Maybe the Worst Hymn Mash-Up Ever

26 Sep

While looking for a hymn for Sunday’s service, I came across a familiar song which has always thrilled me and bothered me. First, read these lyrics . . .

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

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.

Oh, what a wonderful hymn. It is theologically and lyrically rich. It has the classic gospel hymn progression from my sin to God’s work in Christ to my response of gratitude and devotion. It has lyrical flow and connection from one verse to another. In short, it tells the story of God’s grace beautifully. But whenever I get to the refrain, I am always a little disappointed.


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!

Now this refrain is fine but it just does not connect to the rest of the song. I don’t have the chops to be a music snob, so that’s not where I’m coming from. And I am glad for the focus on the cross, which seems to be the focus of the rest of the hymn but the last lines of the refrain have always struck me as odd. The refrain’s statement about burdens rolling away and being happy all the day does not seem to mesh with the brokenhearted, humble joy of the last two verses of the hymn. It also strikes me as odd to sing this refrain after singing the weighty first verses about Christ’s death. I always thought, this is an Isaac Watts hymn, so many of his hymns are so good, what happened on this refrain? And this morning, I finally found out what happened . . . Isaac Watts didn’t write the refrain. It was written by a man named Ralph E. Hudson. This hymn, At the Cross, is in our hymnal. But thankfully, so is Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed, the original Watts hymn without the discordant refrain.

This hymn mash-up provides us with a fascinating contrast between two spiritual eras. Isaac Watts lived from 1674-1748, in England. He came up in the period of some of the great Puritan preachers and grew up in circles where the deep truths of God were taken very seriously. Watts was not primarily a musician or hymn-writer, but a pastor. He was pastor of Christ Church in London, a pastorate once held by the great Puritan John Owen. Watts wrote over 800 hymns (many still well-known) while pastoring and being involved in gospel ministry for 50 years.

Ralph Hudson lived from 1843-1901, mostly in Ohio. He served with the Union army in the Civil War and was a trained musician. He taught music, composed music and wrote hymns. He worked for social issues like the temperance movement and supported the work of the Salvation Army. Hudson was also a lay preacher. He wrote many hymns and songbooks, yet most of his hymns have not endured and none have reached the status of many of Watts’ hymns.

I think it is possible that the difference between Hudson and Watts may be attributed to their education or family background but I think it is also likely that their differences are due, at least in part, to the times in which they lived. I believe they were probably both Christians, but there is a depth and richness to Watts’ work that is not evident in Hudson’s hymns. And this is not limited to these two men alone. I have observed a stark contrast between the hymns of the 1600’s and early 1700’s and the hymns of the 1800’s to the early 1900’s. The earlier hymns seem to be consistently more God-centered and truth-based, whereas the later hymns are often emotion-driven and more man-centered. Perhaps the enlightenment and the scientific revolution moved many in the church to retreat away from claims to truth and toward a more feeling oriented approach. At the same time, Hudson lived in a time when revivals were emphasized and often emotional, heart-stirring songs were important elements in revival services. I don’t think I understand enough to really know why the hymns of these eras contrast so fully, but it is evident to me that the focus has really changed by the time we get to the late 1800’s.

Anyway, there is an easy way to avoid this problem for me; I’ll just sing #145 and leave the refrain to those who like it.



One Response to “Maybe the Worst Hymn Mash-Up Ever”

  1. rcottrill October 5, 2012 at 11:28 am #

    Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. I posted an article on Watts’s hymn this morning, and your post caught my eye. I agree with your assessment–well said! Ralph Hudson’s mutilation is unworthy of a superb hymn. The text is a sober reflection on what our sins cost our Saviour. The hippity-hop tune (and especially Hudson’s refrain) are completely at odds with this. Thanks for your comments.

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