Sunday, November 26, 2006

Was Isaac Watts a Proto-Unitarian Type?

Hey, brainiac history types, help me out here.

I read that Isaac Watts' father was a non-conforming minister in England, and that Isaac served an Independent congregation in the mid-17th century.

So what are we saying here? I know I can look this up and that I should, but I'm planning services right now and don't have the time. However, I want to preach on "Joy To the World" and to remember with my congregation the year that we accidentally included this verse in the Christmas Eve program:

"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!"

My church secretary and I were dying when we found the error and dying when we caught each other's eyes at the service that night.
Not only is it, um, unusual theology for us, that phrase "He comes to make his blessings flow" confuses people musically at first, so the whole thing is rather a train wreck.

Isaac_Watts "I wrote many hymns, and I had pretty wigs."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isaac Watts was probably not a Unitarian, or even a proto-Unitarian -- there are many movements that arose out of early British non-conformity of which Unitarianism is just one. Isaac Watts became minister at the Independent Church in Mark Lane, following Isaac Chauncey (son of Charles Chauncey, Pres. of Harvard - a reverse migrant!), and that congregation would then have been classified as Congregational. There's little evidence Watts' theology leaned towards the Unitarian. But interesting, n'est pas?

Anonymous Philocrites said...

Isaac Watts was a proto-unitarian, although that doesn't mean that his hymns are heterodox. Here's the crucial passage in the Dictionary of National Biography entry about Watts:

The Arian controversy of his time left its mark on Watts. His hymns contain an entire book of doxologies modelled on the Gloria Patri. But at the conference about the ministers at Exeter held at Salters' Hall (1719) he voted with the minority, who refused to impose acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity on the independent ministers. He did not believe it necessary to salvation; the creed of Constantinople had become to him only a human explication of the mystery of the divine Godhead; and he had himself adopted another explication, which he hoped might heal the breach between Arianism and the faith of the church. He broached this theory in 'The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity' (1722), and supported it in 'Dissertations relating to the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity' (1724-5). He returned to the subject in 'The Glory of Christ as God-Man Unveiled' (1746), and 'Useful and Important Questions concerning Jesus, the Son of God' (1746). His theory, held also by Henry More, Robert Fleming, and Burnet (DORNER, The Person of Christ, div. ii. ii. 329, transl. Clark), was that the human soul of Christ had been created anterior to the creation of the world, and united to the divine principle in the Godhead known as the Sophia or Logos (only a short step from Arianism, and with some affinity to Sabellianism); and that the personality of the Holy Ghost was figurative rather than proper or literal. None of the extant writings of Watts advances further than this; but a very pathetic piece, entitled 'A Solemn Address to the Great and Ever Blessed God' (published in a pamphlet called 'A Faithful Inquiry after the Ancient and Original Doctrine of the Trinity' in 1745, but suppressed by Watts at that time, and published in 1802), shows how deeply his mind was perplexed and troubled. He lays out all the perplexity before God, stating his belief in too very words of Scripture generally, with the plea 'Forbid it, oh! My God, that I should ever be so unhappy as to unglorify my Father, my Saviour, or my Sanctifier. . . . Help me . . . for I am quite tired and weary of these human explainings, so various and uncertain.' Lardner affirmed that in his last years (not more than two years at most, in failing health) Watts passed to the unitarian position, and wrote in defence of it; the papers were, as Lardner owned, unfit for publication, and as such were destroyed by Doddridge and Jennings, the literary trustees. Lardner declared also that the last belief of Watts was 'completely unitarian' (BELSHAM, Memoirs of Theophilus Lindsey, pp. 161-4). The testimony, however, of those who were most intimate with Watts to his last hours is entirely silent as to any such change; and his dependence at death on the atonement (which is incompatible with 'complete unitarianism') is emphatically attested (MILNER, Life, p. 315).

Anonymous Philocrites said...

Oops: Forgot to include the link I found!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I've doted on that verse of flow and curse so long as I've known it, and always sing it with peculiar gusto. :D

Of course, I also sought long and hard to find the complete words to the Methodist hymn in which worms rise up and take heaven "as if by storm."

Mary Ann

Blogger fausto said...

I don't know much about him other than he was some old English guy who wrote hymns, including this paraphrase of Psalm 117, which ought to be recognizable to many UUs:

From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator's praise arise;
Let the Redeemer's name be sung
Through every land, by every tongue. ...

However, a quick glance at Wikipedia indicates that he was a Dissenting Independent (i.e. Congregationalist) who was fairly ecumenical and not especially doctrinal. That suggests to me, anyway, that he was unlikely to have been especially heterodox, since his heterodoxy would have impeded his ecumenicism.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Faust, I love it when you make up words. ;-)
But seriously, can you expound on that final point a wee bit?

Blogger fausto said...

What are you crediting me with inventing? Ecumenicism? I am not worthy.

What I meant was, if he was trying to appeal to the "broad Church", across sectarian barriers, he probably wouldn't have been overly concerned with those doctrinal points that were particularly at odds with the general Christian consensus.

By the same token, if he held very strong heterodox views, finding agreement and consensus among all the disparate elements of the "broad Church" would probably not have meant as much as it apparently did to him.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

By gum, I thought you'd made it up!
So now I have to know: what's the difference between ecumenicism and ecumenism? Or did *I* make up that latter term? Holy cabooses!

Blogger fausto said...

Looks as though they're synonyms.

Back to Watts. If he wrote this, chances are he wasn't even proto-Unitarian.

Anonymous Philocrites said...

Let me clarify something: Sometimes "proto-unitarian" means someone actively opposed or openly questioned the doctrine of the Trinity. Other times it gets used a bit more interchangably with terms that indicate theological liberalism or skepticism about various features of orthodoxy. Watts is an interesting case. There's documentary evidence that he doubted the centrality or necessity of belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, and several witnesses say he had personally embraced "unitarian" beliefs by the end of his life. But Fausto is right that he took more of an irenic stance than we usually associate with proto-unitarian thinkers; Watts was more interested in finding the common core of Christian doctrine than in overthrowing false doctrines. (I also realize my sympathies have usually gone to the irenicists, the ecumenists, and the broad church folks.)

What I think can be problematic, though, is when people nowadays think that someone could not have held (or written) strongly traditionalist, evangelical, or conservative Christian texts while also holding what we think of as unitarian views. But they could. They often still do. Much of Watts's hymnody is "orthodox" in ways that make contemporary Unitarian Universalists extremely uncomfortable, but it's important to remember that questions about the Trinity can often be detached from most other features of evangelical Christianity. You can believe in substitutionary atonement, original sin, and all kinds of other "traditional" doctrines and still think that the Nicene Creed imposes a requirement to believe in a philosophical stance that the Bible does not. (Today's "Biblical Unitarians" and several varieties of fundamentalist unitarianism take this approach.) I say this to emphasize that the apparent orthodoxy of Watts's writing on other doctrines does not disprove his sympathy for unitarian views of the Godhead.

Anonymous Philocrites said...

I'd add that Watts's hymn "Shall Atheists Dare Insult the Cross," which Fausto mentions, is a perfect example of how we project our contemporary alliances backward. Most 19th-century American Unitarians saw "infidelity" and "atheism" as their enemy to the left; they were nervous about Joseph Priestley's materialism, for example, because it seemed atheistic to them. They might not have sung this particular hymn -- I'd be amazed if they did -- but they saw atheism as a very real threat.

Anonymous Clyde Grubbs said...

Philocrites is right about Watts.


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