Watts was taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew at an early age, at the free school at Southampton, his native place. His proficiency was so great, that it was proposed to send him to the University; but he resolved to take his lot with the dissenters. "Such he was," says Dr. Johnson, "as every Christian church would rejoice to have adopted." His education was therefore completed at an academy. He declares that he was a maker of verses from fifteen to forty.
He began to preach in his twenty-fourth year, being chosen assistant to Dr. Chauncey in Southampton, whom he afterwards succeeded. In 1712, he was attacked by a fever of such length and violence, that he never entirely recovered from the weakness to which it reduced him. In this state he found in Sir Thomas Abney a friend, such as is not often to be met with. That gentleman received him into his own house, where he remained an inmate of the family for thirty-six years, and was uniformly treated with the most unalterable friendship, kindness, and attentive respect.
He continued the associate pastor of his congregation through life; for when, from the infirmities of age having become unable to perform the public duties of his office, he offered to remit the salary connected with it, his people affectionately refused to accept his resignation. In this calm and pious retreat, where every thing contributed to sooth his feelings and promote his restoration to health, he composed most of his voluminous and valuable works. And here he died, after a long life of the most devoted piety and extensive usefulness.
"By his natural temper," says Dr. Johnson, "he was quick of resentment; but by his established and habitual practice he was gentle, modest, and inoffensive. His tenderness appeared in his attention to children and to the poor. To the poor, while he lived in the family of his friend, he allowed the third part of his annual revenue, though the whole was not a hundred a year; and for children he condescended to lay aside the scholar, the philosopher, and the wit, to write little poems of devotion, and systems of instruction, adapted to their wants and capacities, from the dawn of reason through its gradations of advance in the morning of life. Every man acquainted with the common principles of human action will look with veneration on the writer, who is at one time combating Locke, and at another making a catechism for children in their fourth year. A voluntary descent from the dignity of science is perhaps the hardest lesson that humility can teach. With his theological works I am only enough acquainted to admire his meekness of opposition, and his mildness of censure." Dr. Doddridge has likewise artlessly described the character and pursuits of his venerated friend, in an affectionate dedication to him of his Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul.
Amidst many things that were unnatural, or trite, Watts has displayed a very vivid imagination, and produced some of the most suitable devotional lyrics in the English language. His poetry is always religiously pure, and some of its shorter strains burn with the chastened sublimity of his pious emotions, expressed in language which could hardly have been rendered more appropriately beautiful. Considered as the work of one mind, his volume of Psalms and Hymns is a remarkable production, and if the best of its contents were selected and published together, such a book would alone entitle him to a high rank among the British poets. His hymns for infant minds display, likewise, a true poetical genius. Had he made poetry the business of his life, his success would doubtless have been eminent; it was only his relaxation. "He is one of the few poets," says Johnson, "with whom youth and ignorance may be safely pleased; and happy will be that reader, whose mind is disposed, by his verses or his prose, to copy his benevolence to man and his reverence to God."