BACKGROUND OF ISAAC WATTS & “WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS”
Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in Southampton England. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is thought, by many, to be the greatest hymn ever written.
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 nine, French at eleven and Hebrew at thirteen. He began to write verses of good quality when he was very young. Watts is frequently referred to as the father of English hymnody. One of his early concerns was the deplorable state to which congregational singing had degenerated in most English-speaking churches. The singing consisted of slow, ponderous Psalms in which each line was first read by an appointed deacon and was followed by the droning of the congregation. Watts was a revolutionary producing “futuristic music” for his time. Because of this bold departure from the traditional Psalms, Isaac Watts was often considered to be a radical churchman. 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. It’s the first known hymn to be written in the first person, introducing a personal religious experience rather than limiting itself to doctrine.
Isaac Watts, and his hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” helped to reshape the future of church music as we know it today. Mr. Watts would have been proud to know that Chris Tomlin is continuing his tradition.
The words of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” tell a wonderful story. They tell of the paradoxical beauty of sacrifice. They tell a story of pain and suffering woven together with joy and love. Who would have ever thought that these polar opposites could come together and form a paradoxical statement that on the face of it sounds ridiculous, but when taken to heart and pondered makes so much sense that even the simplest of minds can understand it?
The lost Verse:
Watts, actually wrote 5 verses but one has been dropped through the years (including in our hymnal). Here’s is the missing verse (it’s actually meant to be the fourth verse):
“His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree:
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.”
BACKGROUND OF CHRIS TOMLIN AND “THE WONDERFUL CROSS”
Born and raised in East Texas, Chris Tomlin grew up on a steady diet of country music, learning his guitar style by playing along with Willie Nelson records. Not that you would ever guess it from listening to the gentle smoothness of his vocals.
“I love the simplicity of drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitars,” Chris explains. “We’re not about putting on a big show. We don’t want to be rock stars. We’re about connecting with people and having a shared experience of coming before God and worshipping Him.
Credited with venerable church choruses such as “Forever,” “We Fall Down,” and “The Wonderful Cross,” Tomlin is considered one of this era’s top songwriters. With millions singing his songs weekly, Chris is recognized as a pivotal voice of today’s modern expression of Christian worship. Yet, Tomlin has masterminded several remakes of classic hymns including Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) and “Take My Life and Let it Be.”
Here is the chorus that Chris Tomlin added:
Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross
Bids me come, and die, and find
That I may truly live.
Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross
All who gather here, by grace,
Draw near and bless Your name.
CCLI Song No. 3148435 © 2000 worshiptogether.com songsSix Steps Music (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)(Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing) Chris Tomlin / Isaac Watts / J. D. Walt / Jesse Reeves
The scriptural reference to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is Galatians 6:14.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. – NIV
Tomlin’s chorus draws from Gal 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – NIV
You can listen to Tomlin’s version here (with a little help from Matt Redman):
Want to give this new version a try this year? Here’s a few places that sell the sheet music in digital form (can be downloaded instantly):
Here’s a free pdf of the lead sheet (no piano notation):
Here’s piano/vocal/guitar music for $3.99:
You can also download a nicely done MIDI file of this arrangement for free here:
Download the file by scrolling down to “Wonderful Cross” (right mouse, save target as) here:
Or, you can download it from my file download area (lower right hand column of this BLOG page).
1. Isaac Watts Bio – http://www.webedelic.com/church/isurveyf.htm and other internet sources
2. Chris Tomlin Bio – http://pressroom.emicmg.com/artists/ChrisTomlin/files/uploads/filedownloads/Chris_Tomlin_Arriving_Bio.doc and other internet sources
3. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of International Bible Society
Please report song usage to CCLI if you have such a license. The song number for “the Wonderful Cross” is #3148435.