Watts and Hymnody
Sacred music scholar Stephen Marini (2003) describes the ways in which Watts contributed to English hymnody. Notably, Watts led the way in the inclusion in worship of "original songs of Christian experience"; that is, new poetry. The older tradition limited itself to the poetry of the Bible, notably the Psalms. This stemmed from the teachings of the 16th century Reformation leader John Calvin, who initiated the practice of creating verse translations of the Psalms in the vernacular for congregational singing. Watts' introduction of extra-Biblical poetry opened up a new era of Protestant hymnody as other poets followed in his path.
Watts also introduced a new way of rendering the Psalms in verse for church services. The Psalms were originally written in Biblical Hebrew within the religion of Judaism. Later, they were adopted into Christianity as part of the Old Testament. Watts proposed that the metrical translations of the Psalms as sung by Protestant Christians should give them a specifically Christian perspective:
- "While he granted that David was unquestionably a chosen instrument of God, Watts claimed that his religious understanding could not have fully apprehended the truths later revealed through Jesus Christ. The Psalms should therefore be "renovated" as if David had been a Christian, or as Watts put it in the title of his 1719 metrical psalter, they should be "imitated in the language of the New Testament."
Marini discerns two particular trends in Watts' verses, which he calls "emotional subjectivity" and "doctrinal objectivity". By the former he means that "Watts' voice broke down the distance between poet and singer and invested the text with personal spirituality." As an example of this he cites "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross". By "doctrinal objectivity" Marini means that Watts verse achieved an "axiomatic quality" that "presented Christian doctrinal content with the explicit confidence that befits affirmations of faith." As examples Marini cites the hymns "Joy to the World" as well as "From All That Dwell Below the Skies":
From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator's praise arise;
Let the Redeemer's name be sung
Through every land, by every tongue.
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“In the midst of life we are in debt.”
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