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Updated 05/28/2013

 

Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed


Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts (July 17, 1674 – November 25, 1748) is recognized as the "Father of English Hymnody", as he was the first prolific and popular English hymn writer, credited with some 750 hymns. 

Born in Southampton, Watts was brought up in the home of a committed Nonconformist — his father, also Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his controversial views. At King Edward VI School (where one of the houses is now named "Watts" in his honor), he learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Watts, unable to go to either Oxford or Cambridge due to his Non-conformity, went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690, and much of his life centered around that village, then a rural idyll but now part of Inner London.

His education led him to the pastorate of a large Independent Chapel in London, and he also found himself in the position of helping trainee preachers, despite poor health. Taking work as a private tutor, he lived with the non-conformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House, Abney Park in Stoke Newington, and later in the household of Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary Abney at Theobalds, Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire, and at their second residence, Abney House, Stoke Newington. Though a non-conformist, Sir Thomas practiced occasional conformity to the Church of England as necessitated by his being Lord Mayor of London 1700–01. Likewise, Isaac Watts held religious opinions that were more non-denominational or ecumenical than was at that time common for a non-conformist, having a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship, than preaching for any particular ministry.

On the death of Sir Thomas Abney, Watts moved permanently with his widow and her remaining daughter to Abney House, a property that Mary had inherited from her brother, along with title to the Manor itself. The beautiful grounds at Abney Park, which became Watts' permanent home from 1736 to 1748, led down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook where he sought inspiration for the many books and hymns he wrote. He is likely to have attended the nearby Newington Green Unitarian Church, as "in later life [he] was known to have adopted decidedly Unitarian opinions."

He died in Stoke Newington and was buried in Bunhill Fields, having left behind him a massive legacy, not only of hymns, but also of treatises, educational works, essays and the like. His work was influential amongst independents and early religious revivalists in his circle, amongst whom was Philip Doddridge, who dedicated his best known work to Watts. On his death, Isaac Watts' papers were given to Yale University, an institution with which he was connected due to its being founded predominantly by fellow Independents (Congregationalists).

The words are set to the tune, Martyrdom, attributed to Hugh Wilson.  Wilson was born in 1766, Fenwick (near Kilmarnock), Ayrshire, Scotland.  Wilson taught mathematics and music, led the local choir, and made sun dials. In 1800, he moved to the town of Pollokshaws, and later to Duntocher.
 

Lyrics by Isaac Watts

  Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For sinners such as I?
[originally, For such a worm as I?]

Refrain
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, Thine—
And bathed in its own blood—
While the firm mark of wrath divine,
His Soul in anguish stood.

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.