Home History of Hymns: "Am I a Soldier of the Cross"

History of Hymns: "Am I a Soldier of the Cross"

"Am I a Soldier of the Cross"
Isaac Watts
The UM Hymnal, No. 511

Isaac Watts

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?

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) has been considered the “Father of English Hymnody” by eminent hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982) and others—a bold but appropriate assertion. Though Watts certainly did not invent the art of hymn writing, he made some incredible innovations in its execution.

Watts proved to be extremely gifted in the realm of writing from a young age, and most of the hymns we have from him today emerged from what Routley describes as “dissatisfaction with the metrical psalters.”

But Watts’ revisions far exceeded the psalters and ventured into setting actual doctrine to song, something that he found lacking in the church.

Watts was born July 17, 1674, in Southampton, England. His father was a Dissenter from the Anglican Church, a crime punishable by incarceration for the mere act of not conforming.

The son attended multiple academies during his childhood and youth, even pursuing studies at the Dissenting Academy in Stoke Newington, London, which could be likened to a modern liberal arts university. Watts served as an assistant to the Rev. Isaac Chauncy at the Independent Chapel at Mark Lane, London, and eventually took the position as sole pastor of the church.

Watts was plagued with poor health his entire life and often had to have assistance at the pulpit while preaching. While sacred song is his most “crowning achievement,” the very idea that one in such weak health also could write three large volumes of theological thought and a vast collection of sermons is astounding.

Watts died in 1748 at the home of Sir Thomas Abney, where he had lived as an honored guest for nearly 30 years.

The history of “Am I a Soldier of the Cross” is one of many alterations and abandonments. The first printed version appeared in the Methodist Pocket Hymnbook of 1802.

The text has gone through several alterations in the Methodist hymnals. Beginning in 1831, the conclusion of the fifth stanza “the crown enchants their eye” was replaced by the less troublesome “by faith they bring it nigh.” The 1849 Methodist Episcopal Hymnal changed “unhappy world” in stanza three, line three to “vile world,” making a much stronger theological statement as to the condition of the earth.

Watts originally appended this text with Sermon XXXI (sometimes entitled “Holy Fortitude”) on 1 Corinthians 16:13, which reads: “Be on your guard; stand firm in your faith; be people of courage; stand firm.” The intent was to bolster a “sagging faith” and to rekindle a fire of perseverance. The text has been excluded in most British hymnals, but strangely has found a home in American hymnals dating back to 1803.

The most common tune paired with this hymn text is ARLINGTON, which was a favorite common meter tune in the early 19th century. The musical material was derived from the overture of Thomas Arne’s (1710-1778) Artaxerxes, an opera by Thomas Arne (1710-1778) that premiered in London in 1762. The tune is sometimes called ARNE, TRIUMPH, or ARTAXERXES, but ARLINGTON is the most common title. Ralph Harrison (1748-1810) arranged the musical material into a hymn tune and included it in the first volume of Sacred Harmony (1784).

Theologically, Watts’ hymn fits well into the Calvinist/Reformed genre of hymnody. The series of rhetorical questions almost serves as a “theological guilt-trip” of sorts; these questions are ones to which any Christian should know the “correct” answer, and chances are favorable that there was some motive to bring these issues to light in whatever congregational context Watts was preaching.

The aspects of Calvinism are abundant in the descriptions of human struggle and toil. The final two stanzas, while still peppered with militant imagery, are glorious: “Triumph,” “shining armies” and “robes of victory” paint a beautiful picture, but only for the saints who fulfill the requirements of woe and misery on earth.

In response to the heavy usage of militant language, it should be noted that at the time, England was the great empire of Europe with a long history of conquering and warfare. Europe as a whole was in the throes of revolutions, revolts, political and social discord, and in a state of general chaos—so images of armies, naval fleets, wars and battles were familiar to Christians in England.

The hymn remains a poignant reminder that while the Christian life has many blessings, the journey is not without its own battles along the way.

Ms. Hanna is a student of Dr. C. Michael Hawn and a candidate for the master of sacred music degree at Perkins School of Theology.