Of the lesser known hymns written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), How Wretched Was Our Former State stakes out some lonely territory. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find tune information for this poetic expression of the Savior’s triumphant rescue of fallen, sinful man. Indeed, Watts was known for his poems as well as his hymns, with some (poems) having no sacred theme at all. With an 18.104.22.168. meter, the hymn can be sung to familiar tunes like AZMON (aka O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing) or NEW BRITAIN (aka Amazing Grace).
Interestingly, the poem can be adapted and sung to a 17th century Scottish folk tune, THE PEACOCK, which has become quietly popular in recent decades with the song, The Parting Glass. In the 19th century, this tune appeared in sacred music as the name CLAMANDA (22.214.171.124.), with the song, Say Now, Ye Lovely Social Band.
At the turn of the 19th century, it appeared in only three hymnals used by Presbyterians (1796), the Church of Scotland (1800), and the Universalist Church of America (1817).
As a reformed yet very capable theologian, Watts was extraordinarily adept at weaving rich, Biblical truths into nearly every line or stanza of his hymns and poetry. How Wretched Was Our Former State has the capacity to vividly picture the former state of man compared to the merciful, salvific work of Christ on the cross, though the cross is only inferred.
In his letter to Titus, Paul charged his young son in the faith to remain faithful and to maintain good works as he battled against Jewish legalists who were enforcing works of the Law as a condition of following Christ and Gentile unbelievers who were in every way “slaves to Satan,” as Watts put it. There’s great comparison and contrast of the hymn with the words of Paul to Titus. Also, the hymn generates key words and phrases that invite more Bible study for any student of the Bible.
How Wretched Was Our Former State
How wretched was our former state,
when, slaves to Satan’s sway,
With hearts disordered and impure,
o’erwhelmed in sin we lay!
But, O my soul! For ever praise,
for ever love His name,
Who turned thee from the fatal paths
of folly, sin, and shame.
Vain and presumptuous is the trust
which in our works we place,
Salvation from a higher source
flows to the human race.
’Tis from the mercy of our God
that all our hopes begin;
His mercy saved our souls from death,
and washed our souls from sin.
His Spirit, through the Saviour shed,
its sacred fire imparts,
Refines our dross, and Love divine
rekindles in our hearts.
Thence raised from death, we live anew;
and, justified by grace,
We hope in glory to appear,
and see our Father’s face.
Let all who hold this faith and hope
in holy deeds abound;
Thus faith approves itself sincere,
by active virtue crowned.
Say Now, Ye Lovely Social Band