Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) has the distinction of being one of the few women hymn writers before the twentieth century. There certainly were some women hymn writers (one thinks of Elizabeth Cruciger from the Reformation Era), but they stand out because they were relatively few. By the Victorian Era, women were making a significant contribution to hymnody. We can think of Fanny Crosby (“Blessed Assurance”) or Charlotte Elliott (“Just as I Am”) or even Catherine Winkworth who, whilst not a hymnwriter herself, translated many of the German chorales into English.
Cecil Alexander was born in Dublin, Ireland, and lived there most of her life, having married William Alexander, who became Bishop of Armagh. She wrote about 400 hymns in half a dozen collections, one of her most beloved hymns being “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Alexander had always a concern for children, being particularly concerned that they were taught the faith in a manner they could understand, and that they had devotional resources for their own use. This hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City,” appears in her Hymns for Little Children (1848). This curious little hymnal is structured catechetically—she composed hymns to be based on baptism, the creed, the commandments, and prayer. The majority of the hymnal, though, is structured around the elements of the creed, and this hymn is found under the section entitled “Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary. . .” The emphasis of this hymn, therefore, is Christmas, but it is mainly a children’s hymn teaching about Christmas as its language is clear, lucid, and unencumbered with theological terms (which are necessary, but not in every hymn!) Consider this stanza which is omitted from all hymnals these days: “And through all His wondrous childhood He would honour and obey, love and watch the lowly maiden in whose gentle arms He lay. Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as He.” In modern terms, this stanza seems very antiquated and stifling, but consider it in context with the following, our modern stanza 3, “For He is our childhood’s pattern, day by day like us He grew; He was little, weak, and helpless, tears and smiles like us He knew; and He feels for all our sadness, and He shares in all our gladness.” There certainly is much Victorian conservatism in this entire hymn, but the goal is to become more Christ-like. We will find no encouragement for children to find or express themselves or develop an individuality outside of their parents and dominant society—thoughts which are prevalent today, so far as the writer of music notes can tell. No, children singing this hymn are not those who choose their own clothes and determine their own bedtime! But before the progressive among us become upset, consider that the Victorian Era—roughly the 1840s until 1900—ushered in an age in which attention was actually paid to childhood. Children were seen more for themselves as opposed to being little adults who were to be exploited at the farm or in industry as soon as they were of sufficient size. The great increase in child labour brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and critiqued by activists and philosophers including Charles Dickens (think Oliver Twist), resulted in the Factory Act (1833) which forbade employing children under 9 in factories (!) and required at least two hours a day of schooling for children under age 13 provided by their employers. This may seem too little and too late for us moderns, but this represented a change in philosophy toward the child which had held sway for hundreds of years, if not the beginning of time. By 1870 in Britain, compulsory education was mandated and most children, even poor ones, would spend their childhood in school rather than in industry. To combat childhood woes in her own way, Alexander donated the proceeds for her hymnal to a school for deaf and mute children in County Derry.
Alexander’s hymnal represents a means to teach children something important about their faith in language they can understand. Yet, it is not simplistic. As fun as some of our modern children’s songs can be, they tend to lack the substance this hymn contains. Consider the eschatology in the last stanzas of “One in Royal David’s City,” “And our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above; and He leads His children on to the place where He is gone.” Here is reference to Christ’s redemption and our salvation. Alexander takes us even further away from the manger and into heaven in the final stanza, “Not in that poor, lowly stable with the oxen standing by Shall we see Him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand of high. Then like stars His children, crowned, all in white, His praise will sound.” Our Christmas season is not ultimately about a baby’s birth, but about the salvation effected by Christ by His death and resurrection. This hymn does not leave us in the romanticized notions of Christmas, but takes us, and its littlest readers, forward to the end times in which Christ reigns over a new heaven and a new earth.