Alas! and did my Saviour bleed


Fig. 1. Hymns and Sacred Poems (1707)

Text. It may be hard for modern Christians to conceive that for 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, that 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.


Fig. 2. James Love, Scottish Church Music (London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1891), p. 304.


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 is the form of the melody that has been widely adopted as a hymn tune. Smith’s choice of name, MARTYRDOM, may have been in honor of the Scottish martyr James Fenwick, a nod to the person rather than the village.


Fig. 3. R.A. Smith, Sacred Music … Sung in St. George’s Church, Edinburgh (1825).


This tune also appeared in John Robertson’s The Seraph (Glasgow, 1827 |, 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 . . .”


Fig. 4. Songs of Peace, Love, and Joy (1885).


In Hymns of Our Faith (1964), pp. 6-7, Baptist hymnologist William Reynolds argued that Hudson’s refrain may not have been his original work; it was possibly a campmeeting refrain that he tacked on to his original melody for the verses. In support of that theory, Reynolds pointed out that this same refrain appeared two years later, as its own melody 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 labelled “Arranged by E.E. Nickerson.”


Fig. 5. John Sweney & William Kirkpatrick, Glad Hallelujahs (1887).


Also in 1887, the same refrain appeared in the Emory Hymnal ( with new stanzas by R. Kelso Carter, “O Jesus, Lord, thy dying love,” also labelled as arranged by E.E. Nickerson, and copyrighted 1886. The most plausible scenario, according to Reynolds, is that Hudson’s version may have been a new melody for the stanzas, but the refrain is an anonymous campmeeting tune.

for Hymnology Archive
18 October 2018

Related Resources:

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.

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.

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:!-and-did-my-saviour-bleed

“Alas! and did my Savior bleed,”