Was Isaac Watts Unitarian? Athanasian Trinitarianism And The Boundary Of Christian Fellowship -- By: Scott Aniol
DBSJ 22 (2017) p. 91
Was Isaac Watts Unitarian? Athanasian Trinitarianism And The Boundary Of Christian Fellowship
Glory to God the Trinity,
Whose name has mysteries unknown;
In essence One, in persons Three,
A social nature, yet alone.
A more orthodox hymnic formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity would be difficult to find than one like this from the pen of the Father of English hymnody, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Indeed, many of Watts’s hymns contain such Trinitarian language affirming the equal deity and praiseworthiness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And yet, despite this legacy of rich, Trinitarian hymnody, Isaac Watts’s reputation has been plagued since his lifetime with charges that he was less than orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity. The purpose of this paper is to investigate thoroughly Watts’s mature thought concerning the Trinity to determine the purposes behind his thinking, and to assess whether any unorthodox views have been passed on through his most influential works—his hymns.
Several of Watts’s biographers treat the subject at length, many without the benefit of all of the pertinent documents at their disposal.2 Other hymn textbooks or biographers of Watts either briefly mention his Trinitarian problems without any evidence,3 or they dismiss the charges without giving them the attention they deserve, mainly by citing examples of his Trinitarian hymns written and published early in his life, before debates about the Trinity grabbed Watts’s attention.4 Watts
DBSJ 22 (2017) p. 92
published all his major hymn collections between 1707 and 1719, and he did not begin writing about the Trinity until 1722. Thus, a fresh consideration of Watts’s Trinitarian views will be helpful in assessing his continuing legacy.
The Case Against Watts
As I will show, some of how Watts described the Trinity caused his views to be criticized during his lifetime, but claims after his death that Watts had become fully Unitarian at the end of his life stem primarily from Nathaniel Lardner (1684-1768), a Unitarian scholar who in 1768 made the following statement: “In the latter part of his life, for several years before his death, and before he was seized with an imbecility of his faculties, [Watts] was an Unitarian.” Lardner further claimed that some writings composed “three or four years” before Watts’s death, in which he allegedly articulated a thorough Unitarianism, were deemed unfit for publication and destroyed by the exec...
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