Sunday, October 12, 2008

Cecil Frances Alexander

The exact birthdate of hymnwriter Cecil Frances Alexander in April, 1818, is unknown, but she died on October 12, 1895. She was the wife of William Alexander who was later named Archbishop of all Ireland.

She began writing verse as a child, and by the 1840s her hymns were already being published in Church of Ireland hymnals, and they soon spread to other denominations. Her most popular book was Hymns for Little Children, first published in 1848 and continuing through many editions. The profits from that book went to support a school for the hearing-impaired that she and her sister had helped to found.

Though many of her hymns were first written for children, they were used in standard hymnals as well and you will recognize several of them as still popular today. We no longer think of them as restricted to Sunday school use.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
God made their glowing colors,
God made their tiny wings.

The purple headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
God made them every one.

God gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

Cecil Frances Alexander, c.1848; alt.
Tune: ROYAL OAK (C.M. with refrain)
English melody, 17th c.; arr. Martin Shaw, 1915

All right, that one is a bit more child-like than some of the others, but it is frequently sung in "regular" church as well. Alexander intended her hymns to be instructional, and there's one verse, about English class structure, which is not generally used anymore:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

There have been several tunes sung with this hymn before Martin Shaw's ROYAL OAK appeared and became the standard, most of them written specifically for it. William Monk's ALL THINGS BRIGHT was popular in the nineteenth century, and was used again in Voices Found along with ROYAL OAK. Someday I would also like to hear two other tunes that were written by women: Emma T. Mitchell's BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL from The Life Hymnal (1904) and Mary Shaw Attwood's GREAT AND SMALL from The Sunday School Hymnal (1912).


Dorothy said...

Child-like or not, I do love this hymn!

Leland Bryant Ross said...

I have never understood why, but Southern Baptist hymnals (and those of allied traditions like Word, Inc. of Waco) have generally not accepted Royal Oak, but insist on setting this song to Spohr (not the same Spohr as at or the proprietary Salsbury (© Word). No real idea why. I like Royal Oak, and the So. Baptist tunes require what strike me as infelicitous modifications of Mrs. Alexander's poetry...

Incidentally, I just ran across an interesting Epiphany hymn of hers that I had somehow missed heretofore, "Saw you never, in the twilight", #50 in The Hymnal 1940...

Leland aka Haruo

C.W.S. said...

That's a lot of tunes for this text (there are some other early ones that I didn't mention).

Saw you never, in the twilight is a favorite of mine from the Hymnal 1940, and it's really unfortunate that it didn't make it into the Hymnal 1982, though we used it in our hymnal. We liked the Charles Wood tune (CHARTRES) also, and used it again for a newer Carl Daw text, As we gather at your table. (Sometimes you want to use a tune more often than in the season its usual text matches.)