Thursday, February 12, 2009

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Praise for the Lord #24

Words: Cecil F. Alexander, 1848
Music: Lloyd O. Sanderson, 1935

(Mrs.) Cecil Frances Humphries Alexander (1818-1895) published this text in Hymns for Little Children in 1848. Supposedly she was visiting Markree Castle in County Sligo, Ireland when she wrote this hymn.(Cyberhymnal, "All things")

County Sligo, Ireland
Alexander and her sister founded a school for the deaf, and it is tempting to suppose that the strongly visual focus of this hymn was based on her interaction with deaf children. Hymns for Little Children also included "There is a green hill far away"(PFTL#) and "Once in royal David's city", once well-known hymns but never widely sung in the U.S. Churches of Christ. She also wrote the lyrics of "Jesus calls us"(PFTL#), which we have sung rather widely!(Cyberhymnal, "Alexander")

Stanza 1:
The little flower that opens,
The little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Some considerations of God's creation look at the grandiose--for example, the sweeping landscapes of "How great Thou art"(PFTL#226), or the cosmic perspective of Psalm 8. "All things bright and beautiful" looks at the small things. Wildflowers and wild birds are common, ordinary parts of our world, but each one is (if we take the time to look) an exquisite creation of our heavenly Father. Their abundance and commonness is evidence of His overflowing creativity and love of beauty. Jesus used this for a powerful object lesson:

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?(Matthew 6:26-30)

In the refrain, Alexander sums up the message that we should praise the God who made all things "very good"; it is only through the corruption of sin that they become otherwise.(Genesis 1:31, 3:17) She may have had in mind Psalm 104:24, which speaks of the wisdom of God and the overwhelming diversity of His creation: "O Lord , how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures."

The following stanza is omitted from most modern hymnals, for fairly obvious reasons:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Not only does it run counter to modern ideals about social mobility, it jarringly calls to mind Christ's story of the rich man and Lazarus, almost seeming to offer justification to the rich man's neglect of the poor beggar at his gate.(Luke 16:19-31) It is a blemish on an otherwise outstanding text, and is no loss.

This next stanza is omitted from Sanderson's setting as well, perhaps merely incidentally:

The purple headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

Or perhaps Brother Sanderson just couldn't relate to the first two lines, having grown up in the flat, dry cotton country of eastern Arkansas, where the only significant break in the geography is Crowley's Ridge.(Sanderson)

Stanza 2:
The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

In this stanza Alexander notes the contrasts and extremes of God's creation, and how they all work together to make a world in which we can live. The "ripe fruits in the garden" do not grow without the "pleasant summer sun", but they also cannot grow without soil that has lain fallow during the winter, enriched by snow and rains. God sustains all these things, and has decreed that they will continue: "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."(Genesis 8:22)

Sanderson also omits the following stanza:

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

The Britishism "greenwood" may have been the deciding factor; or perhaps Sanderson simply thought a shorter version of the song would go over better. His choice of verses gets the essential points across very well--stanza 1 focuses on the details of God's smaller creations, stanza 2 on the large cycles of the seasons, and stanza 3 provides a conclusion and a call to action:

Stanza 3:
He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

Why did God create such diversity? Why did He make it so beautiful? God could have created only the basic, necessary varieties of plant and animal life, instead of the myriads of variations we see. Of course the evolutionist can say (and rightly) that there are survival values in the differentiations. But why couldn't all cats have been black? Why couldn't flowers be distinguished by only a few different shades? And why did He make us able to appreciate beauty? God could have created us without the ability to see color (many people, of course, survive quite well without it).

To begin with, God created because that is what He does. In the last verse of Genesis chapter 1, we read that "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." There is no mention of what Adam thought about it--it was God's opinion of His own work. There is a spark of that in most of us as well, whether it comes out in art, or music, or craftsmanship, or the simple satisfaction of finishing any job and knowing that we have done it well. But the Lord's creativity is naturally beyond our understanding. We get a glimpse of His imagination at work in the questions He fires at Job in the latter chapters of that book:

"Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place...? Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? ... Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? ... Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail...? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?

Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass? Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven? ...

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go and say to you, 'Here we are'?"(Job 38:12-35)

But God's creation also serves His purpose of teaching us about Him: "For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made."(Romans 1:20) It is also provided for our necessity: "For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."(Matthew 5:45)

The appropriate response to God's creation is "a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name."(Hebrews 13:15) At the beginning of His creation, "the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy."(Job 38:7) The Psalms are full of echoes of this praise:

O Lord , our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set Your glory above the heavens.(Psalm 8:1)

There is none like You among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like Yours.(Psalm 86:8)

For You, O Lord, have made me glad by Your work; at the works of Your hands I sing for joy. How great are Your works, O Lord ! Your thoughts are very deep!(Psalm 92:4-5)

Declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous works among all the peoples!(Psalm 96:3)

O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom have You made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures.(Psalm 104:24)

Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!(Psalm 105:2)

If we learn to see and hear it, if we take the time to look and listen, there are reasons to praise and rejoice all around us, every day.

About the music: Lloyd O. Sanderson was one of the premier figures in the history of the hymnody of the Churches of Christ in the U.S., and deserves his own post. To those not familiar with him, he was a songwriter who often set his own texts under pen names (e.g. "Vana R. Raye") and collaborated quite fruitfully with the great Methodist poet Thomas O. Chisholm (e.g. "Be with me, Lord", PFTL#40). Just as importantly, though, he was music editor and sometime business manager for the Gospel Advocate magazine in Nashville, Tennessee. His energy and ability led to both the growth of the company in general and to the renewal of their hymnal efforts in the Christian Hymns series. Many, many Christians grew up in the1950s singing from those little tan or books! As far as I know, his setting of "All things bright and beautiful" first appeared in the 1935 Christian Hymns, which was his first publication with Gospel Advocate.

I have difficulty in forming an assessment of Sanderson's composing ability. He was obviously an intelligent, inquisitive man who made good use of every educational opportunity that came his way. His formal education in music, however, was rather limited by today's standards; and to be fair, he considered music an avocation.(Sanderson) That being said, the range of styles in his compositions far exceeds what one would expect of a songwriter trained in the gospel-oriented "music normals" of the day. Albert Brumley, for example, the most commercially successful of our songwriting brothers, seldom varied far from the quartet gospel format of "I'll fly away"(PFTL#824) or "If we never meet again this side of heaven"(PFTL#323). Tillit Teddlie, though writing more strictly for congregational use, also tended to stay fairly close to the same style.

Sanderson, on the other hand, often wrote things that can hardly be called gospel, and aspire more toward a classical style. Some of these, such as his setting of Tennyson's "Crossing the bar"(PFTL#117), are quite lovely; others, such as "Where livest Thou?"(PFTL#765) are somewhat awkward. He deserves credit, however, for a diversity of style uncommon for a gospel songwriter, and for many excellent successes.

One of these is the tune for "All things bright and beautiful". It is closer in nature to a folk song than anything else, with simple quarter-note rhythms and predictable, repetitive phrase structure (which for a folk song is certainly not a criticism). The melody is unified by the frequent repetition of the same note, often DO or SOL of the scale, which also contributes to its childlike simplicity. It moves primarily by step, and its leaps are typically within the notes of the tonic chord of the key (DO-MI-SOL). The four phrases of the stanza lead nicely from SOL up to DO, with SOL ending the first phrase, LA pops up in the second and third phrases, and TI in the fourth phrase prepares us for the inevitable and satisfying resolution to DO when the refrain begins. This hymn is also commonly sung to at least three other tunes, which can be heard at the Cyberhymnal page for this text; Sanderson's tune, in my opinion, is as good as or better than any of them.


Cyberhymnal. All things bright and beautiful.

Cyberhymnal. Cecil Frances Humphries Alexander.

Sanderson, Lloyd Otis. "The Lord has been mindful of me: an autobiography of L.O. Sanderson. h

Image of Sligo, Ireland released into public domain by the photographer, Jon Sullivan.

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