When I Survey The Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts (1707)

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?

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.


Isaac Watts was the master of hymn writers.  He not only wrote the masterpiece of our discussion today, he also wrote hundreds of others, including Joy To The World which is perhaps the best known song of Christmas.  He was an exceptional pastor and poet who understood deeply the extraordinary power of carving truth into a tune.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

Charles Wesley, himself one of the greatest of hymn writers, reportedly said that he would give up all the hymns he had penned if he could have written “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The man who did compose it, Isaac Watts, is widely considered to be the first great English hymn writer, and the headwaters from which the whole tradition of English hymns has flowed. This hymn has had many musical settings throughout the years, but the most widely embraced today is that of Lowell Mason, who in 1824 composed the haunting and stately tune by which is it commonly known today. It has become a staple of hymnbooks from every tradition of the Christian church, combining sensually passionate language with a powerful theological statement.

With imagery that is beautiful yet horrific, Isaac Watts invites us to join him at the foot of the cross and witness the pain and shock of Jesus’s death while meditating on what it has accomplished for those who embrace the meaning of his sacrifice. Watts does not spare our mind’s eye from the horror of the event, as we are made witness to the blood and the tears of Christ streaming from his crucified body: “See from His head, His hands, His feet, / Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” We can imagine the ringing of the hammer on the spikes, the taunting of the crowd, and the wailing cries of those who loved him.

Yet this is not only a moment of sadness but also of glorious victory: “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, / Or thorns compose so rich a crown?” In light of this atoning death, Watts reminds us that all our earthly attainments are empty and vain, nothing in comparison to what Jesus attained for us on the cross: “I sacrifice them to His blood.” This crucial moment in human history changed everything. Christ’s sacrifice reorients what we see as valuable and provides a new perspective on the world and everything in it, calling us to make a sacrifice of our own: giving up our lives for the Savior.

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.

Originally published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707–09), this hymn was placed within the section of the hymnal called, “Prepared for the Holy Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper,” which lets us know that Watts’s intention is for us to meditate on the sacrificial death of Christ as we partake of his body and blood in the Eucharist. Watts moves our emotions without becoming mawkish, sentimental, or overly subjective about the gracious gift that changes .

 

Are there any contemporary worship songs that congregations will be singing hundreds of years from now?


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

Isaac Watts

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?

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.

 

 

Isaac Watts

(1674–1748)
Isaac Watts was the first Englishman to succeed in overcoming the prejudices that opposed the introduction of hymns into English public worship. Today it is difficult to realize that such a prejudice ever existed. The objection to singing usually was not an objection to the singing of the Psalms, but an objection to the singing of hymns that had been composed in modern time.

In 1707 Watts published a book of hymns, some of which were of such enduring worth that scarcely any hymnal in modern times omits them: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” “Lord of the Worlds Above,” and “Give Me the Wings of Faith to Rise.” They were by no means the first English hymns, but they were the first considerable collection. It is not surprising that Independent Congregations sang no other songs for seventy years or so, or that Watts’s hymns have retained their popularity after generations of hymn writers.

As a result of Watts’s writings, the need of the human heart to express its religious feelings found vent in a new and more expressive direction. The lyric impulse that again and again had manifested itself in sacred hymns, despite the shackles of the Calvinistic devotion to the Psalms, found its expression first in these freer and more spontaneous versions by Watts. These new versions of the Psalms had a freedom and spiritual fervency unknown before. This gives place to a more spontaneous and emotional expression of the general thought of the Psalms. The tunes to which these new hymns were to be sung were emotional, spontaneous, and popular. This “new wine” burst the old bottles of rigid psalmody and created a new church music of its own.

When Isaac Watts’s hymns began to find their way into favor, many conservative religious people disdainfully called them “Watts’s whims.” While Martin Luther’s hymns were being sung widely in Germany, Watts’s hymns were still fighting their way into some churches, sometimes as much as thirty to forty years later.

Watts wrote over five hundred hymns; however, not all were the best quality. He said that Charles Wesley’s hymn “Wrestling Jacob” was worth all that he (Watts) had ever written. Despite his modesty, his output was very significant to English hymnody.

In 1719, Watts introduced Psalm paraphrases written with greater freedom than those that had been in use. He managed to express faithfully the sentiment of the Psalms and enriched them for Christian people by references to New Testament thought.

Isaac Watts’s Hymns and Psalms of David Imitates was also well known in the United States colonies in the eighteenth century. He kept in touch with the colonies, carrying on regular correspondence with different religious leaders such as Cotton Mather. Benjamin Franklin published Watts’s Psalms in 1729. By 1740 it was clear that it strongly caught the interest of the American colonists. One of the earliest American books for children was Divine and Moral Songs, published by Isaac Watts in 1720.

Sources and Resources

G.A. Comfort, “Watts, Isaac,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 705–706.

Bond, Douglas. The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts. Crawfordsville, IN: Reformation Trust, 2013.
Cook, Faith. Our Hymn Writers and Their Hymns. Faverdale North, UK: Evangelical Press, 2005.
Houghton, Elsie. Classic Christian Hymn Writers. Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publishing, 1982.
Ryden, Ernest Edwin. The Story of Our Hymns. Rock Island, IL: Augustana Book Concern, 1930.
Smith, Jane Stuart, and Betty Carlson. Great Christian Hymn Writers. Wheaton: Crossway, 1997.
Turner, Steve. Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Watts, Isaac. A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody, 1707.

 

 

Terry Glaspey

 

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.