Watts, Isaac

, a very celebrated dissenter, Was born at Southampton, July 17, 1674. His father was the master of a boarding-school in that town, of very considerable reputation. He was a sufferer for non-conformity in the time of Charles II. and when at one time in prison, his wife, it is said, was seen sitting on a stone, near the prison-door, suckling her son Isaac.

This son, the eldest of nine children, was a remarkable instance of early attention to books. He began to learn Latin at the age of four, probably at home, and was afterwards taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, by the Rev. John Pinhorne, master of the free-school at Southampton, rector of All-Saints in the same place, prebendary of Leekford, and vicar of Eling in the New Forest. To this gentleman Mr. Watts afterwards inscribed an elegant Latin ode, which is inserted among his “Lyric Poems.” The proficiency he made at this school induced some persons of property to raise a sum sufficient to maintain him at one of the universities; but his determination was soon fixed to remain among the dissenters, with whom his ancestors had long been connected. In 1690, he went to an academy superintended by the Rev. Thomas Rowe, where he had for his companions Hughes the poet, and Horte, afterwards archbishop of Tuam, Mr. Samuel Say, afterwards an eminent preacher among the dissenters, and other persons of literary eminence. It is well known that Dr. Watts strove to wean Hughes from his attachment to the stage. In 1693, he joined the congregation which was under the care of Mr. Rowe, as a communicant.

His application at this academy was very intense, and perhaps few young men have laid in a larger stock of various knowledge. The late Dr. Gibbons was in -possession of a large volume in his hand- writing, containing twenty-two Latin dissertations upon curious and important subjects, which were evidently written when at this academy, and, says Dr. Johnson, “shew a degree of knowledge, both philosophical and theological, such as very few attain by a much longer course of study.” His leisure hours seem to have been very early occupied in poetical efforts. He was, as he hints in his miscellanies, a maker of verses from fifteen to fifty, and in his youth he appears to have paid attention to Latin poetry. His verses to his brother, in the gtyconick measure, written when he was seventeen, are remarkably easy and elegant. Some of his other odes, | says Dr. Johnson, are deformed by the Pindaric folly then prevailing, and are written with such neglect of all metrical rules, as is without example among the ancients; but his diction, though perhaps not always exactly pure, has such copiousness and splendour, as shows that he was but a very little distance from excellence. The same biographer informs us, that “his method of study was, to impress the contents of his books upon his memory by abridging them, and by interleaving them to amplify one system with supplements from another.” To this Mr. Palmer adds, that it was his custom to make remarks in the margin of his books, and in the blank leaves, to write an account of what was most distinguishing in them, to insert his opinion of the whole, to state his objections to what he thought exceptionable, and to illustrate and confirm what appeared to him just and important.

At the age of twenty he left the academy, and spent two years in study and devotion at the house of his father, who treated him with great tenderness; and had the happiness indulged to few parents, of living to see his son eminent for literature, and venerable for piety.

At the end of this time, he was invited by sir John Hartopp, to reside in his family, at Stoke Newington, near London, as tutor to his son. Here he remained about four or five years, and on his birth-day that completed his twenty-fourth year, in 1698, preached his first sermon, and was chosen assistant to Dr. Chauncy, minister of the congregation in Mark- lane. About three years after, he was appointed to succeed Dr. Chauncy but had scarce entered on this charge when he was so interrupted by illness, as to render an assistant necessary; and after an interval of health he was again seized by a fever which left a weakness that never wholly abated, and, in a great measure checked the usefulness of his public labours.

While in this afflictigg situation, he was received into the house of sir Thomas Abney, of Newington, knight, and alderman of London, where he was entertained with the utmost tenderness, friendship, and liberality, for the space of thirty-six years. Sir Thomas died about eight years after Dr. Watts became an inmate in his family: but he continued with lady Abney, and her daughters, to the end of his life. Lady Abney died about a year after him; and the last of the family, Mrs. Elizabeth Abney, in 1782. | A coalition like this,” says Dr. Johnson, “a state in which the notions of patronage and dependence were overpowered by the perception of reciprocal benefits, deserves a particular memorial; and I will not withhold from the reader Dr. Gibbons’s representation, to which regard is to be paid, as to the narrative of one who writes what he knows, and what is known likewise to multitudes besides.

The passage thus elegantly alluded to is as follows “Our next observation shall be made upon that remarkably kind providence which brought the doctor into sir Thomas Abney’s family, and continued him there till his death, a period of no less than thirty-six years. In the midst of his sacred labours for the glory of God, and good of his generation, he is seized with a most violent and threatening fever, which leaves him oppressed with great weakness, and puts a stop at least to his public services for four years. In this distressing season, doubly so to his active and pious spirit, he is invited to sir Thomas Abney’s family, nor ever removes from it till he had finished his days. Here he enjoyed the uninterrupted demonstrations of the truest friendship. Here, without any care of his own, he had every thing which could contribute to the enjoyment of life, and favour the unwearied pursuits of his studies. Here he dwelt in a family, which for piety, order, harmony, and every virtue, was an house of God. Here he had the privilege of a country recess, the fragrant bower, the spreading lawn, the flowery garden, and other advantages, to sooth his mind and aid his restoration to health; to yield him, whenever he chose them, most grateful intervals from his laborious studies, and enable him to return to them with redoubled vigour and delight. Had it not been for this most happy event, he might, as to outward view, have feebly, it may be painfully, dragged on through many more years of languor, and inability for public service, and even for profitable study, or perhaps might have sunk into his grave under the overwhelming load of infirmities in the midst of his days; and thus the church and world would have been deprived of those many excellent sermons and works, which he drew up and published during his long residence in this family. In a few years after his coming thither, sir Thomas Abney dies: but his amiable consort survives, who shews the doctor the same respect and friendship as before, and most happily for him, and great numbers besides, for, as her riches were great, her generosity | and munificence were in full proportion: her thread of life was drawn out to a great age, even beyond that of the doctor’s, and thus this excellent man, through her kindness, and that of her daughter,-the present (1780) Mrs. Elizabeth Abney, who in a like degree esteemed and honoured him, enjoyed all the benefits and felicities he experienced at his first entrance into this family, till his days were numbered and finished, and, like a shock of corn in its season, he ascended into the regions of perfect and immortal life and joy.

In this retreat, he wrote the whole or nearly the whole of those works which have immortalized his name as a divine, poet, and philosopher. He occasionally preached, and in the pulpit, says Dr. Johnson, though his low stature, which very little exceeded five feet, graced him with no advantages of appearance, yet the gravity and propriety of his utterance made his discourses very efficacious. Such was his flow of thoughts, and such his promptitude of language, that in the latter part of his life he did not precompose his cursory sermons; but having adjusted the heads, and sketched out some particulars, trusted for success to his extemporary powers.

He continued many years to study and to preach, and to do good by his instruction and example, till at last the infirmities of age disabled him from the more laborious part of his ministerial functions, and being no longer capable of public duty, he offered to remit the salary appendant to it, but his congregation would not accept the resignation. His income did not exceed one hundred pounds, of which he allowed one third to the poor.

His death was distinguished by steady faith and composure, and deprived the world of his useful labours and example, Nov. 25, 1748, in the seventy-fifth year of his age. He expired in that house where his life had been prolonged and made comfortable by a long continuance of kind and tender attentions, of which there are few examples.

Dr. Johnson’s character of him, in that admirable life he wrote for the English poets, may be received with confidence. Few men have left such purity of character, or such monuments of laborious piety. He has provided instruction for all ages, from those who are lisping their first lessons, to the enlightened readers of Malbranche and Locke he has left neither corporeal nor spiritual nature unexamined; he has taught the art of reasoning, and the | science of the stars. His character, therefore, must be formed from the multiplicity and diversity of his attainments, rather than from any single performance, for it would not be safe to claim for him the highest rank in any single denomination of literary dignity; yet perhaps there was nothing in which he would not have excelled, if he had not divided his powers to different pursuits.

His entire works have been published in six volumes quarto, and more recently in octavo; but some pieces published under the title of his “Posthumous works,” are considered as spurious, with the exception of his letters to his friends, which probably are genuine. Of his philosophical compositions, those most likely to perpetuate his name, are his “Logic,” and “Improvement of the Mind.” In point of popularity, his “Psalms and Hymns” far exceed all publications of the last century, and it is said that for many years past, communibus annis, nearly fifty thousand copies have been printed of these in Great Britain, Ireland, and America.

Of late years a Very important part of Dr. Watts’ s character has been called in question. It has been confidently asserted by some anti-trinitarians, that before his death he was come over to their party, and that he left some papers behind him, containing a recantation of his former sentiments, which his executors thought it most prudent to suppress. But against this charge he has been defended by the late rev. Samuel Palmer of Hackney, who published, in J 785, “The Life of Dr. Watts,” &c. with, among other additions, “An authentic account of his last sentiments on the Trinity.” In this account Mr. Palmer endeavours to demonstrate that Dr. Watts never gave up the orthodox faith in the doctrine of the Trinity, but that he had somewhat altered his judgment with respect to the manner of expressing and maintaining it. Upon a careful perusal of the whole, we are inclined to think that Mr. Palmer has riot removed all the difficulties attending the question; although on the other hand he has ably and fully vindicated Dr. Watts from the last evidence to be produced from his own pen; and all that remains to affect the character of the doctor rests on an anonymous accusation in a literary journal, (Month. Rev. vol. LXVI. p. 170,) the author of which we suspect to be Dr. Kippis, who is no longer to be called upon for the proofs of his assertion. With respect to the reports propagated by some Arian and | Socinian writers, that the author revised his Hymns and Psalms, a little before his death, in order to render them, as they say, “wholly unexceptionable to every Christian professor,” they are generally discredited. Yet in reliance on this report, editions have been published, in which his sentiments have been mutilated, with no sparing hand, to accommodate them to Socinian principles. 1


Life by Gibbons by Dr. Johnson and by Mr. Palmer. Wilson’s Hist, of Dissenting Churches.