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Isaac Watts was kind enough to write me a letter

October 5, 2008

I received this letter from Isaac Watts a day or so ago, and he gave me permission to publish it here.*


Abney Park in Stoke Newington, September 30, 2008

To Mr. Ryan Martin

Dear Sir,

I received your recent correspondence inquiring as to my opinion of the changes made to my poem ‘Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed,’ by the editors of the hymnal you mentioned. I was grateful to receive your inquiry, as it provides me a chance to express my thoughts on the matter. As to your further inquiry concerning publishing my comments, yes, if you consider them worthy of publication, I give you license to do so as you see fit.

As you noted, the editors of the aforementioned hymnal did, in fact, take some liberties with my text. One wonders on what ground they thought it necessary to change my line, ‘Would he devote that sacred Head / For such a worm as I?’ to ‘Would He devote that sacred Head / For sinners such as I?”

I suppose you and your generation are more comfortable thinking of yourselves as merely ‘sinners’ than ‘worms.’ But, let me assure you, the term ‘worms’ was not a compliment when I wrote the hymn! I was struggling to find a word there that would fittingly evoke in Christians’ moral imagination the utter baseness we are in our sins. By changing the word from ‘worms’ to ‘sinners,’ that image is lost. The word ‘worm’ implicitly carries the idea of ‘sinner’—why else would we be considered ‘worms’? We recognize our baseness—our ‘wormliness’—because we are sinners. The stark and technical word sinner—though correct—does not evoke the same kind of gripping image. In writing the hymn, I was trying to make Christians uncomfortable, trying to help them feel the moral gravity of the fact that they are sinners—a word they hear all the time. And I have yet to this point mentioned that ‘worm’ superbly contrasts ‘Sacred Head,’ and especially more so than ‘sinner.’ I was quite acquainted with the word ‘sinner,’ and could have used it. I chose to use the word ‘worm’ instead because it was a better word and a more fitting contrast. Why the editors took the liberty to emasculate my text is beyond me. And why they did replaced it with a phrase so grammatically bewildering as “sinners such as I” is nearly insulting.

You mentioned that the editors also changed ‘Christ, the mighty Maker’ to ‘Christ, the great Redeemer.’ This one I found particularly perplexing. It is not that I object to Christ being called the ‘Redeemer,’ of course. But one wonders how well the hymnal editors recognized contrast within a work of poetry. I described Christ here in his death as ‘Maker’ intentionally against ‘man the creature’s sin.’ Great poetry plays on such contrasts all the time. This contrast is nearly completely dampened in the word ‘Redeemer.’ In fact, my whole stanza speaks to this, wherein I am using another created thing—the sun—as a way of showing the dread all creation felt when the Creator suffered for the creature. One wonders how ‘Redeemer’ provides a better poetic device in this stanza.

In short, I am perplexed and dismayed. The task of poetry is not an easy one, and I took each word and expression and desired response seriously. For these men and women to disregard my wishes so cannot be easily justified, even in the name of helping your backward generation and its deplorable English and biblical illiteracy understand what it is singing. In fact, if I may say so, if that desired end was in view, one would hope that the editors would have left the poem the way it is, as to both teach proper English, good poetry, and biblical doctrine to your American congregations. It is difficult to see upon what grounds these changes were made.

It is true that I wrote in the preface of Hymns and Spiritual Songs that men were free if they found an ‘unpleasing Word’ to substitute a better, since these are merely the words of a man. Yet ‘better’ these changes do not seem.

You inquired, sir, as to the original text. It was published in my Hymns and Spiritual Songs under the title, “Godly Sorrow arising from the Sufferings of CHRIST.” I have appended it to this letter.

Your most affectionate brother, in the labors of the gospel,
Isaac Watts

The hymn in its entirety follows:

ALAS! and did my Saviour bleed!
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would he devote that sacred Head
For such a Worm as I?

Thy Body slain, sweet JESUS, thine,
And bath’d in its own Blood,
While all expos’d to Wrath divine
The glorious Suff’rer stood!

Was it for Crimes that I had done,
He groan’d upon the Tree?
Amazing Pity! Grace unknown!
And Love beyond degree!

Well might the Sun in Darkness hide,
And shut his Glories in,
When GOD the mighty Maker dy’d
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 myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.


*Of course, Isaac Watts died in 1748. He really didn’t write this letter. (Though I tend to think he would have.)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2008 10:59 am

    John Fawcett might have written similarly about:
    “When we asunder part, It gives us inward pain,
    But we shall still be joined in heart, And hope to meet again”

    to the thoroughly unpoetic:

    “When for a while we part, This thought will soothe our pain,
    That we shall still be joined in heart, And hope to meet again”

    Great post.

  2. roryjasonmartin permalink
    October 6, 2008 1:24 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of this post. Our uneducated society has trouble appreciating the beauty of poetry beyond the sound device of rhyme (i.e. you’r a poet, and you don’t even know it). Could we please get some educators in this country who will teach the basics of literary beauty and honor poets such as Watts, Cowper, and Edward Taylor who developed strong imaginative comparisons that speak to the emotions and heart with merely a bit of thought. Come on, how hard is it to understand what “worm” is referring to in Watts’s hymn?

  3. October 7, 2008 5:41 pm

    Excellent, Mr. Watts.

  4. October 9, 2008 3:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing this letter from Mr. Watts! Well written.

    If you happen to write to him again, you might ask him his opinion of the tune and chorus for yet another variation, namely, “At the Cross.”

  5. October 12, 2008 5:13 pm

    Dr. Watts,
    As one of my heroes of the past, I do say that I think it a fine stand you have chosen to come out of retirement to make. Yet, since I have you here for the moment, I wonder whether you could answer a question for me.

    Being that you were one of the pioneers in the movement from the Scottish Metrical Psalter to hymnody (knowing that there were some before you, but largely you were the tool that God used to make them “acceptable” in the English-speaking church) and that you paved the way for many who would follow, like Newton, Wesley, and Toplady, I wonder, in looking at the church’s almost wholesale abandonment of the Psalter and embrace of short praise medlies, would you have even begun writing hymns?

    Blessings from one who has been greatly blessed by the writings our Lord allowed you to make.


  6. Jennifer Donley permalink
    October 15, 2008 9:00 am

    I am not quite as talented in my writing skills as the above mentioned people, but I am saddened when people take liberty to change even just a few words to soften the “blow” of what was originally intended to give. Our world is the same, lets place cotton under ourselves so we feel good. I guess many will feel good all the way to hell if they don’t understand the depravity of their true nature and repent.



  1. Isaac Watts Speaks | Religious Affections Ministries

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