Isaac Watts' hymns had become well-known in America during the Great Awakening. Having become widely popular, they remained so, despite their English origins, when the American War of Independence broke out. Ironically it was this patriotic Brit's hymns that continued to define the way that worship was sung in the new republic after the war. But his hymns were, on one occasion, put to a different purpose during that war.
Today marks the two hundred and thirty fourth anniversary of the Battle of Springfield. General Nathaniel Greene and his 2000-man New Jersey Militia were engaged in fierce combat with 6000 British regulars. In the middle of the conflict one of the patriot companies ran out of wadding for their muskets. A Presbyterian pastor jumped into the fray to save the day.
Pastor James Caldwell's wife had been shot and killed by the British a few weeks earlier. When all seemed lost the resourceful pastor ran to the Presbyterian church nearby. He returned with his arms loaded with hymn books. As Douglas Bond tells Caldwell's story...
[Douglas Bond: The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts. Conclusion]
It is doubtful that Watts would have approved of this literal use of his published hymns on the battlefield. Nonetheless, that day illustrated his hope for the mountains of paper on both sides of the Atlantic that were filled with his 700 hymns and numerous theological and philosophical writings.
Raised in a family with a father who spent many years imprisoned for his faith, he knew from childhood that human history is a battlefield. But he also knew the true nature of the war: it is against principalities and powers rather than flesh and blood. In that battle he knew that the pen is mightier than the sword, that the sword on the thigh of the conquering King is the Word of God. To Watts, theology was not abstract musings that belonged in the seminary; it was the explosive power that would ultimately bring down the enemy.
And so he dedicated his painful life to making theology singable for children and philosophers alike. Thus he prepared them for the battle, knowing that when truth is thrust into the barrel of men's lives, the outcome will be the explosive power of the gospel. How will the enemy of our souls be defeated by an outnumbered army with failing firepower? In the immortal words of Pastor Caldwell
Give 'em Watts, boys! Put Watts into 'em boys!