When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

From the book "Lead, Kindly Light"  (Reproduced with kind permission of ‘This England’ magazine)

When, some 250 years after a writer's death the world is still singing his hymns, which include such gems as "O God Our Help In Ages Past", then there is no doubt that the creator of these verses is one of the most acclaimed of hymn-writers.

In all, Isaac Watts wrote about 700 hymns, earning himself the title "Father of English Hymnody". Many of his hymns are still firm favourites today, and each Christmas we delight in singing his carol "Joy to the World". Isaac Watts was born at Southampton in 1674. He was the son of an elder in the Congregational Church, and at grammar school proved to be a gifted pupil. Sadly he fell afoul of the law which prevented those who were not Anglicans from studying at Oxford or Cambridge, so he trained at one of the dissenting academies, and in 1702 was appointed minister at Mark Lane Chapel in London. After about ten years his poor health meant he could no longer continue his ministry and the last 36 years of his life were spent as a semi-invalid and guest of Sir Thomas and Lady Abney, which afforded him the opportunity to pen his prodigious output of fine hymns. Even as a small boy Watts had a great interest in versifying. Once, during family prayers, he began to laugh. His father asked him why. He replied that he had heard a noise and opened his eyes to see a mouse climbing a rope in the comer, and had immediately thought: "A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say his prayers". His father considered this irreverent and proceeded to administer corporal punishment, in the midst of which Isaac called out: "Father, Father, mercy take, and I will no more verses make!"  There is a story about Watts which claims that at the age of 16 he complained to his father that the hymns sung in his local church were "dull and profitless." His father replied, "Then write something better", and the young Isaac took up the challenge, to the lasting joy of us all.

Is "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" the greatest hymn ever written? Charles Wesley certainly thought so, and praised Watts in generous terms. And it was so regarded by the great Victorian essayist and poet Matthew Arnold, who apparently heard it sung at a Presbyterian church in Liverpool on the last Sunday of his life, and, so the story goes, was overheard repeating the third verse shortly before his sudden death a few days later. At the time it was written, "When I Survey" broke new ground in that it was the first attempt to get away from objective, doctrinal hymns and introduce a subjective personal faith, and it is probably the first hymn to include the personal pronoun "I". Some churches make a habit of omitting the fourth verse because it seems too gory, but it is unlikely that Isaac Watts would have approved of any shrinking from the horrors of Christ's crucifixion. In some hymn-books the words "a present" in the fifth verse are changed to "an offering" which emphasizes the personal sacrifice which Christ's death on the Cross demands of each and every one of us. 

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.