Chapter 7 Children's Songs

“Give me a bairnie’s hymn,
For I want no earthly lore,
But the sweet refrain of some childlike strain,
On the brink of Canaan’s shore.

* * * * *

Give me a bairnie’s hymn;
I feel like a child to-night,
Lying down to rest on its father’s breast,
To awake at morning light.”

These verses, from a poem by Mrs. Battersby, which appeared in the Sunday School Teacher, in 1874, were suggested by a request for a “bairn’s hymn” by Dr. Guthrie, the preacher-philanthropist, as he lay on his death-bed. And it is said that the simple strain soothed and strengthened him during his last moments. Not infrequently these tender melodies, among the first that infant voices learn to lisp, are often among the last whispered by dying saints in their latest hour. With most of us, some of our earliest religious awakenings were in connection with hymns sung at the Sunday school. How often a little hymn would quiet us, and beget within the heart a seriousness and longing! And yet we have not infrequently heard those who wholly understand and appreciate the type of music commonly termed classic, ridicule a certain class of hymns and tunes, altogether forgetting that these very compositions may exert on other minds a holy and happy influence.

A clergyman was one day busily engaged in his study, when a rough looking man, apparently under the influence of drink, very unceremoniously entered and handed him a note, which he said was from the teacher of the infant class of the Sunday school. The note informed the clergyman that the bearer was the father of one of her scholars who had met with an accident, and that the child lived in such a locality that the teacher dare not visit. “What is your name, and where do you live? “asked the good man. “My name is Peter O’More,” answered the other, with a rough Irish brogue, “and I live on an ould canal boat at the foot of Harrison Street.”

“And what is the matter with your child?”

“Och! and is it Kitty, my own little darling Kitty, the only child of six that has been born till me? She was playing about on a ship where I was to wark, and she fell down the hatchway and broke her leg, and poor Kitty’s leg is not set right, your riverence, for I have no money to pay a docther. Och! poor Kitty! and I’ve nothing to give her to ate, your riverence.”

The minister went down and found a dreadful state of things. The poor little suffering child was overjoyed to see him, whom she at once recognised. She lay upon the “locker “or side seat of an old canal boat, which had been laid up for the winter. There was no fire, though it was a bitterly cold day, no food, and scarcely any article of furniture or any comfort whatever. The minister did what he could to relieve the wants of the little sufferer. The parents had both been drunk the previous night, and in a quarrel had unintentionally knocked the child off the seat, and broken the limb again after it had been set. Having obtained the services of a surgeon who again set the limb, the good man sat down on the locker to talk to little Kitty, while he fed her with some nourishing food which he had procured. He asked her if she could read. “No,” she could not read a word; “but I can sing something I learned in the Sunday School,” said she.

“Well, what can you sing, Kitty?

“In a moment her sweet voice broke out:

“There is a happy land,
Far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand,
Bright, bright as day,
O how they sweetly sing
‘Worthy is our Saviour King!’
Loud let His praises ring,
Praise, praise for aye.”

Tears gathered in the listener’s eyes as the sweet song was lisped by the little sufferer.

“Well, Kitty, that is beautiful. Where do you think that Happy Land is?” he asked.

“Oh,” came the ready reply, “I suppose it is up in the sky, where God is and where the angels live.”

“Do you think you will ever go there, Kitty?”

“If I’m good, and love God, I think I shall.”

Poor Kitty could not read, nor could either of her parents. She knew nothing of heaven and divine things, except what she had been taught at the Sunday School; and most of what she remembered was associated with such words and sentiments as we have quoted. Eternity alone will unfold the power of such simple truth, and simple yet sweet tunes, upon infant minds.

“There is a Happy Land,” was one of the “bairns’ hymns “called for by Dr. Guthrie. How this little hymn came into being is an interesting story.

In 1838, when Andrew Young, at that time headmaster of Niddry Street School, Edinburgh, was on a visit to Rothesay, he happened to spend an evening at the home of one of his pupils, when the lady of the house entertained her visitor by playing several musical compositions on the piano. Among these was a sweet and tender air which charmed him exceedingly. It was a simple little Indian melody called “Happy Land,” and Mr. Young, who was passionately fond of music, requested his friend to play it over and over again. As he listened to the music, he remarked that such a melody would make a capital children’s hymn if wedded to appropriate words. All that night the melody kept ringing in his ears. Early in the morning he rose, and walking in the garden, wrote the hymn which has since spread over all the world.

Many beautiful tributes to “There is a Happy Land” have been recorded. “One day Thackeray, the novelist, was passing through a London slum, and heard a few ragged children in a gutter singing something. He stopped to listen. It was ‘There is a Happy Land.’ The contrast between the squalor of the poor waifs and the splendour of the subject of their song struck him so forcibly that he burst into tears.” The Rev. J. C. Carrick, of Newbattle, writing in Life and Work, in 1890, mentions having had a letter from Mr. Young—only a week before his death—in which he said: “I have just noticed that in Dr. Paton’s most interesting book on his missionary labours, there is a notice how a chief was converted through my hymn.

One of the most widely known and best loved of all children’s hymns is:

“There’s a Friend for little children,
Above the bright blue sky;
A Friend who never changes,
Whose love can never die.

Unlike our friends by nature,
Who change with changing years,
This Friend is always worthy,
The precious name He bears.”

It was written by Albert Midlane, on February 27th, 1859, at Newport, Isle of Wight, and first appeared in a children’s periodical edited by C. H. Mackintosh, under the title, “Above the bright blue sky.” The hymn at once attained great popularity. To-day it has found its way into almost every corner of the world, and has been translated into nearly fifty languages. The first line, as originally published, read, “There’s a rest for little children,” the word “Friend” being substituted later. Mr. Midlane commenced writing when he was in his teens, his first contribution to hymnody, “God bless our Sunday School,” which was sung to the tune of the National Anthem, appeared on May 24th, 1844.

“There’s a Friend for little children” was written in a house, practically within a stone’s throw from the home of Thomas Binney, who wrote the well-known hymn “Eternal light, eternal light.” In his boyhood days, Albert Midlane was brought into close touch with Binney, from whom he may have received some encouragement and impetus in his poetical pursuits. In this connection, however, Mr. Midlane himself has said that it was his Sunday School teacher who did so much to shape his early life, and who prompted him to poetic efforts. The hymn was first scribbled in the author’s notebook, and the original manuscript is still preserved.

A writer who was personally acquainted with the author of “There’s a Friend for little children,” gives the following as the true story of its origin: “Mr. Midlane’s mind had been musing on its outline during the day—and that day a very busy day with other matters—and in the evening, his family having retired to rest, he set himself to arrange and complete the idea. But time stole on, and morning came. Every one who has ever felt an intense interest in an undertaking knows that, at all costs, it must be pursued to the end, and so it was in Mr. Midlane’s case. The end came at length. Alarmed at his absence, his wife came downstairs, only to find her husband in a state of unconsciousness, with head resting upon the now finished hymn. Restoratives and rest being ordered, consciousness was restored, but the result was that such night occupations were strictly forbidden for the future.” Such was the origin of the hymn. On its first appearance, like many other questions of right, its authorship became a question of dispute, and not until a newspaper controversy was it finally settled, and its first signature of “A. M.” became the fully recognised name of the now famous hymn writer.

Considering his busy life in connection with an ironmongery business which he conducted, Mr. Midlane was a fairly voluminous writer, well over a thousand poems and hymns having come from his pen. The greater number of these pieces have been published, including the popular revival hymn “Revive Thy work,” which is possibly the next best known hymn, followed by “Passing onward, quickly passing.” Though few of his hymns manifest a high degree of literary merit, nevertheless, the tone is good, and there is an unmistakable loyalty to the Word of God beautifully expressed, which, perhaps, in hymn writing is of no inconsiderable importance.

It is of interest to learn of the circumstances under which the standard tune, In Memoriam, to which the hymn is usually sung, was written: “The committee engaged on the music of Hymns Ancient and Modern were meeting in Langham Hotel, London, and when the hymn came up for consideration it was found that though they had several tunes before them, none were considered satisfactory. It was suggested that a new tune might be written by one of the committee, and Sir Henry Baker proposed that Sir John Stainer should retire to his (Sir Henry’s) bedroom, and try what he could do. Sir John complied with the suggestion, and in a very short time returned with the present tune which was at once adopted.” It was in connection with the death of Sir John’s young son, Frederick Henry Stainer, which took place about this time, that the tune In Memoriam received its name.

The author had the pleasure of witnessing the celebration of the jubilee of his famous hymn, when 3,000 children assembled in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and joined in the singing of “There’s a Friend for little children.” Mr. Midlane passed away on February 28th, 1909, and as his body was laid to rest in Carisbrooke Cemetery, a pathos was added to the scene by a number of children, assembled at the graveside, blending their voices to the sweet strains of his immortal hymn.

Another hymn, reminiscent of sweetest memories of childhood’s days, is:

“I think when I read that sweet story of old,
When Jesus was here among men,
How He called little children as lambs to His fold:
I should like to have been with Him then.”

Written in pencil on the back of an old envelope, while the authoress was travelling in a stage coach nearly a hundred years ago, this little hymn, which quickly rose into favour, is still among our best loved children’s hymns. The story of its composition has often been told, but will bear retelling. From an account contained in a charming book of reminiscence, written by Mrs. Jemima Luke, the authoress of the hymn, when she had passed her eightieth birthday, we obtain a delightful pen-picture of the origin of this notable children’s song.

In 1841, Miss Thompson (as she then was) proceeded to the Normal Infant School, Gray’s Inn Road, to obtain some knowledge of the system. Mary Moffat, who afterwards became the wife of the famous Dr. Livingstone, was there at the time. In the course of their duties the teachers had to march up and down the schoolroom singing the marching pieces provided for their future use. Amongst these was a Greek air, the pathos of which at once attracted the young woman’s fancy, and she searched several Sunday School hymn books for words to suit the measure, but in vain. Having been recalled home, she went one day on some missionary business to the little town of Wellington, five miles from Taunton, in a stage coach. It was an hour’s ride. As she sat there, with no other inside passenger with whom she might converse, her thoughts recalled the pretty little tune with which she had been struck, and taking from her pocket a pencil she wrote on the back of an old envelope the first two verses now so well known. “The child’s desire,” as the composition was originally called, consisted of only two verses, and a third was afterwards added to make it a missionary hymn. “My father superintended the Sunday School at the little chapel belonging to the estate,” writes Mrs. Luke. “He used to let the children choose the first hymn themselves. One Sunday they struck up their new hymn. My father turned to my younger sister who stood near him, and said, ‘Where did that come from? I never heard it before,’ ‘Oh, Jemima made it,’ was the reply. On the day following he asked me for a copy of the words and tune. This he sent with the name and address in full, to the Sunday School Teachers’ Magazine, where it appeared the following month. But for my father’s intervention the hymn would in all probability never have been preserved.”

In her early life, Mrs. Luke had decided to go out to India to engage in missionary work, but was prevented owing to a breakdown in health. Jemima Luke was born in Islington, August 19th, 1813. In 1843 she was married to the Rev. Samuel Luke, a Congregational minister. Though the authoress of “I think when I read that sweet story of old,” had a ready pen, she did not produce another hymn of equal merit. Mrs. Luke died at Newport, Isle of Wight, February 2nd, 1906, in her ninety-third year.

A popular children’s hymn, which is still a favourite with many of us who are no longer young, is:

“Tell me the old, old Story
Of unseen things above;
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.”

It was written by Miss Katherine Hankey, over sixty years ago. Originally, “The old, old story” was a poem running to about fifty verses, of four lines each, in two parts. “The story wanted,” formed Part I, and was made up of eight stanzas, which formed the hymn as we now know it. Part II is the answer to the request contained in the first part, and is entitled “The story told.” It is a remarkable circumstance that the first part, which is really the request for the story, should become the favourite hymn instead of the story itself. Possibly because the introductory verses, which far surpass the second part, so beautifully express the feelings which are experienced by most of us. “I wrote Part I towards the end of January, 1866,” says the writer, “I was unwell at the time— just recovering from a severe illness—and the second verse really indicates my state of health, for I was literally ‘weak and weary.’ When I had written the first part, which consisted of eight verses, I laid it aside, and it was not until the following November that I completed the whole hymn.” It is claimed that “Tell me the old, old story” has been translated into more languages than any other children’s hymn. Its great popularity is due in no small measure to its close identification with Ira D. Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos.

In Dr. Doane’s arrangement, the original four-line verses have been turned into eight-lined stanzas, with the now familiar chorus added. Miss Hankey had already set a simple little tune to the words, and did not at first favour the setting of the American composer, as she considered that each four-lined verse was complete in itself, there being no connecting links between any two of the verses. There is no doubt, however, that but for Dr. Doane’s tune, this hymn would not have attained the world-wide popularity it enjoys to-day. Writing to his friend Sankey, some years later, Dr. Doane has this to say about the music, and the occasion on which he composed it: “In 1867 I was attending the International Convention of the Young Men’s Christian Association, in Montreal. Among those present was Major-General Russell, then in command of the English forces during the Fenian excitement. He arose in the meeting and recited the words of this song from a sheet of foolscap paper— tears streaming down his bronzed cheeks as he read. I wrote the music for the song one hot afternoon while on the stage-coach between the Glen Falls House and the Crawford House in the White Mountains. That evening we sang it in the parlour of the hotel. We thought it pretty, although we scarcely anticipated the popularity which was subsequently accorded it.”

Many remarkable stories have been told of the wonderful influence “Tell me the old, old story “has exerted. One striking illustration is given in Sankey’s volume in which he tells of a young stock-broker, utterly broken in life through gambling and drunken dissipation, who was brought to Christ through hearing a vast audience singing:

“Tell me the story softly,
With earnest tones and grave;
Remember! I’m the sinner
Whom Jesus came to save.”

A hymn which was specially written over 70 years ago, by a Sunday School teacher for the very tiny members of her class, is:

“Jesus loves me! this I know,
For the Bible tells me so; “

The writer is Miss Anna B. Warner, an American lady. It was her invariable custom to write for her scholars a new hymn every month. Selecting a tune with which the children were familiar, Miss Warner would write words to suit the melody. “Jesus loves me” was one of these hymns. Soon after it was written, the hymn came into the hands of William B. Bradbury, who composed the tune to which it has since been sung. This hymn very quickly came into favour, not only in America but in this country, and it would be difficult to find a hymn book with a section for children’s hymns which does not contain Anna B. Warner’s little hymn. The Rev. Dr. Jacob Chamberlain, who spent a number of years among the Hindus, relates that many years ago he translated into Telugu, “Jesus loves me,” and taught it to the children of the day school. “Scarcely a week later,” he writes, “as I was going through the streets of the native town on horseback I heard singing, which came from a side street. I stopped to listen, cautiously drawing to a corner, where, unobserved, I could look down the street and see and hear. And there was a little heathen boy, with heathen men and women standing around him, singing at the top of his voice:

“Jesus love me! this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so!’

As he completed the verse, some one asked the question: ‘Sonny, where did you learn that song?’ ‘Over at the missionary school,’ was the answer. ‘Who is that Jesus, and what is the Bible?’ ‘Oh, the Bible is the book from God, they say, to teach us how to get to heaven; and Jesus is the name of Him who came into the world to save us from our sins. That is what the missionaries say.’ And so the little boy went on— heathen himself, and singing to the heathen—about Jesus and His love. ‘That is preaching the Gospel by proxy,’ I said to myself, as I turned my pony and rode away, well satisfied to leave my little proxy to tell his interested audience all he himself knew, and sing to them over and over that sweet song of salvation.”

As a writer of children’s hymns, no name has attained so high a position as that of Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander. Choicest, and best of all her many beautiful compositions may be placed that tender and inspiring hymn:

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

Like the authoress of “Jesus loves me,” Mrs. Alexander usually wrote her children’s hymns for her Sunday School class, who first heard the verses read over to them before they were given out to the world. Mrs. Alexander was the daughter of Major Humphries of the Royal Marines, and was born in Ireland, in 1823. In 1850 she married William Alexander, at that time rector of a country parish in the county of Tyrone. During the five years spent here, Mrs. Alexander’s great joy was to visit the poor and needy of her husband’s parishioners. Speaking of these days, the old parish clerk was wont to tell of the lady who went with comforts for the sick and sorrowful in all weathers, “when it was not fit for the likes of her to be out!”

Of a kind and benevolent disposition, Mrs. Alexander was beloved by all with whom she came in contact. “From one poor home to another,” wrote her husband in his biography of her, “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.” It is related that “There is a green hill far away “was composed while Mrs. Alexander sat by the bedside of a sick girl, as she hovered between death and life. It was written in 1847, and first appeared in Hymns for the Little Children, a little volume published by the authoress. In 1867, Mrs. Alexander’s husband was appointed Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, and ultimately Primate of all Ireland. But their social and ecclesiastical elevation did not deter her from ministering to the needs of the deserving poor in the new sphere to which she had been called. After a long and useful life Mrs. Alexander went to her rest in 1895, at the age of seventy-two. Though the authoress of “There is a green hill “wrote many hundreds of hymns and poems, it is as a writer of hymns for children that the name of Mrs. C. F. Alexander will always be remembered and loved. Other children’s hymns from the same facile pen, to be found in most hymnals, which have won their way to the hearts of the young, are, “Do no sinful action,” “Day by day the little daisy,” and the beautiful hymn on the birth of Christ:

“Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for a bed.
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.”

Also the following little hymn, which is characterised by the same simplicity and beauty:

“We are but little children weak,
Nor born in any high estate,
What can we do for Jesus’ sake,
Who is so high and good and great?”

Julia A. Carey, an American hymnist, gave to us that simple little hymn, in language eminently suited for the very tiny young folks:

“Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean,
And the beauteous land.”

Written in 1845, while the authoress was a teacher in the Boston Primary Schools, U.S.A., it was first published in the Gospel Teacher. A sixth verse, completing the sentiment of the hymn, was added by Bishop Bickersteth:

“Little ones in glory,
Swell the angels’ song:
Make us meet, dear Saviour,
For their holy throng.”

“Lord a little band and lowly,” is a delightful little hymn, fragrant with sweet memories. It was written by Martha Evans Shelly (née Jackson), and first appeared in the Child’s Own Hymn Book in 1844. It has passed into a large number of collections for children, but does not appear to attract present-day compilers in the measure it fully deserves. How this hymn came to be written is told by Mrs. Shelly: “At a Sunday School meeting in Manchester, the Rev. John Curwen, one evening, gave a lecture on singing. He sang a very pretty and simple tune, to which he said he had no suitable words, and wished that some one would write a hymn to it. I wrote these verses and gave them to him at the close of the meeting.”

The tune which Mr. Curwen sang was a German composition, and was given in his Child’s Own Tune Book under the name of “Glover.” Written in a moment of inspiration, the words convey in simple language, sublime thoughts of praise and prayer.

“Lord, a little band and lowly,
We are come to sing to Thee;
Thou art great and high and holy;
O how solemn we should be!
Fill our hearts with thoughts of Jesus,
And of heaven, where He is gone;
And let nothing ever please us
He would grieve to look upon.

For we know the Lord of Glory
Always sees what children do,
And is writing now the story
Of our thoughts and actions too.
Let our sins be all forgiven;
Make us fear what e’er is wrong;
Lead us on our way to heaven,
There to sing a nobler song.”

A hymn of exquisite beauty, and a special favourite with the little ones as an evening prayer is, “Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me.” It was written by Mrs. Mary Duncan, a beautiful and accomplished young lady. She was the daughter of Robert Lundie, the parish minister of Kelso, and was born at the manse there, April 26th, 1814. In July, 1836, she was married to William Wallace Duncan, minister of Cleish, Kinross-shire. This tender hymn was written for her own little children,—doubtless with no thought of publicity—about three years after her marriage, when Mrs. Duncan was barely twenty-five, a fact which gives a special interest to the composition. Toward the close of December, 1839, she contracted a severe cold which developed into pneumonia, and on January 5th, just a few months after the hymn was written, the young and beautiful life ended. Though not so widely known as other children’s hymns, “Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me,” is universally loved all over Scotland, and the words of the first verse are still lisped by the little ones as an evening prayer. There is an unmistakable beauty in its simplicity:

“Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me;
Bless Thy little lamb to-night;
Through the darkness be Thou near me;
Watch my sleep till morning light.”

This beautiful little prayer, in poetic form, reminds us of a similar composition, perhaps more widely known. Charles Wesley, whose prolific pen gave to the world the immortal “Jesus lover of my soul,” also wrote the sweet and tender hymn, which for more than a century has been used in countless homes by children of many generations:

“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child,
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.

Fain I would to Thee be brought;
Blessed Lord, forbid it not;
In the kingdom of Thy grace
Give a little child a place.”

This was one of Wesley’s earliest hymns, having been written about the year 1740; and though it has been repeatedly stated that the hymn was expressly written for his own children, such is not the case, as Charles Wesley was not married until many years after its composition.

F. A. Jones tells the story of an old man, over eighty years of age, who, when he lay dying, endeavoured in vain to recall a single prayer or hymn which might help to comfort him in his journey into the unknown. Since the age of twenty he had lived a godless life, forgetting the truths imbibed in his earlier days. Suddenly his vision cleared, and he saw himself a little lad again, kneeling at his mother’s knee, repeating his evening hymn; unconsciously from his lips issued these tender words which for nearly seventy years he had neither uttered nor heard—“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” But is it not the same with many of us? Many summers may have passed since those bygone childhood days, and yet with us there still linger cherished memories of the time when we, too, knelt by a mother’s knee, and repeated the same old familiar lines.