When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

For Good Friday, I thought we would take a look at a song about Jesus death.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross was inspired by Galatians 6:14: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Isaac Watts, the author of the song, had been writing hymns since childhood. During two years of his childhood he wrote a hymn for every Sunday service. By the age of twelve, Watts had learned a number of languages including Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

After returning home from college, Isaac Watts felt a tug towards the ministry and wrote many songs. He preached his first sermon in 1698. A year later he became the assistant pastor of London’s Mark Lane Church. He became that church’s regular pastor in 1702.

The Crown of Thorns

Watts wrote When I Survey the Wondrous Cross in 1707. The inspiration came while he was preparing to serve communion to his congregation.

His brother, Enoch, encouraged him to publish his hymns, which he originally published in 1707. He sold the copyrights to his songs to the publisher, a Mr. Lawrence, for ten pounds. The hymnal, “Hymns and Spiritual Songs”, was an instant success and republished two years later.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross was originally titled “Crucifixion to the World, by the Cross of Christ”.

Composer Lowell Mason married his tune “Hamburg” to the words in 1824. Mason originally arranged the tune from a Gregorian Chant he’d heard. The tune only consist of five notes and first appeared in 1825 in the “Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society Collections of Church Music.”

Christ on the Cross

Isaac Watts wrote over 600 hymns, including “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” His songs have a strong and triumphant statement. He is known as the Father of English hymnody.

The fourth verse of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is often omitted today. Charles Wesley stated he wish he’d written this hymn over all of the ones he wrote. The theologian, Matthew Arnold, considered this hymn the “finest hymn in the English church.”