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When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

by Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

While preparing for a communion service in 1707, Isaac Watts wrote this deeply moving and very personal expression of gratitude for the amazing love that the death of Christ on the cross revealed.  It first appeared in print that same year in Watts’ outstanding collection, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.  The hymn was originally titled “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ.”  Noted theologian Matthew Arnold called this the greatest hymn in the English language.  In Watts’ day, texts such as this, which were based solely on personal feelings, were termed “hymns of human composure” and were very controversial, since almost all congregational singing at this time consisted of ponderous repetitions of the Psalms.  The unique thoughts presented by Watts in these lines certainly must have pointed 18th Century Christians to a view of the dying Saviour in a vivid and memorable way that led them to a deeper worship experience, even as it does for us today.


Young Watts showed unusual talent at an early age, learning Latin when he was 5, Greek at 9, French at 11 and Hebrew at 12.  As he grew up, he became increasingly disturbed by the uninspiring psalm singing in the English churches.  He commented, “The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship most closely related to Heaven; but it’s performance among us is the worst on earth.”  Throughout his life, Isaac Watts wrote over 600 hymns and is known today as the “father of English hymnody.”  His hymns were strong and triumphant statements of the Christian faith, yet none ever equaled the colorful imagery and genuine devotion of this emotionally stirring and magnificent hymn text.