This hymn by Isaac Watts, labeled by the well-known theologian Matthew Arnold as the greatest hymn in the English language, was written in 1707 for use at a communion service conducted by Watts. It first appeared in print that same year in Watt's outstanding collection, Hymn and Spiritual Songs. It's original title was "Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ."
Isaac Watts was born on July 17, 1674, in Southampton, England. The eldest of nine children, he was the son of an educated deacon in a dissenting Congregational church. At the time of Isaac's birth, his father was in prison for his non-conformist beliefs. Young Watts showed an unusual-aptitude for study and learned Latin at the age of five, Greek at age nine, French at eleven and Hebrew at thirteen. He began to write verses of good quality when he was very young.
Watts once wrote, "The singing of God's praise is the part of worship most closely related to heaven; but it's performance among us is the worst on earth." One Sunday after returning from a typically poor service, Watts continued to rail against the congregational singing. His father exclaimed, "Why don't you give us something better, young man!" Before the evening service began, young Watts had written his first hymn, which was received with great enthusiasm by the people.
The youthful poet wrote a new hymn every Sunday. He went on to write new metrical versions of the Psalms with a desire to "Christianize the Psalms with the New Testament message and style." Several of his hymns that were based on these new Psalm settings are such favorites as "Jesus Shall Reign" (No. 48) and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" (No. 66). Watts is also the author of a children's hymn, "I sing the Mighty Power of God" (No. 38). Because of this bold departure from the traditional Psalms, Isaac Watts was often considered to be a radical church-man in his day.
Watts not only rewrote the Psalms in this way, but he also wrote a number of hymns based solely on personal feelings. These hymns were known as hymns of human composure. Such hymns were very controversial during his lifetime. "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is an example of this type of hymn written by Watts. In all Isaac Watts composed more than 600 hymns.