When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Sonata in Gm (K550)    D. Scarlatti (1685-1757)

After Isaac Watts (1674-1748) finished college and returned home to Southampton, he wrote many of his now-immortalized hymns for the Above Bar Congregational Church. Then, at age 22, he left home for London to become a tutor.

Meanwhile, he was feeling inexorably drawn to ministry. On his 24th birthday he preached his first sermon, and a year later became assistant pastor of London’s Mark Lane Church.

Two years later (1700), he received a long letter from his brother Enoch, urging him to publish the hymns he had written in Southampton. His brother wrote:

“Dear Brother: In your last [letter] you [mentioned] an inclination to oblige the world by showing it your hymns in print, and I heartily wish … that you were something more than inclinable thereunto. … I am very confident whoever has the happiness of reading your hymns (unless he be either sot or atheist) will have a very favorable opinion of their author …. There is … a great need of a pen, vigorous and lively as yours, to quicken and revive the dying devotion of the age…. Yours now is the old truth, stripped of its ragged ornaments, and appears, if we may so, younger by ages in a new and fashionable dress.”

Isaac still hesitated — he had other obligations on his mind. In 1702 he became Mark Lane’s pastor, and a year later the church hired an assistant pastor due to Isaac’s frail health.

In 1707 Isaac finally published his hymns, selling the copyright to a Mr. Lawrence, the publisher, for ten pounds. (Hard to translate to modern money values: something like two or three thousand dollars?) It was an instant success — an enlarged second edition was published in 1709.

Charles Wesley said that he would rather have written the words to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” than all his own put together. (No small number!)