175

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Scripture References

Thematically related:

Further Reflections on Scripture References

The text arose out of Watts' meditation on Galatians 6:14: "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . ." Originally in five stanzas (the fourth is common­ly omitted), the text was subtitled "Crucifixion to the World, by the Cross of Christ."
 
The text is a meditation on Christ's atoning death: at the cross God's love is revealed, to each believer, requiring total commitment to Christ-"my soul, my life, my all!" Watts’ profound and awe-inspiring words provide an excellent example of how a hymn text by fine writer can pack a great amount of systematic theology into a few memorable lines.

Confessions and Statements of Faith References

Further Reflections on Confessions and Statements of Faith References

This song reflects the narrative of the suffering and death of Christ on Calvary, events whose significance and purpose is deepened by the confessions of the church. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 15-16, Questions and Answers 37-44 explain the significance of each step of his suffering. Question and Answer 40 testifies that Christ had to suffer death “because God’s justice and truth require it; nothing else could pay for our sins except the death of the son of God.”
 

The Belgic Confession, Article 20 professes that “God made known his justice toward his Son…poured out his goodness and mercy on us…giving to us his Son to die, by a most perfect love, and raising him to life for our justification, in order that by him we might have immortality and eternal life.”
Consider also the testimony of Belgic Confession, Article 21: “He endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins.”

Tune Information

Name
HAMBURG
Key
D Major
Meter
8.8.8.8

Recordings

Hymn Story/Background

Many consider "When I Survey" to be the finest hymn text written by Isaac Watts. In fact, Charles Wesley is said to have thought it was better than any of his own hymn texts. Watts published it in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) as part of a group of hymns for the Lord's Supper. The text arose out of Watts' meditation on Galatians 6:14: "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…" Originally in five stanzas (the fourth is common­ly omitted), the text was subtitled "Crucifixion to the World, by the Cross of Christ."
 
The text is a meditation on Christ's atoning death: at the cross God's love is revealed, to each believer, requiring total commitment to Christ-"my soul, my life, my all!" Watts’ profound and awe-inspiring words provide an excellent example of how a hymn text by fine writer can pack a great amount of systematic theology into a few memorable lines.
 
Lowell Mason composed HAMBURG (named after the German city) in 1824. The tune was published in the 1825 edition of Mason's Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music. Mason indicated that the tune was based on a chant in the first Gregorian tone.
 
HAMBURG is a very simple tune with only five tones; its simplicity allows us to focus entirely on the text. Sing stanzas 1-3 in harmony and stanza 4 in unison. Try singing one of the middle stanzas unaccompanied. Although some prefer larger organ accompaniment on stanza 4, Watts' profound text can also suggest a more quiet and humble treatment.
— Bert Polman

Author Information

Isaac Watts (b. Southampton, England, 1674; d. London, England, 1748) was a precocious student and voracious reader. As a youth he studied Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew. He declined an offer to study at Oxford and chose instead to attend an independent academy in Stoke Newington (1690-1694). From 1696 to 1701 Watts was tutor for the family of Sir John Hartopp, and in 1702 he became the pastor of Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London. However, ill health, which he had suffered for some years, took a serious turn in 1712. After that time he served the Mark Lane Chapel only on a part-time basis and moved in to the estate of Sir Thomas Abney to became the family chaplain, a position he held for the rest of his life. During the following thirty-six years Watts was a prolific author–writing books about theology, philosophy (including an influential textbook, Logic), and education, as well as con­ducting a voluminous correspondence.
 
Today, Watts is best remembered for his psalm paraphrases and hymns. Many of his contemporaries were exclusive psalm singers. After complaining about the poor quality of many of the psalm paraphrases, the teenager Watts was challenged by his father, "Give us something better!" So he began to write new psalm versifications in which he deliberately chose not to follow closely the King James text but instead to interpret the Old Testament psalms through contemporary British Christian and New Testament eyes.
 
The next step was to write hymns rather than Scripture paraphrases. What he called "hymns of human composure" established him as the creator of the modern English hymn; he is known as the "father of English hymnody." Altogether, Watts wrote more than six hundred psalm and hymn texts, which were published in his Horae Lyricae (1706), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), Divine Songs . . . for the Use of Children (1715), The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719), and Sermons and Hymns (1721-1727). Most of Watts' texts use the traditional British ballad meters (Short Meter, Common Meter, and Long Meter) and state their theme in often memorable first lines. His work became immensely popular in the English-speaking world, including the United States, where, following the American Revolution, Watts' texts were edited by Timothy Dwight in 1801 to remove their British connotations. Several of his versifications and hymns are still found in most hymnals; especially loved are the paraphrase of Psalm 90, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" (405), and the hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" (175).
— Bert Polman

Composer Information

As a child Lowell Mason (b. Medfield, MA, 1792; d. Orange, NJ, 1872) learned to play every musical instrument available to him. He bought music books and attended a singing school when he was thirteen, and soon began teaching singing schools and directing a church choir. In 1812 he moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he helped to establish the firm Stebbins and Mason, which sold musical instruments in addition to dry goods. Mason also adapted, composed, and harmonized tunes for The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music (1821). This collection was widely used and resulted in public demand for Mason to lead the music at singing schools, concerts, and Sunday school conventions. He moved to Boston in 1827 to become the music director in three churches; later he became the choir director of the Bowdoin Street Church. In 1833 Mason helped to found the Boston Academy of Music, which was instrumental in introducing music education to the Boston public schools in 1838. An advocate of Pestalozzi's educational principles (an inductive teaching method), Mason frequently lectured in England and the United States. A major force in musical education in the United States and in the promotion of European models of church music (as opposed to the southern folk-hymn tradition), Mason also encouraged the change from exclusive psalm singing to the singing of hymns in the churches. In association with Thomas Hasting, George Webb, and others, Mason compiled some eighty hymnals and collections, includ­ing The Juvenile Psalmist (1829), Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (1832), and, most importantly, Carmina Sacra (1841, revised 1852). Mason composed over eleven hun­dred original hymn tunes and arranged another five hundred, mainly from European sources. He derived most of his tune names from the Old Testament.
— Bert Polman

Song Notes

The Lutheran Hymnal Handbook includes this little narrative about the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:” “With regard to the practical application of the final stanza, Father Ignatius of St. Edmund’s Church in London is reported to have blurted to his congregation: ‘Well, I’m surprised to hear you sing that. Do you know that altogether you put only fifteen shillings in the collection bag this morning?’” For indeed, when we sing this hymn we dedicate ourselves entirely to God, for God demands not just a piece of who we are, but “our soul, our life, our all.” This can be an incredibly difficult line to sing with any sense of honesty. Devotional author Jerry Jenkins writes in his book Hymns for Personal Devotions, “Perhaps it’s the distance between where Watts encourages me to be and where I truly am that makes this hymn so hard to sing. It’s a lofty and worthy spiritual goal to say that ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all,’ but how short I fall!” And so as we sing this hymn of love and awe, we must sing it with a prayer in our hearts, asking God to enable us each day to live our life wholly for him.
— Laura de Jong