Many of the early hymn-writers were preachers who wrote sacred verse to accompany their Sunday morning sermons. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) has been called by many “The Father of English Hymnody.” He was a preacher, poet, and hymn-writer with nearly 600 hymns to his credit. Watts wrote “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” to be sung at the conclusion of a sermon titled “Holy Fortitude, or; Remedies Against Fear.”
The date of the sermon is uncertain, but the scriptural text was Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong (1 Corinthians 16:13). A soldier of the cross can expect opposition. Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2:3). Watts asks several questions in the hymn for which the appropriate answer is “No!” Is one to be afraid or embarrassed to witness for Christ? Paul urged Timothy; we are not to be fearful or ashamed of the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:7- 8) Can we expect to be “carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease” while others have suffered and even died for their faith? Friendship with this “vile world” is certainly no friend to grace, but the enemy of God. (James 4:4) The response for the Christian soldier is in the fourth stanza: “Sure, I must fight if I would reign: Increase my courage, Lord: I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, Supported by thy word.” (2 Timothy 4:5) It is unfortunate that stanzas five and six are omitted from many hymnals; these stanzas give a view of the victory that is ahead for the soldier of the cross. That morning, following the sermon, Watts read the poem two lines at a time, and the congregation sang it to a tune that was common in that day.
The Watts family was among those dissenters who had split from the official state Anglican Church. As a boy, Isaac witnessed much persecution when his father was arrested several times and imprisoned. The memory of such persecution of his family and friends stayed in his mind all his life. Watts was a lifelong invalid, suffering ill health most of his life. Many times, he even required help getting to the pulpit to preach, but he did live to be 75 years old. It is surprising that someone with such a weak constitution could write such encouraging words; many historians say his best sermons were those about fear. Although the Christian life is filled with blessings, the believer can expect battles along the way.
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follow’r of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own his cause,
Or blush to speak his name?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flow’ry beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?
Sure I must fight if I would reign:
Increase my courage, Lord:
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by thy word.
Thy saints in all this glorious war
Shall conquer though they die;
They see the triumph from afar,
And seize it with their eye.
When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all thy armies shine,
In robes of vict’ry through the skies,
The glory shall be thine.