PODCAST: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (History Behind the Hymns #12 with Daniel Whyte III)

Welcome to the History Behind the Hymns podcast. This is episode #12

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 Hebrews 12:2 which reads: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The History Behind the Hymns quote for today is from Charles Spurgeon. He said: “Praise is the rehearsal of our eternal song. By grace we learn to sing, and in glory we continue to sing. What will some of you do when you get to heaven, if you go on grumbling all the way? Do not hope to get to heaven in that style. But now begin to bless the name of the Lord.”

The quote in connection to today’s hymn is from Billy Graham. He said: “God proved His love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, “I love you.”

Our hymn for today is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts. It reads:

When I survey the wond’rous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory dy’d,
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 am I 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.

Now here is the history behind the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. According to Umcdiscipleship.org:

One of the greatest hymn writers of all time composed the beautiful hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was born in England, the first son of a family of the Dissenting tradition. Though his training in Greek, Latin and Hebrew would have allowed him the opportunity to become an Anglican priest, he chose to pastor a Dissenting congregation.

At the time of Watts’ birth, churches in England sang only metrical psalms. But by the time of his death, he had planted the seeds of a much more complex hymnody. His 600 hymns found in seven collections made the transition from a rigid, metrical psalmody to a freer, theologically-based hymnody.

Watts’ hymns include complex theology in a format that is ideal for congregational singing. Hymns should echo the theme of the sermon. He insisted that songs in the church should be fully evangelical and not just supplements to the Psalms; that hymns should be freely composed and not just hold to the letter of Scripture; and that hymns should give straightforward expression to the thoughts and feelings of the singers and not merely recall events of the distant past.

He also wrote texts to fit the most common psalm meters, allowing them to be sung by any congregation to a variety of tunes in such a way that each line contained a complete thought. This was important since the hymns, like the metrical psalms before them, were lined out by a precentor, or song leader. The leader would sing a phrase and then the congregation would echo back what had been sung. If a thought were spread out over two phrases, it would be broken up by this teaching technique. Watts smoothed out the process by including a complete thought in a single phrase as much as possible.

Another example of the impact of his theology upon his hymns is that he edited texts based on the Old Testament to reflect the presence of Christ, causing his hymnody to view God the Father from the perspective of God the Son.

The original fourth stanza of this hymn is usually omitted though it inspires quite powerful images:

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.

The last two lines of the stanza form a chiasmus, as hymnologist J. Richard Watson notes, “a crossing over on the manner of the Greek letter chi: It is found . . . in the great fourth verse, which takes the idea from Galatians 6:14.” (Note the “cross” that is formed between the words “dead” and “globe” in those two lines.)

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is one of Watts’ finest poems and an excellent example of why he is considered a fulcrum in the transition to hymnody.

The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the 1989 UM Hymnal, notes that this hymn is clearly something different than Watts’ earlier poems that might be characterized as devotional poetry or as psalm paraphrases. Several hymnologists have noted that this hymn, first published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), is an excellent example of many of his best techniques, such as his ability to write beginning lines which capture one’s attention, maintain a theme and build to a climax.

In the UM Hymnal, the text is set to two different tunes. The first, HAMBURG by American Lowell Mason, was written in 1824. This tune originated from Gregorian chant (presumably the Benedictus) and was first published in the third edition of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music (1825). The second tune, ROCKINGHAM, composed by Englishman Edward Miller in 1790, was first matched with this text in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861).

This hymn is particularly powerful because it includes many poetic devices. For example, oxymoron is found twice in the first stanza: “my richest gain I count but loss” and “pour contempt on all my pride.” The third stanza contains a paradox in a crown of thorns, and there are two rhetorical questions in the second half of this stanza: “Did e’er such love and sorrow met, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” The piece ends with a climax, “Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

“When I Survey” is a hymn which is saturated with theology and a call for an emotional response from the singer. This hymn was transformed into a statement of faith that crosses denominational lines and generations. According to hymn scholar Lionel Adey, the lines “‘All the vain things that charm me most / I sacrifice them . . .’ have a meaning personal to each singer, one that might require either action or renunciation.” The three pledges at the climax of the hymn (“my soul, my life, my all”) are a sacrifice that had once been required only of those taking monastic vows.

The theology of this hymn functions powerfully in the context of a worship service. Adey continues: “About to receive the Sacrament, the poet meditates upon the love that turned that instrument of judicial torture and death into the channel of divine compassion.”

This hymn is a masterpiece that marks the genius of one man and his influence on millions of singers throughout the ages. As Dr. Young says, the hymn “successfully built a bridge from psalmody to hymnody and set the church free to create a living body of Christian praise in song.”

In our next episode we will look at the history behind the hymn, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” by John Fawcett.

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.