I received this letter from Isaac Watts a couple years ago, and published it on my blog. Watts gave me permission to publish it so I have done so here at RA again, with an additional postscript at the end.*
Abney Park in Stoke Newington, September 30, 2008
To Mr. Ryan Martin
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. Furthermore, ‘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 replace 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 these hymnal editors recognize contrast within a work of poetry. There I described Christ in his death as ‘Maker’ intentionally against ‘man the creature’s sin.’ Great poetry frequently exploits such contrasts. 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.
Thy most affectionate brother, in the labors of the gospel,
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.)
Postscript: While I want to show Christian charity to the editors of hymnals who have made changes like these to “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” and other hymns, I want to stress that especially this practice of making our sin less offensive to our sensibilities is seriously detrimental to true Christian piety. I do not have any problems thinking of my sin as less grave than what it is. I do not have any problems brushing off my transgressions.
What I need, quite frankly, is to be reminded of the gravity of my sin in very vivid terms. Sound Christian doctrine will never brush off the offense of man’s transgressions. So, in some ways, these polite changes are insidious. They lull us to sleep concerning the seriousness of our offense before God. And the problem here (for me at least) is not the word “sinner” at all. It’s that here we see hymnal editors taking a step away from a particular term to a less offensive term; that is the problem. It’s the impulse to make man’s sin less offensive, even if it is in the transition to a word like “sinner.” Truly, I hate that impulse (my language is deliberate here), for we urgently need to be awakened to the offensiveness of our sin. It is our sin, after all, whereby we have earned for ourselves eternal hell. It is our sin, we must remember, that nailed the sinless Son of God to a barren Roman cross so that we could be named among the blessed.