Childrens’ Hymns

When I told a friend I was leaving to give a presentation to a group of women who sing in schools, she asked me if women wrote most of the hymns written for children. I thought a bit and it occurred to me that women did indeed write the bulk of the classic children’s hymns that I know of. Sure, men have written some great hymns originally meant for kids to sing, such as “Jesus Loves the Little Children” by C. Herbert Woolston and, believe it or not, “Onward Christian Soldiers” by Sabine Baring-Gould.

But it appears the bulk of children’s hymns were written by women. Why? In part, it may be due to the Sunday School movement begun in the 1780s to educate working children on their one day off from the factory. Sunday Schools then aimed to teach children the three Rs and knowledge of the Bible. Once laws established mandatory education and curtailed child labor, Sunday Schools continued with an even greater emphasis on the Bible and religious education. Most of the teachers were women. Many of the women in my book “Sisters in Song” were Sunday School teachers. Many compiled books of compositions for children. Those teachers in the beginning didn’t have the tools and helps that exist today, so they had to make their own lessons. This is illustrated by the experience of Nellie Talbot in rural Missouri. One week, she had the Sunday School teacher’s equivalent to writer’s block and couldn’t come up with a lesson. Finally in frustration with her own lack of creativity, she looked outside and said, “How can you say there’s nothing to teach when you have the sun and the sky and the trees and the flowers?” She went on to write “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”. Cecil Alexander wrote “All Things Bright and Beautiful” for her Sunday School class in addition to compiling her own collection in “Hymns for Little Children.”

Some mothers would write songs for their own children. The talented ones sometimes ended up with a popular published song. Lesbia Lesley Lockett Scott wrote “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” for her children to learn and sing on All Saints’ Day. It’s now a staple in the Episcopal Church.

Some women wrote for other media and the compositions became hymns. Anna Warner wrote novels. In her 1860 novel, “Say and Seal”, she includes a segment about a dying boy and his Sunday School teacher. The teacher sang a song to comfort the boy. That song must have gone viral by 1860 standards for it had become popular to people and soldiers on both sides on the Civil War. “Jesus Loves Me” is still a staple for children today.

Dale Evans’ medium was television. Her producer needed a children’s song for one of her TV episodes and asked her to compose a Sunday School song for a child to sing. In just a few minutes, she wrote “The Bible Tells Me So” and it made it to the Hit Parade for many weeks.

Who knows what will pop up in the future with the ever widening media outlets? It could be an exciting time for new children’s hymns.

A Tribute to Fathers of Hymnwriters (A Day Late)

No hymn writer of any gender works in a vacuum.  All carry the influence of others.  In going through the women I studied to date, there are some fathers who stand out, especially those who encouraged their daughters in an era when daughters were generally encouraged to stay home, marry, and produce children, not hymns or anything involving the intellect. 


Cecil Humphreys Alexander’s father, John, was a demanding officer in the Royal Marines.  Cecil was unsure of his approval, and so hid her writings under the carpet.  But when John Humphreys discovered them when Cecil was only nine, he made a box with a slot on top for her to place her poems.  He set aside Saturday evenings to read them to the family.  Thus, began the writing career of the writer of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, “Jesus Calls Us” and “Once in Royal David’s City”. 


Margaret Douroux, composer of “Give Me a Clean Heart” was the daughter of a Baptist pastor who made sure she performed as an accompanist in his church.  Margaret was exposed to many gospel singers at the home, including Mahalia Jackson.  So influential was he that she founded the Reverend Edward A Pleasant Publishing Company.


Frances Havergal’s father was so proud of her intellect that he called her “Little Quicksilver”.  She lived up to his assessment as a linguist, singer, and poet.  So often, we live up or down to the expectations of parents, and no doubt her father was a mighty influence in her life of accomplishment.


Like Margaret Douroux, Mahalia Jackson also began her career singing in her pastor father’s Baptist church beginning at the age of four.  So strong was his influence that she sang only sacred music.


Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher surely influenced the abolitionist fire in Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Yes, she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but she also wrote the hymn, “Still, Still With Thee”.


Daniel Webster Whittle was so sure of his daughter, May Whittle Moody’s talent that he collaborated with her in hymn writing.  She often helped him and Dwight Moody in their evangelistic campaigns.  One day in 1893, Daniel wrote the words to “Moment by Moment” and confidently gave them to her to write the music.  It is now a standard.


And Eben Tourjee, a famed music educator, organist and composer was proud of daughter Lizzie’s musical talent.  When she was only seventeen, she wrote the music we most commonly sing to “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy”.  When he became editor of the Methodist hymnal, he made sure to include her tune in the 1878 edition, naming the tune “Wellesley” after the school she attended.


There are many other stories of fathers who encourage and nurture their daughters’ talents, and so many go unknown and uncelebrated.  Let’s celebrate them today.  They know who they are.  Thank you all.