421 When I Survey

Photo by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE on Unsplash
Listen to devotion

Story Behind the Hymn

When young Isaac Watts’ father rebuked his brilliant child for making rhymes out of everyday language, he replied, “Oh, Father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.” As a young man in the late 1600s, Isaac was significantly dissatisfied with the music of the church. When he was 18 years old, he complained to his father that music is “the part of worship most closely related to heaven. But its performance among us is the worst on earth.” To which his father replied, “Make some yourself, then.” So began his hymn writing career starting with the phrase, “Behold the glories of the Lamb.”

Isaac Watts, one of the most influential hymn writers of all time, was, like his father, a nonconformist, rejecting the established Church of England. Their unconventional views landed his father in jail twice; they earned Isaac the title “Father of English Hymns.” His lifelong ambition was to be “a servant to churches and a helper of Christians.” Before Watts and his contemporaries, congregational singing consisted of metrical Psalms sung—or chanted—in Latin by the clergy, unaccompanied by instruments. Watts believed that church music should be sung by the congregation in the language they understood, theologically based, echoing the sermon. He believed that hymns should express the thoughts and feelings of the musicians, composed freely, not holding to the precise wording of Scripture, but evangelistic in nature. Because of his contribution to church music, he was beloved by many and considered a rebel by others.

This majestic hymn, rich with theology, is the pinnacle of poetry set to music. A statement of faith that captures attention immediately, maintains a theme, and builds to a climax. It contains 2 oxymorons in the first stanza, a paradox in the3rd stanza, rhetorical questions, and ends with the climax, “Demands my soul, my life, my all.” Everyone can relate to this hymn that calls for an emotional response, regardless of denomination or generation. When originally introduced, this hymn, inspired by Galatians 6:14 was controversial because it is one of the first to paraphrase the Bible. It also introduces personal pronouns for the first time, i.e., “Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast.”

This hymn is considered by many to be the greatest English hymn ever written. Though this statement may not be agreed on by all, there is no doubt that it is the greatest of the 600 hymns written by Isaac Watts. In fact, Charles Wesley, prolific hymnist of over 6,000 hymns, has stated that he would rather have written this one hymn than all the hymns that he had written.