October 3, 2009

All Things Bright and Beautiful

The liturgical calendar of the Book of Common Prayer lists Francis of Assisi on October 4. Tomorrow, my church will celebrate the life of Francis in a variety of ways, including our choir’s singing two Francis-related anthems. Among the hymns the congregation will sing is “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” I rather like “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” but the text, which was written for children by Cecil Frances Alexander, does get a bit too cute in places, particularly in the first verse:

Each little flower that opens,

Each little bird that sings,

He made their glowing colors,

He made their tiny wings.

The hymn opens with this refrain, which is sung after each verse:

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

Although it was surely not the writer’s intent, the hymn text indirectly raises a serious theological question. It is lovely to think about God’s having made birds, beautiful sunsets, and the fruits of the garden, but what about God’s responsibility for the less bright and beautiful elements of creation? In fact, this question becomes unavoidable to the twenty-first century reader who stumbles into the following, generally suppressed, verse of the hymn:

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

He made them, high or lowly,

And ordered their estate.

Most Episcopalians would cringe upon encountering this verse, which, unsurprisingly, does not appear in The Hymnal 1982. I don’t plan to offer the definitive essay here on the relation of God to creation or to solve the problem of suffering. It does seem to me, however, that “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and similar perky texts engage in a certain intellectual dishonesty. (Probably the same charge can be leveled against Christian education for children generally, but I’ll save that diatribe for another day.) What I will do here is offer some additional verses for the hymn in question to bring some balance to Mrs. Alexander’s text. I wrote these in about an hour, primarily to amuse my fellow choir members; I don’t claim that these verses are especially polished. Perhaps, however, they will inspire readers to write their own verses in this vein. My contributions:

E. coli and streptococcus,

And viruses causing the flu:

He made all these little buggers

Just to pester me and you.


The python and anaconda,

And all of those mushrooms that kill,

The shark and alligator

Are agents of God’s will.


Volcano, flood, and tsunami,

And meteors come from the sky:

They all are God’s creations,

Even though they may horrify.

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