Text: Cecil Frances Humphries Alexander (1818-1895) Tune: Martin Shaw (1875-1958)
R/All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all. 1. Each little flower that opens, Each little bird that sings, He made their glowing colours, He made their tiny wings. R/All things bright ... 2. The purple headed mountain, The river running by, The sunset and the morning, That brightens up the sky;− R/All things bright ... 3. The cold wind in the winter, The pleasant summer sun, The ripe fruits in the garden,− He made them every one:
R/All things bright ... 4. He gave us eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell, How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well. R/All things bright..
Most people know something of this children’s hymn from the BBC TV series All Creatures Great and Small, about a country veterinarian. A perfect title from a very popular hymn that children of the Anglican and other persuasions learned in their choir schools. The writer, Cecil Frances Humphries Alexander, grew up in County Wicklow, Ireland. Her family moved to what would become Northern Ireland when she was a young woman. She lived in Ireland the rest of her life.
Fanny, as she was called, was a staunch Anglican and would be very much influenced by the Oxford movement, a movement to make the Anglican Church more Catholic. Fanny responded to the efforts of leaders like John Keble (1792-1866) to increase observation of the church year with high church practices. Her husband, the Right Reverend W. Alexander, not a very promising student, went on to become a well regarded Anglican Bishop of Derry and Raphoe.
Fanny found her gifts best used writing hymns for children. She taught the Apostles' Creed in some of her hymns, among them “Once in Royal David’s City,” which illustrated the clause "born of the Virgin Mary" in the Apostles' Creed. It is probably one of the more famous hymns of all time, given its place in the Christmas Eve Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge every year.
This hymn was her effort to teach the first article of the Creed: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." With its concrete images of things in the created world it appeals to people of all ages.
I learned it in my teen years in Salem, Oregon, where my father served a small Lutheran home mission congregation. My piano/organ teacher, Miss Bedford, played at St. Paul's Episcopal church, established in 1854. It had one of the bigger pipe organs in the state. She asked me to play for the choir school. Next to the electric Baldwin organ at our church, this was something else. The curate, Father John, taught the children. He would come and pick me up every Saturday morning for the school. This relieved me of Saturday chores which I thought onerous.
There I learned Anglican chant, the liturgies for Matins and Vespers and hymns from The Hymnal ...1940. Among the favorite hymns was this one. The high soprano voices of the choristers, that particular English sound, never left me. (Note: They are singing this hymn at St. Paul's in Salem on Sunday, May 17, 2020, in their online service!)
Memories. For them and me. As I have often noted these songs bring us back. People who plan worship must find out what songs their congregational members cherish so they can sing them now and then. A man in one of our congregations once asked my mother why we didn’t sing more Gospel songs like “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted.” Although filled with gospel truth, it is not really a gospel song like "Jesus loves me." My mother observed later, “A Gospel song is a song I sang as a kid.” Exactly. You can see on the faces of people singing it here how true that is! They beam with joy filled with memories as they confess their faith now in a thrilling moment. It all comes back; the past is present and alive. "How great is God Almighty/Who has made all things well!"
This hymn first appeared in Hymns for Little Children in 1848. It made its way into later collections of hymns where it became much loved by children of all ages. There are several tunes. The one in the hymnal was the Martin Shaw tune, Royal Oak, which has a folk song origin. Shaw was part of the group around Ralph Vaughan Williams who worked to bring English folk tunes into the hymnal. He worked on the Oxford Book of Carols 1928. The next most popular tune is by William Henry Monk, composer of “Abide with Me.” John Rutter, the famous composer of things Christmas, has also written a tune for it.
The Shaw tune Royal Oak
The Monk tune which they have clearly sung as children
The Monk tune at Ipswich, watch their faces!/ BBC Songs of Praise
The Rutter tune/more of an anthem