Monday, September 10, 2012

Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed? -- Isaac Watts

He was later called the “Father of Christian Hymnody”, but was he a ‘father’ or a struggling, questioning child in 1707, the year he posed a question with the hymn title “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” Isaac Watts cut a new path for Christians in his era, so he could be called a trailblazer, a courageous, honest seeker. He expressed something genuine with his verses, accessing feelings he recognized deep within himself, and probably what he suspected others around him felt as well. His approach said something about singing in our large, formal, get-togethers in ways more like what we do outside of the building where most of us commonly confine our worship.

Watts was a 33-year old Englishman in London with several questions that he asked that year in the early 18th Century, challenging others to join him in expressing themselves authentically. Most singing in the church leading up to that time might have been described as rote, with recitations of Psalms straight from David’s and other ancient writers’ recorded words.  Unconventionally, Watts’ songs have been described as "original songs of Christian experience", so we may gather that Watts’ penned words were really his feelings, not someone else’s. Three questions in the first few verses of this 1707 composition declare that Watts was stunned by what he encountered. Imagine a jaw-dropping reaction to someone giving a fortune to buy a vermin-ridden structure. Crazy, huh? That’s Isaac Watts talking when he says God’s love, pity, and grace doled out to him are amazing. These ‘original’ sentiments indicate that Watts was still mulling over what moved him toward God, perhaps as he remembered his own conversion. Was there a specific incident that was bothering him, causing him to reflect on his salvation’s cost? Did his other pursuits as a theologian and logician direct his thoughts outside of planet Earth to describe the cosmic nature of what he was pondering (in verse 3 or 4, depending on what version of the hymn you examine)? Whatever the circumstances, Watts did not fret over the incongruity, the unfairness of His sacrifice, as some thinkers might have; instead, he let his wonder at God’s gift motivate his dedication in writing and living.

Nonconformist…that was how most people would have thought of Isaac Watts.  He learned this way from his father, also named Isaac. The Watts men challenged the routine, and as the younger Isaac engaged in thinking as his life’s work, he no doubt tried to re-think and re-explain what others merely took for granted. It was not unlike what he saw in his divine mentor. ‘Don’t just think and do what others have done…follow me, and do it in ways I have gifted you’. If that’s what Isaac Watts heard God say to him, you can hear it still being said in “Alas! And Did…”.  Listen close. Is He saying it to you, too?

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Then Sings My Soul (150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories”, by Robert J. Morgan, 2003, published by Thomas Nelson; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

See this site for biography on composer:

See this site for all 6 original verses:

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