The three men behind one of our greatest Christmas carols.
By Lindsay Terry
Let every heart
prepare Him room,
And heaven and
One of our most popular Christmas carols is the result of the efforts of Isaac Watts and Lowell Mason—and, some believe, George Frederick Handel. Watts was a frail, quiet man only five feet tall. Mason was an energetic publisher, choir director, and composer. Handel was a large, robust musical genius. Handel and Watts were contemporaries in London and one imagines they must have appreciated each other’s talents. Mason lived 100 years later in Boston.
In 1719 Isaac Watts, already a notable scholar and author, sat down under a tree at the Abney Estate near London and began to compose poetry based on Psalm 98. Watts had begun writing verses as a small child. In his teen years he complained that the songs in church were hard to sing. His father said, “Well, you write some that are better.” And so he did. For the next two years, young Isaac wrote a new hymn each week. (He would eventually write more than 600 of them, all based on Scripture.) Today, hymns like “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” are hallmarks of the Christian church, and Watts is regarded as “the Father of English Hymnody.”
In 1741 George Frederick Handel, who was already famous as the composer of several operas and oratorios, decided that he wanted to do a truly great work. After spending time in prayer, he arose from his knees and for 23 days labored almost continuously day and night. The immortal Messiah, now a Christmas tradition, was the fruit of that incessant struggle.
A nobleman once praised Handel for the “entertainment” he had furnished in one of his compositions. In no uncertain terms Handel let the nobleman know that his music was composed to make men better, not to entertain them.
Almost a century later, Lowell Mason set Watts’s poem of “joy” to music. For years it was assumed that Mason used tunes from Handel’s Messiah for portions of the arrangement, but the veracity of that claim is now debated among scholars. Listeners can judge for themselves. But this we know: It was Mason who ultimately brought the pieces together to give us “Joy to the World.”
Lindsay Terry is the author of The Sacrifice of Praise: Stories Behind the Greatest Praise and Worship Songs of All Time (Integrity).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today’s Christian magazine. November/December 2006, Vol. 44, No. 6, page 11