Everyone knows the hymns All Things Bright and Beautiful and Once in Royal David’s City but how many people know about the woman who wrote them? Cecil Frances Alexander was born in Dublin in 1818 to Major John and Elizabeth Humphreys. She began writing verses at an early age and was later inspired by the Oxford Movement, which combined the Church of England with older teachings of the church to form Anglo-Catholicism. One member of the Oxford Movement, John Keble, later helped Alexander to edit her notable book Hymns for Little Children.
By 1840, Alexander’s hymns were well-known in the Church of Ireland. In 1850, she married the soon-to-be Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh, William Alexander. Their daughter, Eleanore Jane Alexander, inherited her mother’s gift for words and became a well-known poet.
As a bishop’s wife, Alexander used the proceeds from her hymn books to help several charities. In the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, her donations assisted in the founding of the Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. She was also provided support at the Derry Home for Fallen Women and was an "indefatigable visitor to poor and sick".
After her death in 1913, Alexander was commemorated with a stained glass window at St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry. Comprising of three windows, the memorial references three of her hymns: One in Royal, There is a Green Hill Far Away and The Golden Gates are Lifted Up.
Many of Alexander’s hymns were targeted at children to help them learn the Apostle’s Creed. All Things Bright and Beautiful was based on the opening clause, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
Once in Royal David’s City, was inspired by the clause “I believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary”. Originally intended to be sung in Sunday Schools, the hymn is now one of our most popular Christmas Carols. The hymn was put to music by Henry John Gauntlett and since 1919, the Kings College Chapel Cambridge has used the carol as their processional hymn at the Nine Lessons and Carols service. The Kings College Choir began the tradition that the first verse should be sung by a soloist and it was also the first song they recorded for public consumption in 1948.
The phrase “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried,” inspired the hymn There is A Green Hill Far Away. Explaining Jesus’ death to young children has always been a challenge and Alexander wished to pen something that would make it easier. Inspired by a barren green hill near her home, Alexander used the hymn to explain that Jesus died so that we could be forgiven.
Having written so many hymns, it is surprising that Cecil Frances Alexander is not better known. Unfortunately, she lived at a time when women were not considered as important as men, which has resulted in her name being glossed over. Nevertheless, her words live on. Jesus calls us, o'er the tumult is another of her well-known hymns.
“A magnificent hymn of praise to God, perhaps the finest creation of its author, and of the first rank in its class,” is how Church of England clergyman John Julian described the hymn Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation. This was written in German by the German Reformed Church teacher Joachim Neander and translated into English by British writer Catherine Winkworth.
Joachim Neander, an important hymnist after the Reformation, was born in Bremen as Joachim Neumann in 1650. His grandfather, a musician, opted to change the family name to its Greek form Neander because Greek names were the current fashion. Neander’s father died when he was young and, therefore, he could not afford a prestigious education. Instead, he studied theology at a school in his hometown. At times, Neander felt he was wasting his time, however, after hearing a sermon by Protestant pastor Theodor Undereyk, he became much more serious about his studies.
In 1671, a year after concluding his education, Neander became a private tutor in Heidelberg and, in 1674, a Latin teacher in Düsseldorf. Whilst teaching, Neander also gave sermons at gatherings and services in the area, which led him to become a pastor in his hometown of Bremen. He was a very popular pastor, however, died in 1680, a year after his appointment from tuberculosis at the age of 30.
Most of Neander’s hymns were written in Düsseldorf, where, new evidence suggests, Neander caused a lot of problems with the Reformed Church. When Neander began working at the Latin School, which was run by the church, he got on amicably with the minister and elders. He accepted invitations to preach and visit the sick but soon tried to introduce new practices without permission, such as private prayer meetings. As the relationship between Neander and the Church began to crumble, Neander did even more to provoke the elders, for instance, refusing to attend Holy Communion because he did not want to sit in the same building as the “unconverted”. The final straw came when Neander made changes to the timetable and buildings at the school. Neander was subsequently suspended.
All Neander’s hymns were written in German, however, those that have been translated into English include All my hope on God is founded and Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation. The latter, known as Lobe den Herren in German, was a favourite of King Frederick William III of Prussia, who first heard it in 1800. The composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, based his Chorale cantata, Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honour, on Neander’s words. The hymn paraphrases Psalm 103 (a.k.a Bless the Lord, O my soul) and Psalm 150 (Praise ye the Lord).
There are at least ten English translations of Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation, but our modern version is based on the translation by Catherine Winkworth in 1863.
Catherine Winkworth was born on 13th September 1827 in Holborn, London, to Henry Winkworth, a silk merchant. At the age of two, Winkworth moved with her family to Manchester where her father had a silk mill. Winkworth’s education was overseen by the Unitarian minister Reverend William Gaskell and a religious philosopher, Doctor James Martineau.
The Winkworth family later moved to Bristol where she got a position as the secretary of the Clifton Association for Higher Education for Women. Winkworth was a feminist and is remembered at Clifton High School for Girls where a school house is named after her.
Catherine Winkworth spent a year in Dresden where she developed a fascination of German hymnody. In 1854, she published the book Lyra Germanica, which consisted of a collection of German hymns that she had translated, including one by Joachim Neander.
Unfortunately, Winkworth’s career as a translator was cut short when she died suddenly from heart disease whilst in Switzerland. She is commemorated on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church with a feast day on 7th August, the same day as the hymn writer and priest John Mason Neale.
Araminta “Minty” Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland but later escaped and became one of the main leaders of the “Underground Railroad” which led hundreds of slaves to freedom. It is not certain when Harriet and her eight siblings were born but it is estimated to be between 1815 and 1825. Plantation owners owned her parents, Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross, and some of their children were sold to other plantations in other states.
Physical violence was a common occurrence for Harriet and her family, particularly in the form of whipping. Harriet carried scars on her back for the rest of her life. On one occasion, when she refused to do something, Harriet’s overseer threw a two-pound weight at her head, knocking her out. This led to seizures, headaches and narcolepsy, which she suffered for the rest of her life. On the other hand, the seizures caused her to fall into intense dream states, which she believed to be religious experiences.
Harriet’s father became a free man at the age of 45, however, having nowhere to go, he remained working on the plantation in slave-like conditions. He did not feel he could leave his family, who remained in the possession of the plantation owners. Even when Harriet married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, she was not released from slavery.
In 1849, Harriet made her first trip from South to North following a network known as the Underground Railroad. Following the death of her owner, Harriet decided to escape from slavery and run away to Philadelphia. On 17thSeptember 1849, Harriet and two of her brothers began the long journey but after they learnt that Harriet was being sought in the papers for a reward of $300, the boys had second thoughts and returned home. Harriet’s husband had also refused to go with her and later took on a new wife.
Continuing alone, Harriet travelled almost 90 miles to Philadelphia where she finally entered a Free State. “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” But this was not the end of Harriet’s story. No sooner had she arrived that she returned to the South to help more than 300 people escape from slavery. Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet made 19 trips, the first being to help her niece Kessiah and family escape the harsh conditions.
Things became harder when the Fugitive Slave Law came into practice, stating that escaped slaves could be arrested and returned to their owners even if they were living in Free States. Nonetheless, Harriet persevered, rerouting the Underground Railroad to Canada.
Harriet had a prophetic vision about the abolitionist John Brown, who she later met in 1858. Although Brown advocated violence, he ultimately wanted the same result as Harriet and they began working together. Unfortunately, Brown was arrested and executed for which Harriet praised him as a martyr.
During the Civil War, Harriet entered the Union Army as a cook and nurse, although ended up working as an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war, which resulted in the liberation of over 700 slaves in South Carolina.
In 1859, Harriet bought a small piece of land near Auburn, New York from fellow abolitionist Senator William H. Seward. Ten years later, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis and in 1874 adopted a baby girl called Gertie. They lived happily in their own home, however, were never financially secure. Friends and supporters endeavoured to raise money for her. One fan, Sarah H. Bradford wrote Harriet’s biography and gave her all the proceeds.
In 1903, Harriet opened her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, five years later, opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Sadly, Harriet’s health was not good. The physical abuse she received as a slave caused her severe problems, resulting in brain surgery to alleviate some of the pain. She eventually died in 1917 from pneumonia and was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery with military honours.
At the end of the 20th century, Harriet Tubman was named one of the most famous civilians in American History and she is soon to be the face on the new $20 bill. Yet, outside of America, Harriet remains unknown, however, last year a film was released titled Harriet, which documents her life as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. A Woman Called Moses from 1978 also documented her career. So, perhaps Harriet Tubman may not remain unknown in Europe for long.
I was due to attend Spring Harvest this Easter but, for obvious reasons, it was cancelled. Fortunately, all the talks, services and so forth were uploaded to YouTube, so I did not miss out. During one of the sessions, I learnt about a woman called Henrietta Mears and thought you would like to know a bit about her too.
Henrietta Cornelia Mears was born on 23rd October 1890 in North Dakota, the seventh child of a banker and a Baptist laywoman. When she started Kindergarten, Henrietta protested saying it was “to amuse little children, and I'm amused enough. I want to be educated." Following this, at the age of seven, Henrietta declared she was ready to become a Christian and joined the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, near where the family had moved in 1893/4.
Sadly, Henrietta was a sickly child and by the age of 12 had developed muscular rheumatism. Her condition began to improve, which she believed to be the result of healing prayers, however, her eyesight worsened. She was advised to give up on her education by doctors who believed that if she continued to study, she would be blind by the age of 30. Yet, Henrietta was steadfast in her aim to attend the University of Minnesota and put her foot down, saying, "Then blind I shall be—but I want something in my head to think about." Fortunately, she was still able to see when she graduated in 1913 and began to teach chemistry at the Central High School in Minneapolis.
Henrietta continued to attend the First Baptist Church where she was encouraged to turn Sunday Schools into educational opportunities. After working there for ten years, Henrietta took a sabbatical year to think about where to enter Christian work full-time. Whilst there, she visited the First Presbyterian Church Hollywood and met the pastor, Stuart MacLennan, who offered her the position of Director of Christian Education.
The new role meant Henrietta had to permanently move to California, where she was put in charge of training Sunday School teachers. She implemented an age-appropriate curriculum that covered everyone from birth to adulthood. She believed Sunday Schools were the best way to teach others about the Bible.
Within two years, attendance at the Sunday school had risen from 450 to more than 4200 young people per week. Her training program attracted 6500 people and she delivered many of the lessons herself.
Henrietta Mears has been heralded one of the most influential Christian leaders of the 20th century. She founded Gospel Light, a publishing company to print her training materials and set up Forest Home, a Christian conference centre. She also pioneered Gospel Literature International, which inspired the ministries of hundreds of people, including the evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018).
Although Henrietta Mears did not invent the concept of Sunday school, she completely changer its purpose and how it was run. Sunday schools today still follow her guidelines and her book, What the Bible is All About, has sold over 3 million copies. Sadly, we have no children in our church at the moment, but when we do in the future, we can look to Henrietta Mears as a model for our Sunday School.
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon