Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 60.djvu/75

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

emotions, in their contemplation of God's glory in nature and his revelation in Christ, and made hymn-singing a fervid devotional force. The success of Watts's hymns approached that of the new version of the Psalms. Edition followed edition. In the early years of this century the annual output of Watts's hymns, notwithstanding all the wealth of hymn production arising out of methodism, was still fifty thousand copies. The two staple volumes, subsequently often bound together, were the ‘Hymns’ (1707; 2nd edit. 1709) and the ‘Psalms of David’ (1719). There are also hymns appended to some of his ‘Sermons’ (1721) and in the ‘Horæ Lyricæ’ The ‘Psalms of David’ is not a metrical psalter of the ordinary pattern. It leaves out all the imprecatory portions, paraphrases freely, infuses into the text the Messianic fulfilment and the evangelical interpretations, and adjusts the whole (sometimes in grotesquely bad taste, as in the substitution of ‘Britain’ for ‘Israel’) to the devotional standpoint of his time. The total number of pieces in the various books must be about six hundred, about twelve of which are still in very general use (‘Jesus shall reign where'er the sun,’ Psalm lxxii.; ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross;’ ‘Come, let us join our cheerful songs;’ and ‘Our God, our help in ages past,’ are in every hymn-book). The characteristics of his hymns are tender faith, joyousness, and serene piety. His range of subjects is very large, but many of them have been better handled since. He had to contend with difficulties which he has himself pointed out: the dearth of tunes which restricted him to the metres of the old version, the ignorance of the congregations, and the habit of giving out the verses one by one, or even line by line; and he had the faults of the poetic diction of the age. The result is a style which is sometimes rhetorical, sometimes turgid, sometimes tame; but his best pieces are among the finest hymns in English. Of another department of hymnology, Watts was also the founder. The ‘Divine Songs’ (1715), the first children's hymn-book, afterwards enlarged and renamed ‘Divine and Moral Songs,’ ran through a hundred editions before the middle of this century (cf. Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. ix. 493, x. 54, 250).

The Arian controversy of his time left its mark on Watts. His hymns contain an entire book of doxologies modelled on the Gloria Patri. But at the conference about the ministers at Exeter held at Salters' Hall (1719) he voted with the minority, who refused to impose acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity on the independent ministers. He did not believe it necessary to salvation; the creed of Constantinople had become to him only a human explication of the mystery of the divine Godhead; and he had himself adopted another explication, which he hoped might heal the breach between Arianism and the faith of the church. He broached this theory in ‘The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity’ (1722), and supported it in ‘Dissertations relating to the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity’ (1724–5). He returned to the subject in ‘The Glory of Christ as God-Man Unveiled’ (1746), and ‘Useful and Important Questions concerning Jesus, the Son of God’ (1746). His theory, held also by Henry More, Robert Fleming, and Burnet (Dorner, The Person of Christ, div. ii. ii. 329, transl. Clark), was that the human soul of Christ had been created anterior to the creation of the world, and united to the divine principle in the Godhead known as the Sophia or Logos (only a short step from Arianism, and with some affinity to Sabellianism); and that the personality of the Holy Ghost was figurative rather than proper or literal. None of the extant writings of Watts advances further than this; but a very pathetic piece, entitled ‘A Solemn Address to the Great and Ever Blessed God’ (published in a pamphlet called ‘A Faithful Inquiry after the Ancient and Original Doctrine of the Trinity’ in 1745, but suppressed by Watts at that time, and republished in 1802), shows how deeply his mind was perplexed and troubled. He lays out all the perplexity before God, stating his belief in the very words of Scripture generally, with the plea ‘Forbid it, oh! my God, that I should ever be so unhappy as to unglorify my Father, my Saviour, or my Sanctifier. … Help me … for I am quite tired and weary of these human explainings, so various and uncertain.’ Lardner affirmed that in his last years (not more than two years at most, in failing health) Watts passed to the unitarian position, and wrote in defence of it; the papers were, as Lardner owned, unfit for publication, and as such were destroyed by Doddridge and Jennings, the literary trustees. Lardner declared also that the last belief of Watts was ‘completely unitarian’ (Belsham, Memoirs of Theophilus Lindsey, pp. 161–4). The testimony, however, of those who were most intimate with Watts to his last hours is entirely silent as to any such change; and his dependence at death on the atonement (which is incompatible with ‘complete unitarianism’) is emphatically attested (Milner, Life, p. 315).

The Calvinism of Watts was of the milder