If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.
– Alex Trebek
Like most kids, you probably learned your letters by singing the alphabet song. Songs and poems are great tools to teach children things they need to memorize: “Thirty days has September, April, June and November…, “One, two, buckle my shoe…””
So when students in her Sunday school class were struggling with some of their lessons, Irish hymn writer and poet Cecil Frances Alexander began writing simple hymns to help children grasp the concepts and commit them to memory. Those simple texts were published together in Hymns for Little Children (1848) and included All Things Bright and Beautiful – under the title Maker of Heaven and Earth – in a series of hymns explaining the Apostles’ Creed.
The original text to All Things Bright and Beautiful contained seven verses. Although it wasn’t Alexander’s original intent, today we use the first verse as a refrain. One verse, however, has caused a lot of controversy over the years:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.
This verse has been omitted from most hymnals since it refers to a class system, but some argue that Alexander, who worked to help those marginalized by society, may have been showing God’s inclusiveness paraphrasing Proverbs 22:2.
Rich and poor have this in common:
The Lord is the Maker of them all. (NIV)
The English folk tune, Royal Oak, is usually sung with Alexander’s text. Named for an oak tree at Boscobel, Shropshire, England, in which the on-the-run King Charles II hid during the Battle of Worcester (1651), Royal Oak was first published in The Dancing Master (1686) as the loyalist song The Twenty-Ninth of May. Two centuries later, Martin F. Shaw arranged the tune and published it in Song Time (1915) creating the hymn we know today.
Recently, updates have been made to All Things Bright and Beautiful in some hymnals around the world. The United Church in Canada added an extra verse celebrating the beauty of Canadian geography:
The rocky mountain splendour,
the lone wolf’s haunting call,
the great lakes and the prairies,
the forest in the fall.
And a completely revised version of All Things Bright and Beautiful appears in the newer Australian hymn book, Together in Song, using images of wildflowers, palm trees, colored walls of gorges, mountain ranges, billabongs, and a verse that reads:
The many-coloured corals,
the creatures of the sea,
of bushland, field or desert,
on farms, or roaming free.
Although hymn purists may balk at these changes, the updates are in line with Cecil Frances Alexander’s original purpose: help children (of all ages) understand God’s love using simple language and images from the world they see.
He gave us eyes to see them,
and lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
who has made all things well.