All Things Bright and Beautiful


THIS hymn is often dismissed as being just for children, and indeed it was intended for children, but I love its celebration of creation and I have asked for it to be sung at my funeral.

It was written in about 1848 by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, who was also responsible for There is a Green Hill Far Away and Once in Royal David’s City, which I wrote about here.

In fact it was written before she was married, so it originally went under her maiden name of Humphreys.

She was born in Dublin in 1818, the daughter of Major John Humphreys of Norfolk who was land agent to the Marquis of Abercorn. It has been suggested that John Humphreys was the Marquis’s illegitimate son. Later he became land agent to the marquis’s son in law, William Howard, fourth Earl of Wicklow, and the family moved to Ballykeane House, near Rathdrum.

The Howards were an artistic family and were friendly with the Rosetti siblings, Dante Gabriel and Christina.

Cecil Frances, who was known as Fanny, collaborated with the daughter of her father’s employer Lady Harriet Howard in writing religious tracts, publishing Verses for Holy Seasons and the Lord of the Forest and His Vassals in 1846 and 1847 respectively.

Fanny was also influenced by the writings of the Oxford Movement, which sought a return to the observation of the traditional rites of the church, as practised before the Reformation. One of the movement’s leaders John Keble, suggested that women might channel their emotions into writing hymns and verse.

All Things Bright and Beautiful was first published in 1848 in Fanny’s Hymns for Little Children, which was edited by John Keble. It may have been inspired by Psalm 104, verses 24 and 25:

Oh Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. (King James Bible)

It may also have been inspired by a verse from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1798:

He prayeth best who loveth best
All things, both great and small:
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Others think Fanny may have been influenced by William Paley’s Natural Theology, published in 1802, which argues for God as the designer of the natural world. The hymn alludes to wings and eyes, both cited by Paley as examples of complexity which must have been devised by a designer.

Here are the words:

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,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

All things bright …

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

All things bright …

The purple headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning,
That brightens up the sky;

All things bright …

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

All things bright …

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
We gather every day;

All things bright …

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

These days the politically incorrect Verse 3 is usually omitted.

By now the Humphreys family were living in Strabane, where Fanny and her sister Anne were active in the parish. One day they met a small deaf boy in a poor home, and were concerned about his lack of contact with the world. The sisters persuaded their father to let them use a small building in the grounds of their house and set up a school for a few deaf children. The proceeds from Hymns for Little Children went towards building a proper school. The foundation stone was laid in September 1850, a few weeks before Fanny married.

Her husband, clergyman William Alexander, was six years her junior, 26 to her 32. Apparently this embarrassed her or her family and she disguised her date of birth from then on. He was soon appointed Bishop of Derry (at the time this was the usual name throughout Ireland for the city officially called Londonderry) and was later Archbishop of Armagh. The residential school for the deaf opened the following year and over the following five years educated nearly 50 children. However on the night of May 7, 1856, fire broke out and six of the 18 pupils died. The youngest was eight.

It is said that any light-heartedness in Mrs Alexander’s writing vanished after the fire. She continued to campaign for the deaf, as well as being involved with the Derry Home for Fallen Women and working to develop a district nurses’ service.

Despite misgivings about the age difference, her marriage lasted 45 years until her death in 1895, and the couple had three children. She is buried in Derry, in the hillside cemetery which inspired her hymn There is a Green Hill Far Away.

The first setting of the hymn was a melody also named All Things Bright and Beautifulwritten in 1887 by William Henry Monk (1823 – 1889), whose works also included Eventide, the music for Abide With Me.

It was used in a delightful advertisement for the Australian RSPCA in 1988:

I can’t resist a brass band and this performance is by the South Brisbane Federal Band:

These may be the most unusual instruments I have ever seen. The maker, American computer scientist Noah Vawter, calls them ‘electric eels’.

In 1915 another melody was published, an adaptation by Martin Shaw (1875–1958) of a 17th century or even earlier folk tune associated in the 1600s with the loyalist song The Twenty-Ninth of May, a song that celebrated the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II on May 29, 1660. Here is a jolly rendering by the Carnival Band.

This performance of the hymn is by the London boys’ choir Libera, founded by Robert Prizeman in 1995, and who now give concerts all over the world.

Here is a lovely guitar version in a kitchen.

Here a saxophone quartet formed from the Japanese Coast Guard plays it.

However if YouTube is anything to go by the most popular tune nowadays is by the English composer John Rutter (b 1945). I don’t care for it because to me it doesn’t fit the words, but I may be in a minority. I can’t deny that this is a beautiful performance by the National Taiwan University Chorus.

And finally: I don’t know whether I like this or not, and I can’t find out anything about it, but it is certainly different!

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