LISTEN: ‘Am I A Soldier of the Cross?’ by Isaac Watts (History Behind the Hymns #4)

Welcome to the History Behind the Hymns podcast. This is episode #4.

I am your host, Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International. I am one of many Christians who still loves the old hymns of the faith even more than many modern Christian songs. For the past 33 years, my wife and children and I have sung the old hymns during our family devotion time. Over the years we have used an Independent Baptist hymn book, a National Baptist hymn book, and a Southern Baptist hymn book to sing the old hymns of the faith. And we have sung the old hymns of the faith with traditional Methodist churches online. The old hymns of the faith have been a tremendous source of blessing and encouragement to my heart down through the years. The purpose of this podcast is to encourage you to dust off your old hymn book and experience the power and blessing of well-written hymns based upon sound doctrine for the glory of God that will strengthen your faith.

The History Behind the Hymns passage of Scripture is 2 Timothy 2:3-4 which reads: “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.”

The History Behind the Hymns quote for today is from A. W. Tozer. He said: “After the Bible, the hymn book is next. And remember, I do not say a songbook or a book of gospel songs, but a real hymnal containing the cream of the great Christian hymns left to us by the ages.”

The quote in connection to today’s hymn is from Charles Spurgeon. He said: “The trumpet still plays the notes of war. You cannot sit down and put the victory wreath on your head. You do not have a crown. You still must wear the helmet and carry the sword. You must watch, pray, and fight. Expect your last battle to be the most difficult, for the enemy’s fiercest charge is reserved for the end of the day.”

Our hymn for today is “Am I A Soldier of the Cross” by Isaac Watts. It reads:

Am I a soldier of the cross,
a foll’wer of the Lamb,
and shall I fear to own his cause,
or blush to speak his name?

Must I be carried to the skies
on flow’ry beds of ease,
while others fought to win the prize,
and sailed thro’ bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
to help me on to God?

Since I must fight if I would reign:
increase my courage, Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
supported by thy Word.

Thy saints, in all this glorious war,
shall conquer, though they die;
they view the triumph from afar,
and seize it with their eye.

When that illustrious day shall rise,
and all thine armies shine
in robes of vict’ry through the skies,
the glory shall be Thine.

Now here is the history behind the hymn, “Am I A Soldier of the Cross”. According to Umcdiscipleship.org:

Isaac Watts has been considered the “Father of English Hymnody” by eminent hymnologist Erik Routley and others—a bold but appropriate assertion. Though Watts certainly did not invent the art of hymn writing, he made some incredible innovations in its execution.

Watts proved to be extremely gifted in the realm of writing from a young age, and most of the hymns we have from him today emerged from what Routley describes as “dissatisfaction with the metrical psalters.”

But Watts’ revisions far exceeded the psalters and ventured into setting actual doctrine to song, something that he found lacking in the church.

Watts was born July 17, 1674, in Southampton, England. His father was a Dissenter from the Anglican Church, a crime punishable by incarceration for the mere act of not conforming.

The son attended multiple academies during his childhood and youth, even pursuing studies at the Dissenting Academy in Stoke Newington, London, which could be likened to a modern liberal arts university. Watts served as an assistant to the Rev. Isaac Chauncy at the Independent Chapel at Mark Lane, London, and eventually took the position as sole pastor of the church.

Watts was plagued with poor health his entire life and often had to have assistance at the pulpit while preaching. While sacred song is his most “crowning achievement,” the very idea that one in such weak health also could write three large volumes of theological thought and a vast collection of sermons is astounding.

Watts died in 1748 at the home of Sir Thomas Abney, where he had lived as an honored guest for nearly 30 years.

The history of “Am I a Soldier of the Cross” is one of many alterations and abandonments. The first printed version appeared in the Methodist Pocket Hymnbook of 1802.

The text has gone through several alterations in the Methodist hymnals. Beginning in 1831, the conclusion of the fifth stanza “the crown enchants their eye” was replaced by the less troublesome “by faith they bring it nigh.” The 1849 Methodist Episcopal Hymnal changed “unhappy world” in stanza three, line three to “vile world,” making a much stronger theological statement as to the condition of the earth.

Watts originally appended this text with Sermon XXXI (31) (sometimes entitled “Holy Fortitude”) on 1 Corinthians 16:13, which reads: “Be on your guard; stand firm in your faith; be people of courage; stand firm.” The intent was to bolster a “sagging faith” and to rekindle a fire of perseverance. The text has been excluded in most British hymnals, but strangely has found a home in American hymnals dating back to 1803.

The most common tune paired with this hymn text is ARLINGTON, which was a favorite common meter tune in the early 19th century. The musical material was derived from the overture of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes (Ahr-tuh-zurk-seez), an opera by Thomas Arne that premiered in London in 1762. The tune is sometimes called ARNE, TRIUMPH, or ARTAXERXES (Ahr-tuh-zurk-seez), but ARLINGTON is the most common title. Ralph Harrison arranged the musical material into a hymn tune and included it in the first volume of Sacred Harmony.

Theologically, Watts’ hymn fits well into the Calvinist/Reformed genre of hymnody. The series of rhetorical questions almost serves as a “theological guilt-trip” of sorts; these questions are ones to which any Christian should know the “correct” answer, and chances are favorable that there was some motive to bring these issues to light in whatever congregational context Watts was preaching.

The aspects of Calvinism are abundant in the descriptions of human struggle and toil. The final two stanzas, while still peppered with militant imagery, are glorious: “Triumph,” “shining armies” and “robes of victory” paint a beautiful picture, but only for the saints who fulfill the requirements of woe and misery on earth.

In response to the heavy usage of militant language, it should be noted that at the time, England was the great empire of Europe with a long history of conquering and warfare. Europe as a whole was in the throes of revolutions, revolts, political and social discord, and in a state of general chaos—so images of armies, naval fleets, wars and battles were familiar to Christians in England.

The hymn remains a poignant reminder that while the Christian life has many blessings, the journey is not without its own battles along the way.

In our next episode we will look at the history behind the hymn, “This Is My Father’s World” by Maltbie D. Babcock.

Let’s Pray —

Dear friend, this hymn honors God and the Lord Jesus Christ, if you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, and you want to get to know Him today here’s how.

First, accept the fact that you are a sinner, and that you have broken God’s law. The Bible says in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Second, accept the fact that there is a penalty for sin. The Bible states in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death…”

Third, accept the fact that you are on the road to hell. Jesus Christ said in Matthew 10:28: Also, the Bible states in Revelation 21:8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”

Now this is bad news, but here’s the good news. Jesus Christ said in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can live eternally with Him. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will.

Romans 10:9-13 says, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Pray and ask Him to come into your heart and He will.

May God bless you and keep you until we meet again.