All things bright and beautiful

by
18 October 2019

Gillian Warson offers a defence of a maligned hymn

ALAMY

Purple-headed: wildflowers at sunrise, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Purple-headed: wildflowers at sunrise, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

AS WE sing hymns, we may be spurred to respond with decisive action. For this reason I suggest that “All things bright and beautiful”, far from being a trite and complacent ditty meant for children, has the power to alert us to the gravest dangers facing the world today.

It was written by Cecil Frances Alexander, in 1848, to explain the line “Maker of heaven and earth” in the Apostles’ Creed. It reminds singers that God created all living things, big and small. In its recognition of the fragility of the natural world it has proved prescient. Dire warnings about food poverty, climate change, and diminishing biodiversity have lent it a new urgency.

ALAMYCecil Frances Alexander

Yet the suggestion that “All things bright and beautiful” be sung at a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral is frequently met with groans and sneers. Ministers and worship leaders alike feel that the hymn is over-used, that somehow its familiarity makes it less than worthy. A more specific criticism is that it is not “relevant” to young singers today — a charge that was levelled against me when I included it in a service recently.

There are, though, perhaps, other reasons why the hymn has slipped from favour. It could be that some of the images of traditional life are not nowadays understood. Or could it be that the mistrust over the “rich man at his castle” verse still lingers, even though it has been excised from printed hymn books for many years?

I want to consider “All things bright and beautiful” in the turbulent times of 2019. Sung with fresh voices, it becomes even more relevant than it was when composed.

 

A CURSORY look at most hymn books suggests that anything about nature tends to be categorised as a hymn for children. As a result, there is a danger that hymns about the natural world are sniffed at. How wrong this is. Children have become passionate advocates for the preservation of the environment.

Later in the hymn, the “cold wind” and “summer sun” remind us of the prevalence of extreme weather events. Children have taken a lead in alerting us to this crisis through protests.

A text of thankfulness, “All things bright and beautiful”, forms a bridge from the microscopic to the cosmic. It is a hymn that begs singers to look up, look down, and around. The first verse relies heavily on the idea of smallness — and critics of the hymn have made this verse the object of their scorn.

Although some consider these lines to be saccharine and twee, less hostile commentators suggest that Mrs Alexander is simply making the outside world accessible, and point out that children enjoy and understand “little” things.

There is some truth in this, as anyone on a country walk with a toddler presented with a single daisy or leaf will attest. With every “each little” we are invited to gaze at and appreciate the natural world around us. Small in size does not mean small in significance. As William Blake wrote, one can “see a world in a grain of sand”.

So, what of those “glowing colours”? Quite simply, if our attention is no longer drawn to “glowing colours”, we have less reason to look up from our mobile phones and see the beauty around us.

 

WHAT about those “tiny wings”? It is notable that we tend to hear about larger mammals in conservation appeals.

In February, however, the UN drew attention to the fact that the world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”. These “tiny wings” remind us of the vital importance of insects in our food chain. The loss of them would, of course, mean irreparable harm — directly or indirectly — to the diets of all other living things.

If, in our adult wisdom, we decide that the “tiny wings” have no place in our hymns, then is there not a danger that they might cease to exist, taking us with them?

Having considered the smallest of creatures in the first verse, Mrs Alexander turns her attention to nature on a grander scale in the second. While it is entirely possible that she was thinking of mountains close to her home in Ireland, for singers today mountains have come to mean the allure of remote places. Perhaps the desire for distant places is inborn?

Some contemporary collections, notably Singing the Faith, have altered the “purple- headed mountains” to read “the purple-heathered mountains”. While this makes for a much more familiar image, it detracts from the original by encouraging us to look down to our feet rather than up to the distance beyond.

Mrs Alexander’s mention of “the ripe fruits in the garden” ought to remind us of the threats to our food supply posed by our failure to protect biodiversity. She would certainly have known of the catastrophic potato famine in Ireland — a disaster that was the result of being too reliant on a single food crop. It is vital, in particular, that our children should grow up with a vivid appreciation of our dependence.

 

AS WE draw to a close in “All things bright and beautiful”, we turn to “the meadows where we play”. As Mrs Alexander plainly realised, play is not just a frivolous interruption to our day-to-day lives, but a crucial part of growing as human beings. In these pressured times, it seems that play is under threat in a culture that values goals, measurement, and performance.

In this hymn, we have a text that reminds us of a beautiful world that is also one of declining resources. If we do not call to mind our belief that God created the world, and appointed us guardians to use and preserve its precious resources, then where is our future? God made the world, and he made it for us. Let us look after it and continue to sing this powerful hymn.

Dr Gillian Warson is an independent researcher.

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