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Life of Cecil Frances Alexander

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–1895)

Cecil Frances Alexander

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–1895) was an Anglo-Irish hymnwriter and poet.

She was born in Dublin, Ireland, and married William Alexander, who later became the Archbishop of Armagh in the Church of Ireland.

Cecil Frances Alexander is best known for her hymns, many of which remain popular to this day.

One of her most famous hymns is “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

She was also known for her charitable work and her contributions to education.

Early Life

Cecil Frances Humphreys (later Mrs. Alexander) was born in April 1818 at 25 Eccles Street, Dublin.

Her parents were Major John Humphreys (from Norfolk) and Elizabeth Frances (née Reed), who hailed from Ireland.

She was their third child and second daughter.

After the Napoleonic Wars, her father was discharged from the Royal Marines due to injury.

Major John Humphreys had a significant role as the land agent to the 4th Earl of Wicklow and later served as the second Marquess of Abercorn.

Fanny, as she was affectionately called by her family and friends, was named after Cecil Frances Hamilton, who was the Marquis’s daughter.

Frances’ Journey into Poetry and Verse Writing

Cecil Frances Alexander’s journey into poetry and verse began during her childhood. From an early age, she showed a penchant for writing poetry and displayed a talent for it.

She also demonstrated remarkable piety, and both of these traits were nurtured through her close friendship, akin to sisterhood, with Lady Harriet Howard.

Harriet was the daughter of the Earl of Wicklow and resided at Shelton Abbey, just six miles from Balykeane.

During their time together, the two young ladies visited the sick and needy and engaged in daily private devotions.

They also initiated teaching sessions on Christian doctrine. They placed particular emphasis on memorizing the catechism, creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

This laid the foundation for their literary collaboration.

However, in 1833, they were separated when Major Humphreys moved to County Tyrone in Ulster. The reason for this move was to oversee the estates of the second Marquis of Abercorn, who lived nearby at Baronscourt.

Influenced by the Oxford Movement

She often created a weekly newsletter containing both amusing and thoughtful verses for her family.

As she grew older, she embraced the Victorian custom of composing poems centered around medieval themes. It was greatly influenced by an eminent Victorian churchman, Dr. Walter Hook, the Dean of Chichester.

However, it was her devotional poems and hymns, influenced by the Oxford Movement, that garnered her the most recognition.

As she honed her skills and nurtured her talent, her religious writings increasingly reflected the impact of her interactions with the Oxford Movement.

This movement within the Church of England aimed to revive traditional theological and liturgical practices in the Anglican faith.

In particular, the guidance of Fr. John Keble, who curated “Hymns for Little Children,” one of her collections, left a profound imprint on her work.

By the 1840s, she had gained recognition as a hymn writer, and her compositions found their way into the hymn books of the Church of Ireland.

Additionally, Cecil made contributions to Dublin University Magazine. She presented lyric poems, narrative pieces, and translations of French poetry, often using different pen names.

Life of Cecil Frances at Milltown House

Between 1825 and 1833, Fanny’s family resided at Ballykean House, near Rathdrum.

Then, in 1833, she moved to Milltown House, which was located just outside Strabane.

During her time there, she authored several Christian books, such as ‘Verses for Holy Seasons’ in 1846.

Another book, ‘The Lord of the Forest and His Vassals,’ a story meant for children, was published in 1847. She also wrote ‘Hymns for Little Children,’ first published in 1848.

Cecil Frances Alexander’s poetry holds high regard among English-speaking Christians.

Her work, ‘Hymns for Little Children’, went through an impressive sixty-nine editions by 1897.

This collection encompasses hymns covering baptism, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Furthermore, some of her hymns from ‘Hymns for Little Children’ have become popular and widely recognized by Christians worldwide.

These include ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away.’ The book also features her Christmas carol titled ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’

As the 19th century drew to a close, ‘Hymns for Little Children’ gained immense popularity, reaching its 69th edition.

In the preface, John Keble expressed his belief that the hymns contained within would ‘win a high place for themselves in the estimation of all who know how to value true poetry and primitive devotion.’

He further expressed that ‘certainly no writer for children has given us so many hymns that have won their way to the hearts of the young and found a home there.’

Charitable Work of Cecil Frances Alexander

Cecil Frances Alexander was a prominent figure in the great Victorian tradition of charitable work.

She dedicated much of her life to charitable endeavors aimed at aiding the less fortunate, particularly children.

She possessed unwavering determination and a deep-seated passion for educating children, especially those with hearing impairments.

In collaboration with her sister, she took the initiative to establish a school for the deaf and dumb in 1846.

This institution, widely recognized as the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, was funded by the earnings from her early publications.

This endeavor served as a testament to her commitment to the welfare of hearing-impaired children.

Furthermore, the proceeds from her acclaimed work, “Hymns for Little Children,” were generously contributed to the school she helped establish.

In 1850, she also went a step further by creating a charitable boarding school tailored to the unique needs of deaf children.

This initiative marked a significant stride in her unwavering commitment to their education and overall well-being.

Additionally, Cecil Alexander played a pivotal role in founding the Girls’ Friendly Society in Londonderry, fostering support for young girls in need.

Her benevolent efforts extended to her involvement with the Derry Home for Fallen Women.

Here, she worked diligently to offer support and guidance to those in need.

Furthermore, Cecil Alexander played a crucial role in the development of district nurse services, ensuring healthcare accessibility for the underprivileged.

She earned a reputation as an indefatigable visitor to the impoverished and the sick.

Cecil Alexander did all of this to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of those less privileged.

Marriage and Children

In October 1850, in Strabane, Cecil Frances Alexander married William Alexander, a fellow poet and an Anglican clergyman.

They established their home at Milltown House, Strabane, which is presently utilized as Strabane Grammar School.

Her husband, William Alexander, was a devoted follower of the Oxford Movement.

He later served as the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe and subsequently became the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

Not only was Bishop William Alexander an eloquent preacher, but he also authored numerous theological works, including “Primary Convictions.”

He is best recognized for his ability to craft dignified and animated verse and has written several books of poetry. His poems were gathered in 1887 in a collection titled “St. Augustine’s Holiday and Other Poems.”

It’s important to note that Cecil Frances was six years older than her husband, a fact that initially raised concerns within their families.

However, the couple enjoyed a harmonious marriage that lasted for 45 years, half of which was spent in Derry.

They had a daughter named Eleanor Jane Alexander, who, like her parents, was a poet and novelist.

In addition to Eleanor, Cecil Frances and William had two sons and another daughter.

Tragically, one of their sons, Robert Jocelyn Alexander, who was also a poet, lost his life when the RMS Leinster was torpedoed on October 10, 1918.

Death and Burial

Cecil Frances Alexander passed away at the Bishop’s Palace in Derry and was laid to rest in Derry City Cemetery.

Her husband, resting beside her, now rests in a grave lovingly restored by the Friends of St. Columba’s Cathedral in 2006.

Honor and Legacy

In honor of her memory, an Ulster History Circle commemorative blue plaque was revealed on April 14, 1995, at Bishop Street in the city.

In 1913, a beautiful three-light stained-glass window by James Powell and Sons was dedicated to her in the north vestibule of St. Columb’s Cathedral in Derry.

Financed through public contributions, this beautiful window pays tribute to three of her most beloved hymns: “Once in Royal David’s City,” “There Is a Green Hill,” and “The Golden Gates Are Lifted Up.”

Additionally, on the window sill, a verse from another one of her cherished hymns is inscribed: “Jesus Calls Us; O’er the Tumult.”

The Alexanders’ former residence in Strabane, known as Milltown House, was later transformed into Strabane Grammar School.

A plaque now stands in commemoration of their time there. The school, however, relocated in 2020, leaving behind this piece of their legacy.

Cecil Frances Alexander Work as a Hymnist.

The tradition of singing hymns in British churches was introduced from Germany in the 18th century by the Wesleyan Methodists.

While the clergymen were occupied with ministering to the congregation, it was the women who took up the task of hymn-writing.

Among them, Cecil Frances Alexander stood out as one of the most prolific hymn writers.

She composed around 400 hymns, many of which found their way into the Church of Ireland hymn books.

Numerous hymns by Cecil Alexander were featured in the Church of Ireland Hymnal and A Supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern.

They have maintained their popularity over the years.

In addition, her husband also published a collection of her poems in 1896, a year after her passing.

Cecil F. Alexander’s Contribution to Hymnody

Throughout her career, Cecil Frances Alexander penned approximately 400 hymns, and a significant number of them remain widely cherished.

Some of her notable compositions include:

  • All Things Bright and Beautiful.
  • At Nazareth in Olden Times.
  • Christ Has Ascended Up Again
  • Dear Lord, This Thy Servant’s Day
  • Do No Sinful Action.
  • Every Morning the Red Sun
  • For All Thy Saints, a Noble Throng
  • Forgive Them, O My Father
  • Forsaken Once, and Thrice Denied
  • From Out the Cloud of Amber Light
  • Golden Gates Are Lifted Up, The
  • Golden Gates Lift Up Their Heads, The
  • He Is Coming, He Is Coming
  • He Is Risen
  • His Are the Thousand Sparkling Rills
  • How Good Is the Almighty God
  • I knew a little, sickly child
  • In the Rich Man’s Garden
  • It Was Early in the Morning
  • Jesus calls us, Jesus calls us
  • Jesus calls us, o’er the tumult
  • Lord, the Holy Innocents
  • Son of God, in Glory Crowned
  • Once in Bethlehem of Judah
  • Once in Royal David’s City
  • Pain and Toil Are Over Now
  • Roseate Hues of Early Dawn, The
  • Saw You Never, in the Twilight?
  • Savior, Blessed Savior
  • So Be It, Lord; the Prayers Are Prayed
  • Souls in Heathen Darkness Lying
  • Spirit of God, That Moved of Old
  • Still Bright and Blue Doth Jordan Flow
  • There Is a Green Hill Far Away
  • There Is One Way
  • Thou Power and Peace
  • Up in Heaven
  • We Are but Little Children Weak
  • We Are Little Christian Children
  • We Were Washed in Holy Water
  • When Christ Came Down on Earth of Old
  • When Jesus Came to Earth of Old
  • When of Old the Jewish Mothers
  • When Wounded Sore the Stricken Heart
  • Within the Churchyard, Side by Side

Final Note

Cecil Frances Alexander, affectionately known as Fanny, left behind a remarkable legacy through her hymns, totaling around 400 in number.

Among her most renowned compositions are “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “Once in Royal David’s City,” and “There Is a Green Hill Far Away.”

These beloved hymns resonate with Christians worldwide and are still sung in churches today.

Beyond her hymnwriting, Fanny was deeply committed to charitable activities, particularly those benefiting children and the less fortunate.

She played a key role in establishing a school for the Deaf and Dumb, actively participated in the Girls’ Friendly Society, and lent her support to various charitable initiatives.

Fanny’s profound impact on hymnody and her unwavering dedication to charitable causes continue to be revered.

These endeavors solidify her as a lasting and influential figure in Christian history.

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