Joy To The World

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world! the Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Joy To The World is another older carol that predates the Victorian era. It was written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and published in 1719. The words and the sentiment derive from Psalm 98 as before 1700 (mentioned in reference to While Shepherds Watched) it was customary for church singing to be texts from the scriptures, particularly the Psalms of David. The only one of those pre-1700 Psalms that is sung today is All People That On Earth Do Dwell (from Psalm 100) and it’s not the most cheerful of tunes. At the time Watts indicated that the verses should be sung to the tunes of the old Psalm Book, and the tune we associate with the carol today dates from the 1840s when the carol was published in a new collection.

Isaac Watts was untypical of many of the learned clergymen who we associate with writing many of the classic hymns sung today. In many cases those composers or poets were writing in the Anglican tradition as clergymen in the Church of England, but Isaac Watts was a committed nonconformist. His father was a nonconformist minister in Hampshire at a time that such beliefs were actively persecuted, and he had been sent to prison on two occasions for not recanting his beliefs. Isaac was unable to attend Oxford or Cambridge Universities because of his nonconformism, so after attending school in Southampton went to an independent theological college in Stoke Newington (now part of London) before entering the ministry himself.

Isaac was a talented academic and in addition to working at a large Congregational chapel he also trained new pastors and worked as a private tutor with a number of families. From 1712 until his death in 1748 he lived in the household of Lord and Lady Abney at Abney Park in Stoke Newington where he wrote extensively and continued his studies. In addition to Joy To The World he wrote many other popular hymns including Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past, and When I Survey The Wondrous Cross; he also wrote a book for children with a collection of moral rhymes.

In 1724 he published a book about logic and reasoning which was intended as an introductory textbook but progressed through its chapters to a highly elaborate and complex series of original ideas. Considering that his nonconformism had prevented him from attending either Oxford or Cambridge University, it is with some irony (or the less charitable might say with some hypocrisy) that both Oxford and Cambridge – as well as Harvard and Yale Universities – adopted the book as their standard textbooks.

On his death, a memorial to Isaac Watts was installed in Westminster Abbey although he is buried in Bunhill Fields where many other well known nonconformists are buried. If you have the time you can explore this delightful sanctuary in London, EC1. In addition to the tomb of Isaac Watts you might also find the graves of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, William Blake and his wife, Thomas Hardy, Susanna Wesley (the mother of John & Charles Wesley), and a couple of minor Cromwells. There’s a statue erected in his memory in Abney Park, and another in Southampton

His name might be relatively unknown today but he was an important figure throughout the 18th and 19th centuries for both his hymn writing and his academic scholarship. Charles Dickens not only referred to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in A Christmas Carol in 1843, but he also referred to Watts’ moral tales for children in David Copperfield in 1850; similarly, Lewis Carroll parodied his moral verses in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865.

Merry Christmas

Header image: Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

Footer image: from Public Domain Pictures