This article was found in the March 1950 copy of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church. It was written by R. A. Newman
The only hymn of which words and music touched any chord in me, wrote the Hon. R. Brett, is Lead Kindly Light. There is no doubt of its popularity with all denominations. At the great Parliament of Religions which was held at Chicago some fifty to sixty years ago, representatives of all known creeds to man found two things they could all join in, viz. The Lord's Prayer and the singing of the aforesaid hymn.
It was written by J. H. Newman (no relation) whilst still an Anglican clergyman and travelling on the Continent for health reasons. He was, however, attacked by a further sudden illness, and lay three weeks with only his man servant in attendance at Palermo, and then had to wait a further three weeks for a boat on the homeward journey. At last he secured an orange boat bound for Marseilles and whilst at sea between Corsica and Sardinia, and a very sick man, he composed this famous hymn.
Each verse crystallises round its own special thought and in the following order -
Newman was born in 1801 of a Godly mother of Hugenot [sic] descent and was the eldest of six children. I wonder whether he had in mind his mother and three sisters when writing the last two lines -
Another of our favourite hymns is that written by our own Congregational poet, Issac Watts, born 1674, the eldest of eight children of a schoolmaster at Southampton. I refer to When I survey the Wondrous Cross, which Matthew Arnold described as the greatest hymn in the English language. Dr. Rendel Harris said, "There hardly exists a more moving and a more sacramental hymn." Is it not true to say that if one truly meditated upon the Cross - if one surveys - it's a grand word in this connection - To survey, i.e. to inspect, to examine, to measure and estimate the breadth, length and depth and height, of the love of the Prince of Glory - who can then doubt the Saviour's love for mankind in dying of the remissions of our sins. But do we always think of the meaning of the words we sing.
Iremonger relates a story in his biography of the late Archbishop Temple, that in 1931 whilst conduction a Mission at Oxford with the undergraduates, and the moment for the dedication and resolved had come - the hymn "When I survey the Wondrous Cross" was given out. It was sung lustily, but Temple stopped the singing at the last verse and said "I want you to read over this verse before you sing it. They are tremendous words. If you mean them with all your hearts sing as loud as you can. If you don't mean at all, keep silent. If you mean them even a little, and want to mean more, sing them very softy."
There was dead silence whilst every eye was fastened on the hymn sheet, and then - to hear Isaac Watts' words -
"Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far to small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all,"
whispered by the voices of 2,000 young men and women was (in the recollection of one of them) an experience never to be erased from memory.
A different story is told of the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon os Tabernacle fame, in his early days, before he experiences large offertories.
His congregation had just finished singing this beautiful hymn before the sermon, when Spurgeon rose and before giving our his text, said "Brethren you have just sung Watts' great hymn," and he softly repeated the words - "Were the whole realm of nature mine, etc, etc." Then suddenly he electrified his congregation by asking whether they knew the collection that morning amounted to "seventeen shillings and one penny." "The whole realm of nature is not yours to give, but surely you can offer more than 17s/1d. It is an insult to your Maker. I am sure you did not realise it, and in order the you don't go away unhappy, there will be another collection at the end of the service."
Watts wrote 697 hymns, of which only 25 are in our present hymnary.
As a boy he was always rhyming and his habit of applying this gift in the domestic home irritated his father to such a degree that he resolved to check that practice by corporal punishment. It is said that even then the young incorrigible Watts had the last word during the application of the punishment by crying out-
"Oh, daddy, mercy on me take,
And I will no more verses make,"
Watts at 24 years of age was called to the Independence Chapel at Mark Lane at £100 per annum - money values were different to ours today, and it was probably equal to £500 at the present time .
He only held the post, in full activity, for ten years, owing to bad health, and lived for 36 years with Sir Thomas Abney ay "Theobalds." Cheshunt, where he died in November, 1784.