Hymn Story: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Hymn Story: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was an English hymn writer and wrote over 750 hymns in his lifetime, many of which are still sung in churches today.

Read about how Watts got started in hymn writing after a sarcastic comment from his father:1

Matthew Arnold [an English poet of the 1800’s] declared the greatest Christian hymn in the English language to be “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

At least it is admittedly the greatest hymn of a great hymn-writer, Isaac Watts, the father of modern English hymnody. He was the son of a deacon in the Independent Church, who had no sympathy with young Watts’ custom of making rhymes and verses when a boy.

At the age of eighteen Watts was one day ridiculing some of the poor hymns then sung in the churches, when his father said to him, sarcastically, “Make some yourself, then.”

Accordingly, Watts set himself to writing a hymn, and produce the lines beginning: “Behold the glories of the Lamb.” That was the start of his eminent career as a hymn-writer.

He became a clergyman, but illness compelled him to give up the pastorate, and for thirty-six years he remained at the home of Sir Thomas Abbey at Theobaldo [in England], continuing his hymn-writing, which had reached its highest expression in this hymn, based on Paul’s words, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Once, after this hymn had been sung in the Church of Saint Edmund, London, Father Ignatius repeated to his congregation the last two lines of the hymn impressively—

“Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

And he added: “Well, I am surprised to hear you sing that. Do you know that altogether you put only fifteen shillings in the collection bag this morning?”

Here are the full lyrics to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:

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 God!
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.

Listen to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Read More Hymn Stories:


1 Hymn Story found in One Hundred and One Hymn Stories by Carl F. Price; Hymn 32, page 38.

Clayton Kraby
Written by Clayton Kraby
I'm a Pastor in North Dakota and created ReasonableTheology.org to help make theology accessible for the everyday Christian. You can find me on Twitter @ClayKraby.