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Reviewed by:
  • Isaac Watts: Reason, Passion and the Revival of Religion by Graham Beynon
  • Martha F. Bowden
Graham Beynon, Isaac Watts: Reason, Passion and the Revival of Religion (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016). Pp. 224. $128.00.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is best known for his hymns; in the American colonies, they were the most-published texts from their original appearance until well into the nineteenth century and are a pervasive influence in American Protestantism to this day. Watts was an irenic figure, admired by people across the Protestant spectrum in England and he had a close association with Yale. In addition, his Divine and Moral Songs for Children was "the best-selling children's book of the period" (7). Thus, Graham Beynon's thorough analysis of Watts's intellectual legacy is a welcome addition to the current work on the religious ideas of the eighteenth century. He argues that there is little recent work on Watts as a theologian and moral philosopher, and his bibliography certainly supports that claim; he cites current sources on eighteenth-century ecclesiastical history, but for specific works on Watts' work, apart from the hymns, he draws for the most part from the mid-twentieth century and before.

In clear and serviceable, if occasionally inelegant, prose, Beynon places Watts in the context of Enlightenment thought, arguing that he combines an awareness of Enlightenment philosophy with a deep spirituality. Watts asserted the reasonableness of Christian belief, but he also believed that revelation aided reason's work in understanding the works of God. Importantly, Beynon addresses the perceived contradiction between Watts's advocacy for reason in his prose works and the passionate, even mystical, intensity of his devotional poetry. He demonstrates that while Watts privileged reason in his theology, insisting that Christian revelation accords with logical proof, he also believed that passion when subjugated to reason provides the believer with an immediate experience of divine presence. Reason thus strengthens the faith that scripture directs. [End Page 255]

At the heart of Beynon's study is this tension between reason and passion. The first section of the book, "Reason & Passion," argues in separate chapters for the roles of each of these contested characteristics. Beynon draws from Watts's entire range of writings, not just the prose works, but also the hymns and spiritual poetry, to demonstrate the ways in which Watts's claims for the centrality of reason are enhanced by a passionate experience of the divine, rather than being contradicted by them. The second section applies the theoretical framework to Watts' specific works, with separate chapters on preaching, praise, and prayer. The section on hermeneutics provides insight into preaching practice in the first half of the eighteenth century. Especially among the dissenters, there was some disagreement on whether sermons should be read from a full text or delivered extemporaneously. The first led to a dry delivery; the second to lack of clarity and, worst of all, enthusiasm in its pejorative eighteenth-century connotation. The use of headings, or divisions, was becoming obsolete, but while Watts acknowledged the change in fashion he recommended their use; he calls the divisionless sermon a "harangue" that flows over listeners without connecting them to the substance of the discourse. He himself preached directly from headings; as a result, the only records of the sermons he preached exist in the notes that his patron and supporter, Lady Abney, took. His large number of published sermons derived from the many Sundays he was unable to preach because of his frail health; to substitute for his absence in the pulpit, he published complete sermons for his congregation.

Beynon's analysis of the role of passion is a good example of his method in smoothing out the perceived contradictions in Watts's theology. He examines the ideas of the moral philosophers—Locke, Hobbes, Descartes, and Mandeville—who all argue that the passions lead to a desire for the "good" life, often with positive consequences for society, even when they arise from selfish impulses. Theologians, however, generally argued that the passions were good when they persuade the will to virtuous action and bad when they overthrow reason in favor of the self. Watts articulates this view of passion...


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pp. 255-257
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