Feature of the Month: Isaac Watt’s Divine and Moral Songs

Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children
Isaac Watts
New edn
London: Darton, [?1855]
[Q.M.L.] G10 [Watts]

The year 2015 sees the 300th anniversary of the Divine Songs by dissenting minister Isaac Watts (1674-1748) – a book described by the English librarian J.H.P. Pafford, in a facsimile edition published in 1971, as ‘this famous little book’ (p. 1)and by Watts’s American biographer Arthur P. Davis as ‘a minor English classic’ (Isaac Watts, p. 84). The work comprises verses intended to inculcate Christian morals into children of all denominations.

It was a landmark publication. Hellfire was a dominant theme for children at the time, and Watts includes standard references to hell, as in:

What if his dreadful anger burn,
While I reject his offered grace:
And all his love to fury turn,
And strike me dead upon the place?

But he places greater emphasis on praise and thankfulness, and was ahead of his time in introducing a new gentleness. The second divine song, for example, includes the verse:

I sing the goodness of the Lord,
That fill’d the earth with food;
He form’d the creatures with his word,
And then pronounced them good.

— not all that far removed from the strophe ‘He gave us eyes to see them / And lips that we might tell / How great is God almighty / Who hath made all things well’, in Mrs Cecil Alexander’s hymn from 1848.

The book was an instant success, running through twenty editions in Watts’s lifetime alone and more than 667 editions overall throughout England and America until the late nineteenth century, by which time it had been over-used and its combination of Calvinism and sentiment seemed dated. Its popularity until then can be seen not only by the large number of editions, faithful or revised, but through imitations, quotations and parodies, beginning with The Principles of the Christian Religion, Expressed in Plain and Easy Verse (1743) by Philip Doddridge (1702-1751). Later in the eighteenth century, Watt’s book inspired Mrs Barbauld and Mrs Trimmer (the latter of whom transformed it into a text for Sunday school use), while in the nineteenth century it entered two children’s classics still in print today: Lewis Carroll’s parodies of ‘How doth the little busy bee’ (Divine Song 18) and ‘Tis the voice of the sluggard’ (Moral Song 1) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and Beth’s quotation: ‘Birds in their little nests agree’ (Divine Song 12) when two of her sisters are sparring in the first chapter of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). The phrase ‘improve the shining hour’, still used, is also from Divine Song 18.

The 1715 edition consisted of a dedication, preface, 28 songs, the Ten Commandments and Christ’s summary of them, two paraphrases of Matthew 7:12 (‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets’), the Hosanna and the Gloria (each in three metres), two moral songs, and a concluding table of contents, in 72 duodecimo pages (six sheets). By the sixteenth edition (1740), Watts had added five more songs. The dedication and sometimes the preface disappeared after 1750; ‘The Beggar’s Petition’ (‘Pity the sorrows of a poor old man’) was added in many later-eighteenth century editions; the ‘Universal Prayer’ (‘Father of all! In ev’ry age, / In ev’ry clime ador’d’) can be found from about 1800; and illustrations first appeared in about 1780. The edition featured here consists of 28 divine songs, eight moral songs, the ‘Universal Prayer’ and ‘The Beggar’s Petition’ and contains one full-page illustration and sixteen smaller ones, alongside 29 scriptural references to which attention is drawn on the title page and in a paragraph on the back of the title page. It is one of 21 editions produced by the prolific firm of children’s publishers Darton. The book entered the University of London as one of a number of children’s books forming part of the Quick Memorial Library of educational literature.

Blog post details