Volume 42 - Issue 3

The Helpfulness of the Lesser Known Work: Isaac Watts on the Passions

By Graham Beynon


Isaac Watts is well known as a hymn writer, but he also wrote significant works on the place of passion in the Christian life. Writing at a time of ‘cool’ religion in England, Watts aimed to breathe warmth into the religion of his day, while still being aware of the dangers of ‘enthusiasm’. There were significant implications for pastoral ministry along with Watts’s view of praise and preaching. Watts’s context, along with his pastoral insight and practical application, makes his works very helpful today.

Isaac Watts is best known today as a hymn writer and that is certainly where his true genius lay. However he was a pastor/theologian who engaged deeply with the theological and philosophical issues of his day.1 In particular he wrote on the role of reason and the place of the passions2 in the Christian life and it is the second of these this article focuses on.

Whenever the topic of emotion, or the place of the heart, is raised, it is not long before someone refers to Jonathan Edwards’s classic work, The Religious Affections (1746).3 Rightly so of course as it is a classic for good reason.

However, one factor makes Watts’s works more immediately relevant and helpful to us today compared to Edwards: that is that we are not in a time of revival. As is well known Edwards’s work was prompted by experiences reported within the Evangelical Awakenings. Edwards believed that some of these experiences stemmed from a true work of the Spirit but many did not and as a result his work is primarily one of discrimination.

There is of course still a great deal to be learnt from Edwards’s work and such discrimination over religious experience is still needed. But in Western evangelicalism revival experiences are not the norm. My two decades of pastoral ministry have involved only a few cases of people reporting extraordinary episodes and wondering if they are truly spiritual. Far more common has been the depressed report of feeling little towards God, and/or the desire to feel more. We can also add the common pastoral concern that people’s affections are far more raised towards things other than God. Of course this turns on which branch of evangelicalism one inhabits and the dominant spirituality there, but I believe the point stands.

Some two decades before Edwards’s work Isaac Watts wrote two pieces covering similar territory: The Doctrine of the Passions Explained and Improved (1729)4 and Discourses of the Love of God and its Influence on all the Passions (1729).

In the late 1720s the religious landscape was very different from the revivals to come. This was the time of ‘reasonable religion’ which, in practice, usually meant ‘cool religion’. As a result, Watts’s aim in writing on the passions was not like Edwards to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff in the heat of revival, but rather to breathe warmth into the dull religion of his day. While no two time periods are exactly alike, Watts was writing at time with far greater similarity to much of evangelicalism today and hence the usefulness of the lesser known work.

1. Background

Isaac Watts (1674–1748) ministered in the first part of the eighteenth century.5 This time period saw a significant rise in the role of reason as enlightenment thought, led by John Locke and others, spread widely. In addition, there had been a reaction against what was seen as the previous blind dogmatism and irrational enthusiasm (best thought of as emotional fanaticism) of the Puritans.6 By comparison people now looked to the clear, calm light of reason. The result was a great confidence in and reliance on reasoning, and fear of enthusiasm.

We should also note that while rationalism dominated the landscape there was also a change towards a positive view of the passions by some philosophers. Rather than being viewed negatively, which had been the predominant 17th century position, there was a new appreciation of their significance.7 This saw the rise of ‘sentiment’ as a faculty, which could even be looked to for guidance in ethics. For example, feelings of sympathy would lead people to care for each other rightly. If rationalism involved confidence in human reason independent of God, this sentimentalism involved confidence in human passions independent of God.

Into this mixed field came Watts. He was overall very positive about the new rationalism. While his background was that of Puritan theology he is best understood as an ‘Enlightenment Puritan’.8 He said of Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding: ‘His essay on the human understanding has diffused fairer light through the world in numerous areas of science and of human life. There are many admirable chapters in that book, and many truths in them, which are worthy of letters of gold.’9

Watts’s strong rational side can be seen in his work on Logic, and also The Improvement of the Mind. He encouraged a thoughtful and considered faith that knew both what and why it believed. For example: ‘God has given us rational faculties and requires the exercise of them in religious concerns, and he has laid down such grounds for faith in all ages as must approve itself unto reason.’10

However, Watts also had a great concern for the place of the passions in the Christian life and felt that within his own day this was underappreciated. At one point he contrasted this advance in reason and yet lack of heartfelt religion:

It must be acknowledged indeed, to the honour of the present age, that we have some pretenses above our predecessors, to freedom and justness of thought, to strength of reasoning, to clear ideas, to the generous principles of Christian charity.… As for the savour of piety, and inward religion … spiritual mindedness, and zeal for God and for the good of souls; as to the spirit and power of evangelical ministrations, we may all complain, the glory of God is much departed from our Israel.11

At the same time Watts believed that ‘enthusiasm’ clearly existed. He commented on those who make their experience the foundation of their faith: ‘They have made this inward sensation the ground of their hope; they have fed still upon this cordial, and lived upon this support.’ He goes on: ‘when these extraordinary supplies fail them, they sink, and tremble, and die.’12

Watts’s aim in writing the two works mentioned was to bring a clear theological understanding of the passions which would lay the basis for a pastoral approach which gave the passions an appropriate role but still kept them in their place. In practice this would mean both vindicating and encouraging passionate religion that had a rational foundation.

The relationship between reason and passion is seen across Watts’s works, for example in his sermons. He preached a series of sermons on ‘A Rational Defence of the Gospel’ because of his concern that people were embarrassed to own the faith in an age of reason.13 However he also consistently encouraged passionate religion in an age fearful of enthusiasm. We see this tension within individual sermons. For example, a sermon on Colossians 3:3 entitled the ‘Hidden Life of the Christian’ emphasises the need for a vital inner life that engages the passions, as opposed to an outward nominal faith. However, within the same sermon Watts is concerned to distance what he is espousing from fanatical enthusiasm. On the contrary he argues that such warm piety has both Scripture and reason on its side.14

In what follows we will focus on Watts’s understanding of the passions and how he saw that playing out in discipleship and pastoral care.

2. Watts and the Passions

Watts’s preferred term is that of ‘passions’, rather than Edwards’s use of ‘affections’. Historically the two have been distinguished with passions referring to lower level more passive feelings (e.g. fear), and affections referring to higher level, more voluntaristic feelings (e.g. sympathy).15 Edwards draws a quantitative rather than qualitative difference between the two, saying that passions are more powerful affections. Watts uses the two terms synonymously.

Watts defines the passions as the felt response that comes as we appreciate the characteristics of an object: ‘They are those sensible commotions of our whole nature, both soul and body, which are occasioned by the perception of an object, according to some special properties that belong to it.’16 So if an object is unusual we feel surprise, if it is beautiful we feel desire, if it is dangerous we feel fear.

As passions arise from this process of perception and evaluation the mind and understanding are very much in play. But says Watts there is ‘such a near and special union between soul and body’17 that what we regard in this way with our mind, we feel in our body, at least to some extent. Hence apprehension of an object results in a corresponding feeling towards it.”

Watts employs a taxonomy where a few primary passions lead to derivative, secondary passions. The main primary passions are those of love and hate,18 and all other passions flow from these. So if we love something and we do not have it, we feel longing; if we gain it we feel delight and joy; if we have it but lose it we feel sadness; and so on. The same is true for the things we hate. If we are faced with the possibility of something we hate we feel trepidation; if we avoid something we hate we feel relief,and so on.

As what we hate is simply the opposite of what we love all of the passions can be evaluated by our loves. That analysis is not unique to Watts, but it is very useful in being able trace the source of our different feelings in different circumstances.

2.1. Purpose of the Passions

The passions for Watts are primarily motivational: ‘Consider, my friends, what were the passions made for? Not merely for the sensible pleasure of human nature, but to give it vigour and power for useful actions.’19 The passions are not to guide our actions as they will mislead us: ‘The passions are not fit to be our guides in determining truth and falsehood; they were never given us to search out the true nature of things, or to judge concerning their qualities, or the degree of them.’20

Guidance rather comes from our reason. However, reason by itself has insufficient motivational power. Our reason may tell us that something is good or bad, right or wrong, but it does not motivate us to act. It is when we feel that something is good that we will actively pursue it, and when we feel that something is evil and fear it that we will try to avoid it. The passions then ‘are those lively, warm and vigorous principles and powers in our nature, which animate us to pursue the good, and avoid the evil; and that with vastly greater speed and diligence than the mere calm and indolent dictates of reason would ever do.’21

Thus, Watts refers to the passions as the ‘engine’ which drives us. This is fairly common in 18th century thought that saw the passions as ‘active powers’. There is overlap here with Edwards here who saw the affections as a facet of the will. Watts spends less time in examination of faculties than Edwards, and he distinguishes the passions and will in a way that Edwards does not, but this motivational view still mean that for Watts the passions and the will are closely tied.

2.2. Passions as Created, Fallen, and Restored

Watts believed that Adam was created with passions which would have always been rightly guided by his reason: ‘Reason gave the lead; affection and will gladly followed. His natural powers had no uneasy contest, there was no civil war nor rebellion amongst them to interrupt his happiness.’22

Watts’s formulation is that reason understands and perceives, the affections are inclined, such that they desire or withdraw; and the will chooses correspondingly.23 Watts then locates the primary effect of the fall in the passions: it is because we now have sinful passions rather than being guided by reason that results in our disobedience. We fix our passions on improper objects, we love what we should not; or we fix our passions on the right objects but with excessive degree, we love them too much.

The motivational energy of our passions means that this leads to disaster. The passions are now a ‘most powerful engine of mischief’. So one of Watts’s poems says:

Our hasty wills rush blindly on
Where rising passion rolls,
And thus we make our fetters strong
To bind our slavish souls.24

Conversion then restores our faculties back into their proper order. Watts writes:

[God acts to] reform our natures, to put all our misplaced and disjointed powers into their proper order again, and to maintain this divine harmony and peace. It is the blessed Spirit that inclines reason to submit to faith, and makes the lower faculties submit to reason, and obey the will of our maker, and then gives us the pleasure of it.25

The ‘lower faculties’ here are those of passion and will. We see this act of re-creation in Watts’s hymns:

The Spirit, like some heav’nly wind,
Blows on the sons of flesh,
New-models all the carnal mind,
And forms the man afresh.26

Watts’s view of the passions as fallen and then recreated meant he stood apart from the sentimentalists of his day who had a high view of the passions in leading us to live well. Watts believed sin had fatally wounded such ‘social passions’: “

These things are some ruinous remains of that goodness, virtue or piety which was natural to innocent man, and are partly wrought, perhaps, into his animal nature, as well as in his soul: These instincts are certain relics of a spur to duty, and a bridle to restrain from vice.27

Watts thinks of these ‘instincts’ as we might speak of conscience today. Under sin conscience can still be a ‘spur’ and ‘bridle’ but is relatively ineffective. As a result for Watts we can only have right passions once converted and hence he would have been a strident opponent of the ‘do-what-you-feel’ philosophy so common today.

2.3. Passions in Christian Living

As the primary motivational power within us, the passions are key for Watts in Christian living. God reforms our passions such that their power is taken out of the hands of Satan and is employed by him instead. While this process requires ongoing sanctification, and the passions can still be sinful and mislead us, they are essential for a healthy Christian life.

Watts again draws a contrast with the role of reason:

Even where reason is bright and the judgment clear, yet it will be ineffectual for any valuable purposes, if religion reach no farther than the head, and proceed not to the heart: it will have but little influence if there are none of the passions engaged.… Cold, unaffecting notions, will have no powerful influence to reform our lives.28

Thus, for Watts the passions must be engaged for God. This leads us to the love of God.

3. The Love of God

Watts says that God is the proper object of our supreme love. He reflects on Deuteronomy 6:5 and Jesus’s quotation of that verse and explores what it means to love God” above all else. One of his great concerns is to challenge the cool and outward religion of his day:

It is not enough for the eye to be lifted up to him, or the knee to bow before him; it is not enough for the tongue to speak of him, or the hand to act for his interest in the world; all this may be done by painted hypocrites whose religion is all disguise and vanity. But the heart with all the inward powers and passions must be devoted to him in the first place: This is religion indeed.29

Watts locates the love of God, and so the heart of the Christian, as central in the Christian life; something that every believer should attend to and every minister should be aware of. In the following section, we will outline Watts’s main points about what is involved in love for God.

3.1 Knowledge of God

We saw that for Watts passions are raised by the properties of an object. This means that love for God requires knowing truth about God so that we see him rightly:

It is not to be expected that we should love God supremely, or with all our heart, if we have not known him to be more excellent, and more desirable than all other things we are acquainted with. We must have the highest opinion of his transcendent worth, or we cannot love him above all things.30

Hence while Watts emphasises affection in the life of the Christian he equally emphasises knowledge. He criticises those who say they love God but do not know him very well and urges people that their knowledge of God should result in love: ‘Knowledge and affection should go hand in hand.’31

Watts says there are three key springs of knowledge for love: (1) ‘a clear discovery of what God is in himself’; (2) ‘a lively sense of what he has done for us’; and (3) ‘a well grounded hope of what he will bestow upon us’. So he focuses on God’s character, God’s actions, and God’s promises as they relate to us. Each of these he says are seen most clearly in Jesus.32

This means that when Watts considers how we excite love for God in our hearts the first thing he says is that we should reflect on these areas; we should consider Jesus.

3.2. Feeling for God

Watts expects we will actually feel love for God. Like Edwards he is aware that many factors will play into how heightened or lowered such feelings may be: physical health, our constitution, different nationalities (he comments on the different temperaments of the Scots, the Welsh and the English), and even the weather.

Thus, Watts is pastorally wise and says that a will resolved to live for God is better proof than any sudden flash of affection. Yet because of the link between our minds and our bodies he says we should feel something for God. There should be desire for him and delight in him:

Hath he formed my soul to delight and love and hath he confined these sweet and pleasurable capacities only to be employed about creatures, when the Creator himself is supreme in loveliness? Will not this most amiable of beings expect that I should love himself, and give me leave to make him my delight.33

As an example, Watts speaks about coming to knowledge of forgiveness and says:

Will it not fill the soul with overflowings of gratitude, and make the lips abound in expressions of joy and praise? And will not these be attended with a peaceful and pleasing aspect, and establish a sweet serenity in the heart and eyes? And all concur to maintain religion in the power and joy of it?34

In a day of cool religion Watts said he wanted to vindicate the affectionate Christian, rescue him from the charge of enthusiasm, and encourage heartfelt experience of God.

3.3. Effect on the Rest of Life

If we love God above everything else, then the rest of life is affected. As the passions are the engine of life supreme love for God becomes the motivational engine that drives all that the Christian does. Watts compares this engagement of the passions with simple understanding: he says that understanding is necessary but is not enough for it to change the way we live, because of the motivational force of the passions: ‘If the judgment be never so much convinced, yet while the affections remain unmoved, the work of religion will be begun with difficulty, and will drive on but very heavily.’35

Where love for God is absent he sees the Christian life as dry duty that has no vigour or power to it. By contrast:

Where the love of God reigns in the affections … the eye will often look up to God in a way of faith and humble dependence; the ear will be attentive to his holy word; the hand will be lifted up to heaven in daily requests; the knee will be bended in humble worship; all the outward powers will be busy in doing the will of God and promoting his glory.36

In Watts’s understanding of the passions what we love and hate lies behind all other derivative passions. So, he says if we love God it will guide our other passions appropriately:

Now if we had but one sovereign bridle, that could reach and manage them all; one golden reign, that would hold in all their unruly motions, and would also excite and guide them at pleasure; what a valuable instrument this would be to mortals! Such an instrument is the love of God, such an invaluable regulator of all the passionate powers; and it will have this effect, where it is strong and supreme, as it ought to be.37

Watts lists the variety of feelings that will flow from love of God: admiration at God, desire for God, joy and pleasure in God, love of what belongs to God (his word, his people, his Son), zeal for God, hatred of what offends God, and fear of anything that would cut us off from God.38

Love for God will also result in ‘deadness’ to the world; if we love God more than the world then we will not be drawn by it. Watts then was extremely concerned for orthodox belief and for obedience in the life of the Christian, but he saw love for God as the hinge between such belief and life.

3.4. Cautions over the Passions

While Watts was keen to vindicate and encourage the affectionate Christian, he also gives a number of cautions about the place of the passions. The subtitle to his work referred to the right use and abuse of the passions in religion. His section on the abuse of the passions contains a variety of warnings. The first is making passions a source of knowledge or living by them, as opposed to living by the truth. He also cautions people against good passions degenerating in some way, such aszeal for truth becoming indignation, hatred of sin becoming hatred of people, and admiration becoming envy.

He especially cautions people against living for particular experiences of God such that they are dependent on them. He says:

There have been many persons who have made their religion to consist too much in the working of their passions, without a due exercise of reason in the things of God. They have contented themselves with some divine raptures without seeking after clear conceptions of divine things, or building their faith and hope, and practice, upon a just and solid foundation of sacred knowledge.39

He says of these Christians that they live by fits and starts of devotion – they’re always high as a kite, or low and depressed; they are never simply steady. So, while encouraging heartfelt love of God he also cautions against ways in which such an encouragement could go astray.

Thus, Watts says we must be very watchful over our own hearts:

To guard against these dangers let Christians frequently enter into their own hearts and endeavour as far as possible to examine their own spirit and conscience, to distinguish between their inward workings of piety, and the mere exercises of animal nature, or the workings of corrupt affection and set a constant guard on their hearts in this respect.40

In this regard Watts prefigures Edwards’s more careful discernment over true religious affections. In pastoral letters, he warns people against reading too much into their experiences. For example, to a lady ‘given to strong impulses’ he writes:

Our Religion, faith and hope should not be built upon strong impulses and imaginations but upon a plain explication of the Gospel and a Comparison of our hearts and the frame and temper of our wills with the word of God.… The general way of the Spirit of God leading us to Duty or Comfort is by leading us to apply the generall Promises of the Gospell and precepts of his Law to our own particular Case and Circumstance by the exercise of our intellectual faculty, Our Judgement and Reason and Prudence and not by lower powers of sense and fancy.41

However, such cautions are the lesser note in Watts’s work, which is overall encouraging of passionate religion.

3.5. Exciting the Love of God

Lastly, Watts directs Christians as to how they can excite the love of God in their own hearts. He has said that passions are part of our response to something, which means they do not lie under the command of our will. But that does not mean we are powerless about how we feel. Our passions cannot be commanded:

But it may be done by the consideration of truth: For as the passions are raised by perceptions of the mind, so we may by degrees raise or suppress the passions, by applying our minds to the perception of those objects, or those truths, which are suited to these purposes.42

Watts says we can decide where to fix our attention and so encourage the right passions. So, he urges Christians to fix their attention on God and cultivate love for him. This includes meditation on God, his character, his works, and his promises, especially as these are all seen in Jesus.

This meditation connects to Watts’s view of language. He views some language as more emotive and so more helpful in this process. He particularly suggests the use of affecting language within Scripture, especially the Psalms, which he calls an ‘altar of sacred fire’.

It is an example and a spring of most lively and exalted devotions.… Lift up your souls to God in the words of David, or imitate his language, where his words do not so perfectly express your case. Enter into his spirit, form and model your pious affections by that illustrious pattern.43

As well as private meditation Watts also makes the connection with public worship, which he expects to have an effect on the passions and raise the love of God.

Along with cultivating love of God, Watts also warns against overly loving anything else. He says we should set a holy jealousy around our heart and beware what will draw our affections:

Whensoever you find a tempting creature taking too fast hold of your passions, set a guard of sacred jealously upon it, keep your heart at a holy distance from that creature, lest it twine about your inward powers, and draw them off from their allegiance and duty to God your creator.44

Ultimately, says Watts, we must look to God and pray for his work in us by his Spirit who reformed our passions in the first place and who will rightly energise them:

Seek earnestly the influences of the quickening Spirit. Without him you can do nothing. It is the Spirit of God who raises dead sinners at first into a divine live, and he puts all the languid springs of life into new motion.… It is he who awakens our fear, who excites our hopes, who kindles our love and desire to things holy and heavenly; and it is he who exalts our spiritual joys.45

Behind this encouragement to excite the love of God is Watts’s pastoral experience. He felt the need to both vindicate the passionate Christian but also, more commonly, to aid people in their feeling for God.

3.6. Connection with Watts’s Theology of Praise

Watts is best known for his hymns. What is less appreciated is that Watts’s view of the passions is what motivated him to write his hymns. In Watts’s day, the majority of churches sang metrical psalms, and Watts was ground-breaking in both writing what we know of as the modern hymn and in paraphrasing the Psalms so that they spoke more clearly of Christ and the Christian life.46

The reason for Watts’s revision of the praise of the church was his view of the passions. He says of singing metrical psalms that our affections are not raised appropriately, or when they are they are often then checked, because we are singing of Old Testament religion:

When we are just entring into an evangelic frame by some of the glories of the gospel presented in the brightest figures of Judaism, yet the very next line perhaps which the clerk parcels out unto us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that darkens our sight of God the saviour: Thus by keeping too close to David in the house of God, the vail of Moses is thrown over our hearts.47

Watts argues that we must be able to sing of our own experience of Christ and the gospel, forgiveness, adoption, the work of the Spirit, and so on. This is because he does not think praise is simply reciting truth; he believes it is where our passions are expressed and stimulated: ‘Let us remember, that the very power of singing was given to human nature chiefly for this purpose, that our own warmest affections of soul might break out into natural or divine melody, and that the tongue of the worshipper might express his own heart.’48 Thus, in praise Watts expected our passions to be raised. We see this in some lyrics he writes:

Such wond’rous love awakes the lip
Of saints that were almost asleep,
To speak the praises of thy name,
And makes our cold affections flame.49

So, Watts sought to write new hymns that would be a vehicle for, and a spur to, heartfelt expression.

This doesn’t mean that reason is absent from Watts’s hymns – quite the opposite. He always wanted to tie the expression of passion to its rational basis in Scriptural truth. He wanted feeling because the singer understood the wonders of the gospel. This means his hymns regularly contain a mixture of objective truth and subjective passionate expression. For example, a communion hymn begins with the invitation of Jesus to meet with his people:

Jesus invites his saints
To meet around his board;
Here pardoned rebels sit and hold
Communion with their Lord.

The hymn goes on to describe Jesus’s body and blood nourishing believers, and the unity of the body of Christ, but then finishes with the cry:

Let all our power be joined,
His glorious name to raise;
Pleasure and love fill ev’ry mind,
And ev’ry voice be praise.50

The desire to express passion also meant that Watts wrote lyrics that put in the mouth of the singer the sorts of expressions of love and affection that he believed they should experience. For example:

Now shall my inward joys rise,
And burst into a song;
Almighty love inspires my heart,
And pleasure tunes my tongue.51

O! What immortal joys I felt,
And raptures all divine,
When Jesus told me, I was his,
And my Beloved mine!52

Watts is not alone in this view of praise. Similar thoughts had expressed previously by Puritans such as Richard Baxter53 and would also be later echoed by Edwards: ‘And the duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections.’54 However it was a relatively unheard voice in an age drawn to reason and wary of enthusiasm.

3.7. Application to Preaching

Watts’s view of the passions also affected his view of preaching. For Watts, the preacher must aim to raise the love of God in the hearts of his hearers. As right love comes from right understanding the minister must first bring clear light into the mind or any feeling that comes will be vacuous. But having laid a clear foundation he must also warm the heart which required use of affecting language:

Contrive all lively, forcible and penetrating forms of speech, to make your words powerful and impressive on the hearts of your hearers, when light is first let into the mind. Practice all the awful and solemn ways of address to the conscience, all the soft and tender influences on the heart.55

The preacher must first warm his own heart with God’s love. Watts was far less concerned with the rules of rhetoric – to which a lot of attention was paid in the 18th century – and far more worried that the preacher appropriately felt what he was saying:

When the words freeze upon his lips, the hearts of his hearers are freezing also: But where we find devout affection mingled with solid argument in the discourse, there the lips of the preacher seem to speak light and life at once, and he helps to communicate the holy passion all around him, by feeling it first himself.56

4. Observations on Watts’s Usefulness

4.1. The Need for Right Promotion of Love of God

Watts reminds us of the ongoing need to promote ‘passionate religion’. He was writing at a time when religion had cooled, and while enthusiasm was a danger to avoid, his main concern was ‘reasonable religion’. Hence Watts wished to promote a faith where clear understanding was accompanied by a warm heart.

There has been far more written on this issue within evangelicalism over recent years and a more holistic view is common in many quarters. However the need to promote affective love for God often remains. It is not enough to know about God, we need to feel for God. Such territory requires awareness of the dangers of emotionalism and must be rightly connected to knowledge, but we must continue to say that seeing God clearly must lead to loving God deeply.

4.2. The Need to Aid People in Cultivating the Love of God

However, it is not enough simply to say that we should feel love for God. Where Watts goes further and shows pastoral wisdom is in actually helping people cultivate godly passions. His last discourse in Of the Love of God is entitled, ‘Means of exciting the devout passions’. His list of means includes the following:

  • Ensuring the mind is furnished with knowledge of God and the will is set on obeying God
  • Engaging the most powerful passion – love for God
  • Guarding against excessive love for anything else
  • Being diligent in private religion i.e. prayer, reading and meditation
  • Reflecting on doctrines and sections of Scripture which awake your affections
  • When feeling a divine passion encouraging it and dwelling on it
  • Staying close to God in your thoughts and heart
  • Speaking with others of God
  • Calling on God to work in you by his Spirit
  • Looking to the future57

Within each of these is further explanation and practical instructions as to how go about each task. For example, in speaking with others Watts says:

Mutual conversation shall raise the divine flame higher, like united torches, which increase each other’s blaze.… Borrow a coal from the altar of the sanctuary, from the ordinances of public worship, and warm your hearts, by endeavouring to warm the heart of your neighbour. Speak to one another of the heavenly world, till each of you find your wings stretched set for the flight, and you long for the divine summons. Mix your flames of celestial love, as angels do, and let them spire upward and point towards Jesus, your beloved. Man is a social creature, and his passions were made to be raised by converse.58

Watts’s practical help is seen in another way too. Each discourse concludes with a meditation which reviews and summarises the content of the chapter but does so in the first person singular, and so provides words for the reader to use. For example:

Let my devout passions be ever awake and lively when I hear the things of God spoken, or when I read of the momentous concerns of religion, and a life to come. Then the sacred truths and duties of Christianity shall be impressed deep on my memory, and written there as with a pen of diamond, never to be blotted out. O may the warm passions melt my soul to tenderness, and make me susceptive of every holy impression! May this heart of mine, this table of stone, be softened by devout affection.59

We can learn from such practical help in guiding people, rather than simply telling people they should feel more.

4.3. Pastoral Usefulness of the Passions

Earlier we saw Watts’s taxonomy of the passions – the primary passions of love or fear which result in all other feelings. This led to seeing the love of God as the supreme passion that will guide others in their place. As pastoral counselling commonly involves people reporting varying emotions Watts’s analysis gives us a mental map we can employ. We can ask what primary love or fear is driving the reported feelings for this person in this situation. They may feel happy but for bad reasons – not because they love God. They may feel sad for good reasons – because they do love God. In what is an increasingly emotionally driven world such analysis is very useful.

We also saw Watts’s view of the motivational nature of the passions. That too has significant pastoral cash value. We must appreciate that understanding an issue is not usually enough by itself. We need to help people feel differently. The man looking at pornography needs to start to hate it rather than simply know it is wrong; the woman concerned for her appearance needs to feel contentment in the person God has made her, not just know that she should. Stereotypical examples such as these are the tip of the iceberg.

4.4. A Contribution to Our Theology of Praise

Watts says that sung praise is a prime place for the raising and expression of our passion. Such passion must be based on clear understanding or it will be mindless, but it must be there or our praise will be heartless. This is an area where the polarised positions of years past have somewhat faded. However, it is still an area of contention, and Watts makes a helpful contribution. For some, this will mean a challenge to feeling more within our praise wanting our passions to be affected. For others, it will be a challenge to think more such that all feeling is driven by understanding rather than by the music or the setting.

Watts’s position should not decide the matter by itself but it is very suggestive that one of our greatest hymn writers wrote specifically to help us in raising and expressing passion. It is perhaps then ironic that churches which are more traditional in style – and so which might sing more of Watts’s hymns – are the very ones who might be falling foul of what he was seeking to correct.60

4.5. Questions for Our Preaching

Watts raises some significant questions for our preaching. Are our own passions raised in preaching? Do we give any time and thought to being in the right ‘temper’? Do we pay attention to our language and style for the sake of raising other people’s passions (while being true to our personalities)? Is one of our aims in preaching to affect how people feel, as well as what they understand?

4.6. Application to Our Own Hearts

For those involved in pastoral ministry and in theological study and education there is of course a last set of questions. Are we those who love God? Are we those who are growing in a love for God as we grow in our understanding? Are we those whose ministry flows from a love for God? Are we those who attend to our own hearts to cultivate the love of God?

I recommend the helpfulness of the lesser known work.

[1] In his collected works Watts’s poetry and hymns occupy one of six volumes the rest of which are theological, pastoral, educational and philosophical pieces.

[2] See Graham Beynon, Isaac Watts: Reason, Passion and the Revival of Religion, Studies in English Theology (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

[3] Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (Boston: Printed for S. Kneeland and T. Green in Queen-street, 1746).

[4] Isaac Watts, “The Doctrine of the Passions Explained and Improved,” and “Discourses of the Love of God and its Influence on all the Passions,” in The Works of Isaac Watts, ed. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge (London: T. and T. Longman, and J. Buckland; J. Oswald; J. Waugh; and J. Ward, 1753), 580–633, 636–716.

[5] For biographies of Watts see Graham Beynon, Isaac Watts: His Life and Thought (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2013); David G. Fountain, Isaac Watts Remembered (Southampton: Mayflower Christian Bookshop, 1974); Arthur Paul Davis, Isaac Watts: His Life and Works (London: Independent Press, 1948).

[6] J. Spurr, “‘Rational Religion’ in Restoration England, ” Journal of the History of Ideas 49 (1988): 563–85.

[7] See Susan James, “The Passions and the Good Life, ” in The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Philosophy, ed. Donald Rutherford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 198–200.

[8] Beynon, Isaac Watts: Reason, Passion and the Revival of Religion, 192.

[9] Isaac Watts, “Philosophical Essays on Various Subjects, ” in The Works of Isaac Watts, ed. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge (London: T. and T. Longman, and J. Buckland; J. Oswald; J. Waugh; and J. Ward, 1753), 503.

[10] Isaac Watts, “Blessedness of Faith without Sight,” in Wattiana: Manuscript Remains of the Rev Isaac Watts, DD, from the Library of Mr Joseph Parker, his Amanuensis (London: British Library), 209.

[11] Isaac Watts, “Sermons on Various Subjects Divine and Moral, ” in The Works of Isaac Watts, ed. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge (London: T. and T. Longman, and J. Buckland; J. Oswald; J. Waugh; and J. Ward, 1753), xxiii.

[12] Isaac Watts, “Evangelical Discourses,” in The Works of Isaac Watts, ed. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge (London: T. and T. Longman, and J. Buckland; J. Oswald; J. Waugh; and J. Ward, 1753), 77.

[13] Isaac Watts, “Sermons on Various Subjects Divine and Moral,” 164–94.

[14] Ibid., 95–121.

[15] For an overview see Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[16] Isaac Watts, “The Doctrine of the Passions Explained and Improved,” 584.

[17] Isaac Watts, “Evangelical Discourses,” 105.

[18] He also includes a third – that of ‘surprise’. However this is seen as an occasional passion which has few derivatives and so is not discussed any further.

[19] Isaac Watts, “Discourses of the Love of God and Its Influence on All the Passions,” 689.

[20] Isaac Watts, “The Doctrine of the Passions Explained and Improved, ” 608.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Isaac Watts, “Sermons on Various Subjects Divine and Moral, ” 9.

[23] It is worth being aware that Watts argued for the freedom of the will. In fact Edwards work on that topic was written both against an Arminian and against Watts as a tentative Calvinist.

[24] Isaac Watts, “Horae Lyricae,” in The Works of Isaac Watts, ed. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge (London: T. and T. Longman, and J. Buckland; J. Oswald; J. Waugh; and J. Ward, 1753), 370.

[25] Isaac Watts, “Sermons on Various Subjects Divine and Moral, ” 10.

[26] Ibid., 179.

[27] Isaac Watts, “Philosophical Essays on Various Subjects,” 551.

[28] Isaac Watts, “Discourses of the Love of God and Its Influence on All the Passions,” 663.

[29] Ibid., 640.

[30] Ibid., 641.

[31] Ibid., 693.

[32] Ibid., 644.

[33] Ibid., 697.

[34] Ibid., 700.

[35] Ibid., 676.

[36] Ibid., 643.

[37] Ibid., 658.

[38] Ibid., 648–56.

[39] Ibid., 637–38.

[40] Ibid., 691.

[41] Isaac Watts, “Letter about Strong Inward Impulses” (London: British Museum, n.d.).

[42] Isaac Watts, “The Doctrine of the Passions Explained and Improved,” 609.

[43] Isaac Watts, “Discourses of the Love of God and Its Influence on All the Passions,” 708.

[44] Ibid., 705.

[45] Ibid., 709–10.

[46] Watts was not the first to write the ‘modern hymn’ but the first to publish an extensive hymnbook of hymns rather than small supplements. For an overview of Watts’s theology of praise see Beynon, Isaac Watts, ch. 5.

[47] Isaac Watts, “Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” 147.

[48] Isaac Watts, “The Psalms of David,” xiv.

[49] Isaac Watts, “Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” 174.

[50] Ibid., 257–58.

[51] Ibid., 161.

[52] Ibid., 225.

[53] Richard Baxter said of poetry, ‘as it expresseth affections, so doth it raise them’. In Paraphrase on the Psalms of David (London: Thomas Parkhurst, 1692).

[54] Edwards, Religious Affections, section II.

[55] Isaac Watts, “An Humble Attempt Towards the Revival of Practical Religion,” in The Works of Isaac Watts, ed. D. Jennings and P. Doddridge (London: T. and T. Longman, and J. Buckland; J. Oswald; J. Waugh; and J. Ward, 1753), 22.

[56] Isaac Watts, “Discourses of the Love of God and Its Influence on All the Passions,” 679.

[57] Ibid., 704–11.

[58] Ibid., 709.

[59] Ibid., 672.

[60] I am well aware of numerous assumptions made here. For further reading, see Graham Beynon, Emotions: Living Life in Colour (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), ch. 7: “Emotions and God’s Praise.”

Graham Beynon

Graham Beynon is pastor of Grace Church in Cambridge, UK and director of independent ministry training at Oak Hill Theological College in London.

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