“Joy to the World”
One of the most famous of all Christmas Carols, “Joy to the World,” was written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and Lowell Mason (1792-1872). The text written by Watts is considered to be one of the most joyous Christmas carols ever written. It is joyous not in the sense of amusement, but in the serious comprehension of what Christ’s nativity means to all men. Isaac Watts has been called the father of English hymnody and the bard (poet) of Southhampton. Watts is often compared to Charles Wesley for his talent as a hymnist and his contributions to hymnody.
Isaac Watts was the oldest of nine children of a Southampton clothier. His father was a Nonconformist, which means he would not accept the established Church of England.
When Isaac was born in 1674, his father was in jail for his approval of Nonconformist thought. Although young Isaac had a great deal of respect for his father’s convictions, he often thought of his mother’s days of nursing her children at the entrance to the jail. The boy Isaac showed his brilliance at a very young age. He learned Latin by age four, Greek at age nine, French at eleven, and Hebrew at thirteen. Many of the well-to-do citizens offered to educate him at Oxford or Cambridge, which would have prepared him for the Anglican ministry. Isaac would have none of it and at age sixteen traveled to London to continue his education at a prominent Nonconformist academy. After graduation in 1694, he spent two years at home where he began his hymn writing.
He became the assistant pastor of one of the city’s leading Nonconformist churches, London’s Mark Lane Independent Church, in 1699. He became the head pastor in 1702. Only one year into his ministry, he began to show symptoms of a psychiatric sickness, an illness that he would have to deal with the rest of his life. Samuel Price came to help Isaac in 1703 and became co-pastor in 1713. His illness continued but his congregation did not want to part with the man who had become very well-known and loved much. He was probably the most celebrated writer of his time. The “Horoe Lyricae” (1706) is what gave him notoriety as a poet, buy it was his hymns that distinguished him. His poetry brought forth the spiritual passion that made hymn singing a deep religious experience. He wrote about sixty theological and philosophical books and about 700 hymns.
His most popular hymns are “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and “Joy to the World!” Matthew Arnold, a nineteenth-century author, said, “’When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ is the best hymn in the English language.” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” has been given the title of England’s second national anthem and “Joy to the World” stands at the top of Christmas hymns.
Watts once criticized hymn singing in church when he said, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” German Lutherans had been singing hymns for a hundred years. John Calvin wanted his supporters to sing only metrical psalms; English Protestants had followed Calvin’s command. However, young Watts had been complaining about the hymn singing in church since he was eighteen years old. His father grew weary of the complaining and told him, “if you don’t like the hymns we sing then write better ones.” At this point, Isaac shared his hymn “Behold the Glories of the Lamb,” based upon Revelation 5:6-10, with his father:
Behold the glories of the Lamb, Amidst His Father’s throne;
Prepare new honors for His Name, And Songs as yet unknown.
The next Sunday morning his father shared the hymn with the church. They liked it so much that Isaac was asked to write another. The legacy was begun and so continued the request for the next 222 Sundays. Watts did not snub the metrical hymns – he just wanted them to be filled with more enthusiasm. Samuel Johnson said, “Watts was the first who taught the Dissenters (Nonconformists) to write and speak like other men, by showing them that elegance might consist with piety.”
In 1705, Watts published his first volume of original hymns and sacred poems. His next hymnal was Hymns and Spiritual Songs and was published in 1707. Many of the Dissenters did not approve of the hymnal. They believed only Psalms and not hymns should be sung in church. This led Watts to adapt the Psalms to Christian worship services. It was called The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. It was his goal to give the Psalms a New Testament meaning and mode. Watts clarified his method with these words “Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of a Savior. Where he talks of sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God…Where he promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament.”
In the early eighteenth century, Isaac Watts wrote his greatest Christmas hymn “Joy to the World,” a paraphrase of the verse taken from Psalm 98: 4, 8-9 (KJV):
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth;
make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills be
joyful together before the Lord; for He cometh to
judge the earth, with righteousness shall He judge
the world, and the people with equity.
The first stanza proclaims “the Lord is come,” but this is the only verse that is linked with Christmas and the Nativity. The rest of the verses could be sung at anytime of the year. Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and the manger are not mentioned in the hymn, but who could ever say this carol is not one of the greatest carols we have today?
With Watts’ health failing, he moved to the estate of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas and Lady Abney, to recuperate. His plans were to stay only a few weeks but spent the next thirty-six years as a guest there.
While he was staying at the Abney estate, he dedicated Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715) to their children. In 1739, he suffered a stroke, which left him all but bedridden during his final years.
It is interesting to note that Watts never married. His sickness and unpleasant appearance caused his personal life to suffer. He was five feet tall, pale, skinny, and he had an oversized head. All of the pictures of him show him in a large gown with large folds. This is probably an effort by the artists to downplay his less than pleasing appearance. Elizabeth Singer, an avid reader of his book Hymns and Spiritual Songs thought Isaac Watts was her soulmate even though she only knew him through his writings. A meeting was arranged. When she saw his appearance, she refused his marriage proposal. This was as close as he ever came to being married.
When Isaac Watts was dying he said, “I am just waiting to see what God will do with me; it is good to say, what, when, and where God pleases. The business of a Christian is to do the will of God. If God should raise me up again, and use me to save a soul, that will be worth living for. If He has no more service for me, I can say, through grace, I am ready; I could without alarm if God please, lay back my head on my pillow and die this afternoon or night. My sins are all pardoned through the blood of Christ.”
Lowell Mason, composer of “Joy to the World, “was born and raised in Medfield, Massachusetts. As an adult, he worked in a dry goods store and a bank in Savannah, Georgia. His strong interest in music led him to study with Frederick L. Abel and write his own pieces. Later, as music leader at the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, he led the church to set up the first Sunday School for Afro-American children in the United States.
Mason wanted to publish a hymnal using European classical tunes, including those of composers Haydn and Mozart. After many inquiries with publishers, his hymnal was printed in 1822 by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston. It was a big success. Mason played a large part in the development of American church music, composing over 1,600 hymns. He introduced music into American public schools and was the first noted music educator in the United States.
Mason wanted the European influence of music to continue in America. Many opposed this philosophy because much was already being done as purely American music. This indigenous American music can be seen in the Sacred Harp Singing Schools and the works of William Billings.
In the last part of his life, he was the music director of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. Here he changed American church music from professional choirs and orchestras to congregational singing and organ music.
In 1839, Lowell Mason composed a tune that is forever linked with Watt’s “Joy to the World.” Mason wrote on the manuscript “from Handel.”
Apparently, he was referring to the first four notes of “Lift Up Your Heads” from Handel’s Messiah and the middle section of the carol (“and heaven and nature sing”), which can also be located in Messiah in the introduction of “Comfort Ye My People.”
These two men, Isaac Watts and Lowell Mason, lived one hundred years apart. They were united, however, as both wanted congregational hymn singing to be an integral part of Christian worship. Both of their purposes were successful and today we have the most joyous Christmas carol ever written.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.
Joy to the world! The Saviour reigns;
Let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
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.
Source: “Songs of Christmas” and the stories behind them – by Tommy and Renee Pierce (Copyright 2008)