Tuesday, May 21, 2024
HomeNewsThe Good Friday hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

The Good Friday hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross


THIS hymn is considered the crowning achievement of the man called the Father of English Hymnody, Isaac Watts. That is some accolade when you think that his other works include Joy to the World  and O God Our Help in Ages Past.

I have written about Watts (1674-1748) several times before but his life is well worth recalling again.

He was born in Southampton while his clergyman father was in prison for his nonconformist sympathies, in other words his refusal to embrace the established Church of England. (His father was released and went on to have seven more children. At one point he was jailed again and Isaac remembered his mother’s tales of nursing her children on the jail steps.) Isaac was exceptionally gifted, learning Latin by the age of four, Greek at nine, French (which he took up to converse with his refugee neighbours) at 11, and Hebrew at 13.

He started making up rhymes at an early age. According to legend he was once asked why he had his eyes open during prayers, to which he responded:

A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.

He was threatened with a hiding for this (what a strange response!) and cried:

O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.

At the age of six he composed a poem as an acrostic on his name:

‘I am a vile polluted lump of earth
So I’ve continu’d ever since my birth;
Although Jehovah grace does daily give me,
As sure this monster Satan will deceive me,
Come, therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.

Wash me in thy blood, O Christ,
And grace divine impart,
Then search and try the corners of my heart,
That I in all things may be fit to do
Service to thee, and sing thy praises too.’

At that time, church singing was no more than metered renditions of the Psalms intoned by a cantor and repeated by the congregation. Legend has it that one Sunday afternoon Watts, then aged about 14, was complaining about dullness of these songs. His father said, ‘I’d like to see you write something better!’ Isaac retired to his room and appeared later with his first hymn, Behold the Glories of the Lamb, which was enthusiastically received at the service that evening. You can see the words here. The career of the ‘Father of English Hymnody’ had begun.

Several wealthy townspeople offered to pay for his university education at Oxford or Cambridge, but these institutions would not admit nonconformists and Isaac refused to give up his beliefs. Instead he went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington (now part of north London, and then a centre of religious dissent) in 1690, when he was 16.

After graduating, Watts took work as a private tutor. In 1696 he became tutor to the family of nonconformist Sir John Hartopp of Stoke Newington and of Freeby, Leicestershire, and preached his first sermons in the family chapel at Freeby. He lived with the Hartopps in Stoke Newington. In 1699 he was appointed assistant to the minister of Mark Lane Independent (Congregational) Chapel, London, one of the capital’s most influential independent churches. and in March 1702 became full pastor. The following year, he began suffering from an illness that would plague him for the rest of his life. (Different authorities say this illness was variously mental or physical but I cannot discover its exact nature.) He had to pass more and more of his work to his assistant and eventually resigned in 1712.

In Stoke Newington he had become acquainted with the Hartopps’ immediate neighbours, Sir Thomas Abney and his wife Mary. When his health broke down he went to stay with the Abneys at their Hertfordshire home, intending a week’s visit. At their request he moved in with them and stayed with the household for the rest of his life, another 36 years.

His illness and appearance took its toll on his personal life. He was barely 5ft and thin with a disproportionately large head. In the early 1700s he was contacted by Elizabeth Singer, a noted poet in her own right, who wrote to tell him how moved she was by his work. Isaac replied, and through the next several months of correspondence the two fell in love. But when they eventually met, Elizabeth could not get past his looks. When he offered marriage, she turned him down, saying, ‘If only I could say that I admire the casket as much as I admire the jewel it contains.’ Although disappointed, Watts remained her friend. She subsequently married the poet and biographer Thomas Rowe, 13 years her junior, but he died five years later of tuberculosis. After Elizabeth’s own death in 1737 Watts, according to her request, revised and edited her book Devout Exercises of the Heart in Meditation and Soliloquy, Prayer and Praise. He never married.

By the time of his death in 1748, at the age of 74, he had written 750 hymns, many based on the Psalms.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross was published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707. It is said to be based on Galatians 6:14, ‘But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.’ These are the words:

1 When I survey the wond’rous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory dy’d,
My richest Gain I count but Loss,
And pour Contempt on all my Pride.

2 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.

3 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?

4 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.

5 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.

The second line of the first stanza originally read ‘Where the young Prince of Glory dy’d’. Watts altered it in the 1709 edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs to prevent it from being mistaken as an allusion to Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, the heir to the throne who had died in 1700 at the age of 11. I think the second version is better.

I have read that the fourth stanza (the one most closely based on the Bible verse) has been commonly omitted since the 18th century, but I can remember singing it in school or church.

The usual tune is Rockingham, adapted from Webbe’s Collection of Psalm-Tunes by Edward Miller (1735-1807), the son of a stonemason in King’s Lynn, who ran away from home to become a musician.

Here it is sung in full last April by some of the choir of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney. The YouTube legend says: ‘The day before churches were shut down in Sydney, we very quickly recorded, with a very reduced and socially-distanced St Andrew’s Cathedral Choir, several well-known hymns and psalms.’

I have included this version from New Zealand for the descant on the last verse by the great David Willcocks.

In America the hymn is more often sung to Hamburg by Lowell Mason (1792-1872). Here is a performance by the choir of First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska.

If you appreciated this article, perhaps you might consider making a donation to The Conservative Woman. Unlike most other websites, we receive no independent funding. Our editors are unpaid and work entirely voluntarily as do the majority of our contributors but there are inevitable costs associated with running a website. We depend on our readers to help us, either with regular or one-off payments. You can donate here. Thank you.
If you have not already signed up to a daily email alert of new articles please do so. It is here and free! Thank you.

Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

Sign up for TCW Daily

Each morning we send The ConWom Daily with links to our latest news. This is a free service and we will never share your details.