Hymn No. 127
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.
Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) was an English Congregational minister, hymn writer, theologian, and logician. He is credited by many with introducing hymns to English churches when his Hymns and Spiritual Songs was first published in 1707. He was a prolific and popular hymn writer and is credited with some 750 hymns. His works include ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’, ‘Joy to the World’, and ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’. He is recognized as the ‘Godfather of English Hymnody’. His hymns remain in use today and have been translated into many languages.
He was born in Southampton in 1674. His father (also Isaac Watts) was a committed religious nonconformist who had been imprisoned twice for his views.
Young Watts loved rhyme from an early age. He was once asked why he had his eyes open during prayers, to which he replied: A little mouse for want of stairs ran up a rope to say its prayers.
He received a beating for this, to which he cried: O father, father, pity take, And I will no more verses make
He had a classical education at King Edward VI School, Southampton, learning Latin, Greek, and Hebrew but could not attend Oxford or Cambridge because he was a nonconformist. Both universities were restricted to Anglicans, so he went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690. Following his education, he was called as pastor of Mark Lane Congregational Chapel in London, where he helped to train preachers.
He became employed as a private tutor by the nonconformist Hartopp family and lived with them at Fleetwood House in Stoke Newington. During this time he became acquainted with their neighbours Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary and eventually lived for a total of 36 years in the Abney household, most of the time at Abney House, their second residence.
On the death of Sir Thomas Abney in 1722, his widow Lady Mary and her unmarried daughter Elizabeth moved all her household to Abney House from Hertfordshire, and she invited Watts to continue to live with them. He particularly enjoyed the grounds at Abney Park, which Lady Mary planted with two Elm walks leading down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook, and he often sought inspiration there for the many books and hymns that he wrote.
Watts lived at Abney House in Stoke Newington until his death in 1748.