Monday, February 26, 2018

We're Marching to Zion -- Isaac Watts

He wrote what he felt, and made no apologies if it offended those he sensed were in opposition to this freedom. Isaac Watts was declaring this approach with conviction when he penned “We’re Marching to Zion” in the early 1700s. Though today some folks might skip those challenging verses, or not even include them in their hymnals, Isaac’s other more neutral-sounding words were in fact something of a revolution too. And so it was, for this Nonconformist at his southern England home, who grew up watching his father exhibit the same courage that he would mimic in his own faith. It began with his education and then continued in the ministry he pursued the rest of his life.

Isaac Watts was way ahead of his time, someone might say, between the late 17th Century when he was born and through the early 18th Century when he generated most of his 800-plus hymns, earning him the reputation as England’s ‘father (or Godfather) of hymnody’. Nonconformists like his father (Isaac, also) did not adhere to the Anglican pattern of state-approved worship, and so were always living their faith on the edge. This set of beliefs made Isaac choose a different establishment of higher education when he reached his young adult years in 1690; instead of attending Oxford or Cambridge that would have been ideal for a student of his obvious intelligence and energy, Isaac entered the Nonconformist Academy at Stoke Newington, in London, where he stayed for four years. The two years he spent after his Stoke Newington years at his father’s Southampton home was the period in which Isaac most likely wrote the 10 original verses of “We’re Marching to Zion” (also known as “Come, We that Love the Lord”). He eventually became a frequent speaker by his mid-20s, but we can envision some of his pre-sermonizing years and the evident fire and principled views in the words of hymns like “We’re Marching…”. Most obvious is Isaac’s original 3rd verse, in which he dryly noted that some would ‘refuse to sing, Who never knew our God…’. Watts’ hymns were too unconventional for some worshippers who believed stoutly that the only decent words to be sung in worship emanated directly from the Psalms. One can imagine the angst at the time – the worship-style/musical debate in churches is centuries old, and ongoing! Some of his other words may be interpreted as Watts’ subtle commentary or at least recognition of the debate; verse 1 [‘join in a song with sweet accord…’], verse 2 [‘Religion never was designed, to make our pleasures less…’], and verse 10 [‘Then let our songs abound…’] are potentially indicative of Isaac’s opinions on what should transpire during a worship service.        

Isaac’s basic thrust in ‘We’re Marching…’ is that, if God’s home is so magnificent, why should we believers constrict our joy of its approaching reality. Yes, we’re marching, but not in a lock-step, grim determination. Let’s experience the boundless joy we know He’s preparing for us now, Watts implores. This march is not a slow trod; it’s a skip, with lots of jumping and fist-pumping action, complete with back-slapping and wide-eyed amazement for what we can see coming. Try marching that way now!    

Information on the song was obtained from the book  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990.

See all 10 verses that the composer originally crafted here:

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