From Experiential Educator to Nationalist Theologian: the Hymns of Isaac Watts
Panorama: International Journal of Comparative Religious Education and Values, Vol 14 no.1 Summer 2002, pp. 91-106






Isaac Watts is generally regarded as the founder of the modern English hymn.  He wrote approximately six hundred and fifty hymns, of which some half dozen are still in the repertoire.  The present study will examine his hymns in their social and political context, interpreting Watts as a key figure in the formation of a British theology which was in partnership with the growth of Britain as an international power.  Two of his most significant hymns will be studied so as to indicate the political and economic sub-text which is concealed beneath the more superficial piety which lies on the surface of the words.  It will be argued that Christian adults who have inherited this tradition of spirituality need to undertake this kind of critical analysis in order to be freed from the ideological implications of British imperial theology.


Biographical Information


Isaac Watts was born on 17th July 1674 in Southampton. His father, also called Isaac, was deacon of the Southampton Independent Meeting.1  The religious climate into which the young Isaac was born can be judged by the fact that at the time of his birth his father was in Southampton gaol, and received a second sentence the following year.2  Ten years later, in 1685, Watts Senior fled from Southampton to avoid further imprisonment and spent two years hiding in London.3  These events occurred as part of the repression of dissenters4 which followed the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the 1662 Act of Uniformity which required all ministers and school masters to swear allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer.  The notorious Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade clergy who had not conformed three years earlier from going within five miles of a town or parish in which they had previously ministered.  This period of persecution lasted into the Toleration Act of 1688.  By this time, the young Isaac was fourteen years old, having grown up in the puritan tradition of dissent, and worshipping regularly in a meeting house the very existence of which was illegal.


The great days of the puritan reformation were over.  At the time of the Westminster Assembly (1643-53) it had seemed probable that the Church of England would be reformed along Presbyterian lines.  With the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Protectorate in 1653, it looked as if a holy Commonwealth would be established, and the rule of the saints would prevail.  By 1662 those hopes were in ruins, and by the time young Isaac Watts was growing up, the once powerful puritan tradition had become inward-looking, pious and wealthy.


Refusing to renounce his dissenting principles, Isaac Watts declined an offer to have his fees paid to go to the University of Oxford and received his higher education in the Stoke Newington dissenting academy.  Stoke Newington was then a village on the outskirts of London, inhabited by a coterie of wealthy dissenting families.  It was a “stately and learned society”5 and “the almost arrogant patriotism of much of Watts’ verse reflects the temper of this society”.  The religion of the circles of which the young Watts moved “was that of men of wealth, rank and learning and these acquisitions, material and mental alike, were conceived as signs and seals of the favour of God”.6


When he had finished his studies at Stoke Newington he returned to his home in Southampton where for two and a half years he continued his studies and in the context of the congregation there, began his first experiments in the writing of hymns.  Returning to Stoke Newington, he became tutor to Sir John Hartopp7 and in 1699 he became assistant pastor to the Mark Lane Independent Chapel.  He became principle pastor three years later.  In 1712 he relinquished most of his pastoral duties and took up residence in Theobolds, the estate of Sir Thomas and Lady Abney.8  Isaac Watts remained a house guest of the Abney family until his death in 1748.   The summer residence of the family was at Theobolds in Hertfordshire and the manor house of Stoke Newington, Abney House, was their second home.  Thomas Abney was one of the founders of the Bank of England (1694) and was knighted by King William. He had been Lord Mayor of London and had represented the City of London in Parliament.9


The Political Theology


The first volume of Isaac Watts’ poetry was published on 28th December 170510 under the title Horae Lyricae.  Here we see the early development of Watts’ Theology of Britain which was to become so prominent in his 1719 The Psalms of David11  “An hymn of praise to the God of England” was re-titled “A hymn of praise for three great salvations” in the 1709 edition of Horae Lyricae.  The three salvations were the destruction of the Spanish Armada (1588), the discovery and overthrow of the Gunpowder Plot (1605) and the Glorious Revolution; the arrival of William of Orange in England to restore the Protestant monarchy in 1688.  The poem begins with a kind of geo-political meditation on the providential arrangement of the British Islands with their protective surrounding seas and rocky cliffs.


            Infinite God, thy counsels stand

            Like mountains of eternal brass

            Pillars to prop our sinking land

            Or guardian rocks to break the seas.


Within that providential arrangement of sea and land, the British Church occupies a particular place within God’s historical providence.


            Part of thy Church, by thy command

            Stands raised upon the British Isles.

            ‘There’ said the Lord ‘To ages stand

            Firm as the everlasting hills’


This providential arrangement of geography with the special mission of the British Church now culminates in God’s saving acts.


            In vain the Spanish ocean roared

            Its billows swelled against our shore

            Its billows sunk beneath thy word

            With all the floating war thy bore.


The arrival of William of Orange, the Protestant deliverer and hero, is surrounded by angelic bands, rejoicing at the victory of the Protestant faith.


            Brigades of Angels line the way

            And guarded William to his throne

            There ye celestial warriors stay

            And make his palace like your own.


Here we see the identification of the British monarch with the throne of God.  However, Watts had already been developing this theology of Britain in an earlier poem, one of the few for which the date of composition is provided by Watts himself.  On 5th November 1694, Watts had commemorated the anniversary of the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot by writing a hymn entitled “The  Church saved and her enemies disappointed” which was first published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707).


            Shout to the Lord, and let our joys

            Through the whole nation run!

            Ye British skies, resound the noise

            Beyond the rising sun!


The hymn goes on to describe the triumph of God over the plots and snares of God’s enemies and concludes in exaltation:


            Almighty grace defends our land

            From their malicious power

            Let Britain, with united songs,

            Almighty grace adore.


It is in The Psalms of David (1719) that this theology of Britain achieves its climax.  Watts had been experimenting with poems and hymns based on the Psalms for at least fifteen years.  The first edition of Horae Lyricae (1706) contains an important group of Psalm imitations.  They appear on pages 15 to 62 of the first edition but are removed from all subsequent editions.  Most of them reappear, often in a modified form, in the 1719 Psalms of David.  The theology of Britain is already present in these early interpretations, for example, the version of Psalm 100 which is entitled “Praise to the Lord from all Nations”.  The opening verse reads


            Sing to the Lord with joyful voice

            Let every land his name adore

            The British Isles shall send the noise

            Across the ocean to the shore.


The creation of a theology of Britain was not the principal intention of Isaac Watts. In the preface to The Psalms of David he explains that he has consulted approximately twenty versions or editions of the Psalms translated into English and versified for singing.  However, they all have a common defect: they present the meaning of the Hebrew psalms in an English which is as close as possible to the original Hebrew, maintaining the imagery and outlook of the original psalm.  Of course, there are a number of psalms the piety of which is so general that they can stand this literal interpretation.  Psalm 1 is a good example: “Blessed is the one who walks in the way of the Lord”.  There are many others, however, where the interests of the Hebrew monarchy or the concerns of the psalmist are paramount.  Watts admires the work of Dr Patrick who has, says Watts, “succeeded here and there in abandoning the Hebrayisms and using Christian language”.  Watts now proposes to take up the principle of Christianisation adopted by Patrick, and to pursue it more thoroughly.  Christian singing of hymns can not be confined to the psalms.  Where would one find a hymn to accompany the Lord’s Supper, unless we are to sing Psalm 23 again and again.  The ancient Jewish people celebrated their national deliverances through their psalms and we today should do the same.  How can our modern congregations sing of praising God upon the harp when in fact we use the organ?  As for the places where the coming of the Messiah is foretold by the psalmist, why should the dark and misty language of prediction be retained, when we stand in the full light of that coming? 


Watts was thus acting as a pastor, and as an educator of his people when he Christianised the Psalms.  For example in Psalm 20, to which Watts gives the heading “Prayer and hope of Victory: for a day of prayer in time of war” verses 5 and 6 read as follows:


            Let us sing aloud in praise of your Victory, Let us do homage to the name of our            God!  May the Lord grant your every request!  Now I know that the Lord             has given          Victory to his anointed one: he will answer him from his holy heaven with the             victorious might of his right-hand.12


Watts interprets this in the light of the military life of the seventeenth century by introducing a reference to troops and navy.


            In his salvation is our hope

            And in the name of Israel’s God

            Our troops shall life their banners up,

            Our navy’s spread their flags abroad.


In verse 8 the psalmist describes how the armies of Israel put to flight the forces of the enemy.  “They totter and fall, but we rise up and stand firm”.  This, together with the prayers, becomes


            Oh may the memory of thy name

            Inspire our armies for the fight

            Our foes shall fall and die with shame

            Or quit the field with shameful flight.


This identification of the armies of the Lord with the British army was to have profound consequences for the future of Christian faith in Britain, and became particularly prominent during the Victorian period.13  In Psalm 45 we have a glorification of the military might of the Davidic monarch.


            Gird on your sword on your side, you warrior King, advance in your pomp and             splendour, ride on in the cause of truth and for justice.  Your right hand will perform        awesome deeds: your arrows are sharp (verses 3-5).



The king is identified by Watts with Jesus Christ, and there is no mistaking the political and imperialistic tendencies of the result.

            Dress thee in arms, most mighty Lord!

            Gird on the terror of thy sword!

            In majesty and glory ride

            With truth and meekness at thy side

            Thy anger like a pointed dart

            Shall pierce the foes of stubborn heart.


The identification of Israel with Britain becomes explicit in the 47th Psalm:  “Clap your hands, all you nations, acclaim God with shouts of joy …  He subdues nations under us, peoples under our feet; he chooses us for our heritage, the pride of Jacob whom he loves” (verses 1, 3-4).  Watts applies the Psalm in praise of the elevation of the King to the ascension of Jesus Christ, concluding


            In Israel stood his ancient throne

            He loved that chosen race

            But now he calls the world his own

            And heathens taste his grace


            The British Islands are the Lord’s

            There Abraham’s God is known

            While powers and princes,  shields and swords

            Submit before his throne.


One notices here the reference to the expanding power of the Christian King abroad, as the British monarch takes on the responsibility for extending the fear of God to the ends of the earth.


The political theology which we see dawning here was not confined to the triumphs of the monarchy.  Psalm 60 is a prayer for mercy at a time when the nation has suffered defeat.


            You have made the land quake and caused it to split open; repair its ruins, for it is          shattered.  You have made your people drunk with the bitter draught, you have given          us wine which makes us stagger.  (Psalm 60: 2,3)  


            Great Britain quakes beneath thy stroke

            And dreads thy threatening hand

            Oh heal the Island thou hast broke

            Confirm the wavering land.


Psalm 67 which begins “May God be gracious to us and bless us, may he cause his face to shine on us …” becomes


            Shine, mighty God, on Britain shine

            With beams of heavenly grace

            Reveal thy power through all our coasts

            And show thy smiling face.


The coincidence between the spread of British arms and the spread of the Christian faith which was to become such a pronounced feature of the empire14, is foreseen particularly in the fourth verse of Watts’ hymn:


            Sing to the Lord, ye distant lands

            Sing loud with solemn voice

            While British tongues exalt his praise

            And British hearts rejoice.


In later verses Britain is described as God’s “chosen Isle”.  In a footnote Watts remarks that he has “translated the scene of this Psalm to Great Britain”. 


Jesus shall reign where e’er the Sun


Of particular interest is Psalm 72, which marks the end of a series of royal psalms.  In this final one of the series, the political functions of the Hebrew monarchy are set forth and celebrated.15  Three principle functions are evident: justice, prosperity and domination.  The first part of the Psalm is mainly concerned with the first and most important function of the monarch, which was to execute justice and to defend the poor, and Watts wrote a separate hymn on this part of the Psalm.


            God, endow the King with your own justice, his royal person with your righteousness, that he may govern your people rightly and deal justly with your oppressed ones …  May he give judgement for the oppressed among the people and       help to the needy; may he crush the oppressor.  (verses 1-2, 4)


It was also the duty of the King to ensure the prosperity of the land.


            May the hills and mountains provide your people with prosperity in righteousness …      May there be grain in plenty throughout the land, growing thickly over the heights of  the hills; may its crops flourish like Lebanon and the sheaves be plenteous as blades       of grass.  (verses 3, 16)


The last part of the psalm is mainly concerned with the duty of the King to extend the Kingdom and to secure dominion over the surrounding lands.


            May he hold sway from sea to sea, from the Euphrates river to the ends of the earth.      May desert tribes bend low before him, his enemies lick the dust.  May the Kings of             Tarshish and of the Isles bring gifts, may the Kings of Sheba and Seba present their tribute. Let all kings pay him homage, all nations serve him.  (vs.8-11).


As in the other psalms in Isaac Watts’ collection, the powers of the Hebrew monarch are transferred to Jesus Christ, and by implication if not always directly to the British King. However, whereas the psalmist prays that the King has long life: “May he fear you as long as the sun endures, and as the moon throughout the ages” (Ps 72:5), it is unnecessary to pray that the life of Jesus Christ might be prolonged, since of his kingdom and power there will be no end.  Thus when the psalm is Christologised, the longitudinal expectation becomes a lateral one.  The prayer for long life becomes a prayer for universal domination.  Thus the hymn does not begin “May Jesus live on whilst the sun shall his successive journeys run” but rather “Jesus shall reign where’re the sun doth his successive journeys run”.  The desire for long life has become the desire for empire.  The same is true of the references to the moon.  In verse 7 the psalmist prays that “In his days may righteousness flourish, prosperity abound until the moon is no more”.  In other words, the idea of prolongation is here applied to the perpetual administration of justice, but in the hymn what is to endure as long as the moon is not so much the justice of the monarch as his sheer dominion.  An interesting modern extension of the political theology of the psalm is to be found in the motto of the Dominion of Canada:  “From Sea to Sea”, thus transposing the original references, presumably to the Mediterranean sea and to either the Red sea or the Arabian Gulf, to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.


The universal sway of the Christian faith is hinted at in verse 3 of the hymn.


            People and realms of every tongue

            Dwell on his love with sweetest song

            And infant voices shall proclaim

            Their early blessings on his name.


There is little in the psalm which corresponds to this.  The reference to the children is probably taken from the story about the children crying Hosanna in the temple.16  It is significant that the title which Watts gives to this hymn is “Christ’s Kingdom amongst the Gentiles”, whereas in the psalm although foreign kings pay tribute to the Hebrew monarch, there is no suggestion that they would share in the faith of the king.


Already, however, before this verse, Watts had inserted a few additional lines in which the political theology of the psalm was made more contemporary.



            Before the Islands with their Kings

            And Europe her best tribute brings

            From North to South the princes meet

            To pay their homage at his feet.


            There Persia glorious to behold,

            There India shines in eastern gold

            And barbarous nations at his word

            Submit and bow and own their Lord.


These two verses appear in brackets in the eighteenth century editions of Psalms of David, because they are too remote from the words of the psalm.  However, they are important in an attempt to interpret the hymn, because the political implications of the rest of the hymn break through into the surface at this point.  In 1708 the value of imports from India into England was about £500,000 but was growing rapidly.  By 1758 the value of annual imports had reached more than £1,100,000.17  In 1708 the annual dividend paid by the company to its stockholders was 5%; by 1711 it had risen to 10% p.a. and fluctuated between 10 and 12 percent for the next 10 or 15 years.18  Saint Anne’s Church in Calcutta, the first Christian place of worship in that part of the subcontinent, was consecrated in 170919 and a Bank was founded in Bombay, also held by the British in 172020, the year after the publication of the Psalms of David.  So the rich merchants of Stoke Newington, to say nothing of their brethren in the commercial trading port of Southampton, were certainly familiar with India’s gold.


These two verses dropped out of the repertoire early in the nineteenth century.  By that time the incorporation of Christian faith and empire had become thoroughly spiritualised, and the crude reminder of its economic base had become a little tasteless.


Watts, as I have explained, did not intend to create an imperial theology.  He intended to make the Psalms meaningful for Christian worshippers.  However, there was, if we may put it in this way, an intention deeper than his conscious intention.  The theology of Christian Britain in covenant with God to spread the Protestant Christian faith throughout the world was part of the spiritual and theological world into which Isaac Watts was born.  He took it for granted, which is why at the age of twenty it was fully formed in his poetry, just as it emerged in his psalms when he was forty-five.  To find the origin of the idea of God’s special covenant with England, we would have to go back two hundred years, to the covenant theology of William Tyndale.21  The intention beneath the intention has continued to influence generations of English-speaking Christians for a further two hundred and fifty years, and has created the sub-conscious contours of British spirituality today.


When I Survey the Wondrous Cross


So far we have been studying a number of texts in which the political and commercial world of Isaac Watts is expressed in overt terms, in the references to Britain in his 1719 psalms.  We can, however, find similar influences upon his work at an earlier date, although they are implicit and have been glossed over by the piety of nearly three centuries.  The most famous of all the hymns of Isaac Watts, translated into dozens of languages and familiar throughout the Christian world is  “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.


It first appears in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) where it is number seven in the third book which is mainly a collection of hymns for the Eucharist.  The art of surveying had developed rapidly during the seventeenth century.  Tectonicon, briefly showing the exact measuring and spe[d]ie reckoning all manner of land  by Leonard Digges (d.c. 1571) went through many editions from 1556 to 1634.  The graphometer, one of the basic instruments used by the surveyor, was invented in 1597.22  A report on the survey of Cornwall was published in 1602 by Richard Carew and an enlarged survey of London in 1633 by Anthony Munday and Humfrey Dyson.  Surveying had become increasingly important in the enclosures of the common land, and in the rapidly developing real estate market.  To survey is to measure exactly, usually with a view to estimating the value of an estate or property.  To survey also means to carry out an inspection of an area from a vantage point, or to offer a comprehensive description of something or other.  The important feature which all these meanings have in common is that the one who conducts the survey is superior to that which is surveyed.  The one who surveys is the owner, or master of that which is measured, inspected or laid out.  So in the first line of the famous hymn Watts is about to carry out a survey upon the wondrous cross.  It is as if one’s attention has been attracted by a jewelled cross, displayed in the window of an antique shop.  The cross is glowing with gems and golden filigree.  As you draw closer to estimate its value, the truth of what happened there dawns upon you.  This is the wondrous cross “On which the prince of glory died”.  We notice the shimmering radiance of the words “wonder”, “prince”, and “glory”.  It is these words which suggest the enormous value to be placed upon the object, and this is why we propose to survey it.  If Watts had written instead “When I behold the sacred cross/on which the son of Mary died” it would not have been the same.


As the contrast between the radiant treasure before us and the stark reality of its history dawns upon us, we suddenly find our values reversed.  That which we set out to survey now surveys us. 


            My richest gain I count but loss

            And put contempt on all my pride.


These are the dynamics upon which this hymn turns: gain and loss, pride and contempt, death and life.  One imagines a merchant seeking to make tremendous gains.  We remember that Isaac Watts was  born in French Street, which runs straight down to the port in Southampton.  Many a time, coming out of his front door on his way to school, young Isaac must have glanced down the street and seen the great vessels anchored in the harbour, or billowing in from distant lands, from the West Indies or from India itself, laden with precious goods.  These had to be counted and stored.  Their value had to be assessed, which is why surveying, pouring and counting are such important words in this verse.  As I estimate the value of my goods, I am full of pride.  But suddenly, I have something which I did not expect, something which turns me upside-down.  My bargaining, my profit margins, my rich gains, everything of which I had been so proud, is now become the object of my contempt.  My counting, which previously had been the way I had measured the value of the wonders, had suddenly run into a terrible deficit.  I count but loss.


As we move into the second verse, the mood changes.  I remember my competitive boasting with dismay. 


            Forbid it Lord that I should boast

            Save in the death of Christ my God. 


I no longer boast about the rich jewels in the wondrous cross but I boast about what the cross signifies: the death of Christ my God.  Why should I boast about it?  Because it is now the only thing in the world of which I am proud.  I am proud of it because of the grace and mercy which are extended to me through the self-giving love of God.  I am not proud of it as of something in my possession, but as something which has come to possess me, and in the presence of which I feel transformed and enriched.


            All the vain things that charm the most

            I sacrifice them to his blood.


Still I remember those vain things which charmed me.  Notice the magical hint in the word “charm”.  I was under a spell, but the things that charmed me were vain.  I now recognise that there is indeed a competition, not between myself and other entrepreneurs, but between these vain things which charm me and the transforming enchantment of the love of God.  Therefore I sacrifice them.  I began by seeking for a gain; now everything I’ve had is loss.  Now that I have lost everything, I can see more deeply into the wondrous cross.   I notice the detail.  I see indications of emotions, love and sorrow, quite different from the emotions I had felt before, emotions of contempt and pride, of boasting of vanity and enchantment.  I no longer survey but I see.


            See from his head, his hands, his feet,

            Sorrow and love flow mingled down.

            Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,

            Or thorns compose so rich a crown?


Again the theme of wealth and riches are here, the hint of royalty and of glory.  There is indeed a crown, but the theme of the reversal of values continues even more poignantly.  The richness of the crown is made up not of jewels and fine gold, but of thorns.  The thorns, almost like a work of deliberate art, compose themselves.  It is a composition, like the artwork of the cross, but now mingled not with boasting and counting but with sorrow and love.  Once again, there is a pouring.  At first I was compelled to pour contempt on my pride; now I see that sorrow and love are pouring down for me.  To the paradoxes of gain and loss, richness and poverty, we now add a contrasting pair of values which completely transcend those of the commercial world: sorrow and love.


  The fourth verse is usually omitted from the modern hymn books.  Perhaps it is thought to be gory.  When the hymn as a whole is correctly understood, however, this fourth verse is essential to the imagery.


            His dying crimson like a robe

            Spreads from his body o’er the tree.

            Then I am dead to all the world

            And all the world is dead to me.


It is not usually realised but the first line contains a pun upon which the imagery of the verse depends.  Dying can mean that one’s life is terminated by death.  It can also mean that cloth undergoes a dyeing process whereby it is stained with colour.  The crimson dye which is referred to in the first line of the verse was a particularly costly one, which only the wealthy could afford.23  This is also suggested by the use of the word “robe”, which is what a prince of glory would indeed wear, but in this case the robe becomes his shroud.  The cross or tree is compared to a robe which, as it were, wraps him round. 


Although there were scarlet dyes known in antiquity and in the medieval period, coming from a small insect which inhabits certain trees growing around the Mediterranean basin,24 the crimson dye imported from Mexico from about 151825 was both more brilliant and more costly.  The dye is obtained through crushing the coccus cacti, an insect which lives on a certain cactus which grows in Mexico.  In order to obtain a pound weight of the crimson liquid (cochineal), it was necessary to crush about seventy thousand of the insects.26  These were gathered from the plants and crushed by the native people of Mexico under the direction of the alcaldes mayores, the wealthy Spanish officials.27  No doubt Southampton was one of the ports where this luxury item was imported.28  In order to fix the colour into the cloth, it was mixed with ammonia.29  One can imagine the young Isaac Watts, watching fascinated but choking from the ammonia fumes, as a length of woollen cloth was lowered into the tub or tray containing the liquid, which would spread steadily up the cloth, turning the white wool to scarlet, until the whole cloth was coloured.  The deaths of so many thousands of little insects, the deaths of the native labourers, the choking and coughing as the pungent process took place, and the appearance, like blood, of the cloth as the stain spread through it, must have made a vivid impact upon the lad.  “Then am I dead to all the world”.


But would the boy have had an opportunity to visit one of the dyeing establishments?  Certainly, because his father, Isaac Watts Senior, was in the cloth trade.30  We do not know the exact nature of his business, but doubtless he would have visited the factories where the cloth was dyed and prepared for sale.  One must remember that the woollen industry was concentrated in Southern England and that Southampton would have been one of the major ports for the export and import of these products.  By the late seventeenth century this industry was already in decline31 since it was tending to move towards the North of England.


This was not the only occasion when Isaac Watts used this powerful metaphor.


            Ye perishing and naked poor

            Who work with mighty pain

            To weave a garment of your own

            That will not hide your sin

            Come, naked, and adorn your souls

            In robes prepared by God

            Wrought by the labours of his Son

            And dyed in his own blood.32 


This  verse reflects Watts’ knowledge of the clothing industry as practised in the homes of the poor.  They made their own clothes, in considerable labour and hardship, but they obviously could not afford to have their clothes dyed.  They are invited to strip off these mean garments of their poverty, and to accept the crimson robes of salvation, dyed by the blood of Christ.  Although the picture is so vivid, it is significant that Isaac Watts neither here nor anywhere in his writings shows much interest in and concern for the actual situation of the poor.  For Watts, it is no more than a convenient metaphor to describe the transformation from the sinful state to the redeemed state.


Returning to “His dying crimson like a robe” we notice how the theme of the paradoxical reversal of values is expressed.  Instead of the beautiful robes giving me life and glory, I am killed.  Jesus Christ is like one of the coccus cacti, crushed to death, in order to yield the crimson dye, and when I identify with him, through accepting the values of his cross, I also die.  I am no longer sensitive to the world of gain and loss, the world of surveying and counting.  At the same moment, in another reversal of roles, it is the world which has died.  It has been sacrificed to his blood and can charm me no more.  I am now alive, to respond to that amazing love, which when blended with sorrow, has transformed my life.33


            Were the whole realm of nature mine

            That were an offering far too small.


We return to the theme of the first verse.  Once again we are surveying.  We are in the world of possession, of royal estates and of glory.  I began by surveying the wondrous cross; now I survey the whole realm of nature.  I have made the cross my own; now I imagine that the whole realm of nature has become mine.  But what happens to this immense possession?  It is not enough; it is “far too small”.  Previously I had sacrificed to his blood “all the vain things that charm me most” but now even the offering of the entire realm of nature is insufficient.  The cross which once I ventured to survey now looms up, larger than the cosmos. 


            Love so amazing, so divine

            Demands my soul, my life, my all.


The exchange of values has now become total. I am stunned by the amazing inversion.  Previously I loved to survey, to count, to pour out and become rich.  Now I have nothing left with which to bargain.34  What I stand before now is no longer a cross, or even a Son of God dying on a cross, but a living, amazing divine love.


Implications for Education and for Spirituality


We have now examined in some detail two of Isaac Watts’ best loved hymns.  In each case, we have discovered a significance which lies beneath the level of the surface meaning.  In the case of “Jesus shall Reign” we saw that the values of empire were affirmed, but concealed beneath a layer of Christianity.  The Christian surface had disguised the underlying imperial values, and had created a kind of political theology, all the more dangerous because the association between Christian faith and political domination was disguised.


In the case of “When I Survey” we also discovered a deeper text, so to speak, running beneath the surface.  Far from affirming the values of commercial domination, the hymn is actually a statement of a radical opposition between the meaning of Christian faith and the meaning of the market economy.  This implied radicalism has been overlain by a kind of Christian mystic piety, in which the cross of Christ has been separated from its commercial antithesis.  Its challenge to ethical life has been glossed over, a varnishing which was all too natural in the self-enclosed Independent Churches of the early eighteenth century, when the challenge to commercial life which the hymn implies had become too challenging to hear. 

Was Isaac Watts himself aware of the contrast between the surface and the depth in these two hymns?  In the case of “When I Survey” I believe that he was not conscious of it.  This is indicated by the fact that nowhere in his poetical writings is there any sense of genuine concern for the poverty and squalor of many of the working people of his day.  They become convenient and emotional symbols for the poverty of the sinner, but are never observed and taken seriously in their own right, except as a warning to children.35  The middle-class fear of falling into poverty on the one-hand, and the attraction of a de-politicised, internalised faith on the other encouraged this narrowing of the Christian consciousness.  One wonders if Isaac Watts had ever read Abiezer Coppe’s stunning account of his meeting with a poor beggar, in which Christ is heard speaking out of poverty itself.36  It is noticeable that in all of Watts’ hymns and psalms there is not a single one which speaks of the mission of the Church to the marginalised and suffering people of his own society or of the world.  Here we find the local congregation comfortably adoring its own belief system.  Instead of being an instrument dedicated to an object, the Christian faith has become its own object.  However, for the Christian of today, who wishes to make the cross an instrument of redemption and no longer a fetish of devotional abstraction, this rich and beautiful hymn can still vibrate with power.  Its significance and relevance are increased when its social implications are realised.  It is noticeable that in this hymn there is no reference to the penal and substitutionary theory of the atonement which was to become so important in the Victorian period.37  By then, the cross of Christ far from challenging the commercial and market values of society, had become the very epitome of reification of them.  We may contrast the words of “When I Survey”, with its negation of  commercial values, with the hymn “There is a Green Hill” with its frank acceptance of commercial values and its crude moral comparisons leading to a heightened sense of exclusivity.


            There was none other good enough

            To pay the price of sin

            He only could unlock the gate

            Of heaven and let us in.



It became fashionable to criticise “When I Survey” for its apparent advocacy of what is sometimes called the moral theory of the atonement, because it does not describe the cross of Christ as a bargain or a device but merely allows the cross to engage with our commercial values.  One suspects that this superficial criticism comes from a Christian faith in which the tension between the cross of Christ and the values of money has become entirely lost. 


Finally, let us consider the educational implications of this study.  We have seen that the hymns of Isaac Watts represent a vital point in the formation of an introverted ecclesiastical spirituality, in which the Christian faith becomes its own object.  We have also seen the convenience of this process of spiritualisation, since it left European economic and political power more-or-less free to follow its own internal logic.  We are the inheritors of this spirituality, carved into the very foundations of our understanding of faith through the continual repetition of the hymns in an atmosphere of collective emotion.  To put it bluntly, the empire has gone but the theology lingers on, now made the more irrelevant by the need to contest the domination of money in the globalised market.


Christian education with adults and young people must exorcise this inherited spirituality, and must do it by attacking it at its roots, in some of its most beautiful and popular statements.  Through this process of critical archaeology, Christians will become aware of the purposes of the tradition which encloses them.    It is particularly important to realise that both these hymns were formed in the creative imagination of their author, not through meditating upon the place of Britain in the world, or on the conflict of values between Christian faith and money, but as expositions of biblical passages.  As the poet interpreted Psalm 72 and the letter to the Galatians his own geopolitical and economic context intervened and so scripture was mediated through the author’s social context.  This mediation was veiled by piety, and the piety must therefore be regarded as a form of false consciousness.  As we exorcise our faith, there will be losses as well as gains.  It is possible that some will no longer be able to sing “Jesus shall Reign” with a clear conscience, and it is equally possible that “When I Survey” will be sung with renewed meaning.  The first hymn points to the past; the second still points to its future.





1.         Dictionary of National Biography [DNB].  Vol.XX, London, 1908 art.  “Watts, Isaac, (1674-1748)” p.978.


2.         DNB  p.978.


3.         DNB  p.978


4.         Ole Peter Grell, Jonathan I. Israel and Nicholas Tyacke (eds.)  From Persecution to    Toleration: The Glorious Revolution and Religion in England  Oxford, Clarendon         Press 1991.


5.         Harry Escott,  Isaac Watts, Hymnographer: A Study of the Beginnings, Development          and Philosophy of the English Hymn  London, Independent Press 1962, p.19.


6.         Escott, p.20.


7.         DNB  vol.IX, 1908, art. “Hartopp, Sir John, (1637?-1722)”, p.74.


8          DNB  vol.I, 1908, art. “Abney, Sir Thomas (1640-1722)”, pp.54-5.


9.         For biographies of Watts see not only Escott (which is easily the best) but also Arthur    Paul Davis, Isaac Watts, his Life and Works  London, Independent Press 1943.


10.       Horae Lyricae; Peoms, chiefly of the Lyric Kind, in Two Books  London, 1706.       Second edition 1709 in three books.  See also the 1837 edition with a memoir by          Robert Southey, London.


11.       The Psalms of David, imitated in the language of the New Testament and applied to         the Christian State and Worship  (London, 1719)  Later editions 1765 and 1782 and        in The Poetical Works of Isaac Watts: with the life of the Author  (Cooke’s edition,    London, 1802).


12.       Biblical quotations are from The Revised English Bible.


13.       John Wolffe  ‘“Praise to the Holiest in the Height” : Hymns and Church Music’ in           John Wolffe (ed.)  Religion in Victorian Britain  Vol.V: Culture and Empire        Manchester, MUP 1997  pp.59-100; Susan S.Tamke  “Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord” : Hymns as a Reflection of Victorian Social Attitudes  Athens Ohio, Ohio      University Press 1978; Lionel Adey Class and Idol in the English Hymn  Vancover,       University of BC Press 1988.


14.       Jan Morris Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress  London, Faber 1973; Brian Stanley, The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the      nineteenth and twentieth centuries  Leicester, Apollos, 1990.


15.       M.D.Goulder  The Prayers of David (Psalms 51-72): Studies in the Psalter II          Sheffield, JSOT Press 1990.


16.       Matthew 21: 15.


17.       H.H.Dodwell (ed.)  British India, 1497-1858  [The Cambridge History of India           Vol.5]  Cambridge, CUP 1929, p.108.


18.       Dodwell  p.109


19.       Dodwell  p.113


20.       Dodwell  p.114.


21.       Michael McGiffert “William Tyndale’s Conception of Covenant”  Journal of     Ecclesiastical History , vol.32, no.2, April 1981  pp.167-184.  Although the    theological conception was that of Tyndale, the Covenant theology achieved its         specific application to the destiny of Britain (or England) in the historical philosophy        of John Fox (1516-1587) and William Perkins (1588-1602).


22.       Samuel Guye and Henri Michel (trans. Diana Dolan)  Time and Space; Measuring       Instruments from the 15th to the 19th Century  London, Pall Mall Press 1971 edn.           pp.277, 283.


23.       The comparative costs of dyed and un-dyed cloths in Southampton are described in      C.H.Vellacott, “Textiles” in William Page (ed) Hampshire and the Isle of Wight [The            Victoria History of the Counties of England] London, 1908  p.485.


24.       Stuart Robinson, A History of Dyed Textiles  London, Studio Vista, 1969  p.25.


25.       F.Crace, Dyeing and Calico Printing: Including an Account of the Most Recent      Improvements in the Manufacture and Use of Aniline Colours  Manchester, Palmer           and Howe, 1878  p.207.


26.       Eric R. Wolf,  Europe and the People without History  Berkeley and Los Angeles,     University of California Press, 1997  p.140.


27.       John K. Chance, Conquest of the Sierra; Spaniards and Indians in Colonial Oaxaca           London, University of Oklahoma Press, 1989, p.45.


28.       Improved techniques of dyeing had been introduced from the Continent to Southampton in 1567 and there was a Guild of Dyers.  Vellacott, p.485.


29.       Crace  p.217.


30.       DCB,  p.978.


31.       Vellacott,  p.487.


32.       Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Book 1, No.7  “Let Every Mortal Ear Attend”, verse 6.

33.       It should be realised that the verse arises out of a meditation on Galatians 6:14, which    in the version which Isaac Watts would have used, reads “But God forbid that I    should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world”.  Another reference to Galatians is to be  found in the second verse of the hymn which is inspired by Galatians 3:1  “O foolish  Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose  eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?”


34.       J. M. Hull, “Bargaining with God: Religious Development and Economic Socialisation”  Journal of Psychology and Theology  Vol.27, no.3, 1999  pp.241-9.


35.       Divine Songs attempted in easy language for the use of Children  (1715).


36.       Abiezer Coppe  “A Second Fiery Flying Roll” (1949) in Nigel Smith (ed)  A Collection of Ranter Writings from the Seventeenth Century  London, Junction        Books, 1983  pp.101ff.


37.       Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement; The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and  Economic Thought, 1785-1865  Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988.  For a study of the        contemporary implications of this doctrine, see Peter Selby, Grace and Mortgage;            The Language of Faith and the Debt of the World  London, Darton Longman and    Todd 1997.


©   John M Hull 2002