Behind the Song Sunday: All Things Bright and Beautiful
This beautiful song was written by Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander for the children in her Sunday School class.
Young Fanny was very introverted, but showed interest in poetry and writing. Her earliest work appeared in a family weekly magazine. She was influenced by Rev. D. Walter Farquar Hook, who edited and wrote the preface to her first publication, 1846’s Verses for Holy Season.
About 1830, she married William Alexander. He would become Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. They newlyweds began their married life serving together in a church in an impoverished rural area of Ireland. The couple spent most of their life in Londonderry and Strabane.
Mrs. Alexander was teaching the Apostles Creed to the children in her class. The young children had a difficult time remembering the text. Mrs. Alexander decided to write songs for each part to help the children remember.
All Things Bright and Beautiful was to the opening of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” The verse was based on the passage of Genesis 1:31, “maker of heaven and earth.”
The stanzas of this hymn elaborate upon the verses of the Apostles’ Creed.
The words were first published in her 1848 edition of Hymns for Little Children. Hymns for Little Children was a major success reaching its 69th edition before the close of the 19th century.
Research shows that the hymn may have been inspired by two different publications. The first is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. There is a verse that say, “He prayeth best, who loveth best; All things great and small; For the dear God who loveth us; He made and loveth all.”
The second is Natural Theology by William Paley. This 1802 publication describes God “as the designer of the natural world” and “the Divine Watchmaker.”
Likewise, three different locations lay claim as the place where Mrs. Alexander wrote her hymn.
One of those is Llanwenarth House in Govilon, Monmouthshire, Wales. The refrain “The purple headed mountains, The river running by” possibly referring to the Sugar Loaf and Blorenge mountains and to the River Usk in South Wales.
Some hymnologist believe the six acres of land it sits in would have offered plenty of space for the Irish poet to observe ‘each little flower that opens’ and ‘each little bird that sings’.
The other two options are Markree Castle near Sligo and Minhead, near the village of Dunster. For the later the the “purple headed mountain” might refers to Grabbist Hill and the river to the River Avill.
Often the third verse is omitted from printed versions. This is due to the references to the class system.
The United Church of Canada added a forth verse which says, “The rocky mountain splendor, the lone wolf’s haunting call, the great lakes and the prairies, the forest in the fall”
This song has been sung to several melodies, most notably “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by William Henry Monk and “Royal Oak”, 17th-century English melody, adapted by Martin Shaw in 1915.
Royal Oak was originally written as a celebration of the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
James Herriot used the second line of this hymn for the title of his book All Creatures Great and Small. He used other lines for the rest of this series, including, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made Them All.
Mrs. Alexander was a prolific author, and a number of her books and writings were published during her lifetime. She is known to have penned at least 400 hymns.
Mrs. Alexander was quite generous with her time and money. She 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.
Mrs. Alexander died in 1895 at the age of 77. She is buried in Londonderry.
John Rutter, the English composer, adapted the hymn into a beautiful full choral piece.