Alas! and did my Saviour bleed
Text. It might be hard for modern Christians to conceive how in the first century-and-a-half of English Protestantism, Protestants did not sing hymns about the central act of their faith—the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus—they sang only the Old Testament Psalms and a small handful of New Testament canticles (such as the Song of Simeon), but such was still the case in the early lifetime of Isaac Watts (1674–1748).
In the first edition of his Hymns and Sacred Poems (1707), he wrote about this odd disparity:
I have long been convinc’d that one great occasion of this evil arises from the matter and words to which we have confined all our songs. Some of ’em are almost opposite to the spirit of the gospel, many of them foreign to the state of the New Testament, and widely different from the present circumstances of Christians. Hence it comes to pass that when spiritual affections are excited within us and our souls are raised a little above the earth in the beginning of a Psalm, we are check’d on a sudden in our ascent toward heaven by some expressions that are more suited to the days of carnal ordinances, and fit only to be sung in the worldly sanctuary.
His attempt at supplying Christians with proper New Testament hymns included this text, “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,” published in six stanzas of four lines, without music, headed “Godly sorrow arising from the sufferings of Christ” (Fig. 1). At its core, it is a hymn of wonder, reverence, and amazement at how the Saviour of humankind would die for him (us). The final two stanzas are especially emotive and show a raw outpouring of grief and gratitude.
Watts’ collection was printed in 16 editions in his lifetime. From an editor’s perspective, the challenge in determining the definitive version of the hymn is in examining his variable use of punctuation, especially shifts between exclamation (!) and question (?). For example, the first line originally ended as a question, but starting in the tenth edition Watts changed it to an exclamation. The same issue applies to stanza 2, line 4, which became an exclamation in the 11th edition, and stanza 3, line 4, which shifted between a question (eds. 7-9) and an exclamation (eds. 1-8, 10-16). The only major textual change happened in the 2nd edition, in which the last two lines of stanza 2 were permanently changed to read, “While all expos’d to wrath divine / The glorious suff’rer stood (?/!).”
For a detailed examination of the textual minutiae, see Selma Bishop, Isaac Watts Hymns and Spiritual Songs 1707–1748 (London: Faith Press, 1962), pp. 163-164.
Tune 1. Watts’ text has been set to many different tunes. In modern hymnals, one of the most common settings is MARTYRDOM by Hugh Wilson (1764–1824). It was first printed on leaflets for music classes, in duple meter, melody and bass, and called FENWICK after the village where it had been composed. This form of the melody was reprinted in James Love’s Scottish Church Music (London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1891), pp. 302-305 (Fig. 2), with a detailed account of Wilson’s life and the composition of the tune.
In 1825, the melody was adapted into triple meter and harmonized by Robert A. Smith (1780–1829) for Sacred Music … Sung in St. George’s Church, Edinburgh (1825 | Fig. 3), set to the Scottish paraphrase of Psalm 57. This form of the melody has been widely adopted as a hymn tune. Smith’s choice of name, MARTYRDOM, might have been in honor of the Scottish martyr James Fenwick, a nod to the person rather than Wilson’s village.
This tune also appeared in John Robertson’s The Seraph (Glasgow, 1827 | Archive.org), where it bore both names, FENWICK and MARTYRDOM, and Robertson credited the tune to Wilson. In 1934, folklorist Anne Gilchrist argued, in an article for The Choir, vol. 25 (July 1934), pp. 155-156, that this melody bore a resemblance to the Scottish folk song “Helen of Kirkconnell,” the text of which can be found in The Ballads of Scotland, ed. William Aytoun, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1858 | HathiTrust), pp. 41-43.
Tune 2. In the United States, Watts’ hymn is commonly known via the gospel hymn tradition, from a setting by Ralph Hudson (1842–1901) for his Songs of Peace, Love, and Joy (1885 | Fig. 4). For his version, Hudson added a new refrain, “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light . . .”
The melody for the verses is best regarded as Hudson’s own work, but the melody for the refrain was borrowed from a popular song which by that point had already been in circulation for twenty years. The song “Take me home” had first appeared as sheet music with an anonymous text, music by W.L. Bloomfield “and sung by Edwin P. Christy at Christy’s American Opera House, NY,” (NY: Firth, Pond & Co., 1853 | HathiTrust). The text appeared again with new music by Hermann L. Schreiner (Savannah, GA: J.C. Schreiner & Son, 1864) and again the same year with music by Eugene Raymond (New Orleans: Blackmar Brothers, 1864 | Fig. 5). Raymond is a pseudonym for composer John Hill Hewitt (1801–1890). This latter version by Raymond/Hewitt contains the tune which was adapted as “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light,” a clear parody of the original, “Take me home to the place where I first saw the light.”
Fig. 5. Eugene Raymond, “Take me home” (New Orleans: A.E. Blackmar, 1865). One of three variant printings of Raymond’s score 1864-1865 held by the Boston Athenæum.
For hymnologists, the question becomes a matter of whether Ralph Hudson was responsible for adapting the refrain, or if he was just the first to print it this way. In Hymns of Our Faith (1964), pp. 6-7, Baptist hymnologist William Reynolds argued Hudson’s refrain might not have been his original work; it was possibly a pre-existing campmeeting refrain he had tacked on to his original melody for the verses. In support of that theory, Reynolds pointed out how this same refrain appeared two years later in Sweney & Kirkpatrick’s Glad Hallelujahs (1887), in conjunction with the hymn “O how happy are they” by Charles Wesley (Fig. 5), not credited to Hudson but labeled “Arranged by E.E. Nickerson.”
Also in 1887, the same refrain appeared in the Emory Hymnal (Archive.org) with new stanzas by R. Kelso Carter, “O Jesus, Lord, thy dying love,” also labeled as arranged by E.E. Nickerson, and copyrighted 1886. The most plausible scenario, according to Reynolds, is that Hudson’s version might have been a new melody for the stanzas, but the rest should be regarded as a campmeeting refrain (based on the earlier melody of Hewitt, already in circulation as “At the cross”).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
18 October 2018
rev. 12 Sept. 2019
James Love, “Hugh Wilson,” Scottish Church Music (London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1891), pp. 302-305: HathiTrust
John Julian, “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 34.
Lota M. Spell, Music in Texas (Austin, 1936), pp. 65-68: Archive.org
William Reynolds, “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,” Hymns of Our Faith: A Handbook for the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1964), pp. 5-7.
Ernest K Emurian, “Take me home at the cross,” The Hymn, vol. 31, no. 3 (July 1980), p. 195: HathiTrust
Carl P. Daw, Jr., “Alas! and did my Savior bleed,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 214-215.
Alan Gaunt, “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
“Alas! and did my Savior bleed,” Hymnary.org: