When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Album: Essential Hymns (1707)

Songfacts®:

  • This was one of over 750 hymns written by Isaac Watts in his lifetime. It was first published in his 1707 Hymns and Spiritual Songs collection, the first real hymnbook in the English language. He headed it with the text, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ," taken from Galatians 6 v 14. The song is significant for being an innovative departure from the early English hymn style of only using paraphrased biblical texts. It is recognised as the first hymn to be written using the personal pronoun "I" as a personal testimony rather than a proclamation of scriptural doctrine.
  • In its first 1707 publication the hymn's second line originally read, "Where the young Prince of Glory died." In an enlarged edition of the hymnal in 1709, Watts changed the second line to the now familiar "On which the Prince of Glory died."
  • The original 1707 hymn had five verses and the fourth ("His dying crimson...") was bracketed for optional use. This penultimate stanza is commonly omitted in printed versions, a practice that begun with George Whitefield in 1757.
  • In the UK the hymn is generally sung to Edward Miller's 1790 tune "Rockingham." The BBC has used this version for many years to introduce its 7 a.m. broadcast on Good Friday. In America it is generally sung to Lowell Mason's 1824 tune "Hamburg."
  • Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was born in Southampton, England, the son of a Congregationalist minister, who was incarcerated twice for his non-conformist views. He followed his father into the ministry, pasturing a large Independent Chapel in London. Only five foot tall, Watts had a large head, made larger by a huge wig and suffered ill health for much of his life. During the last thirty years of his life, he was more or less an invalid, however Watts fulfilled his ministerial duties as possible and devoted the remainder of his energies to study and writing. His books on theology and logic gained him wide repute, but Watts considered his sacred songs to be his most significant contribution to the church.

    Other well known hymns that Watts wrote include "Joy To The World" and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past."

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