Isaac Watts (1674-1748) first published “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” in his Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707). He intended it to be a communion hymn, and based it on his own personal spiritual experience of Galatians 6:14 “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
His parents were Dissenters (Non-Anglicans), his father was a Dissenter minister in Southhampton. Young Isaac took to books almost from infancy. He learnt Latin at the age of four, Greek at nine, and Hebrew at thirteen. He loved rhyme and verse. After graduating from college (a wealthy benefactor offered to send him to Oxford, but that would have meant to become Anglican, which Isaac refused), he returned home. The young 19 year old complained to his father about the dismal singing at church (only versified arrangements of the Psalms were sung). After a heated discussion his father challenged him to write a hymn. The congregation liked his hymns so much that they requested a new one every week. That’s how he began his journey to become the ‘Father of English Hymnody’. He wrote over 600 hymns in his life. The growing popularity of his hymns caused a storm. The issue of singing hymns versus the Psalms even split churches! I suppose there is nothing new under the sun.
He became minister at Mark Lane Chapel in London, in 1702. But his health broke some ten years later and he never fully recovered. He continued to fulfil ministerial duties as much as he could for the rest of his life, and devoted much of his time to study and writing. His books gained him considerable reputation, but he regarded his hymns as his most enduring contribution to the Kingdom of God.
‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ is acclaimed as the best of his hymns. It is still the favourite of many three centuries later.