Summary: God knows how to keep me because I don’t know how to keep myself
Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England, on July 17, 1674. His parents were Dissenters - that is, they were not members of the Church of England. They adhered to the Congregational faith. That was a serious matter at the time; Dissenters, depending on the tolerance of the monarch on the English throne, might be allowed to worship freely but were always denied some measure of civil rights and suffered frequent harassment. Watts, the oldest of nine children, was born while his father, also named Isaac, was in prison. His mother nursed him while sitting on a large stone outside the prison gate, carrying on a silent protest against the unjust treatment towards her husband.
Watts showed obvious verbal ability as a child. He was often in poor health and would continue to be troubled by frequent illness throughout his life. In spite of this handicap, he began learning Latin when he was four years old and mastered that language along with ancient Greek, French, and Hebrew by the time he was 13. At seven he was writing poetry, improvising clever rhymed retorts to his family when they scolded him for laughing during prayers, and even writing an elaborate ten-line religious acrostic poem, the first letters of each line combining to spell out his own name. His education began with his father and continued at the Free School of Southampton.
By the time he was 16, Watts had impressed a local physician enough to be offered financial support should he decide to attend Oxford University, one of two universities in England at the time. But both Oxford and its counterpart Cambridge were affiliated with the Church of England, and attending would have meant converting to that church - to "conform," in the language of the day. Watts remained true to his religion, choosing instead to attend the Newington Green Academy, a Dissenting institution in London operated by the learned Thomas Rowe.
Watts became a pastor in 1702. Just five feet tall, he was an unprepossessing figure in the pulpit. Health problems continued to plague him, and an assistant had to be appointed to fill in for him after a severe bout with illness in 1703. Despite these problems, Watts was a powerful preacher. The Mark Lane congregation outgrew its quarters and twice had to move to larger facilities, and Watts’s sermons began to be collected and printed. Part of his success was due to his emphasis on the role of music in worship. A minister, he felt, should not only write sermons but should seek to involve his congregation in worship through music.
The most immediate impact of Watts’s new hymnody was felt among the Dissenting sects, whose members felt new tensions every time the British monarchy changed hands. A Watts hymn such as "O, God, our help in ages past" was heard by Dissenters in literal terms after the death of Queen Anne, who had championed harsher restrictions on them; Watts’s image of "shelter from a stormy blast" was a direct way of expressing the emotions they felt at the time, and it continued to serve that purpose in times of crisis for many Britons. It was played on British Broadcasting Corporation radio as World War II broke out.