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We’re Marching to Zion

by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)


Should we sing psalms or hymns in our church services?  This was the controversy stirring among many congregations during the 17th and 18th centuries.  Isaac Watts was the life-long champion of the “humanly composed” hymn while the majority of the English-speaking churches insisted on the singing of psalms from the book of Psalms in scripture.  Tempers frequently flared, and some churches actually split in the heat of this decidedly unharmonious musical conflict.  In some churches a compromise was reached.  A Psalm would be sung in the early part of the service with a hymn used at the close, during which time the parishioners could leave or simply refuse to sing.


Isaac Watts’ “Come, We That Love the Lord” was no doubt written in part to refute his critics, who called his hymns “Watts’ Whims,” as well as to provide some subtle barbs for those who refused to sing his hymns: “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God; but children of the heavenly King may speak their joys abroad.”  The hymn first appeared in Watt’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs of 1707 and was titled “Heavenly Joy on Earth.”


Watts was a dissenter (he had split from the state-sponsored Anglican Church).  He was also brilliant.  A wealthy benefactor offered to pay for his education if he would become a minister in the established church: he refused.  He would go on to write books on logic, geography and astronomy that were used in universities such as Oxford and in the leading colleges of the ‘new world’ (what would become the United States).  Watts, known as the “Father of English Hymnody,” wrote more than 600 hymns and at least one other of those seems to have also been influenced by the military, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”