THE STORY OF ISAAC WATTS
A young boy complained to his father that most of the church hymns were boring and old-fashioned, with tiresome words that meant little to his generation. His father challenged him with these words: "If you think you can write better hymns, why don’t you?"
The boy accepted the challenge, went to his room, and wrote his first hymn. The year was 1690, and the young man was Isaac Watts. Among his 350 hymns are "Joy to the World," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "I Sing the Almighty Power of God," and many other classics.
Isaac Watts was a man of truly rare and remarkable genius. Watts was the kind of man who comes along by merely the handful at most in each generation. Watts was born to a dissenting Congregational deacon in 1674 in Southampton, England. At the time of his birth, Watts’s father was imprisoned for his non-conformist Congregational beliefs.
Watts showed a remarkable aptitude for learning and study at a very young age. It is well-documented that by the age of five he learned Latin, Greek at 9, and French at 11 and Hebrew at 13. He was writing very high-quality verses of poetry and song when he was very young. Watts was born a person of peculiar genius, as I would suggest, with a clear and plain godly purpose upon His life. His genius was indeed the gift of God!
Watts is commonly referred to as the father of English hymnody. At the time of his youth, history records that the state of congregational singing had grown rather dismal and drearily simplistic. Most congregational worship was in the form of songs of a short, crude, inelegant fashion where a deacon would read a line of the very simple rhyming song, and then the congregation would follow suit. One of the more commonly used examples is as follows:
"Ye monsters of the bubbling deep,
Your Master’s praises spout,
Up from the sands ye coddlings peep,
And wag your tails about."
By modern hymnody standards, much of which derives from Isaac Watts, this is not exactly of a high quality! Watts once wrote that "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." Watts had a low view of the hymnody of his day!
Isaac Watts was used of God to compose a hymn so glorious that it has been oft referred to as the greatest hymn in the English language. "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross," apart from being a personal favorite of myself and so many believers, is even known to a younger generation by way of several popular renditions and Church worship genre of traditional and modern music styles.
In examining Isaac Watt’s "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross," I have found some parallel passages of Scripture that, while I cannot know for sure, I suspect that may have served as inspiration for the song’s content. It is clearly rooted in biblical precepts, which explain its longevity and impact as a hymn of the Church.
The opening line of Watt’s original composition reads,
"When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride."
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