Rev John March Article

29 Mar 21

What do hymns mean to you, especially as Easter approaches? 

For many people the music and songs they know will not include even a hymn.  One thing about great hymns is that they never disappear and they are very good at awakening our consciences.  Take for example the hymn, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ written by a man called Isaac Watts. Isaac Watts is frequently referred to as the father of English hymnody. He died in 1748 at the age of 75 and on his monument appears this line, which is a tribute to his greatness.  "Ages unborn will make his songs the joy and labour of their tongues." 

Sadly today, many will never have heard of this great hymn, or its writer.  However, this hymn has been regarded as one of the greatest if not the greatest hymn since the early 18th century. It is a masterpiece that has influenced millions of people throughout the ages. 

Watts was a self-taught man 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. His lifelong ambition, according to his own words, was to be a servant to churches and a helper of Christians. Watts held the hearts of a large share of the English-speaking world over a long period of years.  Despite the fact that as a child he was never strong and for the last thirty years of his life being more or less an invalid, he devoted himself to writing as many as 600 hymns, including ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’ and also ‘O God our help in ages past’.  His age was an age of great hymn writers, being a contemporary of Doddridge, the Wesleys, Newton and Cowper. Their great hymns have lasted the test of time. 

“When I Survey” is a hymn like a statement of faith that crosses denominational lines and generations.  "Survey" is defined as "to examine with reference to value; to view with a scrutinizing eye; inspect." The majority of people never survey the cross. It holds no value to them and hence, it is not the "wondrous cross"!  It is important to see, understand and appreciate its value to our life. Without the cross there would be no reconciliation and no resurrection. 

Perhaps during this lead up to Easter, known traditionally as Lent, it is the opportunity to read, reflect and respond to a type of music that gets so easily forgotten and yet has some life-changing challenges presented to us.  As the hymn states: 

‘’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.’’ 

Wishing you times of space and reflection as Easter approaches. 

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