The Good Friday hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Apr 2, 2021 by

By Margaret Ashworth, The Conservative Woman:

THIS hymn is considered the crowning achievement of the man called the Father of English Hymnody, Isaac Watts. That is some accolade when you think that his other works include Joy to the World  and O God Our Help in Ages Past.

I have written about Watts (1674-1748) several times before but his life is well worth recalling again.

He was born in Southampton while his clergyman father was in prison for his nonconformist sympathies, in other words his refusal to embrace the established Church of England. (His father was released and went on to have seven more children. At one point he was jailed again and Isaac remembered his mother’s tales of nursing her children on the jail steps.) Isaac was exceptionally gifted, learning Latin by the age of four, Greek at nine, French (which he took up to converse with his refugee neighbours) at 11, and Hebrew at 13…

…At that time, church singing was no more than metered renditions of the Psalms intoned by a cantor and repeated by the congregation. Legend has it that one Sunday afternoon Watts, then aged about 14, was complaining about dullness of these songs. His father said, ‘I’d like to see you write something better!’ Isaac retired to his room and appeared later with his first hymn, Behold the Glories of the Lamb, which was enthusiastically received at the service that evening. You can see the words here. The career of the ‘Father of English Hymnody’ had begun.

Several wealthy townspeople offered to pay for his university education at Oxford or Cambridge, but these institutions would not admit nonconformists and Isaac refused to give up his beliefs. Instead he went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington (now part of north London, and then a centre of religious dissent) in 1690, when he was 16.

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