History of Hymns: Watts’ ‘Power of God’ composed for children

“I Sing the Almighty Power of God”
Isaac Watts
UM Hymnal
, No. 152

I sing the almighty power of God,
That made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad,
And built the lofty skies.

 I sing the wisdom that ordained
The sun to rule by day;
The moon shines full at God’s command,
And all the stars obey.

In the 1960s ecumenist Albert van den Heuvel stated, “It is the hymns, repeated over and over again, which form the container of much of our faith. . . . As such, they have taken the place of our catechisms. . . . Tell me what you sing, and I’ll tell you who you are!”

Isaac Watts

Perhaps no hymn writer has been so conscious of the substance of this statement as Isaac Watts (1674-1748), especially in his hymns for children. Watts’ Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language, for the Use of Children (1715) was one of the most popular collections published in its day. Poems from this hymnal were used to inculcate many English children in Watts’ day and for decades after his death.

In his preface, “To all that are concerned in the education of children,” Watts cites a biblical precedent for teaching songs to children for educational value: “The children of Israel were commanded to learn the words of the song of Moses, Deut. xxxi 19, 50, and we are directed in the New Testament, not only to sing ‘with grace in the heart, but to teach and admonish one another by hymns and songs,’ Ephes. v. 19.”

Of the four reasons he gives for learning these songs, he states that these songs “will be a constant furniture of the minds of children, that they may have something to think upon when alone, and sing over to themselves. This may sometimes give their thoughts a divine turn, and raise a young meditation. Thus they will not be forced to seek relief for an emptiness of mind, out of the loose and dangerous sonnets of the age.”

“I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” originally published as “Praise for Creation and Providence,” is now the only song that remains in common usage from this children’s hymnal. Expanding on the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2, Watts’ Calvinistic theology comes to the fore.

For Watts, God is an all-powerful and sovereign being who knows every “plant or flower” and controls all of nature—even the “tempests blow . . . by order from thy throne” (stanza 3). Psalm 107:25 and Psalm 148:8 supported for Watts the idea that even the foulest of weather is ordained by God, a concept questioned by many theologians today.

This sovereign God of the Calvinist Watts was also omnipresent—certainly a sober thought for a young child. An original stanza notes:

Creatures (as num’rous as they be)
Are subject to thy care;
There’s not a place where we can flee,
But God is present there.

Watts was not afraid, in this and other children’s hymns, to scare literally the hell out of children. Another omitted stanza reads:

In heaven he shines with beams of love,
With wrath in hell beneath!
’Tis on his earth I stand or move,
And ’tis his air I breathe.

While not specifically a hymn based on the Apostles’ Creed according to the preface, any child of Watts’ day who sang the hymn would likely think of it as a theological amplification of the first article of the Creed: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” Even the opening line of the hymn cites the “almighty power of God,” echoing the beginning of the Creed.

There is no doubt that for Isaac Watts, often labeled the “Father of English-language hymnody,” hymns were a formative tool in the Christian education of children.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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