional reaction to not only the event but to the hymn itself.
Although I love to read, poetry has never really been my “thing.” Music, though, has always been part of my life, and hymns have always been there. For me, they are the voice of the church. Yes, the music of composers like Bach, Byrd, Tallis, and many others, usually sung by choirs, have been balms to my soul and wings for my heart, but the hymns of the congregational singing is a joining together of myriad peoples all together. The hymns reflect the times and conditions of human beings, and spiritual messages that we can carry with us throughout our daily lives. And the poetry often helps make the messages more easily remembered than prose often does.
It would be heard to think of Lent without “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” or Christmas without “Joy to the World.” The words might be a little archaic, but somehow we seem to understand them and their meaning.
That’s what St. Anne does for me. It’s a prayer that I don’t have to compose myself, or fumble around to try to find the right words. It’s easy to let the music and Watts’ words take care of that for me. For others, different tunes or hymns might do the trick, and that is fine. It would be a very dull world if we all were alike enough to all like the same hymn. We all have different experiences, different needs, different tastes. I think Watts understood this, and wrote accordingly.
I’ve got St. Anne running through my head right now and I feel more peaceful. It always helps to have a good song as an ear worm when a body needs cheering up, calming down, thinking, or walking through perilous times.
Which ones do you know that you use at specific times? Perhaps it may be time to learn a few new oldies but goodies from our friend Isaac Watts.
Image: Isaac Watts by Unknown – National Portrait Gallery: Public Domain,