Behind the Hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

When I survey the wondrous cross is a great song to concentrate on as we near Easter

Isaac Watts

and remember the true meaning of the season.  Jesus death on the cross is the greatest gift God could give to us and is a gift we can continue to accept today as we accept his salvation.

However, the song was not originally written for the Easter season but as a communion song.

This popular hymn was written by Isaac Watts, one of the best loved hymn composers.   Watts was born on July 17, 1674.

As a young man, Watts complained to his father that the Psalms sung in church were not “inspirational enough”.  His father challenged him to write his own songs for the church service.  He began writing hymns at a very young age.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Watts penned this song in preparation for the communion service.  The song was controversial when Watts first performed it, because it involved a personal religious experience, which was known as a “hymn of human composure”.  The song is also the first hymn to use a personal pronoun.

The hymn is also one of the first to paraphrase Biblical texts.  The first two lines paraphrase part of Galatians 6:14.

The hymn was first published under the title “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ “ in the 1707 Hymns and Spiritual Songs. 

Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross

There is also a fourth stanza that is often omitted.  This is a practice that began in 1757 with George Whitefield.

The fourth verse is:  
His dying crimson, like a robe, 
Spreads o’er His body on the tree: 
Then am I dead to all the globe, 
And all the globe is dead to me.


The tune used has varied over the years, but the song

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

is usually sung to today is called “Rockingham” by Edward Miller.   On Good Friday, the BBC begins it’s broadcast with this tune.

Isaac Watts also wrote other hits we still sing such as Joy to the World, O God, Our Help in Ages Past, and At the Cross. 

This classic hymn of Isaac Watts has often been called the greatest hymn in the English language. Another contemporary of Isaac Watts said of it, “There may be a few others equally great, but there is none greater.”

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