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The History of “Joy to the World”

| December 1, 2021
Category: Inspiration
closeup of christmas tree ornaments and lights
closeup of christmas tree ornaments and lights

“Joy to the World” is one of the most beloved Christmas hymns, but is, in fact, not a Christmas song at all! It was originally written as a hymn of praise and was birthed from a deep heartache. Let’s read on to learn what inspired the words to this beautiful Christmas hymn. 

The Beginnings…

Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in Southhampton, England. His father, who shared the same name as his son, was a shoe cobbler and tailor but was actually in prison on the day of his birth. He was guilty of being a criminal non-conformist. He taught radical ideas that were not approved of by the Church of England or scholars during that time.

There is no way to know, but I feel that although his ideas were considered radical at the time, I do not believe they were heretical. They simply challenged the traditional thoughts of the Church of England and wanted to bring it to a more contemporary standard. Why do I believe this? Because his son grew up with the same fire and passion to challenge the status quo and he succeeded!

With a rebellious nature just like his father, Isaac Watts grew up a very smart student. He questioned everything and always wanted to make everything around him better even if it meant ruffling a few feathers! If he were a member of the Church of England, Watts would have been allowed to study at Oxford or Cambridge, but because he and his family were members of Southhampton’s Above Bar Congregational Church, he attended the Independent Academy at Stoke, Newington. His intellect and potential made him a desired candidate at Cambridge and Oxford, but his church membership did not allow it. I believe this discrimination may have only accelerated his desire to see change happen in his world. 

It seems that every generation finds the music of the previous generation not to their liking (in general terms at least!) Isaac Watts definitely felt the same about the church music he sang each Sunday. Many others his age kept quiet, but not Watts. After complaining to his father about the archaic language, his father challenged him to improve it. So he began writing…and writing…and in his lifetime composed over 600 hymns and other poems! 

Things began slowly for Watts and his writing was not well received. He made a living by being a personal tutor and writing on the side. Things began looking up for him when he accepted a position as assistant to Dr. Isaac Chauncey at Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London. Around 3 years later, at the ripe age of 26, Isaac was named the minister there. He worked hard and his new ideas were welcomed. Because of the newfound respect, he was then able to publish his songs!

The Heartbreak and Birth of “Joy to the World”

It was not long before Watts became well known in England because of his hymns and writings. His work caught the eye of a particular young woman by the name of Elizabeth Singer. Though she had never met him in person nor seen a photograph of him, they began a love affair through their letter writing. She fell in love with his wit and wisdom and proposed marriage to Watts. He accepted and plans were made for them to meet and wed. 

Sadly, no marriage ever happened. When Elizabeth Singer finally laid eyes on her beloved…she was horrified! She was later quoted “He was only five feet tall, with a shallow face and a hooked nose, prominent cheekbones, small eyes, and a death-like color.” Understandably, Isaac Watts was devastated and never once sought the companionship of another woman. Instead, he poured himself into his writing. 

In his devoted studies of scripture after his heartbreak, Watts became particularly fond of Psalm 98, verses 4-8. It is shared below in the King James version

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;

It was from this passage that “Joy to the World” was born. It was originally set to be sung to the tune of “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing.” It may be a surprise to you but “Joy to the World” was not immediately popular. Many rejected it because Watts dared to rewrite the Psalms! Ever pressing on, Watts continued to study and write and improve life.

Emerging from a deep heartbreak, Watts always sought to better the world around him. If you have ever found yourself singing, “At the Cross”, “We’re Marching to Zion”, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, or “This is the Day That The Lord Has Made”, you have sung the words penned by Isaac Watts himself. The hope and passion for his faith read into the words sung and our faith is strengthened the same way. I find it very encouraging that even through all the trials, contempt, and heartbreak faced by Watts, he was still able to sing “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!” I pray we all can do the same!

The Music of Joy to the World

44 years after the death of Isaac Watts in 1748, Lowell Mason was born in the town of Orange, New Jersey. He was quite musically talented and directed his church choir and taught at singing schools even as a teenager. Unfortunately, his musical talents were not enough to pay the bills, so in 1812 he moved to Georgia and began working at a bank. His love and study of music never ceased though. 

Mason spent his spare time learning harmony and writing melodies and even became a student of the great composer Handel. He soon became confident enough to send off a book of his work to a publisher in Boston. It was quickly rejected. He resigned himself to serving as a Sunday school teacher and organist on the weekends at his church. 

In 1827, Mason had the surprise of his life! Not only had his work found a publisher, but the Handel and Hadyn Society of Massachusetts ordered 50,000 copies of his songbook! Mason packed his bags and moved to Boston!

For the next 20 years, Mason continued to write music and like Watts, revolutionized the world around him. Mason saw a need for a music school open to the public in Boston and used his own money to fund it. Well-known hymns he wrote include “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” and “Nearer My God to Thee.”

It was not until 1836 that Mason wrote the beautiful music that we now connect to “Joy to the World.” He was inspired by two songs from Handel’s Messiah. When he finished his work, he created “Antioch.” It was brand new and named after Paul’s first missionary journey. While Mason composed the music for the beautiful song, the words were not there. It was not until 3 years later when Mason came across the writings of Watts in a book titled “Modern Psalmist” that he found the perfect words for his wonderful melody!  Perhaps it was a divine connection because Watt’s words and Mason’s music came together to bring us “Joy to the World.” 

No one really knows how “Joy to the World” became known as a Christmas song. It was written from Old Testament verses and has no mention of the birth of Jesus other than “The Lord is Come.” After learning of the struggles that both men faced during their lives, I see many similarities to our own lives. Instead of focusing on our trials and hardships, perhaps we would all be better off to intentionally and wholeheartedly sing each and every day “Joy to the World! The Lord is Come!”

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also enjoy reading The History of “Silent Night” and The History of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

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