Shortly before the death in 1911 of Archbishop William Alexander, primate of the Anglican Church in Ireland, he remarked that he would be remembered as the husband of the woman who wrote “The roseate hues of early dawn” and “There is a green hill far away.”
The humble prelate was right. Although he occupied an exalted position in the Church less than two decades ago, few people today recall his name. But who has not heard the name of Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander, who, in spite of multitudinous duties as wife and mother, found time to be a parish worker among the poor and to write hymns that shall never die?
When Cecil Frances was only a little girl, she began to reveal poetic talent. Because her father was an officer in the Royal Marines and rather a stern man, she was not sure that he would be pleased with her efforts and therefore she hid her poems under a carpet! When he finally discovered what his nine-year-old daughter was busying herself with, he set aside a certain hour every Saturday evening, at which time he read aloud to the family the poems she had written.
The family numbered among its friends none other than John Keble, writer of the famous collection of devotional poems known as “The Christian Year,” and he, too, gave encouragement to the youthful poet.
In 1848, at the age of twenty-five, she published a volume of hymns for little children that probably has never been excelled 306by a similar collection. Two years later she became the bride of Rev. William Alexander, afterwards Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, and later Archbishop of Armaugh. He was rector of a country parish in the county of Tyrone at the time, and there was much poverty among his people. Among these needy folk the young minister’s wife moved about like a ministering angel. A beautiful tribute to her memory from the pen of her husband reads: “From one poor home to another, from one bed of sickness to another, from one sorrow to another, she went. Christ was ever with her, and in her, and all felt her influence.”
But the poetic spark within her was not permitted to languish. Even when children began to bless this unusual household and the cares of the mother increased, her harp was tuned anew and sweeter songs than ever began to well up from her joyous, thankful heart.
Practically all of the four hundred hymns and poems written by Mrs. Alexander were intended for children, and for this reason their language is very simple. At the same time she succeeds in teaching some of the most profound truths of the Christian faith. Witness, for example, the simple language of “There is a green hill far away.” A child has no difficulty in comprehending it, and yet this precious hymn sets forth in a most touching way the whole story of the Atonement.
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by His precious blood.
Again, the infinite value of the sacrifice which Christ made when He, the Sinless One, died for sinners is expressed in these simple, appealing words:
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin,
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.
Archbishop Alexander mentioned two hymns by which his wife’s name, and incidentally his own, would be remembered. He might have added several others, such as the challenging hymn, “Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult,” or the two beautiful children’s hymns, “Once in royal David’s city” and “All things bright and beautiful.” And among her splendid poems he might have mentioned the sublime verses entitled “The Burial of Moses.” Her own spirit of confiding trust in God is reflected in the lines:
O lonely tomb in Moab’s land!
O dark Beth-peor’s hill!
Speak to these curious hearts of ours,
And teach them to be still;
God has His mysteries of grace,
Ways that we cannot tell;
He hides them deep, like the secret sleep
Of him He loved so well.
Mrs. Alexander died in 1895 at the age of seventy-two years. She was buried in Londonderry, Ireland. At Archbishop Alexander’s funeral sixteen years later “The roseate hues of early dawn” was sung in Londonderry cathedral, and when the body was lowered into the grave the mourners sang, “There is a green hill far away.”
During the years when Mrs. Alexander was penning her beautiful lyrics, three other women were giving hymns to the English people in another way. They were Catherine Winkworth and the sisters Jane Borthwick and Sarah 308Borthwick Findlater, all three of whom had conceived a deep love for the wonderful hymns of Germany and were translating them into their native tongue.
Miss Winkworth, who is the foremost translator of German hymns, was born in London, September 13, 1829. Her “Lyra Germanica,” published in 1855, met with such favorable reception that a second series was issued in 1858. Her “Christian Singers of Germany” was published in 1869.
Miss Winkworth possessed a marvelous ability of preserving the spirit of the great German hymns while she clothed them in another language. It was she who gave us in English dress such magnificent hymns as Rinkart’s “Now thank we all our God,” Luther’s “Out of the depths I cry to Thee,” Decius’ “All glory be to God on high,” Neander’s “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation,” Schmolck’s “Open now thy gates of beauty,” and Gerhardt’s “All my heart this night rejoices.” Miss Winkworth, more than any other one person, is responsible for having aroused in England and America an appreciation of the treasure store of German hymnody. She died in 1869.
The two Borthwick sisters, Jane Laurie and Sarah, were born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the former in 1813 and the latter in 1823. They came from an old Scotch family. Sarah married a Rev. Eric Findlater and lived for a time in Perthshire.
The Borthwick sisters collaborated in the preparation of the translations entitled “Hymns from the Land of Luther.” These appeared first in 1854 and continued in four series until 1862. Although it is difficult to distinguish the individual work of the sisters, Jane is generally credited with the translation of such noble hymns as Zinzendorf’s “Jesus, still lead on,” and Schmolck’s “My Jesus, as Thou 309wilt,” while Sarah is believed to be the translator of Tersteegen’s “God calling yet,” Spitta’s “O happy home, where Thou art loved the dearest,” Schmolck’s “My God, I know that I must die,” and a large number of other famous German hymns.
Jane Borthwick died in 1897, and her younger sister followed her ten years later.
From the book ‘Story of Our Hymns‘