Isaac Watts was the son of a Dissenter—a Congregationalist at odds with the Church of England. His father was a strong advocate for his faith, and found himself in trouble with the law on more than one occasion because of his dissent. That was the intense sort of environment in which Isaac Watts’ character was formed.
Watts was never a very robust person, but he demonstrated poetic ability at an early age. Sometimes he even rhymed his ordinary conversation. He also developed expertise in several fields, to include religion, philosophy, and religion.
While still quite young, Watts expressed annoyance with the Psalm tunes that they sang in their Congregational tradition—or perhaps I should say “didn’t sing” or “didn’t sing very well.” When Watts expressed his low opinion of the music that they were using, his father is reputed to have responded, “Why don’t you give us something better, young man!” So Watts did. He wrote some 600 hymns during his lifetime, and is known today as the Father of English Hymnody.
“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is a paraphrase of Psalm 90:1-5. Watts wrote it in 1714, and published it in a collection of poetic versions of the Psalms in 1719. He called the collection, The Psalms of David in the Language of the New Testament. It included poetic versions of each of the 150 Psalms—to include “Joy to the World,” based on Psalm 98, and “Jesus Shall Reign,” based on Psalm 72.
Watts was a lifelong Dissenter. However, some years after his death, officials erected a monument in his memory in Westminster Abbey—proof that his contributions were too significant not to be acknowledged.
The hymn tune associated with this hymn was composed by William Croft. He named it “St. Anne” in honor of the church where he served as organist—St. Anne’s Church in Soho, London. Croft was later chosen to serve as the organist at Westminster Abbey.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan