Isaac Watts, who wrote this hymn, was the father of hymn-writing in the English language, and the author of many of our greatest hymns.
He was born in Southampton, England, July 17, 1674. His father was not a member of the state church, and was twice thrown into jail for opposing it, so that when he was a baby his mother often carried him in her arms to visit his father in prison.
There are remarkable stories of young Isaac's boyhood, one of them declaring that he begged for books before he could talk plainly, and others asserting that he began Latin at the age of four and wrote poetry at the age of seven!
He became a minister in London. He was a little man, only about five feet tall. His health was very poor all his life, but his church took loving care of him, for he was greatly liked. One day, when Watts was sick, Sir Thomas Abney invited him to his splendid home for a week. He became so dear to the household that they kept him there for the rest of his life,— thirty-six years!
Besides his preaching, Dr. Watts wrote much. He was a most zealous student of geography, astronomy, philosophy, and theology, and he wrote books on all these themes. His great life-work, however, as he himself saw, was his hymn-writing.
Early in life he became wearied with the versified Psalms which the churches used and set out to compose hymns of his own. This was a new departure and met with persistent opposition, but his hymns soon became widely popular in nearly all the churches. In 1707 Watts published his famous collection of original hymns, which he entitled "Hymns and Spiritual Songs." Only two or three copies are now in existence, and one of these sold in 1901 for $700. There were 210 hymns in this first edition, and 144 were added to the second edition.
The greatest of Watts's hymns is probably "When I survey the wondrous Cross," and many — Matthew Arnold among them — have called it the greatest hymn in the English language. Among the other great hymns of this splendid Christian poet are "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun," "Before Jehovah's awful throne," "From all that dwell below the skies," "Come, let us join our cheerful songs," "There is a land of pure delight," "Our God! our help in ages past," "Alas! and did my Saviour bleed," "Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove," "Give me the wings of faith to rise." Many of Watts's children's hymns have become famous, such as "Let dogs delight to bark and bite," "How doth the little busy bee," and the sweet cradle-song, "Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber." Watts had no children of his own, but well did he know the child's heart.
The poet died November 25, 1748, and was buried at Bunhill Fields, London, near the graves of John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe. He is to be ranked with Charles Wesley, the two standing together at the summit of English sacred verse.
The noble hymn that we are to commit to memory was written by Dr. Watts in 1709, to follow a sermon on 1 Corinthians 16:13, "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong." It is sometimes condensed to four stanzas, but surely we shall not wish to lose the last two. Here it is:—
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause
Or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease?
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?
Sure I must fight, if I would reign
Increase my courage, Lord!
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy word.
Thy saints, in all this glorious war,
Shall conquer, though they die;
They view the triumph from afar,
And seize it with their eye.
When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all Thy armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be Thine.
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from A Treasure of Hymns ... by Amos R. Wells. Boston: United Society of Christian Endeavor, ©1914.
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