The Fount Account – A Brief Study on “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”

This Hymn is a remarkably beautiful and powerful text that originally served as a communion hymn. Written by Issac Watts in 1707, the hymn “When I Survey…” was written not only as a communion hymn but also as a differently titled hymn: “Crucifixion to the World, by the Cross of Christ.”  The hymn has lasted the tests of time as a melodious reflection and representation of the verse it is textually from, Galatians 6:14 ESV (But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.)

On the author, it is told legendarily that he wrote his first hymn as a rebuttal to challenge presented by his father. As a young boy, Isaac Watts complained about the cantors of Psalms in his father’s church he pastored. Having been challenged by his father to write something better himself, young Isaac would retire to his room and appear a mere few hours later with his first hymn, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb.” Having birthed his hymn writing career, Isaac Watts would go on to pen “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” his most well-known authorship and argued as one of the greatest hymns of the English church.

The Hymn has a history that is often omitted from the hymnal. “When I Survey…” contains 5 verses, though verse 4 was removed from most publications. The 4th verse is written as:

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.

Most (if not all) modern versions of this published hymn do not contain this verse, though it is manuscripted as the original verse 4 by Watts. Commentary written by Greg Scheer:

Perhaps Watts eliminated this verse in order to focus more attention on our response to Christ’s crucifixion than the crucifixion itself. Notice how he starts with contemplation of the cross and the fact that all our worldly achievements and possessions pale in comparison. Next, he shows that Christ went to the cross out of  love for us. In the most powerful image of the hymn, he affirms the deity of the suffering Christ with the brilliant juxtaposition: “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” And the last verse shows that the only proper response to this amazing love is complete devotion.

The Hymn is also known by many different tunes. In the United States, it is most commonly sung to the Lowell Mason tune “Hamburg.” In much of Canada and the United Kingdom, the Hymn is sung to the Anonymous tune entitled “Rockingham” harmonized by Edward Miller. While there are many more, the last notable tune is “The Eucharist Woodbury” composed by Isaac Woodbury, though this arrangement has become mostly historical minus a few select hymnal publishings.

Regardless the hymn tune, the use of the stanzas that have been lost to time, or even how well the hymn is sung, it is a remarkable capture of the cross and crucifixion during this season of lent. Leaning on the text a bit, I am captivated by the phrasing in the 3rd Stanza, “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown.” I take from this text that Christ went fully lovingly to the cross, and because of the sacrifice made the 4th stanza as Scheer writes beckons for complete devotion, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

What powerful words to meditate on this afternoon, evening, or morning whence this email finds you as we progress closer to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, that the joy of Easter Sunday awaits.

Be Blessed,