‘All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.’ This is a hymn that celebrates the creation in which we live and which we are. It’s widely popular in churches, school chapels, and even beyond the church. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), of ‘Once in royal David’s city’ fame, has a gift for making ‘theology picturesque’. It is said that she had specific places in mind when she used phrases like ‘the purple-headed mountain’. A certain third verse that goes ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate…God ordered their estate’ has been dropped since as early as the English Hymnal of 1906; still, it remains for many an offending point in this hymn. In the context of the whole hymn, though, and other works of Mrs Alexander such as in these lines from a poem that pre-date verse 3, ‘The poor man in his straw-roofed cottage / The rich man in his lordly hall / The old man_s voice, the child_s first whisper / He listens, and he answers all.’, it seems to me that she is only saying that no matter how wonderfully different we all are, what counts is that the Lord God made us all.
Two tunes are associated with these words: one called ‘All things bright and beautiful’ (1887) by WH Monk and a second one called ‘Royal Oak’ which is adapted from a 17th century folk tune. There seem to be fans on both sides who have strong opinions as to which the ‘correct’ tune is…
Which do you prefer?
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. [Refrain]
The purple-headed mountain,
the river running by,
the sunset, and the morning
that brightens up the sky. [Refrain]
The cold wind in the winter,
the pleasant summer sun,
the ripe fruits in the garden,
God made them, every one. [Refrain]
The tall trees in the greenwood,
the meadows for our play,
the rushes by the water,
to gather every day. [Refrain]
God gave us eyes to see them,
and lips that we might tell
how great is God Almighty,
who has made all things well. [Refrain]
Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895
A favourite hymn of Ruth Graham, who writes:
I have a soft spot for “All things bright and beautiful” (omitting the old verse three). It reminds me of many things. Of the shiny wooden parquet floor of our primary school as we sung it in assemblies. Of my beloved Nana’s funeral after a life beautifully lived. Of old country churches, watching dust motes dance in coloured light from the stained glass. Of singing it to wake my children up in the mornings when they were little – they appreciated it less than I thought they should. Mostly it reminds me that although life is often very hard, especially at the moment, we live in a beautiful, wonderful world.
(the old verse 3, as mentioned in Shaun’s notes, has been written out of this hymn for many years. In fact, hymns are regularly rewritten or edited for new editions of hymnbooks, to reflect changing culture and attitudes.)
This hymn opens with the beauty of creation – look closely at this week’s flower – it picks up on creatures great and small.
– and do remember bees in your prayers as they are facing challenges, not least of which is us humans.
Paul & Shaun