Isaac Watts and the Origins of British Imperial Theology
International Congregational Journal Vol.4 No.2, February 2005, pp59-79.

By John M Hull


I am grateful to the British Academy whose grant SG-35222 made possible the research leading to this study, and to the Alan and Nesta Ferguson Trust whose grant supported its production. I would also like to express my gratitude to my research assistant Dr Lisa Montagno Leahy and to the staff of the University of Birmingham Library.  JMH


In his Psalms of David  (1719) Watts removes references to Israel and Judah, replacing them with ‘Britain’ or ‘Great Britain’.  Although his principal intention was to render the singing of the psalms more relevant to the daily lives of the dissenting congregations, examination of the Psalms in the context of the sermons and other writings of Watts reveals a more comprehensive social and political outlook.  In the light of the growing significance of the British empire and of the conscious and unconscious influence of such power upon later generations of Christians, Isaac Watts may be regarded as an influential figure in the creation of a faith attuned to the needs of empire. This legacy may be traced in many Christian attitudes today, on both sides of the Atlantic.


To see reference details, click on the in-text number. Then click on the reference number to return.



Although it is well known that in christianizing the Psalms of David, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) included several references to Britain and to Great Britain, the significance of this for the formation of religious consciousness in Britain has seldom been explored.[1]  The Dictionary of National Biography describes the application of the Psalms to Britain as ‘grotesquely bad taste’,[2] Bernard Manning says they are full of ‘sound political doctrine’[3] whereas A. P. Davis thinks that ‘the pious reader was probably shocked’.[4]  Harry Escott remarks that they are relevant to ‘the growth of the British-Israel idea’.[5] I have argued elsewhere that these expressions although motivated by Watts’ desire to make the Psalms more relevant to his congregations, may also be interpreted as part of a gradual adaptation of British theology to the circumstances of Britain’s growing power in the world,[6] and I have explored two of the most famous of the hymns, ‘Jesus shall reign where’er the sun’ and ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ in the light of this interpretation.[7]


In the present study I will offer further support for the imperialistic provenance of The Psalms of David (1719) by Watts, both in the history of the English Psalter prior to Watts, and in the life-world of Watts himself.  Methodologically I would distinguish the intentions of Watts as author from the message and influence of the texts themselves. 


No doubt Isaac Watts was motivated not only by the wish to relate the worship of the independent congregations to contemporary life but also to affirm the loyalty and indeed the patriotism of dissenters, who were suspected of sharing the disloyalty of which Catholics and Quakers were often accused. ‘Churchmen detected something as devilish as Rome in the forces of protestant dissent…’[8] The horizon of the works of Isaac Watts fuses with our own horizons in ways that go beyond the author’s intentions.[9]  In order to demonstrate this it is necessary to interpret the prose and poetry of Watts against the world behind them (the growing vision of worldwide British power) and the world ahead of them (the realization of worldwide British power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), and to trace the long shadow of the imperialistic theology down to its present influence upon the religious life and the foreign policy of Britain and the United States.


The Historical Background


The Act in Restraint of Appeals (1533) of Henry VIII declared  that ‘this realm of England is an empire’.[10]  Between 1536 and 1543 Wales was incorporated into the English crown, and the Irish Kingship Act of 1541 passed by the Irish Parliament declared Henry of England to be King of Ireland.[11]  With the union of the crowns of England and Scotland in 1604 and the union of the two states in 1707 this process of consolidation reached a certain maturity, and the foundation was laid for the emergence of Great Britain as a major actor on the European stage following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.[12]


In 1584 Walter Raleigh obtained the queen’s patent for the establishing of a colony in America, and the following year a settlement was founded on Roanoke Island off the coast of Virginia.[13] In 1581 Elizabeth I had granted a patent to the trading company of Osborne and Staper and their associates to trade in the Levant and in 1583 the first English expedition set out via the Mediterranean for the Muslim lands of the Near East. Three members of this party were the first English people to reach India.[14] The Virginia Company was founded in 1606 and other British colonies in North America and the Caribbean were established in the following years.


It was during this first period of British imperialism beyond the British Isles themselves, that the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible exercised a profound influence upon the spirituality of the British people, and upon the ideology of empire. By 1535, and possibly earlier, some of the psalms had been translated into metrical verse for singing.  The oldest extant version seems to be that of Miles Coverdale,[15] a collection that included  fifteen psalms, but the first complete Psalter was that of Robert Crowley in 1549.[16]   After many additions and revisions, the version by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins was published in 1562, and this was to remain the standard Psalter for more than a century. In 1696 the version of Nathaniel Tate and Nicholas Brady appeared and was to pass through many editions, becoming known as 'the new version' while that of Sternhold and Hopkins became 'the old version'.[17]  In the preface of his own version, Isaac Watts tells us that he had read about twenty renditions into English of the Psalms for singing.[18]


Historians of the British empire emphasize the influence of the Roman empire as a model, not only for Britain but for all the European empires of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries[19] but the biblical heritage is, perhaps, less widely recognized. Colin Kidd draws attention to the influence of the Pentateuch upon early European identities[20] but a study of the English Psalter from the middle sixteenth century up to the work of Watts in 1719 reveals the power over the English imagination of the Hebrew kingdom. Jesus was Son of David before he became the Kurios of Graeco-Roman political mysticism, and the English monarchs had for centuries been regarded as occupying the throne of David. In the Psalms, Israel is seen as the people of God, looking to its faith in God to bring victory and prosperity, and often surrounded by hostile powers. The sharp distinction between us and them, and the glorious sense of divine protection that kept Israel alive was attractive to a Protestant people, whose theology of election was forming the national consciousness of mission. Watson remarks, 'Throughout the psalms, there are references to the sharp division between good and evil. The psalmsinger knew that he was surrounded by “wicked men”...It is possible to see the creation of a vivid myth of the saints and their opponents...'[21]


Psalm 47: 


Let us take as an example Psalm 47.  John Patrick renders the opening line 'O all ye People clap your Hands' and his second stanza goes

By him o’er warlike Nations we

Our Conquests do advance:

And he this happy Land has chose

For our Inheritance.


A later verse reads

He makes the Heathen feel his pow’r,

And him their Sovereign own;

He seats himself upon the Ark,

As on his holy Throne.[22]


Tate and Brady present the verses as follows:

Your utmost Skill in Praise be shown;

 For him that all the World commands.

Who sits upon his Holy Throne,

And spreads his Sway o'er Heathen Lands.


and verse 9:

Our Chiefs and Tribes, that far from hence

T'adore the God of Abr’am came,

Found Him their constant sure defence.

How great and glorious is his Name![23]


Sternhold and Hopkins' version is more than a century earlier.

For us the heritage he chose

Which we possess alone:

The flourishing worship of Jacob,

His wel beloved one.


God on the heathen reigns and sits

Upon his holy throne:

The princes of the people have

Them joyned every one.[24]


When we come to 1719, Watts provides a heading for this psalm: 'Christ's Ascending and Reigning'.

O for a Shout of sacred Joy

To God the sovereign King!

Let every Land their Tongues employ,

And Hymns of Triumph sing.


Jesus our God ascends on high;

His heavenly Guards around

Attend him rising thro’ the Sky,

With Trumpets joyful Sound.


While Angels shout and praise their King,

Let Mortals learn their Strains;

Let all the Earth his Honour sing;

O'er all the Earth he reigns.


Rehearse his Praise with Awe profound,

Let Knowledge lead the Song,

Nor mock Him with a solemn Sound

Upon a thoughtless Tongue.


In Israel stood his ancient Throne,

He lov’d that chosen Race,

But now he calls the World his own,

And Heathens taste his Grace.


The British Islands are the Lords,

There Abraham's God is known,

While Powers & Princes, Shields & Swords

Submit before his Throne.


This being the first time in his Psalms that Watts refers to Britain specifically, he feels it necessary to add a note at the end: 'The Ascent of Christ into Heaven is typify’d in this Psalm by the Ark brought up to Zion. 2. Sam. 6. 15, and the Kingdom of Christ among the Gentiles is here represented by David's Victory over the Nations'.


The National Theology in Psalm and Poetry


The second occurrence of specific reference to Britain is found in Psalm 60, which is headed ‘On a Day of Humiliation for Disappointments in War’.

Lord, hast thou cast the Nation off?

Must we for ever mourn?

Wilt thou indulge immortal Wrath?

Shall Mercy ne’er return?


The Terror of one Frown of thine

Melts all our Strength away;

Like Men that totter drunk with Wine,

We tremble in Dismay.


Great Britain shakes beneath thy Stroke,

And dreads thy threatening Hand;

O heal the Island Thou hast broke,

Confirm the wav’ring Land.



Lift up a Banner in the Field

For those that fear thy Name;

Save thy Beloved with thy Shield,

And put our Foes to Shame.


Go with our Armies to the Fight

Like a Confederate God;

In vain Confederate Power unite

Against thy lifted Rod.


Our Troops shall gain a wide Reknown

By thine assisting Hand;

‘Tis God that treads the Mighty down,

And makes the Feeble stand.


The ideas of divine patronage, leading to military victory in the name of God, could hardly be expressed more clearly, and we may trace the development of such a theology in the writings of Watts from his early twenties. Hymn 92 in part ii of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1705) is entitled ‘The Church saved and her Enemies disappointed’ and unusually it is dated. The date of composition is 5 November 1694, and it celebrates the anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.


Shout to the Lord, and let our Joys

Through the whole Nation run;

Ye British Skies, resound the Noise

Beyond the rising Sun.


Their secret Fires in Caverns lay,

And we the Sacrifice:

But gloomy Caverns strove in vain

To ‘scape all-searching Eyes.


Their dark Designs were all reveal’d,

Their Treasons all betray’d;

Praise to the Lord, that broke the Snare

Their cursed Hands had laid.


Almighty Grace defends our Land

From their malicious Pow’r:

Let Britain with united Songs

Almighty Grace adore.[25]


There can be little doubt that the national theology of Watts, like so many Protestants of his period, was moulded by the providential delivery of the country from Spanish aggression and papal plots.  Horae Lyricae includes a poem ‘A Hymn of Praise for three great Salvations. Viz. 1. From the Spanish invasion, 1588. 2. From the Gun-powder Plot,  Nov. 5.  3. From Popery and Slavery by King William of Glorious Memory, who landed,  Nov. 5, 1688’. William III had died in 1702, so this poem comes from some time not long after that.[26]


Part of thy church, by thy command,

Stands rais’d upon the British isles,

“There, said the Lord, to ages stand,

Firm as the everlasting hills.”


In vain the Spanish ocean roared;

Its billows swell’d against our shore,

Its billows sunk beneath thy word,

With all the floating war they bore.


The following verses describe the frustrating of the Gunpowder Plot and the arrival in England of William.


Brigades of angels lin’d the way,

And guarded William to his throne:


From Biblical Typology to National Theology


What lies behind Watts’ interpretation of the political events which were shaping dissenting identity was not a conscious political theology but a biblical hermeneutic springing mainly from the pastoral and educational concerns of Watts to present the congregations with a relevant faith.  The typological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible made it possible to discern a parallelism between the testaments and between Judaism and Christianity as religious systems.


As the church or nation of the Jews, was a type or figure of the whole invisible church of God, so the ceremonies of their religion, were typical and figurative of gospel times, and spiritual things under the great Messiah; and even many of the common and natural circumstances of action prescribed in that religion, viz. times, places, etc. were also designed, to be types of evangelical affairs, and heavenly things.[27] 


The typological interpretation led Watts into a practical application based on the evangelical demand for personal involvement. 


Though I will not assert it unlawful to sing to God the words of other men which we have no concern in, and which are very contrary to our circumstances and the frame of our spirits; yet it must be confessed abundantly more proper, when we address God in a song, to use such words as we can for the most part assume as our own[28]


However, sometimes the parallelism between the times of David and our own times breaks down (p. 278). The battles of Israel against Aamon can hardly be regarded as a type of the battle of Blenheim.   In such cases, one simply removed the antiquated detail and replaced it with some contemporary reality. 


…I think the names of Aamon and Moab may be as properly changed into the names of the chief enemies of the gospel, so far as may be without public offence: Judah and Israel may be called England and Scotland, and the land of Canaan may be translated into Great-Britain (p. 278).[29] 


This practice, innocent enough at first sight, tended toward an uneasy compromise in which not only the names of nations but the ethical demands of biblical faith were modified to suit the requirements of a rapidly developing acquisitive society.[30]  The philosophy of possessive individualism[31] took the place of the social solidarity of the Hebrew community. Watts continues,


…And when a christian psalmist, among the characters of a saint, Psal. xv.5. meets with the man that ‘puts not out his money to usury,’ he ought to exchange him for one that is no oppressor or extortioner, since usury is not utterly forbidden to christians, as it was by the jewish law (p. 278).


Theological Geography and National Calling


If we were to restrict our discussion to The Psalms of David, we might find no more in the theology of Watts than the concern of a gifted educator to draw those who sang his hymns into a richer experience of the meaning of faith in their own day, but if we consider the Psalms in the context of the other writings, we may discern the outlines of an imperial theology.  My intention is not to trace the development of Watts’ theology chronologically but to indicate the imperial context and influence of his works as a whole.


Let us begin with Watts’ theological geography.  In a sermon entitled ‘God in Christ is the saviour of the ends of the Earth’,[32] Watts reflects upon Isaiah 14.42 ‘Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth’.


The ‘ends of the earth’ refer to Britain and thus it is people in Britain who are addressed.  Watts explains, ‘The British islands have been reckoned by the ancients to be the ends of the earth’ (p. 46).  Judah was situated in the middle of the earth, in the sense that ‘the land of Canaan is near the borders of Asia, where it joins to Africa, and not very far off from the limits of Europe; which three were the only known parts of the earth in that day’ (p. 48).  From the point of view of the biblical authors, therefore, the British islands would have been the most distant parts of the earth.  He refers to England especially.  The conclusion is that ‘This voice of compassion is therefore eminently sent to us in England’ (p. 49).


Watts now uses the expression ‘ends of the earth’ in a more spiritual and metaphorical sense:  those living in Britain but estranged from the sound of the Gospel, particularly those in remote parts.


The theological geography is developed into a view of providence involving several degrees of blessedness.[33] The first stage of blessedness is to be living in a land called by God, and England is such a land.  In order to claim the blessing, one must live close to a church, be brought up in a religious family and pay attention to the ordinances of God (p. 132). 


The second stage of blessedness is being forgiven by God through the blood of Christ; the third is the blessedness of the angels; the fourth is the blessedness of the Son of God in the presence of God; and the fifth is the blessedness of the glorious Trinity.  Thus the call of the nation is the least of the blessings, yet it is the first rung on the ladder leading to ultimate blessedness.[34]


Happy Britons in our age!  Though we are involved, with the rest of mankind, in the common ruins of our first defection from God, yet we are not left in the darkness of heathenism, on the very confines of hell…Blessed England, whom he hath chosen, and caused to approach thus far towards himself! (p. 132).


Although individual responsibility in responding to the call of the gospel is not denied, Watts is clear that the election of God concerns entire nations and races, both for salvation and for rejection.  It is this sense of selection, and the awful fate of other peoples that gives national providence its peculiar intensity.


And why was not the polite nation of China chosen too?  And why not the poor savages of Africa, and the barbarous millions of the American world?  Why are they left in a dismal estrangement from God?  Even so, Father, because it pleased thee, whose counsels are unsearchable, and whose ways of judgment and mercy are past finding out (p. 132)


Within Christian Europe, the election of God is equally favourable. Protestant England has been chosen, and called out from the decadent Catholic mass.  ‘Blessed be the name of our God, who has delivered our nation from this bondage of iniquity…We are ready to look on popery now as lying afar off, a-cross the seas, as being an evil thing at a great distance…’ (p. 394).[35]


Political Theology


The theological geography is combined with the providential view of history to form a political theology.  Foreign policy during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) was dominated by the Wars of the Spanish Succession, a European-wide conflict intended to limit the growing power of Catholic Spain and France.[36]  Anne herself was regarded by Watts as a hero of the Protestant cause, and was identified with Moses.[37]  ‘Blessed be God, we have a Moses in the midst of us on the top of the hill, a queen of a manly soul upon the throne of our british Israel: She has by her royal proclamations given order to fight with Amalek, to oppose and suppress the armies of iniquity…’ (p. 755).    The authority of Queen Anne is that of God, since she is God’s hero in ‘his quarrel’ (p. 755).  The battles of Blenheim (August 13, 1704) and Ramillies (May 23, 1706) are ‘wonders of rescue for the german empire, and wonders of liberty for mankind’ (p. 755).


In an elaborate allegory, Watts goes on to identify Aaron with the various ministers who are close to the queen, while Joshua represents ‘the inferior magistrates’.  Thus Britain’s political, military and civil authorities are mythologized as Israel fighting the battles of the Lord.


The same religious ideology is used to interpret the Hanoverian monarchs.[38]  In ‘A Sermon preached at Berry-Street, June 18, 1727’ Watts comments on the death of George I and the accession of George II.  The late King George was ‘one of the greatest men upon earth: A king whose dominion was spread from sea to sea, and who reigned over several nations’ (II, p. 776).  The reference to ‘from sea to sea’ is a quotation from Psalm 72.8 ‘May he have dominion from sea to sea’, which Watts had used several years earlier in his version of the psalm to celebrate the expansion of the Christian dominion.


Jesus shall reign wher’ere the sun

Does his successive journeys run.

His kingdom stretch from shore to shore

Til moons shall wax and wane no more.


Just as God had extended the life of George I ‘to answer wise purposes in his own government of the world’ (p. 780), so the coronation of George II and Queen Caroline on October 11, 1727 was greeted with religious rapture.  In his Ode celebrating this event, Watts says


Lo, the majestic form appears,

Sparkling in life and manly years:

The kingdom’s pride, the nation’s choice,

And heav’n approves Britannia’s voice.


Let Britain’s golden ages run:

In circles lasting as the sun.[39]


In an ode celebrating the birthday of Queen Caroline, Watts plays upon the idea that March 1 was also St David’s Day.  David, King of Israel, St David of Wales and George II are combined in this eulogy.


Now, Britain, let thy vows arise,

May George the royal saint assume!

Then ask permission of the skies,

To put the favourite name in David’s room:

Fair Carolina join thy pious cares

To train in virtue’s path your royal heirs,

And be the British crown with endless honour theirs.[40] 


In his version of Psalm 75 Watts makes explicit reference to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and ‘the Happy Accession of King George to the Throne’ under the heading ‘Power and Government from God alone’.

To Thee, most Holy, and most High,

To Thee we bring our thankfull Praise.

Thy Works declare thy Name is nigh,

Thy Works of Wonder and of Grace.


Britain was doom’d to be a Slave,

Her Frame dissolv’d: her Fears were great;

When God a new Supporter gave

To bear the Pillars of the State.


Verse 6 probably has the Jacobite movement in mind.

No vain Pretence to Royal Birth

Shall fix a Tyrant on the Throne;

God, the Great Sovereign of the Earth

Will rise and make his Justice known.



The transformation into an otherworldly inwardness


There are two aspects to the formation of the imperial theology of Isaac Watts, one external and the other internal.  We have seen how through his theological geography, his Calvinistic history of providence and his identification of British political and military policy with the kingdom of God, Watts had created an ideology of British Israel.  Corresponding to this rhetoric of public life, there is a withdrawal of faith and spirituality into the inner life.  The sacralization of public life is accompanied by a retreat into Christian interiority.  In his sermon ‘Flesh and spirit; or, the principles of sin and holiness’[41]  Watts discusses the psychology and spirituality of the Christian life.  He is well aware of the metaphorical character of the Pauline distinction between flesh and spirit.  ‘Flesh’ refers to human evil, whether in the body or in the mind, and ‘spirit’ refers to goodness or holiness.  However, the flesh is also our human nature as embodied.  The body is the location of the senses which are the occasions of temptation (p. 37), although sin is only occasioned by the body.  Sin cannot be caused by the body since the body is material and lacks moral intention.  The twin principles of good and evil are thus within the person and create a continuous struggle.


By means of the internalization of this dichotomised anthropology, the Christian struggle against oppression and injustice is distracted into introspection (p. 44).[42]  The various ways this struggle is met with give rise to a kind of typology of character – some have a wrathful temperament, some a more wanton or a melancholy nature (p. 46).  The psychic energies of the Christian are to be entirely devoted to this struggle, which involves a severe repression of desire.  This leads the Christian to long for the next life when the body of corrupting flesh will be left behind.[43]  We shall then be ‘Absent from this traytor, this vexing enemy, that we constantly carry about with us!  Absent from the clog and chain of this sinful flesh, the prison wherein we are kept in darkness, and are confined from God!’ (p. 47).  Thus death is ‘the best time, is the time of our release from this sinful companion…Thus at the day of our death is derived a glorious liberty, and thence we date our joys’ (p. 48).  ‘Is the body such a foul and wretched spring of sin?  Then what a heaven of purity and pleasure is provided for the children of God at their death’.[44] The meaning of the resurrection of the flesh is that at that time the flesh and the spirit shall no longer be in conflict with one another.


In one of his earlier poems, Watts goes so far as to wonder at the creation of such an anomaly as a human being.

How meanly dwells the immortal mind!

How vile these bodies are!

Why was a clod of earth designed

To enclose a heavenly star?


Hark! From on high my Saviour calls!

I come, my Lord, my love!

Devotion breaks the prison walls

And speeds my last remove.[45]


The result of this kind of spirituality is that the christian doctrine teaches us to contemn both the good and evil things of sense and time, by the expectation and prospect of the invisible and eternal world, where both the good and evil things are infinitely greater importance (p.14)[46] and the Christian has ‘a holy superiority’ over the things of this world while at the same time being wholly committed to his duty (p. 15).[47]


The Privatised Church and the Providential State


The view of the Christian life as being entirely preoccupied with a struggle against instinctual desire, plus a sense of duty towards the keeping of the divine commandments, is further clarified by Watts’ theory about the relationship between the Church and the state.  Civil government is ordained by God to secure the order and security of society but if civil government intervenes in the religious life of citizens, it goes beyond its prerogative.  There is thus a clear distinction between the civil realm and the religious realm, public order and private belief, which has the effect of confining religion within extraterrestrial concerns, with only a few exceptions.  The state needs the divine sanction to guarantee the taking of oaths, and to intimidate would-be wrongdoers.   However, religion as such ‘relates to the salvation of our souls and a future world of happiness’.[48]


There is no scope for a prophetic church scrutinising the policies of the government, and in the case of Great Britain where the religion of civil government is Christian, there is no need for such prophetic ministry.  Of course, Isaac Watts was a dissenting clergyman, and his congregations had suffered persecution from the established church in the not so distant past.  His own father had been imprisoned for non-compliance with the legal requirements of the established church before the 1689 Act of Tolerance.  The political philosophy of Watts was aimed at securing religious freedom for dissenters.  Nevertheless, the general approach which flows from his thought has been influential beyond the limits of the situation he addressed.  The church becomes a private enclave, focusing not upon this world but upon salvation in the next.  Its members are to spend their energies struggling against their desires, a struggle only terminated by the release of death.  In the meantime the national and international purposes of God are worked out through the Christian monarchy, the Christian Parliament and the Christian armed forces, supported by the church in prayer and praise.


Shine, mighty God, on Britain shine

With Beams of heavenly Grace;

Reveal thy Power thro’ all our Coasts,

And shew thy smiling Face.


Amidst our Isle exalted high

Do thou our Glory stand,

And like a Wall of Guardian-Fire

Surround the Favourite-Land. 


When shall thy Name from Shore to Shore

Sound all the Earth abroad,

And distant Nations know and love

Their Saviour and their God?


Sing to the Lord, ye distant Lands,

Sing loud with solemn Voice;

While British tongues exalt his Praise,

And British Hearts rejoice.


Earth shall obey her Maker’s Will,

And yield a full Increase;

Our God will crown his chosen Isle

With Fruitfulness and Peace.


God the Redeemer scatters round

His choicest Favours here,

While the creation’s utmost bound

Shall see, adore and fear.[49]


The internal response of the church to the grace of God, and the providence of God in securing the Protestant monarchy lead Watts to a sense of the international mission of the Christian faith, with British power as its principal agent.  There are two aspects of the mission: domination and conversion. 


But Nations that resist his Grace

Shall fall beneath his iron Stroke;

His Rod shall crush his Foes with Ease,

As Potter’s Earthen Work is broke.


Now ye that sit on earthly Thrones,

Be wise, and serve the Lord, the Lamb:

Now to his Feet submit your Crowns,

Rejoice and tremble at his Name.  (Psalm 2 vv. 7-8)


The growing success and prestige of the British navy and army is celebrated in Psalm 20.


In his salvation is our Hope,

And in the name of Israel’s God

Our Troops shall lift their Banners up,

Our navys spread their Flags abroad. 


O may the Memory of thy Name

Inspire our Armies for the Fight!

Our Foes shall fall and die with Shame,

Or quit the Field with shameful Flight.  (verses 4 and 6)


The oldest of the Anglican missionary organisations, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), was founded in 1698, when Watts was aged 24, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was founded in 1701.  Although the work of these societies was mainly confined to the provision of chaplaincies to overseas colonies and trading posts, the vision of a universal mission resulting in the conversion of heathen lands is present.[50]


The Heathen Lands that lie beneath

The Shades of overspreading Death

Revive at his first dawning Light,

And Desarts blossom at the Sight.  (Psalm 72, first part, verse 5)


And barbarous Nations at his Word

Submit and bow and own their Lord.


People and Realms of every Tongue

Dwell on his Love with sweetest Song;

And Infant-Voices shall proclaim

Their early Blessings on his Name. (Psalm 72 second part, verses 3, 5). 


The heading for this psalm is ‘Christ’s Kingdom among the Gentiles’.


Competitive Christianity


Lying beneath the increasing power of the Protestant nation and its worldwide mission to convert the heathen, lies the thought that Christianity is involved in a competition with other religions.  Watts regards the Christian religion as one of a series of comparable religions.[51]  The purpose of the sermon is to deal with the doubts that this situation gives rise to.  Christianity is ‘the noblest religion’ but, asks Watts, ‘How do you know that christianity is the true religion?’ (p. 2).  The reply that Christianity is the religion of the country into which we were born is unsatisfactory.  Such an argument would place Christianity on the same plane as the religions of the Jew, the Turk and the heathen, since each would be merely a local family or territorial tradition.  It is necessary to find proofs for the truth of Christianity emerging from a direct comparison with other religions.


One of these lies in the character of the Christian experience of forgiveness.


Other religions, that have been drawn from the remains of the light of nature, or that have been invented by the superstitious fears and fancies of men, and obtruded on mankind by the craft of their fellow-creatures, are all at a loss in this instance, and can never speak solid peace and pardon (p. 6). 


A second argument has to do with the saintly lives produced in various religions.  It is true, Watts admits, that some of the other religions can produce people of great holiness but they are few in number.  The Christian faith, on the other hand, can show hundreds of thousands of other worldly saints, ‘So that whatsoever religion pretends to a competition with ours, it falls vastly short in this respect, in raising the affections above the world, above the joys and fears of the present life’ (p. 14).


Watts concludes that in this competition Christianity is bound to emerge victorious.  ‘…how glorious is the gospel of our Lord!  How preferable to other religions!  Those which men have invented are not to come into competition with it; let none of them be named’ (p. 30).


A similar thought is found in the Hymns and Spiritual Songs of 1705.


What if we trace the Globe around,

And search from Britain to Japan,

There shall be no Religion found

So just to God, so safe to Man.


Not the feign’d Fields of heath’nish Bliss

Could raise such Pleasure in the Mind;

Nor does the Turkish Paradise

Pretend to Joys so well refin’d.


Should all the Forms that Men devise

Assault my Faith with treach’rous Art,

I’d call them Vanity and Lies,

And bind the Gospel to my Heart.  (Hymn 131 of part ii).


This competitive policy was to be urged upon children in the charity schools.


They [the children] should be put in mind frequently of the excellency of the christian religion in distinction from that of Turks and Jews and heathens: and of the excellency of the protestant religion in opposition to the papists, with all their idolatry and superstition, their cruelty and wicked principles, their mischievous and bloudy practices (p. 720).[52]


Just as the constant crushing of fleshly desires is the internal counterpart of the crushing of his enemies by the Christian monarch, so the external competition between Christianity and other religions has a interior representation in the competition between earthly and heavenly love which plagues the human relations of Isaac Watts and the Christians for whom he wrote. However attractive human love may be, there is always a hidden danger in it.


Souls whom the tie of friendship binds,

And partners of our blood,

Seize a large portion of our minds,

And leave the less for God.


Nature has soft but pow’rful bands,

And reason she controls;

While children with their little hands

Hang closest to our souls.


Thoughtless they act th’ old serpent’s part;

What tempting things they be!

Lord, how they twine about our heart,

And draw it off from thee![53]


If consciousness is to a large extent a product of social environment, we may interpret this heightened sense of competition, whether in its globalized form as a competition between religions or in its privatised form as a competition between human and divine love, as the reflection of the trade competition between nations which was such a feature of the early eighteenth century.  The old imperialism of conquest and settlement was giving way to a new imperialism of trade and commerce which had the effect of throwing nations into competitive relations.[54]


Imperialistic theology


Isaac Watts was not the founder of imperial theology.  In the Church History and the Life of Constantine by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340) we already find such an interpretation of Christian faith.[55]  As far as Christian faith in Britain is concerned, many of the protestant theologians of the later sixteenth century emphasise the calling of God to Britain as modern Israel, and the trading sermons of the early seventeenth century show the way in which Christian faith was becoming an ideology of colonisation. Watts, however, occupies a position of unique influence as the principal creator of the modern English hymn.  Classics such as ‘Our God, our help in ages past’, still sung at Remembrance Day services, and the beautiful ‘When I survey the wonderous cross’ testify to his enduring influence.  The more explicit references to Great Britain and its imperial Christian mission have long since disappeared from the hymn books but the attitudes remain submerged in national consciousness. Speaking of his school days at Eton College, Michael Goulder remarks,  ‘It was in some way known to the School authorities  that Her Majesty’s favourite psalm  was no. 68,  an ancient Hebrew war song  of great power and obscurity; and whenever the royal party attended we sang Psalm 68.’[56] Goulder describes how puzzled he was about the meaning of these strange words. The theology of Watts is at least partly responsible for the sense of uniqueness, superiority and destiny which remains as a mainly subconscious residue influencing the attitudes of British Christians toward people of other faiths.


If in Britain such attitudes are little more than half-forgotten traces, the same is not true of much Christian consciousness in America.[57]  In the statements of military personnel and of conservative organisations such as the Christian Coalition of America one finds the imperial theology of Isaac Watts still vibrant with power.


I am grateful to the British Academy whose grant SG-35222 made possible this study, to my research assistant Dr Lisa Montagno Leahy and to the staff of the University of Birmingham Library.


[1]  John M. Hull, ‘From Experiential Educator to Nationalist Theologian: the Hymns of Isaac Watts’, Panorama 14.1 (2002), pp. 91-106.

[2] DNB XX (London: 1909), p. 980.

[3]  The Hymns of Wesley and Watts: Five Informal Papers (London: Epworth Press, 1942), p. 99.

[4]  Isaac Watts. His Life and Works (London: Independent Press, 1948),  p. 199.

[5]  Isaac Watts: Hymnographer. A Study of the Beginnings, Development and Philosophy of the English Hymn (London: Independent Press, 1962), p. 160.

[6] John M. Hull, ‘Understanding Contemporary European Religious Consciousness: an Approach through Geo-Politics’, Panorama 14.2 (2002), pp. 123-40.

[7] Hull, ‘From Experiential Educator’.

[8] Tony Claydon and Ian McBride, ‘The Trials of the Chosen Peoples: Recent Interpretations of Protestantism and National Identity in Britain and Ireland’, in Tony Claydon and Ian McBride (eds.) Protestantism and National Identity. Britain and Ireland c.1650-c.1850 (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p..17.

[9] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward, 1975), p. 273.

[10] David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), p. 11.

[11] Armitage, Ideological Origins, p. 21.  For the significance of Ireland in the growth of British imperialism see Nicholas P. Canny, ‘The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America’, in David Armitage (ed.), Theories of Empire, 1450-1800 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), pp. 179-202.

[12] The wars with France between 1689 and 1713 had prepared for this, and the victories of Marlborough (1704-8) had already increased the military prestige of Britain.  Ragnhild Hatton, George I, Elector and King (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 111.  For the rise of Britain as a financial and military power, see John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688-1783  (London: Unwin Hymen, 1989).

[13]Walter S.H. Lim, The Arts of Empire: the Poetics of Colonialism from Raleigh to Milton (London: Associated University Press, 1998), p.18.

[14] J. Courtenay Locke (ed.), The First Englishmen in India: Letters and Narratives of Sundry Elizabethans Written by Themselves (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1930), pp. 1-11.

[15]  Goostly psalmes and spirituall songes drawen out of the Holy Scripture (London: 1535).

[16] The Psalter of David Newely Translated into Englysh Metre (London: 1549); ‘Psalms, metrical’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians XX (Stanley Sadie (ed.); New York: Macmillan, 2nd edn, 2001), p. 494.

[17] J.R.Watson, The English Hymn: a Critical and Historical Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pp. 42-56.

[18] The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and apply’d to the Christian State and Worship (London, 1719), p. 6.

[19] J.S. Richardson, 'Imperium Romanum: Empire and the Language of Power', in Armitage (ed.), Theories of Empire, 1450-1800, pp. 1-9; Anthony Pagden,  'Lords of All the World': Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c.1500-c.1800  (London: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 11-28.

[20] British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), pp. 9-33.

[21]  Watson, The English Hymn, p. 53.

[22] John Patrick, The Psalms of David in Metre Fitted to the Tunes Used in Parish-Churches  (London: 1698), Ps. 47.

[23] N. Tate and N. Brady, A New Version of the Psalms of David Fitted to the Tunes Used in the Churches (London: 1696), Ps. 47.

[24] Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others, The whole Book of Psalms Collected into English meter (London: 1649), Ps. 47.

[25] 1790 edition.

[26] The works of the late reverend and learned Isaac Watts (Rev. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge [eds.]; 6 vols.; London: 1753). IV, Horae Lyricae Book I, pp. 341-2. The first edition of Horae Lyricae was 1709; see also Andrew Pyle (ed.), Selected Works of Isaac Watts I (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999).

[27] ‘Discourse on the Jewish worship and the Christian compared’, The Works II, p. 450.

[28] The Works IV, ‘Towards the Improvement of Psalmody’, p. 277.

[29] Such sacralization of the British state was a striking contrast with the attitudes of many Puritans and dissenters in the period following the Restoration of 1661.  ‘Far from regarding England as divinely chosen by God and blessed by God, anointed for a worldwide mission, we find dissenting, non-conformist and Quaker tracts attacking the Restoration powers and by implication the English state, as being a monstrous, Satanic power’;  England was also often compared with Egypt.  See N.H. Keeble, The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth Century England (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1987), pp. 253-4.

[30] Neil Kendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plum, The Birth of a Consumer Society: the Commercialisation of Eighteenth Century England (London: Hutchinson, 1983) trace this development back to the 1690s when ‘The economic advantages of competition, envy, emulation , vanity and fashion were more and more explicitly stated’ (p. 15).

[31] C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: OUP, 1964).

[32] The Works  II, Discourse 7, pp. 46-54.


[33] The Works I, Sermon 12 ‘The Scale of Blessedness’, pp. 131-42.

[34] Isabel Rivers, Reason, Grace and Sentiment: a Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England 1660-1780, I. Whichcote to Wesley (Cambridge: CUP, 1991) discusses the characteristics of the affective psychology of religion developed by Watts (pp. 164-204).

[35] The Works I, Sermon 36, pp. 393-403.

[36] This, at any rate, was how Isaac Watts and most vigorous Protestants saw it.  For a more political interpretation in terms of the resistance of many nations to French hegemony, see Steven Pincus, ‘To Protect English Liberties: The English Nationalist Revolution of 1688-9’, in Claydon and McBride (eds.), Protestantism and National Identity, p. 95.  For qualifications of the extent to which British identity was based upon Protestantism, see Claydon and McBride, in Claydon and McBride (eds.), Protestantism and National Identity, pp. 10-14.

[37] The Works II, ‘A Sermon to Encourage the Reformation of Manners’, pp. 753-68.

[38]  Hatton sums up his more sober view of the religious significance of George I with the comment ‘By accepting the Act of Settlement, the house of Hanover had taken on a responsibility for the Protestant succession which George did not think it right to abandon. Though not of a religious temperament, he held it a “point of honour” to maintain this succession for himself and  for his descendants.’ Hatton, George I,  p.166. Hatton notes (p.173) that the dissenters had received the accession of George I with jubilation.

[39] The Works IV, Ode 61, pp. 561-2.

[40] The Works IV, Ode 62, p. 562.

[41] The Works I, Sermon 4.

[42] John Hoyles suggests that one of the most significant contributions of Isaac Watts to English poetry was his development of introspective egoism. The Waning of the Renaissance 1641-1740: Studies in the Thought and Poetry of Henry More, John Norris and Isaac Watts (The Hague: Martinus  Nijhoff, 1971) p. 208.   Keeble attributes dissenting introspection to the political withdrawal of the Restoration period (Literary Culture, pp. 186-93, 205). 

[43] This longing for death as promising an escape from the weakness of bodily life is a prominent theme of Puritan and dissenting thought prior to Watts, and is, indeed, typical of much pre-modern Christian theology.  For typical seventeenth century examples see Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650) and the Funeral Sermons of John Howe (1630-1705) in his Works VI (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1863).

[44] The Works III, p. 166.

[45] The Works IV, Horae Lyricae Book I, ‘Happy Frailty’, pp. 363-4.

[46] The Works I, Sermon 1, pp. 14-15.

[47] Charles Lloyd Cohen (God’s Caress: the Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience [Oxford: OUP, 1986], pp. 46, 98) describes the Puritan religious experience of the seventeenth century as being a psychological transformation of weakness into power.  Helpless sinners became powerful saints.  My view is that the political theology of Watts was able to preserve the power of individual conversion whilst also seeing the power of God in the imperial power of the British state. 

[48] The Works VI, ‘A New Essay on Civil Power in things sacred or an enquiry after an established religion, consistent with the just liberties of mankind, and practicable under every form of civil government’, March 20, 1738, p. 141.

[49] Psalm 67 ‘The Nation’s Prosperity and the Church’s Increase’.  Watts adds a note, ‘Having translated the scene of this psalm to Great Britain I have borrowed a devout and poetical wish for the happiness of my native land from Zaccharia 2.5…’ Watts is explaining the second verse which does not come from Psalm  67.

[50] Brian Stanley, The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Leicester: Apollos, 1990), p. 55.

[51] The Works I, ‘The Inward Witness to Christianity’, Sermon 1 (pp. 1-10), Sermon 2 (pp. 11-19) and Sermon 3 (pp. 20-33).

[52] The Works II, ‘An Essay Towards the Encouragement of Charity Schools’, pp. 717-49.

[53] The Works IV, Horae Lyricae Book I, ‘The Hazard of Loving the Creatures’, p. 370.

[54] Armitage, Ideological Origins, p. 148.

[55] Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999); Alistair Kee, Constantine versus Christ: the Triumph of Ideology (London: SCM Press, 1982).

[56] The Prayers of David: Psalms 51-72 ([Studies in the Psalter II: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 102], Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), p. 7.

[57] Imperialistic theology was a strand in the earliest settlement of North America.  The influence of such beliefs on the growth and expansion of English-speaking North America is described by Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America 1630-1875 (London: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysic of Indian Hating and Empire Building (London: Meridian Books, 1980); and Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response 1787-1862 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965).  For the impact of imperial theology in Australia, see Tony Swain and Deborah Bird-Rose (eds.), Aboriginal Australians and Christian Missions: Ethnographic and Historical Studies (Adelaide: South Australian College of Advanced Education, 1988).

©   John M Hull 2005