Hymn Story: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

When I was in London a few years ago I had the privilege of visiting Bunhill fields. This burial ground is sprinkled with the bodies of non-comformist Christians. The bodies of individuals such as John Owen, John Bunyan, John Gill, and Susanna Wesley. Now it may seem strange to say it was a “privilege.” I understand, it is rather weird. However, the bodies of faithful Christian men and women was a reminder to me that life is short but faithfulness to Jesus is the goal of that short life. I remember standing there thinking, “What would it be like to stand here during the resurrection?” Yet one name stood out above all: Isaac Watts.

Isaac Watts (17 July 1674 – 25 November 1748) was an English Christian hymnwriter, theologian and logician. A prolific and popular hymn writer, his work was part of evangelization. He was recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody”, credited with some 750 hymns. Many of his hymns remain in use today and have been translated into numerous languages. When Isaac Watts was a young 22-year old man in his hometown Southampton, England, he wrote several hymns for his hometown church. He became a minister at the age of 25 (the age I am currently). Around this time, his brother Enoch wrote a letter to him urging him to publish his hymns. He wrote, “there is great need of a pen, vigorous and lively as yours, to quicken and revive the dying devotion of the age.”

Watts is my favorite hymn writer. His deep theological thinking mixed with his grasp of the English language makes for a wonderful and thought provoking hymn – something I’m afraid we miss in most of our Christian music today. I am thankful for such depth in worship. My favorite Watts hymn is When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. The power of this hymn resonates with my soul. I’m a captivated with this beautiful work of art.

Tim Challies on his blog writes:

Concerning the hymn’s creation, there is no special story that singles it from among the many others he wrote. (He is credited with something like 750 hymns.) But what makes the hymn unique is the particular beauty of its language and imagery, and the power with which it highlights the most significant event in human and personal history — the cross of Jesus Christ our God.

Watts’ giftedness for writing hymns, combined with his courage in publishing them, would eventually turn the tide against singing only psalms and set a new standard for Christian worship in the English language. Today Watts is widely recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody.” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is his greatest hymn

During my ordination this past weekend it was an honor to have this wonderful hymn during this service. As I sat there, realizing that my life was being dedicated to the Gospel ministry, the challenging words “demands my soul, my life, my all” stirred my soul. May this hymn bless you as we enter into the Easter season.

When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ my God! All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

[His dying crimson, like a robe, Spreads o’er His body on the tree; Then I am dead to all the globe, And all the globe is dead to me.]

Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.

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