Have I told you lately that I’m no great fan of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’?
What strikes me about that, and some other famous and very popular hymns by Cecil Alexander, is that they were written to help her young godchildren to understand the Creed. A laudable goal indeed. Setting anything to rhyme, rhythm and music is going to be a great way to teach it. And if you are going to teach only one thing to a child, the creed is that one thing.
But it has to be done well. And I don’t think Mrs. Alexander did it all that well. What she produced was frequently trite, often moralistic, and occasionally plain false (but in fairness, not always).
Another British hymn writer of the same era, the Rev. Samuel Stone, also gave himself the task of expounding the creed through hymn, though this time in response to a theological controversy. Let’s compare and contrast their efforts.
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”
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“I believe in Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary …”
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“I believe in … the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints …”
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Now, this isn’t entirely fair. Mrs. Alexander wrote for little children, Mr. Stone for adults. All the same, as I have suggested before, what children learn to sing as children has a very profound influence on their whole lives.
So here’s my advice for hymn writers: if you are going to set the creed as a series of hymns, you do well. But please can you make sure that the hymns are worthy of the creed they paraphrase!
And here’s my advice for teachers of little children: there aren’t better resources than Luther’s Small Catechism.
Finally, justice demands that I add also that Mrs. Alexander was quite capable of writing a good hymn. Here’s one:
1. When, wounded sore, the stricken soul
Lies bleeding and unbound,
One only hand, a piercèd hand,
Can heal the sinner’s wound.
2. When sorrow swells the laden breast,
And tears of anguish flow,
One only heart, a broken heart,
Can feel the sinner’s woe.
3. When penitence has wept in vain
Over some foul, dark spot,
One only stream, a stream of blood,
Can wash away the blot.
4. ‘T is Jesus’ blood that washes white,
His hand that brings relief,
His heart that’s touch’d with all our joys,
And feeleth for our grief.
5. Lift up Thy bleeding hand, O Lord!
Unseal that cleansing tide;
We have no shelter from our sin
But in Thy wounded side.