Thursday, April 10, 2014

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Christ on the Cross, Eugene Delacroix (1853)

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. 
 ~ 1 Corinthians 1:18     

Christ's atonement on the Cross for the sins of mankind, fulfilled with His resurrection from the dead and ascension into Heaven, is the central and most decisive moment in all history.  Beside it pale any human accomplishment, no matter how great and glorious. In that one event justice and mercy were fully and eternally satisfied, and all creation was reconciled to its Creator. We can never fully comprehend, in this life, the magnitude of Christ's burden and suffering, or of the love it took to endure and overcome it for our sakes.

Isaac Watts

The great English theologian and hymnist Isaac Watts (1674-1748) must have been reflecting along these lines when, in preparation for a communion service, he wrote the text that later became the immortal hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. The work was originally called "Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ," following the practice of the day to summarize a hymn's theme in the title. It was first published in 1707 in Watts' collection Hymns and Spiritual Songs, and was inspired by Galatians 6:14: "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."

This hymn is significant as an innovative departure from the prevailing English practice of the day to sing only paraphrased biblical texts and metrical psalms. It was also one of the first English-language hymns to use the personal pronoun "I", and thus to focus on personal religious experience rather than abstract doctrine. In Isaac Watts' time these were called "hymns of human composure," and were very controversial. Thus, When I Survey holds an important place in the history of sacred music, and went far to establish Watts' reputation as "the Father of English Hymnody."

In 1757, the famous English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) included When I Survey in the Supplement to his popular Collection of Hymns for Social Worship.The next year, When I Survey first appeared in a hymnal published in the United States,The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of the Old and New Testament (1758). Since then, it has been found in the hymnals of American denominations as varied as traditional Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Unitarians and the Assemblies of God.


In its first publication in 1707, When I Survey had five stanzas, as below, but in an enlarged edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1709, Watts bracketed the fourth stanza for optional use.
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?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o'er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

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.

Edward Miller
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross has been set to several different tunes over the years. The hymn's inclusion in the milestone English hymnal Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) sealed its association in British usage to the tune ROCKINGHAM, which was arranged by English organist and composer Edward Miller (1735-1807) and first published in 1790. As a young man Miller was apprenticed to his father, a layer of paving stones, but ran away to study music. At one time he was a flutist in Georg F. Handel’s orchestra. Miller named ROCKINGHAM for his friend, patron, and twice-British Prime Minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. ROCKINGHAM has been called "one of the finest long-meter tunes in the history of church music."

Lowelll Mason
In American hymnals, When I Survey is generally set to an arrangement of HAMBURG, a tune composed by the prominent 19th-century American music director, choirmaster, and organist Lowell Mason (1792-1872), and first published in the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music (3d ed.) in 1825. Mason was largely responsible for introducing music into American public schools, and is considered to be the first important music educator in the United States. He also radically transformed American church music from a practice of having professional choirs and accompaniment to congregational singing accompanied by organ music. Mason stated that he arranged HAMBURG from an ancient Gregorian chant. The entire melody encompasses only a five-note range.

Another oft-heard tune associated with When I Survey is MORTE CHRISTE, attributed to Welshman Emrys Jones. This tune is especially popular with male voice choirs in the United Kingdom, and particularly Wales. Unfortunately, this writer hasn't been able to locate sheet music for this tune.


The following rendition of When I Survey is by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge to Edward Miller's tune ROCKINGHAM.

This rendition is to Lowell Mason's tune HAMBURG (though at a slower pace than originally composed), by the contemporary Christian artist Fernando Ortega:

Click here for another fine rendition to the tune HAMBURG, as arranged by Gilbert M. Martin, by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

In the following rendition, the Welsh choir Cantorion Colin Jones sings When I Survey to Emrys Jones' tune MORTE CHRISTE:

And now for something completely different:  A performance of When I Survey set to the old folk tune The Water is Wide (also called "O Waly,Waly") and performed by Christian songwriter and worship leader Kathryn Scott. In this writer's humble opinion, this tune is at least as effective in conveying the message of Watts' text as the more traditional settings, if not more so!


Is Isaac Watts' When I Survey the Wondrous Cross the greatest hymn ever written? Many believe that distinction belongs to Charles Wesley's Jesus, Lover of My Soul, the subject of our last post. But Wesley himself stated that he preferred When I Survey over all of the hymns he himself had written. The great Victorian essayist and poet Matthew Arnold considered it the “finest hymn in the English church.”  As the story goes, Arnold heard the hymn sung at a Presbyterian church in Liverpool, England on the last Sunday of his life, and was overheard repeating the third verse shortly before his sudden death a few days later.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross remains one of the most popular hymns in English-speaking Christendom. It placed among the top five in the United Kingdom in surveys of the public taken in the 1990s.  (Ian Bradley, Abide With Me: The World of Victorian Hymns (GIA Publications, 1997), p. 231). It was one of the first hymns sung at Billy Graham’s first crusade in Los Angeles, California, in 1949. Tedd Smith, one of the pianists with the Graham Crusades, said about this hymn:
It seems to me that Isaac Watts wrote this text as if he were standing at the foot of Christ’s cross, together with the disciple John, the faithful women, Jesus’ mother, the Roman soldiers and the excited mob. When I play or sing the hymn, I try to make Watts’ ideas and words my own. With him, I cannot help but marvel at the incredulity of the scene—the “Prince of heaven” nailed to a tree by sinful men. Jesus, dying for me! For it was my sins which He bore on that terrible day.
(Crusade Hymn Stories, edited by Cliff Barrows, Hope Publishing Co., Chicago, 1967)

Here is an excellent video review of the history and significance of Watts' signature hymn:

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The simplest expressions, when moved by truth and passion, are always the most powerful. In its 16 brief lines, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross  "paints a soul-stirring picture of the Saviour's death on the cross coupled with the whole-hearted response of the believer to such amazing love."  Watts' eloquent words reflect the awe of knowledge that nothing within the accomplishment of any man can even begin to compare to what Christ did for each and all of us, the perfectly innocent for the utterly guilty, on the Cross. We can hardly understand the depth and magnitude of the love it took to accomplish our salvation; we can only give ceaseless thanks for it, and try to emulate it in our own lives. Truly, as was said to the Galatians (Gal. 6:14), the only just cause for glory is in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.


  1. This is such a powerful hymn--and one that will be sung FOREVER, in whichever of these tunes is used. I can't decide which of them I like the best! They all stir the heart and soul. God bless Isaac Watts, for his compositions!!!

  2. I am a member of Swansea Male Choir, which used to be called Manselton and district Male Voice Choir
    The choir1s founder, Emrys Jones, wrote the music for the hymn which then became Morte Christe. Because of the link to Emrys, the choir has always regarded the song as "our song", and has performed it all over the world.