This well known and much loved hymn has been sung at many a Harvest Festival and is a popular choice for Weddings and Funerals. I wonder how many times you’ve hummed the tune whilst developing your horticultural skills, enjoyed the wonder of nature on holiday or visited a garden centre?
The words were written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) who was inspired to write this hymn when trying, with great difficulty, to teach a group of children the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed. She decided to write a series of hymns, based on various phrases of the Creed, when traditional teaching methods failed. She based this hymn on the phrase: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
Mrs Alexander wrote more hymns to illustrate other phrases of the Creed, all of which are still sung today, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City‘ and ‘There Is a Green Hill Far Away.’ She thought of these as children’s hymns and published them in a collection entitled ‘Hymns for Little Children‘ in 1848.
This hymn has become a popular poetic icon and has maintained its popularity through the years, not only by its publication in hymn books throughout the English-speaking world, but also through original musical settings by contemporary composers such as John Rutter – some of you may even remember the Monty Python parody ‘All things dull and ugly!’
The hymn received a huge boost when Yorkshire veterinarian, James Herriot, at the suggestion of his young daughter, named his first book ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ which went onto become a best seller, inspiring a film and the long-running BBC television series.
Unbeknown to many, however, is the fact this hymn was rather contentious in its day because it included a third verse rarely sung nowadays, and omitted from most hymn books, due to its controversial language regarding class equality: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.” I’m sure these words would create intense theological discussion today, too!
Mrs Alexander was a prolific author, publishing a number of books and writings during her lifetime and is known to have penned at least 400 hymns. Mrs Alexander was generous with her time and money and donated the profits from ‘Hymns for Little Children’ to a school for the deaf. She was active in a ministry to unwed mothers and was also instrumental in establishing a nursing service in her area. The fact she was married to William Alexander, who became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, would surely have helped increase her influence.
Whilst ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ may have been written specifically for children in a way that appeals to their natural curiosity and sense of wonder, humility, thankfulness and joy – all of which need to be cultivated from the earliest age if children are to grow into spiritually healthy and happy adults – it still has a message of profound truths that adults tend to forget as we become cynical and disbelieving of a loving and merciful Creator God who has a plan for each one of our lives.
With that in mind, I invite you to join with us Emmanuel on Sunday mornings during August, at 10.00 am, as we celebrate the ‘God of Creation’ in a four week summer series based on the four lines of the first verse of this hymn: “All things bright and beautiful; All creatures great and small; All things wise and wonderful; The Lord God made them all.” I’m sure we’ll be singing this hymn in those services too!
This is a copy of my article for the August 2017 edition of the Billericay ‘Around Town Magazine’