Let Children Hear
“Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds” In today’s Gospel lesson from Luke 18, Jesus exhorts the disciples to “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the great English hymnist, echoes a similar sentiment when he implores in this hymn to “Make to them His glories known, His works of pow’r and grace. . . O teach them with all diligence the truths of God’s own Word, to place in Him their confidence, to fear and trust their Lord.” This reflects Moses’ admonition in Deuteronomy 4: 9b when, referring to the “commands” or “statutes” of the Lord, he states “Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” The Old Testament is replete with examples of instructing children in the ways of God. Consider Psalm 78: 5-8:
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded to our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.
Isaac Watts was the great “Father of English Hymnody.” Prior to Watts, English “hymnody” consisted of metrical paraphrases of psalms, often poorly rendered. There were no “hymns” dedicated to the liturgical year, particular seasons of life, or even to New Testament topics as existed in the German Lutheran Church. Watts paraphrased the psalter in a manner beyond the scope and aesthetic capabilities of his predecessors, but he also began to compose hymn texts that were not taken directly from scripture but were rather “of human composure.” (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is one such example.) Here, Watts has taken Psalm 78 as an inspiration, but has interpolated the meaning of the scripture texts.
Also of interest to the writer of music notes is that this text is dedicated to “childhood.” In an age where there are all sorts of educational and social options (and expectations) for children, this might not seem so unusual. But such did not exist prior to the nineteenth century, before which children were seen simply as little adults and treated accordingly. (Whether this was a good or bad thing probably depends on the situation.) With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, children were seen as a source of cheap labour in factories--think of Dicken’s Oliver Twist. In the UK, there were laws enacted as early as 1802 and 1819 restricting children from working in factories. Later in the nineteenth century, of course, formalized schooling was enacted, and in America what is known as the public school came to be. One might cynically say this was the “invention of childhood.” Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was inspired by his own humiliating experiences as a child, occasionally involving a debtor’s prison, and in its own way sought to exemplify the innocence and simplicity which ostensibly should be afforded children who were forced to grow up too soon. (One can see parallels to issues of today.) Watts lived a century prior to these progressive developments, and for him to have devoted a hymn to childhood suggests the importance with which he viewed teaching the faith.
Almost two centuries before Watts, Luther, of course, conceived of the catechism as a way to teach everyone, including children, the basics of the Christian faith. Luther’s great Christmas carol “From Heaven Above” was intended for the children of his household to sing—all fifteen stanzas! But this attention to the unique needs of children was sporadic. Certainly the tomes of parenting and education books on the shelves of the local book outlets testify to the attention the current culture pays to children. (Although one could very well argue that the motivation is commercial.) In this hymn, however, Watts affirms the importance of conveying the faith to children—not simply for their benefit, but for their own childrens’ benefit.