(Learn how to play At The Cross – video at bottom of this page.)
At The Cross, written by Isaac Watts and published in 1707. Refrain added by Ralph Hudson in 1885. Today I felt more in need of something soft and soulful, so (temporarily) set aside the toe-tapping songs. It happens now and then. :^)
I’ll have to admit, At the Cross lacked a certain amount of appeal when I was a child. It was slow. Made it tough for a young boy to sit still and not squirm impatiently. Only after growing up did the beauty of the music and lyrics really become apparent.
Even more appealing after learning some history about the author. Isaac Watts was raised as a Nonconformist, in an age when ‘not fitting in’ carried very harsh penalties. His father was jailed on two separate occasions for his dissenting viewpoints. Even among nonconformists, Isaac was something of a rebel. His views were radically non-denominational, and he was more interested in promoting education than in preaching a specific creed of faith.
Watts is often called the “Father of English Hymnody”. I’ve never really heard that form of the word before. It primarily refers to songs of praise to God. Sort of a collective noun of the word hymn. Hymns themselves are poems of praise and worship, sung to express our feelings to God.
Before Watts, hymns were exclusively based on direct translations of bible verses into song. Watts was … instrumental… (bit of a pun, sorry) in gaining original poetry acceptance as hymn lyrics. It might be a chicken/egg situation as to whether he did so because of his writing, or was free to write because of his work for broader acceptance. Either way, he’s credited with around 750 hymns.
He was clever, a scamp, and a poet all from an early age. There’s a story that he was caught during prayers with his eyes open. Asked why, he improvised on the spot: “A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say its prayers.”
As an excuse, his father wasn’t sold. He punished young Isaac, who improvised again: “O father, father, pity take… and I will no more verses make.”
There’s a lot going on there. First, Isaac obviously had a genius for words. Just as obviously, he was either a major smart-alec, or not too bright. Either way, if I pulled that stunt, it would likely get me in even more trouble.
And yet, from such impish beginnings, came the man who wrote (among many others) At The Cross. Goes to show, you might think some kids are plain old trouble, but you just never know.