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 controversial views. At King Edward VI School (where one of the houses is now named "Watts" in his honour), Watts learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
From an early age, Watts displayed a propensity for rhyme. Once, he had to explain how he came to have his eyes open during prayers:
- A little mouse for want of stairs
- ran up a rope to say its prayers.
Receiving corporal punishment for this, he cried:
- O father, father, pity take
- And I will no more verses make.
Watts, unable to go to either Oxford or Cambridge on account of his non-conformity, went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690, and much of his life centred around that village, which is now part of Inner London.
His education led him to the pastorate of a large independent chapel in London, where he found himself in the position of helping trainee preachers, despite his poor health. Taking work as a private tutor, Watts lived with the Nonconformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House, on Church Street in Stoke Newington, and later in the household of their immediate neighbours Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary. 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 ministry.
On the death of Sir Thomas Abney, Watts moved permanently with his widow and her remaining unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, to Abney House in Stoke Newington, a property that Mary had inherited from her brother. He lived there from 1748 to his death. The grounds at Abney Park led down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook, where he sought inspiration for the many books and hymns he wrote.
Watts died in Stoke Newington in 1748, and was buried in Bunhill Fields, having left an extensive legacy of hymns, treatises, educational works and essays. His work was influential amongst Nonconformist independents and early religious revivalists, such as Philip Doddridge, who dedicated his best known work to Watts. On his death, Isaac Watts' papers were given to Yale University in then-colonial Connecticut.
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