The Story Behind…
When I survey the wondrous cross
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
This classic hymn of Isaac Watts has often been called the greatest hymn in the English language. Another contemporary of Isaac Watts said of it, “There may be a few others equally great, but there is none greater.” All one needs to do to realize the truth of this statement is to sing this majestic hymn. Isaac Watts based this hymn on the Scriptural reference of 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.” The original title was “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ.” Later the title was changed to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
Watt’s lifelong ambition, according to his own words, was to be a servant to churches and a helper of Christians. Dr. Watts won and held the hearts of a large share of the English speaking world over a long period of years, despite the fact that as a child he was never strong, and despite the fact also that he was forced to resign a pastorate because of poor health. For the latter thirty years of his life, he was more or less an invalid, but devoted himself in comfortable and happy surroundings to the writing of many of the beautiful hymns, still popular today. It was an age of great hymn writers. Watts was a contemporary of Doddridge, the Wesleys, Newton and Cowper.
The majestic phrases of this deeply solemn hymn are as moving today as when Watts penned them in 1707. The hymn has been set to more than one tune, but perhaps the most popular is that of Edward Miller, who wrote his music in 1790, some forty-two years after Watts’ death.