Christian worship has always revolved around the most defining emblem of the faith: the cross. For twenty centuries Christians have celebrated how Jesus’ crucifixion turned a mode of capital punishment into a symbol of spiritual salvation. Our songs of faith reflect that reality. This post focuses on three enduring hymns of the church, published between the years 1700 and 1915.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross 1707
Today, Isaac Watts is called the “Godfather of English Hymnody.” He re-invented the church hymn. In the process, he wrote over 600 songs for the church. Song books of his day were usually the Psalms set to music. He chose to infuse his songs with more New Testament theology. He also preferred easier lyrics for the average church-goer. As in the case of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Watts introduced personal pronouns into his titles.
Isaac Watts was a wordsmith. Along with other songs still sung today (Joy to the World, etc.) When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is full of spiritual passion with vivid images and devotional depth. It’s pace is contemplative. What happens when you really think about Jesus’ crucifixion?
According to verse one, you feel humility.
“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.”
According to the last line in verse two, you want to surrender: “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.” Given all that Jesus suffered for humankind, verse four reaches the only true conclusion, “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Near the Cross 1869
Fanny Crosby became a Christian under the influence of an Isaac Watts hymn that mentioned the cross. At the end of a church service she attended when she was 31, they sang the invitation song, Alas and Did My Savior Bleed! Her moment of surrender came during the words of the fifth verse, “Here, Lord, I give myself away.”
The results of Jesus’ crucifixion flow throughout Fanny Crosby’s poems set to music. One song specifically mentions the “cross” in it’s tile: Near the Cross.
The first and third verses are prayers. Verse one says,
Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain—
Free to all, a healing stream—
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
She reflects on the cross as her means of salvation. Verse two begins, “Near the cross, a trembling soul, Love and Mercy found me.” She prays in verse three, “Near the cross! O Lamb of God, Bring its scenes before me; Help me walk from day to day, With its shadows o’er me.” Verse four states her determination to remain near the cross: “Near the cross I’ll watch and wait Hoping, trusting ever, Till I reach the golden strand,
Just beyond the river.”
You can read a fuller biography of Fanny Crosby at https://lights4god.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/fanny-crosby/.
The Old Rugged Cross 1913
As with many hymns, The Old Rugged Cross was born out of personal difficulty. Evangelist George Bennard faced his struggles by going to the heart of the New Testament: John 3:16.
He spent a season of prayer and concentration on the cross. The words of his most famous hymn eventually lodged in his mind. After publishing the song describing the power of the cross, the words began finding their place in the hearts and minds of others. The Old Rugged Cross was voted America’s favorite hymn year after year from 1925-1960,
In each of the three verses, George used strong descriptions of the cross followed by his expressions of personal affinity, concluding with reasons that it means so much to a believer.
In verse one, he calls the cross, “The emblem of suff’ring and shame.” In verse two, he says it’s, “so despised by the world.” Verse three cuts to the reason people either accept or reject the cross: it’s “stained with blood so divine.”
The place where our salvation was purchased evokes deep feelings. George represents Christians all over the world when he says (in verse one) “And I love that old cross,” (in verse two) that it “has a wondrous attraction for me,” and (in verse three), “In the old rugged cross… a wondrous beauty I see.” To the non-believer, the rugged, bloody cross is repulsive, but it’s beautiful to those who’ve embraced it’s true purpose (I Corinthians 1:18).
Each verse concludes with the sacrifice that launched our eternal salvation. The cross is where God in human form, “For a world of lost sinners was slain.” By choice, “the dear Lamb of God left His glory above, to bear it to dark Calvary.” Simply put, “on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me.”
The chorus shouts our unflinching loyalty to the cross:
“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.”
- Blumhofer, Edith. Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny Crosby. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmands Publishing Company, 2005.
- Osbeck, Kenneth. 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1982.
- Petersen, William J. and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2008.
- Terry, Lindsay. I Could Sing of Your Love Forever. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2003.