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Isaac Watts on Preaching

Category Articles
Date November 5, 2019

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was called at the age of 24 to be assistant to Dr Isaac Chauncey, the pastor of the Independent chapel in Mark Lane, London, in 1698. The congregation was composed in part of Cromwellian aristocrats and businessmen. The members of the church were probably far removed from the material and spiritual needs of the vast mass of the citizens of London in the first part of the 18th century. It was a declining cause. The pastor was not popular, due, it seems, to his over-rigidity in discipline, and ungraciousness to his people. The congregation dwindled as people worshipped elsewhere.

The preaching of Watts immediately drew the interest of the congregation. In March, 1702, Watts received a call to the pastorate. He wrote in his Table of Coincidents and Memorable Affairs in my Life, ‘Dr Chauncey having left his people, and I being returned to preach among them, they called me to the Pastoral office. Accepted it and was ordained.’ He remained as the pastor until his death in 1748.

A great part of Watts’ life — most of it plagued by ill-health — was devoted to writing. Poetry, letters, books on a whole spectrum of subjects, flowed unceasingly from his pen. On the whole, the verdict of Vivian De Sola Pinto is correct: ‘Watts’s works in the standard edition of 1810 fill six massive quartos . . . But although these works are written in fine, pure, direct English prose, and contain much sound reasoning and good sense, it must be admitted that they now belong to the vast mass of dead literature which is read only by the specialist in literary or social history.’ Besides Watts’ hymns, one book, however, deserves to live on. It is his work An Humble Attempt towards the Revival of Practical Religion, first published in 1731.

An Humble Attempt is not ‘dead literature.’ Through it the essential heart and fire of Watts lives on. Together with Philip Doddridge’s Free Thoughts On The Most Probable Means of Reviving the Dissenting Interest, which was published a year earlier, we discover that there was a quickening of interest which paved the way for the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century, and through these two books a preparation of men’s minds for the Revival.

Samuel Johnson commented that Watts’ books were ‘productions which, when a man sits down to read, he suddenly feels himself con­strained to pray.’ In An Humble Attempt Watts places a thoroughly biblical emphasis upon the preaching of the Word of God, and the obligation laid upon all Christians to avail themselves of this means of grace, and to grow in practical holiness.

An enduring revival will produce preachers and preaching. At a time of re-awakening God always raises up outstanding men whose preaching bears lasting fruit. This was certainly true of the Evangelical Awakening of the 18th century. The preaching of George Whitefield and John Wesley, and a host of others, was full of scriptural doctrine and the Holy Spirit. They were by polite society dubbed Enthusiasts. Doddridge wrote, ‘He who would be generally agreeable to dissenters, must be an evangelical, a plain and affectionate preacher.’

We are witnessing today a renewed concern for biblical preaching. For too long, writers have concentrated on the craft of the sermon, without really defining the doctrinal content of the sermon. Surely the content, to a large extent, will govern the presentation. What a delight to discover a good union between method and message in such books as An All-Round Ministry and Lectures to My Students by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and Preaching and Preachers by D. M. Lloyd-Jones! Today many men entering the ministry are rediscovering the sovereignty and holiness of God, and the depravity and sinfulness of man. This is bound to produce a seriousness in preaching in which flippancy has no part.

David Jennings, who, with Doddridge, published six volumes of Watts’ writings in 1753, describes Watts’ preaching as having ‘a certain dignity and spirit in his very aspect which commanded attention and awe, and when he spoke, such strains of truly Christian eloquence flowed from his lips as one would think could not easily be slighted, or resisted.’

It is very sad, however, to see that some preachers, who love the doctrines of grace, give way to a rational and doctrinal correctness at the cost of warmth and emotion in the pulpit. O for the spirit of John Bunyan‘s preaching, when he declared, ‘I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel.’ Many long for the ‘affectionate preacher’ described by Doddridge in his Free Thoughts.

Watts can never be charged with ‘enthusiasm’ in his preaching, as were the Methodistical preachers. Writing to Doddridge, Watts reproved him for preaching for George Whitefield, and yet commended Whitefield in a letter to his friend Dr Benjamin Colman of Boston! It is obvious that the heart of Watts was with the preaching of Whitefield, even if, as a dissenter, he disapproved of some of Whitefield’s methods.

Watts released his emotions in his poetry and hymns. Yet there was something about his preaching that caught the minds and hearts of his congregation. Edwin Paxton Hood said of Watts’ preaching, that ‘his sermons were beautiful in their clear harmonious symmetry of powers, rather than startling.’ Like Doddridge, Watts believed in simplicity of expression:

Smooth be your style, and plain and natural,
To strike the sons of Wapping or Whitehall;
While others think this easy to attain,
Let them but try, and with their utmost pain,
They’ll sweat and strive to imitate in vain. 

Watts never took a full manuscript into his pulpit. ‘He used very few notes in the pulpit, preparing carefully so that the mind and memory were fully charged, giving to such a mind as his freedom, instantaneous propriety, and fulness of expression.’

Not many today would agree with Paxton Hood that Watts ‘cannot be referred to as greatly influencing the times in which he lived.’ His many letters indicate his wide sphere of influence. By his preaching, not by his writing, Watts is shown as a connecting link between the Puritan preachers — such as Joseph Caryl and John Owen, whose pulpit he occupied — and the Evangelical Awakening. In writing a biography of Watts, Arthur Paul Davis confessed, ‘My ultimate purpose has been to present Watts as a typical and significant eighteenth century minor transitional figure whose works transmitted to that century the evangelical tendencies inherent in seventeenth century Puritanism.’

Above all, Watts was concerned with preaching, as were the Puritans. Harry Escott comments, ‘He tried to reform the preaching of his day, especially the structure of sermons. He began his ministry in an age of what he calls felicitously “branching sermons”.’1 What Doddridge advocated, Watts was practising. Doddridge wrote, ‘The greater part of most dissenting congregations consisting of plain people, who have not enjoyed the advantages of a learned education, nor had leisure for improve­ments by after-study, it is apparently necessary that a man should speak plainly to them, if he desire they should understand and approve what he says.’2 Watts repeats the need for simplicity, ‘Preachers talk reason and religion to their auditories in vain if they do not make the argument so short as to come within their grasp and give a frequent rest to their thoughts.’

Watts’ Humble Attempt towards the Revival of Practical Religion is a book which should be read by all who preach the Word of God. It contains a series of addresses, charges to pastors and congregations, on the importance of delivering, and listening to, sermons. It calls for a serious application of the preached Word to the daily Christian life. The first five sections are addressed to the minister: his personal religion, his private studies, his public ministrations, his way of life, and ‘a solemn enforcement of the above to the conscience.’ The second part of the book has eight sections entitled — ‘A serious address to the people’ (Matthew 5:47). The text applied to the disciples, to our own age and circumstances; the religious advantages of Protestant dissenters; the need for greater degrees of holiness; piety among ancient nonconformists; and the blessings accompanying piety (Sections 6-8). Let us concentrate upon just two sections.

The Preacher and godliness: Watts declares that the prime need of the minister of the gospel is godliness. Without it, words fail and fall to the ground. A good minister must be what he preaches. ‘You are obliged to copy out the life of Christ more exactly, that you may be an example to the flock, in everything that is holy.’ Power in the pulpit is proportional to the godliness of the preacher. ‘You will hereby learn to preach more powerfully in all respects for the salvation of men, and talk more feelingly on every sacred subject, when the power and sense and life of godliness are kept up in your own spirit.’

The Composure of Sermons: The longest section in the book deals with the preparation and content of the sermon.

From the outset, there must be no pandering to the importance or to the pride of man. No Jack Horner ever departed after a sermon by Watts, declaring, ‘What a good boy am I!’ Watts advises, ‘If you would raise the hearts of your hearers to a just a high esteem of this gospel of grace, and impress them with an awful sense of the divine importance and worth of it, be not afraid to lay human nature low, and to represent it in its ruins by the fall of the first Adam.’

Watts knew how glorious the gospel of grace appears when set before a despairing man in his sin. Man must first be made to realize that no effort on his part will ever remedy his fallen nature. We must preach so as to bring the sinner into a state of distress. We must bring him to face the humiliating conclusion that ‘we are unable to recover ourselves out of these depths of wretchedness without the condescensions of divine grace.’ At this point, ‘the gospel of Christ is introduced as the only remedy and relief under this desolation of nature, this overwhelming distress.’

Watts brings a timely caution to the preacher who assumes that his hearers are ‘true Christians’, or who does not preach condemnation of sin, thus leaving sinners with a false sense of security. ‘The general way of speaking to all persons in one view and under one character, as though all your hearers were certainly true Christians and converted already, and wanted only a little further reformation of heart and life, is too common in the world; but I think it is a dangerous way of preaching. It has a powerful and unhappy tendency to lull unregenerate sinners asleep in security, to flatter and deceive them with dreams of happiness, and make their consciences easy without a real conversion of heart to God.’

The business of a gospel preacher is to preach with a view to the salvation of men’s souls: ‘I intreat you, my dear friend and brother, to get it deeply impressed on your heart that as, I believe, your real and sincere design is to save the souls of men from sin and eternal death, so it is the gospel of Christ which is the only instrument whereby you can ever hope to attain this blessed end.’ Like the Apostle Paul, Watts was concerned to keep the gospel out of the hands of the philosophers — the ‘wise’ of this world. ‘Will this be our glory to imitate the heathen philosophers and to drop the gospel of the Son of God? To be com­plimented by unbelievers as men of superior sense and as deep reasoners, while we abandon the faith of Jesus and starve the souls of our hearers by neglecting to distribute to them this bread of life which came down from heaven?’

Like many Puritan preachers before him, Watts was a practical preacher. Doctrine, for Watts, was not sweet reasonableness within a consistent theological framework — though some writers have accused him of relying too much on reason and not enough on faith. Doctrine should make very great demands on the way a Christian lives. ‘Do not content yourself to compose a sermon of mere doctrinal truths and articles of belief, but into every sermon, if possible, bring something practical . . . And among the practical parts of Christianity make it your business to insist on those subjects which are inward and spiritual, and which go by the name of experimental religion.

Watts is happy to see the preacher illustrate his sermons with his own experiences, or the experiences of others. This will highlight the demand that doctrine makes upon the Christian life. ‘While you are treating on these subjects, give me leave to put you again in mind that it will sometimes have a happy influence on the minds of hearers to speak what you have learnt from your own experience, or to tell them what you have borrowed from the experiences of others.’

Of first importance, Watts requires simplicity in preaching. He set an example in his own preaching and in his writing, with the result that his books as well as his hymns were popular among the common people. One interesting reference to this fact occurs in a letter from Doddridge to Watts in which the writer speaks of what he observed on a recent preaching engagement near Northampton. The date is April, 1731 ‘On Wednesday last, I was preaching in a barn to a pretty large assembly of plain country people at a village a few miles off. After a sermon from Hebrews 6:12 we sung one of your hymns (which, if I remember right, was the cxl. of the 2nd Book) and in that part of the worship I had the satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of the auditory, and after the service was over, some of them told me, that they were not able to sing, so deeply were their minds affected with it; and the clerk, in particular, told me he could hardly utter the words of it. These were most of them poor people who work for their living. On the mention of your name, I found they had read several of your books with great delight, and that your Hymns and Psalms were almost their daily entertainment.’

One very important method Watts used in his sermons, was to keep his points short. ‘I grant it is necessary to use good reason through your whole discourse, and connect all the parts of it with justice. But as I hinted before, let your arguments to prove any point be generally short and easy, and within the grasp of a common understanding.’ A glance through Watts’ printed sermons shows that he did indeed keep his points short and simple.

Watts’ simplicity and directness contrasted greatly with his age, in the early years of the 18th century. As Vivian De Sola Pinto, writing of Watts’ poetry, comments: ‘In an age of sophistication, of stilted speech and thought, in the midst of a highly artificial civilization, Watts has rediscovered things that English poets had forgotten a long time ago.’

Variety of approach in preaching is particularly recommended by Watts. ‘Try all methods to rouse and awaken the cold, the stupid, the sleepy race of sinners. Learn all the language of holy jealousy and terror to affright the presumptuous; all the compassionate and encouraging manners of speaking to comfort, encourage and direct the awakened, the penitent, the willing and the humble; all the winning and engaging modes of discourse and expostulation to constrain the hearers of every character to attend. Seek this happy skill of reigning and triumphing over the hearts of an assembly. Persuade them with power to love and practise all the important duties of godliness in opposition to the flesh and the world. Endeavour to kindle the soul to zeal in the holy warfare, and to make it bravely victorious over all the enemies of its salvation.’ With so many goals, you will need a good many tactics ! ‘Remember that you have to do with the understanding, reason and memory of man, with the heart and conscience, with the will and affections, and therefore you must use every method of speech which may be most proper to engage and employ each of these faculties or powers of human nature on the side of religion and in the interests of God and the Gospel.’

This article was first published in the December 1974 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.


  1. Isaac Watts: Hymnographer — A Study of the Beginnings, Development, and Philosophy of the English Hymn, London, 1962.
  2. Free Thoughts, p. 20.

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