A tapestry of emotions woven into rhymes
What if, you memorized the Bible and found it rather unimaginative to continue singing words lifted straight from the Bible? The young Isaac Watts actually conveyed a similar thought to his father who wasn’t enraged by it. Instead, the elder Watts challenged Isaac to make hymns he would like to sing at the church service. At that time, the musical part of the service was to sing from the Book of Psalms. Watts wrote a new hymn for every Sunday service and each was a poem that was moving, Biblically-based, and it changed praise-singing in church. He was criticized by Non-conformists like himself and his family as well as Roman Catholics who called his hymns “uninspired” because they weren’t exact scriptural quotes. He said that if people pray to God in sentences they made up themselves then people can sing in made-up sentences too. Watts penned 750 hymns and he was known as the “Father of English Hymnody” for pioneering the sublime art of writing congregational songs like “At The Cross” (1707).
When one sings “At The Cross”, which is a meditation upon the passion and the Cross, Watts has painted a very clear picture of it in the poem. For Watts to have been able to marry words and lines which consistently rhyme and evoke devotion and self-loathing without the reader sense a jarring jump is pure genius. In the song, he has given us the familiar longing for the Savior and gratefulness for his sacrifice at the Cross and enriched scriptural stories with befitting rhymes. Aside from hymns, he was a brilliant scholar like his contemporary Isaac Newton. Watts produced many volumes on a wide array of subjects.
Hugh Wilson began using his original composition “Martyrdom” as the tune of “At The Cross”. The original poem of Watts did not have a refrain but the current version of the song has one because Ralph Hudson added it.