Cecil Frances Alexander was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1818 to English parents. From a young age she delighted in writing poetry and verse. As she grew and developed her talent, her religious work became more and more influenced by the Oxford Movement, a ‘High Church’ movement in the Church of England that sought to recover traditional forms of theology and liturgy in the Anglican tradition. She was especially influenced by Fr. John Keble.
In 1850, Cecil married Anglican clergyman William Alexander, who would become the Bishop of Derry and later the Archbishop of Armagh in the Church of Ireland. She visited the poor and the sick tirelessly.
Cecil Frances Alexander is most well-known by her influential hymns. “Once in Royal David’s City,” “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” and a popular setting to “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” are her enduring contributions to Anglican hymnody. She died on October 12, 1895 at the age of 77 and is buried next to her husband in Derry.
Three of Cecil Frances Alexander’s most treasured hymns, “Once in Royal David’s City,” “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” and “The Golden Gates Are Lifted Up,” are commemorated in the above stained glass window in St. Columb’s Cathedral in Derry. Let’s take a look at each of these hymns and feature some excellent performances of each.
Once In Royal David’s City
“Once In Royal David’s City” has become a classic Christmas hymn. First published in 1848 in her hymnbook Hymns for Little Children, it was set to music a year later by the English organist Henry John Gauntlett. The hymn’s verses invite us into a vivid depiction of the Christ child that we might discover God himself in this child. A rich meditation on the Incarnation, the hymn ends with our future vision of the ascended Lord Jesus who leads his children home. The King’s College Choir at Cambridge offers a lovely performance of this great hymn.
There Is a Green Hill Far Away
“There Is a Green Hill Far Away” was written to set to music the words from the Creed:
‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.’
The Golden Gates Are Lifted Up
“The Golden Gates Are Lifted Up” (sometimes known as “The Eternal Gates Lift Up Their Heads”) is a lesser-known hymn, but a superb meditation on the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father and what this means for our lives as Christians “between the times.” The Metropolitan Temple, London (CH Spurgeon’s church) offers a lovely performance of this hymn.
A Collect Prayer
And so this October 12th we give thanks for Cecil Frances Alexander’s life and we pray:
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy; for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.