When I Survey the Wonderous Cross may seem to us an old-fashioned song without controversy. In truth, it was written by a rebel whose poetry brought discord to the Church of England.
Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England, in July of 1674. From the moment he could read and write, Isaac showed a love for poetry. That love surpassed a simple desire to experience other’s work, for Isaac began writing verses of his own before some children could even read. His mother quickly noticed something special about her son, and when Isaac was seven years old, she sat him down at the kitchen table and told him to write a poem. Isaac obliged, using the ten letters of his name:
“I am a vile polluted lump of earth,
So I’ve continued ever since my birth;
Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me,
As sure this monster Satan will deceive me,
Come, therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.
Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ,
And grace divine impart,
Then search and try the corners of my heart,
That I in all things may be fit to do,
Service to Thee, and sing Thy praise too.”
Isaac’s quick wit often manifested in rebellious ways. One instance came during family prayer. Isaac spied a mouse trying to climb a rope and interrupted his father’s prayer with a giggle. When confronted, Isaac replied:
“A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say its prayers.”
Upon receiving punishment for this response, Isaac continued:
“O father, father, pity take; And I will no more verses make.”
Isaac would go on to use that combination of poetry and rebellion to forever change how churches worship.
Isaac grew up in the church and was always bothered by how worship was handled. In those days, the Church of England believed hymns should be slow and ponderous, void of emotion and joy. An example of this sort of hymn follows:
“Ye monsters of the bubbling deep, your Master’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye coddlings peep, and wag your tails about.”
On this style of hymn, Isaac wrote, “The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship most closely related to heaven; but its performance among us is the worst on earth.”
Isaac relentlessly condemned this style of hymn, voicing his frustrations to his father. His father listened, agreed, and called for action. He demanded Isaac stop complaining and do something about it, so Isaac did. That same day, Isaac had written his first hymn. He presented it to his church on the following Sunday, and it was received with adoration. In that moment, Isaac committed to writing a new hymn weekly. For two full years, Isaac fulfilled that commitment, bringing something new to the congregation every Sunday.
Isaac’s name began to spread across England. He was known as a rebel to the established Church, simply for bringing beauty and joy to worship. His most controversial works were those that were written from his personal feelings of what God had done in his life. These hymns were dubbed as ‘hymns of human composure.’ The most popular example of one of these hymns is When I Survey the Wonderous Cross.
Isaac Watts wrote over 600 hymns in his day. He reminded the world that worshipping God should be a joyful and personal experience. If the Church of England had its way, this sort of thinking would have been snuffed out and forgotten. But God had different plans, and Isaac’s rebellious ways live on strongly to this day.
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