Cecil Francis Alexander

A rug is used as a convenient hiding place for dirt and dust, not usually a hiding place for one's poetry. Yet when the strict disciplinarian, the Major John Humphreys of the Royal Marines noticed a bulge under the rug in a back room of his home in Ireland, what he found upon investigation were papers on which his nine year old daughter, Cecil Frances, had written poems. She was near-sighted, timid and shy, and probably thought her literary musings would not please her father. But something about the childish lines touched this hardened soldier. He slipped them into his pocket and sent them to a member of the clergy at Oxford, England, a friend and poet, John Keble who pronounced the young author a born writer who should be encouraged.

Let me back up a moment in telling of this story to mention that the date of birth of Cecil Frances is in dispute, as is the exact location. While the more accepted date of birth is early in 1818, some say it was 1823, five years later. Her husband, William Alexander, offered no facts to clear up the dispute in his biography of his wife. It can be noted that if she was born in 1818, she would be six years his senior. In fact, is looks as if a family historian changed the date to satisify some in the family that had disapproved of the old Miss Humphreys marrying the younger Mr. Alexander. Also, many historians say she was born in Redcross, in County Wicklow south of Dublin while eager historians in Dublin are quick to point to the house in which they say she was born, of course in Dublin. Also in question is that some stories place the Major a short day or two away from Keble, while the facts point out that Keble was in England while Major Humphreys was in Ireland. But let’s not muddy the story any more than necessary because it is what happens next that really matters.

Now, back to the story. What John Humphreys did then can be a lesson for all parents with talented children. On a Saturday evening after hearing from John Keble, John called the family together and proudly read aloud little Cecil’s poems. He then made a box with a large slot in the top and whenever Cecil would finish a poem, she was to put it in the box. It became their custom to gather each Saturday evening, take out what Cecil had put in the box, and read what she might have put in during the week. Members of the family would make helpful and encouraging comments. It was just the thing needed for Cecil Frances, because in a few short years she would be known all through the British Empire.

The Major was the land-agent to 4th Earl of Wicklow and later to the second Marquess of Abercorn. While living in Wicklow, Cecil Frances became close friends to Lady Harriet Howard, the daughter of the Earl of Wicklow, herself an author. In 1835 [or 1833] the Humphreys family moved into Miltown House in Strabane, about 100 miles Northwest of Dublin. Cecil Frances was strongly influenced by Dr. Walter Hook, Dean of Chichester. Her subsequent religious work was strongly influenced by her contacts with the Oxford Movement and in particular with John Keble, who edited one of her early anthologies. By the 1840s she was already known as a hymn writer and her compositions were soon included in Church of Ireland hymnbooks. She also contributed lyric poems, narrative poems, and translations of French poetry to Dublin University Magazine under various pseudonyms.

At the age of twenty-five (1848), Cecil Frances Humphreys published “Hymns for Little Children”, a delightful collection of her poetic works that many have said has never been surpassed by a similar collection. It was John Keble, now the famous poet vicar at Hursley, England, that wrote the introduction. The beginnings of that book were started when she was trying to explain the Apostle’s Creed to a sick child who could not understand the phraseology. So “Fanny”, as most called her by now, simply put substance of the creed into verse that could be understood by children. Although there are several versions of the creed, the one she most likely was trying to teach was from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer used at that time.

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholick Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.

The poem that she wrote that day, setting by the side of the bed of that sick little child, we sing today.

There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains He had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n and let us in.

Oh, dearly, dearly has He loved,
And we must love Him, too,
And trust in His redeeming blood,
And try His works to do.

Other poems written about that same time also had inspiration from the Creed: “All Things Bright and Beautiful” was written while she was visiting Markree Castle, near Sligo, Ireland and the often sung Christmas song, “Once in Royal David’s City.”

Cecil Francis was involved in charitable work for much of her life. Money from her first publications had helped build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which was founded in 1846 in Strabane. The profits from Hymns for Little Children were also donated to this school.

In Strabane in October 1850 she married the young Anglican curate William Alexander, afterwards Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh. Her husband also wrote several books of poetry, of which the best known is St. Augustine's Holiday and other Poems. As stated earlier, she was six years older than the clergyman, which caused the family concern. William once said of his wife, “From one poor home to another, from one sick bed to another, from one sorrow to another, she went” caring for others.

“Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult” followed in 1852. It was based on the call of the Apostle Andrew. That fact is lost now-days because the second stanza (see below) is generally left out. This will also explain the name of the tune sung with this poem is named GALILEE.

As of old Saint Andrew heard it
By the Galilean lake,
Turned from home and toil and kindred,
Leaving all for His dear sake.

According to Hymnary.org, Cecil Francis Alexander's hymn poems have been published in over twelve-hundred hymnals. She died at the residence of the Bishop, Londonderry, on 12 Oct. 1895, and was buried on 18 Oct. at the city cemetery.

A Hymn is Born / Bonner / 1959 / Broadman Press / Nashville, TN
A Song is Born / Taylor / 2004 / Taylor Publications / Montgomery, TX
Great Christian Hymn Writers / Smith & Carlson / 1997 / Crossways Books / Wheaton, IL
Hymns and History / McCann / 1997 / ACU Press / Abilene, TX
Then Sings My Soul # 2 Morgan / 2004 / Thomas Nelson Publishers / Nashville, TN
Then Sings My Soul # 3 Morgan / 2011 / Thomas Nelson Publishers / Nashville, TN