Isaac Watts & Churches of Christ


In my worship planning for this last Sunday at ND, I made, apparently, a terrible assumption.  I should have realized it when the majority of my singers didn’t seem to know these two particular songs like I thoght they would.  But I pressed ahead anyway, planning two of Isaac Watts’ most well-known, time-honored hymns, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” and “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” only to be completely surprised by the lack of participation of our congregation.  Apparently, they aren’t as well-known after all.  As a matter of fact, our people looked flat-out disinterested, some even obstinent to the fact that we were singing them.  I’m not ready to give up on them yet…they’ll be back.  But, wow was I surprised!

Why is this?  Some of Watts’ volumes of hymns, i.e., “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” have kept a prominent place in our hymnody and others, while incredibly popular in other American Protestant religious streams, have been all but absent in our history?  As you might imagine, this led to discussion with several folks.  Is it the language?  It is just too “high-churchy” for us to sing now that we are almost completely “singing in the language of the people?”  (Thanks to the movements of the mid 20th century that moved further away from classical hymnody…)  Is it that we just don’t like the music?  (I don’t see how that could even be possible…)

I’m REALLY curious…who knows.  You CofC folk out there–do you sing these two hymns?  What types of high-church style music do you sing?  Have any of you made notice of the incredible return by people such as Travis Cottrell & Chris Tomlin to hymns like these?  It’s a cycle you know…things go away a while…and then they return years later…


Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts

(Correction: PRAISE TO THE LORD, THE ALMIGHTY is by Joachim Neander, not Isaac Watts…just the style reminds me of Watts’)

13 thoughts on “Isaac Watts & Churches of Christ

  1. CofC’s historically have not participated in regular recitation of liturgy or repeated hymns, so if we don’t know it, we don’t have an affinity for it. While preaching at a Presbyterian church for eight weeks one summer, I noticed that the church sang the doxology every Sunday during the offering. The Highland church in Abilene says the Lord’s Prayer every week rain or shine. Liturgy and hymns become tradition and before you know it tradition almost becomes doctrine. CofC’s don’t exactly embrace change so readily so I’m not surprised about any resistance to anything old or new that isn’t familiar!!!

  2. Hey, if the hymnody expert can’t tell us, who can? :^)

    This stuff reminds me of the scene in “Jurassic Park” in which Jeff Goldblum is trying to explain chaos theory to Laura Dern — there are potentially so many historical factors at work that it may be impossible to explain why some classic hymns made it into Restorationist songbooks and others didn’t.

    For instance, I don’t remember ever singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (perhaps the second-best-known Protestant hymn next to “Amazing Grace”) while growing up. I just looked at the “Sacred Selections” index, and sure enough, it doesn’t seem to be in there.

    Personally, I like a lot of those 150- to 200-year-old songs. My inner purist grumbles about some of those modern songs in which the music changes between verses because the rhythm adjusts to the lyrics rather than vice versa!

  3. The Sacred Heart singing tradition uses a lot of Watts’ music to this day. It’s great that you are including them because the lyrics are so amazing. A church that knows Watts lyrics is better off. (You can leave just before the sermon with enough of his hymns on the schedule…)

    I own a copy of abook he wrote – published in 1821. Easily, the oldest book I own.

  4. Our canon of songs has been dictated by our hymnals, and a church might change hymnals every 15-20 years… essentially a generation.

    Neither “Praise to the Lord” nor “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” were in Great Songs of the Church, Songs of the Church, Sacred Selections, Songs of the Church (21st Century), Christian Hymns (Sanderson), or Church Gospel Songs & Hymns (VE Howard).

    Praise For the Lord has “Praise to the Lord”, and Majestic Hymnal has both songs. Songs of Faith and Praise has both as well, but by the time this book came out, several generations of song leaders had not even heard the song and the church members in the pew had not heard them unless they went to another church with a different name on the sign out front.

    I think “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” has endured because it has been sung so much as a Communion song and because it was in every Church of Christ hymnal for several generations. Historically in worship planning in Churches of Christ, there has been an emphasis on a song before the Lord’s Supper that specifically mentioned Christ’s death on the cross… Add this to the fact that we do Communion every Sunday, and it is natural that “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is familiar to most churches.

  5. I’ve noticed much the same phenomenon working at WHCofC in Dallas. I’ll assume that a song is well known because it *should* be well known. Any time I go for a traditional Protestant hymn, if I step outside of the top ten, they’re lost. I’ve never tried to lead “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” but I have noticed that this happens with “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”
    If you want to get them really confused, sing anything based on Hyfrydol. Which is sad, because that’s one of my favorite melodies.

    • Travis-You are so right about the tune HYFRDOL…man did we miss the boat on this AMAZING tune…and some INCREDIBLE texts have been paired with it over the years!

  6. For me, personally … I truly love these songs but I am not up for vocal acrobatics so early in the morning.

    Another thought is that I usually don’t have a songbook or songsheet so I can’t switch to alto or “wing” an unfamiliar song.

  7. Not everyone is a musical scholar such as yourself… but I don’t believe any percieved lack of participation was disinterest, maybe just lack of notes! I however, loved the new(or should I say so old they’re new:-) songs we sang Sunday, and enjoy the intricate harmonies and melodies that wind their way through the older pieces. The new songs are fun and easy to sing, but I also enjoy the classics, and for some songs that haven’t been sung in a while, I have to have the notes. You always do a good job mixing old and new and we appreciate your musical knowledge. The bottom line really is we’re only here to praise God. I think He got the point. Thanks!

  8. Hey, sorry for the late response. We don’t sing either of the songs you mentioned, but i do know them. I especially like Praise to the Lord the Almighty. As to why we don’t sing them…you tell us. Surely it was because someone somewhere overheard the Presbyterians singing them and wanted to be different.

    I was in the A Cappella Singers in the 70s at what was then Freed Hardeman College. We began all our programs with When I Survey the Wonderous Cross. We would enter the sanctuary from the back, walking down the aisles and up to the risers on the stage singing as we walked. I remember thinking we were really cool. And now I remember we didn’t call the room the sanctuary either.

  9. DJ

    I think one of the previous posters has somewhat hit on the head here. I think “I sing the Mighty Power of God” is a wonderful song. I love hearing it sung A Capella. One group in particular that I think really does a good job with it is the Ball Brothers. Google them if you haven’t heard of them.

    However, when referring to why those are not more popular “church” songs, I think Amy W has it pegged….probably. My thought is that the vocal requirements to adequately sing “I sing the Mighty Power of God” are above what the average Sunday Morning church going congregation is willing or capable of navigating correctly to give them a sense of accomplishment with the song once they have finished singing it. Is the song powerful? Absolutely! Is it musically achievable for most congregations? I think only maybe. Thus, we arrive at your question!

    I think most long standing Hymns and songs stay in the mainstream “church” repertoire becuase their melodies are not too difficult and their lyrics are simply written yet deep in their meaning.

    I maybe totally wrong and all that i’ve said is bunk, but that’s my take on it.

  10. I lead all three of these songs at Hyde Park in Austin. I published them in The Paperless Hymnal because I wanted to lead them. I have never really thought of any of them being “high church” but can see some folks seeing them as such, but they speak to us today, if we will listen.

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