Isaac Watts’s “Joy to the World”
“Joy to the World” is a popular Christmas Carol.
The words are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on the second half of Psalm 98 in the Bible. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts’ collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. Watts wrote the words of “Joy to the World” as a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a song celebrating his first coming. The nations are called to celebrate because God’s faithfulness to the house of Israel has brought salvation to the world.
Isaac Watts was the son of a schoolmaster, and was born in Southampton, July 17, 1674. He is said to have shown remarkable precocity in childhood, beginning the study of Latin, in his fourth year, and writing respectable verses at the age of seven. At the age of sixteen, he went to London to study in the Academy of the Rev. Thomas Rowe, an Independent minister. In 1698, he became assistant minister of the Independent Church, Berry St., London. In 1702, he became pastor. In 1712, he accepted an invitation to visit Sir Thomas Abney, at his residence of Abney Park, and at Sir Thomas’ pressing request, made it his home for the remainder of his life. It was a residence most favourable for his health, and for the prosecution of his literary labours. He did not retire from ministerial duties, but preached as often as his delicate health would permit.
The number of Watts’ publications is very large. His collected works, first published in 1720, embrace sermons, treatises, poems and hymns. His “Horae Lyricae” was published in December, 1705. His “Hymns” appeared in July, 1707. The first hymn he is said to have composed for religious worship, is “Behold the glories of the Lamb,” written at the age of twenty. It is as a writer of psalms and hymns that he is everywhere known. Some of his hymns were written to be sung after his sermons, giving expression to the meaning of the text upon which he had preached. Montgomery calls Watts “the greatest name among hymn-writers,” and the honour can hardly be disputed. His published hymns number more than eight hundred.
Watts died November 25, 1748, and was buried at Bunhill Fields. A monumental statue was erected in Southampton, his native place, and there is also a monument to his memory in the South Choir of Westminster Abbey. “Happy,” says the great contemporary champion of Anglican orthodoxy, “will be that reader whose mind is disposed, by his verses or his prose, to imitate him in all but his non-conformity, to copy his benevolence to men, and his reverence to God.” (“Memorials of Westminster Abbey,” p. 325.)