Christmas: The Story Behind “Joy to the World”

Christmas is coming in one week! Deck the halls! To celebrate the holiday season, I want to try on a fun, new theme and investigate the history behind some beloved Christmas carols. Enjoy these posts and your week!

Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts was an English Christian minister, theologian, hymn writer, and logician who lived from 1674 to 1748. He was raised a nonconformist Christian, aka a Protestant (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.); Protestants wouldn’t conform to the Church of England (which was Anglican), hence the name. [Sidenote: Anglicans were technically Protestants because King Henry VIII separated the English church from Rome in 1534. Even so, the C of E stuck close to Roman Catholic tradition.] He received a classical education at King Edward VI School in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, but only Anglicans were accepted at Oxford and Cambridge, so he attended the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington for his higher education (SN is part of Inner London today). He got his first preaching position at a large Protestant chapel after finishing school, but his pale, slight, unattractive appearance combined with psychiatric illnesses that began tormenting him makes his life less glamorous in retrospect. He’s one of many men from Shakespeare to Pope who didn’t need to be handsome to create a legacy, but the illnesses eventually forced him to resign. The earliest and only remaining statue commemorating Watts is located in Abney Park, where Watts lived for thirty years and passed away.

“Joy to the World”

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I sometimes identify with Watts, who once wrote in exasperation, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” Watts wrote hymns that were easy to understand and evoked passion. That fact surprises me with his being a logician, but apparently, one can respect scientific and rhetorical principles while still embracing emotions. “Joy to the World” is Watts’ rendition of Psalm 98 published in 1719 in Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. For a refresher, the first verse of the song goes: Joy to the world/ The Lord is come/ Let Earth receive her king/ Let every heart prepare him room/ And heaven and nature sing/ And heaven and nature sing/ And heaven and heaven and nature sing.

Psalm 98 (NIV):

Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
[All information gathered from Wikipedia and Christianity Today. Most information gathered from this Wikipedia article and this Christian History article.]

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