“When I Survey the Cross”

"The cross…by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Gal. 6.14)

     INTRO.: A hymn which talks about the importance of the cross in which we glory and what it should mean to us is "When I Survey The Cross" (#189 in Hymns for Worship Revised and #179 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). The author of over 600 hymns, such as "Alas and Did My Savior Bleed?" and "Come, We that Love the Lord," Watts expressed his ambition in hymn writing by saying, "It was not my design to exalt myself to the rank and glory of poets, but I wanted to be a servant of the churches, and a helper to the joy of the meanest Christian." In 1707, while preparing for a communion service, he produced this expression of gratitude for the death of Christ on the cross. It first appeared that same year in his collection, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, with the title, "Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ." It was revised by Watts himself in 1709 for an enlarged edition of his songbook. Watts is frequently called the father of English hymnody, and Matthew Arnold considered this hymn as the greatest in the English language.

     The tune (Hamburg) was arranged by Lowell Mason, who was born at Medfield, MA, on July 8, 1792. Among those who contributed to Mason’s early musical training were Amos Albee, the local schoolmaster, and Oliver Shaw, a musician living at Dedham, MA. By the time Mason was sixteen, he was leading the village choir and teaching singing schools.  From 1812 to 1827 he lived in Savannah, GA, where he worked as a bank clerk and studied music with Frederick L. Abel. In 1818, he married Abigail Adams of Westboro, MA, and they were both became members of the independent First Presbyterian Church. While in Savannah, Mason took an ancient Gregorian chant from the sixth century, the earliest known church music in existence. From the plainsong melody known as Psalm Tone Mode I he fashioned this tune in 1824. It was first published the following year in the Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Music, Third Edition.

     In 1827 Mason returned to Boston, MA, to become president of the Handel and Haydn Society. Also he served for fourteen years as music director at the Bowdoin St. Church where Lyman Beecher was the minister.  Then in 1832 he established the Boston Academy of Music. In 1838, he gained approval for the teaching of music in the public schools of Boston. In addition, he travelled to Europe to study music with composer Johan Hans Georg Nageli (1774-1836). On this trip he collected many European tunes which he introduced to America. Durin his life, he was credited with over eighty hymnals, as well as 1,126 original tunes and 497 arrangements, many of which are still among the most popular and best known hymns used today, including those used with "Nearer, My God To Thee" and "My Faith Looks Up To Thee." Mason died in Orange, NJ, on Aug. 11, 1872.

     Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, "When I Survey the Cross" appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1959 Majestic Hymnal No. 2 and the 1978 Hymns of Praise edited by Reuel Lemmons; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; the 1965 Great Christian Hymnal No. 2 edited by Tillit S. Teddlie; and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 edited by L. O. Sanderson.  Today, it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1903 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; in addition to Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.

     The song suggests that it is through the cross of Christ that we become consecrated to God.

I. In stanza 1, to survey the cross suggests the idea of contemplation
"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."
 A. Of course, we cannot literally survey the cross, but we can understand what it means through the record of scripture: Jn. 19.17-18
 B. It was the instrument on which the Prince of glory died for our sins: Rom. 5.8, 1 Cor. 15.3
 C. However, more than that, as we survey or contemplate it, it becomes the motivation to count our richest gain but loss as Paul did: Phil. 3.7-8

II. In stanza 2, we have nothing to boast of except the death of Christ
"Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ, my Lord;
All the vain things that charm me most I sacrifice them to His blood."
 A. The fact is that we have nothing of which we can boast or glory before God: Eph. 2.8-9
 B. Therefore, we must sacrifice all the vain things that charm us most by denying ourselves, taking up our own cross, thus making ourselves as living sacrifices: Matt. 16.24, Rom. 12.1
 C. These things are sacrificed to His blood because it was His blood that was shed for the remission of our sins: Matt. 26.28

III. In stanza 3 usually omitted (actually #4 in Watts’s original), the cross is identified as the means by which we are crucified to the world
"His dying crimson, like a robe, Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe, And all the globe is dead to me."
 A. "His dying crimson, like a robe" is simply a poetic, figurative way of describing the blood that Jesus shed for our sins as He hung upon the tree: 1 Pet. 2.24
 B. While we are not literally crucified on a cross, we must be crucified with Christ in that we put to death our members which are upon the earth: Gal. 2.20, Col. 3.5
 C. Having been thus crucified with Christ, we live, yet is not we but Christ who lives in us as we determine no longer to love the world: 1 Jn. 2.15-16

IV. In stanza 4, we visualize the actual crucifixion of Christ and reflect on what it means to us
"See, from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?"
 A. It was in His crucifixion that Jesus shed the blood by which we can be saved from our sins: Jn. 19.33-34
 B. The gospel writers emphasize the sorrow that Jesus experienced for us on the cross: Jn. 19.28-30
 C. But it is also important to remember that His suffering and death were expressions of God’s love which is so essential to our salvation: Eph. 2.4-5

V. In stanza 5, we turn from the actual scene of the cross to the demands that it makes of us
"Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all."
 A. Even if we owned the whole realm of nature, there is really nothing that we could give to God because it all belongs to Him anyway: Ps. 24.1
 B. Yet, even though we have nothing to give, He has given so much to us of His love so amazing, so divine: Jn. 3.16
 C. The fact that Jesus was crucified for us places the responsibility on us to give our souls, our lives, our all by dying to the love and
practice of sin: Rom. 6.5-12

CONCL.: Apparently, a stanza was added by the compilers of Hymns Ancient and Modern, to come either after or in place of stanza three above (which is #4 in the original), though I personally cannot see why anyone would feel the need to add anything to the completeness of Watts’s thoughts.
"To Christ, who won for sinners grace By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race Forever and forevermore."
It seems that this hymn was written as if the author were standing at the foot of Christ’s cross, and when we sing it, we need to make his words our own. Can I truly say with him that I am giving to the Christ who died for me on Calvary, "my soul, my life, my all"? My dedication and devotion to the One who died to purchase my salvation cannot help but be increased "When I Survey The Cross."


One thought on ““When I Survey the Cross”

  1. I just wanted thank you for the joy of reading your insightful article on my favorite hymn. As I really meditate on this hymn it gives me encouragement in my daily walk with Him.

    God Bless You,
    Your Brother iChrist,


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