Home History of Hymns: “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed”

History of Hymns: “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed”

“Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed”
Isaac Watts
UM Hymnal, No. 294

Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
for sinners such as I?

Your assignment: Compose a poem no more than 24 lines in length. The poem must reflect upon the Passion and the Cross, painting a vivid picture of them in the mind of the reader. But more importantly, the poem must evoke all of the following emotions: pity, wonder, grief, humility, love and self-surrender. This entire array of sentiments must appear side by side without any of sense of incongruity or affectation.

And, of course, it all has to rhyme.

Sound difficult? To cover a spectrum of feelings that ranges from intense devotion to caustic self-loathing, and to manage it within the close confines of six brief stanzas without ever giving the reader a jolt is a task that would daunt the most inspired poets. Yet so seamlessly and (it seems) effortlessly does Isaac Watts (1674-1748) carry it off in “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed,” that we hardly notice as we sing the hymn what a tour-de-force is before us.

Isaac Watts

Intense sorrow (“Alas! and did my Savior bleed? / and did my Sovereign die?”) gives way to self-reproach (“Would he devote that sacred head / for sinners such as I?”), which then yields to stunned marvel (“Amazing pity! Grace unknown! / and love beyond degree!”), which in turn blends into gratitude (“Thus might I hide my blushing face / while his dear cross appears; / dissolve my heart in thankfulness, / and melt mine eyes to tears.”)

Yet never do we feel that the vehicle we are riding has lurched abruptly into a different gear. Rather, we feel as though we are confronting a new emotion, an enormous, nameless feeling that somehow embraces both profound longing and overwhelming thankfulness. Watts has, magician-like, produced an experience which is familiar, yet indescribable.

Not that all of Watts’ original text carried that same level of magic. His original second stanza, omitted from the UM Hymnal, was oblique at best and downright confusing at worst:

Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, thine,
and bath’d in its own blood,
while the firm mark of wrath divine,
his soul in anguish stood.

One can just picture the folks in the congregation scratching their heads over those last two lines, trying to work out exactly which noun is supposed to be the subject of the sentence. And perhaps Watts was unhappy with the way that the words “while the” interrupted the regular pulse of the poetry. That might explain why he returned to the stanza a few years later and revised it to read, “while all exposed to wrath divine, the glorious Suff’rer stood.”

Theologians on various hymnal committees have also taken aim at Watts’ fourth stanza:

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut his glories in,
when God the mighty Maker died
for man, the creature’s, sin.

Lest the folks in the pew should imagine that God, the fountain of all life, actually expired on the cross, some hymnal committees altered the words to read, “when Christ the mighty Maker died. . . .”

And you can probably guess which image in the original first stanza is often deemed unpalatable for the modern congregation:

Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
and did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
for such a worm as I?

Though the reference to oneself as a worm is clearly a scriptural allusion (Psalm 22:6, “But as for me, I am a worm, and no man. . . .”), it is often replaced with “For sinners such as I.”

“Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” belongs to a much larger family of Passion hymns which serve as rhapsodies on the wonder of “forensic justification” (a theological term meaning that through Christ’s sacrifice we receive a righteousness that is not our own). Indeed, Watts’ chief competitor in this category is probably . . . also Watts.

That’s right, his “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” echoes many of the themes in “Alas! and Did.” Both were published in the first edition of Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), and the parallels are sometimes uncanny.

These words in “When I Survey”—“my richest gain I count but loss / and pour contempt on all my pride”—are echoed in the other hymn: “Thus I might hide my blushing face / while his dear cross appears. . . .” In another example, “love so amazing, so divine, / demands my soul, my life, my all” becomes: “But drops of tears can ne’er repay / the debt of love I owe. / Here, Lord, I give myself away; / ’tis all that I can do.”

Some would argue that “When I Survey” has the advantage of being the more objective of the two. And so closely are the themes aligned that the two hymns can hardly help but jostle one another.

But “Alas! and Did” isn’t in danger of vanishing anytime soon. As the Companion to Congregational Praise (1953) noted, “. . . it is too beautiful to be forgotten.”

Mr. Hoyt, a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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