By Jerry Rushford
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) has been called the “father of English hymnody.” He wrote more than 700 hymns and popularized congregational hymn-singing throughout the world. His hymns were in five books: Horae Lyricae (1705), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707 & 1709), Divine and Moral Songs (1715) and The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719).
Watts wrote “When I survey the wondrous cross” as a communion hymn and it first appeared in print in his outstanding 1707 collection Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Matthew Arnold, English poet and critic, declared this hymn to be “the greatest hymn in the English language” and it has long been acknowledged as one of the finest hymns ever written.
This hymn is based on Galatians 6:14 – “But God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The prolific Charles Wesley, who wrote more than 6,000 hymns, reportedly said he would give up all his hymns to have written this one.
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 Lord;
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.
A recording of this hymn by Keith Lancaster can be heard in the video below.
This blog post is part of a series on the history of hymns, by Dr. Jerry Rushford, Director of the Churches of Christ Heritage Center at the Pepperdine Libraries. For more information on the Pepperdine Special Collections and University Archives, including the Churches of Christ Heritage Center, please see our website.