As the nation pauses to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in war to protect our freedoms, people around the country sing solemn, reflective hymns.

One of the most commonly sung at state events is Isaac Watts’ “O God, Our Help In Ages Past”. It was sung again yesterday at the Remembrance Sunday service in Westminster Abbey.

Yet in Watts’ time, he faced persecution and marginalisation by the state for his beliefs.


Watts’ father was a non-conformist during a time when everyone was required to attend Anglican services, and could be fined for failing to do so.

On several occasions, as a deacon of the Above Bar Congregational Church in Southampton, his dissent was considered serious enough to warrant a prison sentence.

A godly man, Watts Snr wrote to his children imploring them to devote themselves to reading the Bible and delight in its truths, and to obey their mother and “not grieve her by any rebellious or disobedient ways”.

He also cautioned his children against becoming angry at God for the persecution they faced for non-conformity.

He wrote: “Do not entertain any hard thoughts of God, or of his ways, because his people are persecuted for them.

“For Jesus Christ himself was persecuted to death by wicked men, for preaching the gospel and doing good, and the holy apostles and prophets were cruelly used for serving God in his own way.”

Street preachers

Religious liberty improved as Isaac grew up, yet he was still unable to attend university. Despite being well-educated, only Anglicans were permitted to pursue higher education.

While he overcame the obstacles placed before him by the state, leaving a lasting legacy as one of the fathers of English hymn-writing, Watts knew the importance of religious liberty, and how frail it could be.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the state was heavy-handed in how it treated those who did not agree with the orthodoxy of the day, and there are hints of that today.

Street preaching has long been a part of British life. Though less common than in the past, it is still perfectly legal to share the Gospel in a public space.

But many are opposed to the proclamation of Scripture. They brand the Bible hate-speech and those who accept its convicting truths as bigots.

The police are sometimes even summoned by angry passers-by who, rather than accepting the freedom of others to publicly share views they may disagree with, would see street preachers put behind bars for so-called hate crimes.


The increasing opposition to orthodox Christian views is concerning.

In some US states, legislators have made attempts to require pastors to submit sermon notes for state-approval, with consequences for those who do not conform to the state’s view.

How long before such ideas come to the UK?

Like Isaac Watts, many believers throughout history have not enjoyed the religious liberty we take for granted today, and so it is vital that Christians earnestly contend for their freedoms.

Republished by permission of the Christian Institute

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