I recently stumbled upon a very old copy of Divine and Moral Songs written by Isaac Watts in the early 1700’s. My copy must have been printed some time in the 1800’s because it was a gift to someone in 1884 from a boy and girl’s religious society. When I opened the delicate book, I was struck immediately by the beautiful old artwork, attention to detail, and the old print type used during the time of its publication. But it was the preface that truly gripped my attention.
Isaac Watts wrote the preface sometime in the early 1700’s. In his message, he addressed “all that are concerned in the education of children.”
Being a homeschool mom, a Sunday school teacher, and a volunteer youth leader, I recognized that this was addressed to me. In only a few pages, of very readable language, Isaac Watts gave a challenge that is very applicable to our society today. As I read, I was gripped by the fact that these words were penned to an early 1700’s society, when it could have been written to our society three hundred years later.
In the intro, Isaac reminds his readers of the important charge given to those concerned in the education of children. “The wisdom and welfare of the succeeding generations are entrusted with you beforehand, and depend much on your conduct.” Is that not true today? The wisdom and welfare of future generations are greatly influenced by our conduct. “The seeds of misery or happiness in this world and that to come, are oftentimes sown very early; and therefore, whatever may conduce to give the minds of children a relish for virtue and religion, ought, in the first place, be proposed to you.”
Watts reminded those in his generation that the seeds of faith are sewn early and that it is vital to train up our children with a passion for Christ at an early age.
Watts explained that “verse was at first designed for the service of God, though it hath been wretchedly abused since.” Of course, I absolutely love his use of strong adverbs and verbs like “Wretchedly” and “abused,” his point is very clear. He explained that parents of old taught their children “the precepts of morality and worship in verse.” They’ve been using songs and rhymes to help children learn truths for thousands of years. Not only that, but we as believers are encouraged to “teach and admonish one another by hymns and songs, (Col.iii.16)” …I just had to write it the way Watts did.
Watts told us there are four advantages to using verse to teach children:
- “There is a great delight in the very learning of truths and duties this way. There is something so amusing and entertaining in rhymes and metre, that will incline children to make this part of their business a diversion.”
Watts encouraged readers to even use the lovely little book itself as a reward for learning the verses. I found it very cool that even in the 1700’s they were using the reward method of motivation.
- “What is learned in verse is longer retained in memory, and sooner recollected.” Watts said that the learning of scripture and moral songs learned in one’s youth will help guide their moral decision making.
- “This will be a constant furniture for the minds of children, that they may have something to think upon when alone, and sing over to themselves.”
Watts points out that learning in this way will “raise a young meditation.” He said, “Thus they will not be forced to seek relief for an emptiness of mind, out of the loose and dangerous sonnets of the age.”
When I read that last sentence I stopped and reread it again. This was written in the 1700’s… and Watts was concerned about the dangerous music of his time? What would Watts have to say about some of the songs popular in our country today? I found it interesting that Watts explained the seeking of such sonnets is to “seek relief for an emptiness of mind.” How often do we see kids sit filling their minds with music containing disturbing lyrics, allowing those words fill their minds like dirty water soaked into an empty sponge? Watts called it dangerous.
- “These Divine Songs may be a pleasant and proper matter for their daily or weekly worship, to sing on in the family, at such time as the parents or governors shall appoint…”
Watts encouraged the use of these songs during daily or weekly worship, and while I’m sure not many of our children have governors, I loved his encouragement to sing together as a family. What a wonderful time to train up your child and worship together.
The preface was wrapped up with a few more encouraging words in the training up of a child in Christ, and ended with a prayer.
“May the Almighty God make you faithful in this important work of education; may He succeed your cares with His abundant grace; that the rising generation of Great Britain may be a glory among the nations, a pattern to the Christian world, and a blessing to the earth.”
I am sure you caught the Great Britain part. I found it interesting that, just like me and my concern for my country, Isaac Watts wanted his country to be a “glory among the nations, a pattern to the Christian world, and a blessing to the earth.” I would like the same thing for the United States. The point is, we as Christians have an important job. We are called by God to “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6).
I felt it was fitting to chose a song from the book and write the lyrics below. Of course, it is far more lovely and artful in the original little book with beautiful drawings above each verse. When I showed it to my daughter, I said, “Look, these are the inspirational Instagram messages of the 1700’s.”
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Praise for Creation and Providence.
I sing the almighty power of God,
That made the mountains rise;
That spread the flowing seas abroad,
And built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
The sun to rule the day;
The noon shines full at His command,
And all the stars obey.
I sing the goodness of the Lord,
That filled the earth with food;
He formed the creatures with His word,
And then pronounced them good.
Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed
Where’er I turn mine eye!
If I survey the ground I tread,
Or gaze upon the sky.