Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Give 'Em Watts, Boys!"

“The Battle of Springfield” - June 23rd, 1780
Six-thousand British troops invaded New Jersey with full force. The opposing American forces were outnumbered 5 to 1. The British slowly pushed the Americans back, deeper into Springfield, New Jersey. Despite being pushed back the American defense was holding and the British were taking a beating. But during the battle the American troops ran out of wading for their muskets. This would have likely been their downfall had it not been for the quick thinking of Rev. James Caldwell. Caldwell and his men fell back to a Presbyterian church and Caldwell ran inside gathering all the hymnals he could find—which were at that time Isaac Watts’ editions—and began flinging them to the men, yelling as he did so, “Give ‘em Watts, boys! Put Watts into ‘em!” and instructing them to “fill the British with doctrine from the hymnals.” The battle waged on and the British eventually retreated and never invaded New Jersey again.

"Give 'Em Watts, Boys!"
Two things pop out at me when I read that story. The first is that it is such a good story it is almost unbelievable. It seems like it comes directly from a Hollywood script. But the story is true and very well documented. In fact the phrase “Give ‘em Watts, boys!” has lived on as a motto in that region.

The second thing that hits me is how that motto could (and should) be used today in the church. I want to revitalize it and give it new meaning. I want to use it as a new battle cry, but this time instead of using it to inspire men to pump Red Coats full of lead I want it to inspire men to use and continue using the great hymns of our faith. I have yet to encounter any songwriter or lyricist who can capture the gospel in poetic English the way in which Watts, Wesley, Newton and other hymn writing giants have done. This is not to say that we should only sing Watts and those like him (though we would hardly be at a disadvantage if we did), but rather we should not abandon the songs and hymns these men have given to us. I am all for writing new music and new words. Every generation should do it! But I am not for discarding that which has come before us, as is the unfortunate habit (or is it philosophy?) of many churches. I am convinced that a church’s theology is more likely determined by the songs they sing rather than their written statement of faith. And at a time when many churches are considered trite or flippant or even weak, a little Watts could serve as a shot in the arm, maybe even a catalyst for change.

If I had a group of worship leaders, pastors or any manner of church leaders before me, I would encourage them to either bring back or continue steadfastly using the old hymns for their congregations. I would bark at them like a General, “Load ‘em up with Wesley!” “Put Newton into ‘em!” “Give ‘em Watts, Boys! Give ‘em Watts!”

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree with your thoughts here. For the last couple years I've tried to be intentional about finding or making more contemporary arrangements of quality hymns from the past. We've developed a decent collection of them in our repertoire. Actually I came across the words to a Watt's hymn that was not well known to me or others, didn't like the music, so I made my own music and it's been pretty well received by the congregation. also, you are right about a church's theology being more related to the songs they sing than their statement of faith, hence why whether old or new, the songs we sing need to be assessed for what they teach us. Thanks for the great post!