Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith: Hymns of the Faith: Once in Royal David’s City

by Bill Wymond, Derek Thomas, J. Ligon Duncan on December 2, 2007

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Hymns of the Faith

“Once in Royal David’s City”

A Presentation
of First Presbyterian Church



Dr. Ligon
Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, Dr. Bill Wymond

Dr. Duncan: Thank you, Bill Wymond. It’s good to be
with you and Derek again to talk about Hymns of the Faith. Good morning, Derek.
Merry Christmas!

We are looking at one of (at least here at First
Presbyterian Church)…one of our all-time favorite Christmas carols today. You
cannot hear the first lines of this hymn without either thinking of our music at
Christmas: what has been tradition for us for many, many years now, the “Lessons
and Carols from King’s College Chapel”. You can’t hear this without thinking of
that; or if you’re like you or me, you can’t hear this hymn without thinking of
the “Lessons and Carols” as they’ve been done for about a hundred years now at
King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, maybe listening on the BBC as the little boy
soprano sings the first line of this a capella and all by himself. It’s a
beautiful, beautiful tune; it’s a moving, evocative text; it has deep
associations with us in our minds with not only our celebration of Christmas,
but of a beautiful depiction of the poverty into which Jesus was born for our

Bill Wymond, why don’t you play this tune? There may
be folks in the listening audience who don’t have the associations with this
tune that we do, and they may not know the tune. But it’s a beautiful tune.

Dr. Wymond: [Plays hymn on piano.]

Dr. Duncan: Bill, tell us just a little bit about
the King’s College Chapel celebration. You’ve been there yourself and stood in
line and been in with the public to hear this gorgeous service done.

Dr. Wymond: Well, since about 1918, the King’s
College Choir of Cambridge has sung a “Lessons and Carols Service,” and that’s
simply a collection of nine Scriptures that talk about the prophecy of Christ’s
coming, and then the realization of that. And interspersed between these
Scripture lessons are carols and anthems. You alluded to King’s College’s
practice of having a boy soprano start off Once in Royal David’s City,
singing the first stanza of it a capella (that’s without accompaniment);
and the thing that’s interesting about it is — the legend is, anyway — that the
boy does not know that he is going to sing this until just a few minutes before
the choir processes in, and so he has to have nerves of steel as well as a good
voice, because literally millions of people around the world listen to this
service, and at certain times they have televised this also. And the Chapel has
wonderful acoustics. There’s a beautiful echo in there, and so when this little
well-trained voice starts singing this, it’s just an almost unearthly sound it’s
so beautiful.

Dr. Duncan: Bill…relatively small amount of seating
available in the Chapel, and so in order to get in you have to queue for some
period of time. How long did you have to queue?

Dr. Wymond: Oh, I think for about six hours!

Dr. Duncan: Six hours! How was the weather?

Dr. Wymond: The weather was not too bad. It was a
little cool, and of course it was gray and overcast, and the people in the line
were very jovial and joyful. People actually had picnic baskets, and so they
entertained themselves and me as well for the six hours, and it didn’t seem so
long. And the College first lets all the members of the College (the students,
the faculty, and other prominent people in the city of Cambridge) in, and then
whatever seats are left are given to the public. There are some several hundred
seats, so I think probably everybody got in. I know I did! The service is in the
afternoon. It’s about three in the afternoon, as I recall, and so you have a
wait in the morning from about nine to three, something like that, and it is
well worth waiting for, because that is the best choir in Cambridge, and
probably the best boy and man choir there is in the world, as far as I’m
concerned. And David Wilcox was their conductor at the time; it was his last
year there, so it was a great experience. But the music of this hymn was perhaps
a highlight.

Dr. Thomas: And Bill, it begins — what? — about two
octaves above where you were playing that?

Dr. Wymond: well, actually, it just sounds that way.
He actually does sing the melody right there, but he has a light, high voice and
so it sounds very high.

Dr. Duncan: And the music is written by Henry
, the tune and the arrangement of this, and he called the tune
IRBY. Is there anything you’d want to call
our attention to about the tune itself?

Dr. Wymond: Well, it’s a pretty tune! It is a
memorable tune. It’s a Victorian kind of tune, which means it has a certain kind
of sentiment to it. There are intervals in here and harmonies that make it
somewhat what we would call sentimental, but I don’t think it is overly
sentimental. It’s a melody that travels along pretty much step by step with just
a few reaches in it of about what we call a “fourth” in music, so there is
nothing particularly difficult about the melody. But it so suits the words, and
it also suits the category for people for which it was written. It was written
as a children’s hymn, and it’s singable by children I think, as well.

And I do like the fact that the composer, about whom
we don’t know very much — Gauntlett — started out his career as his father urged
him, as a lawyer. And he did this until he was about 41 years old, and then he
said, “I would like to pursue my avocation, which is organ playing.” And he did
that. Stopped practicing law and went into music full time, and we’re glad he
did! Because of this hymn, and because he had a good career of service to his
folk during that time as an organist.

Dr. Duncan: Derek, Cecil Frances Alexander, the
author of the text of this beautiful carol
, tell us about a little bit about
the background to the carol and to this remarkable hymn writer.

Dr. Thomas: Well, it’s yet another connection with
Dublin. I say that because Messiah, Handel’s Messiah, was first
performed in Dublin in 1742, and we’re about a hundred years ahead of that, in
the middle of the nineteenth century.

Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander, born in Dublin,
and to a fairly well-to-do family — a land owner and a Major in the Royal
Marines. And I’m somewhat not surprised. The discipline of this hymn and perhaps
the association of it with the “Nine Lessons and Carols” sort of fits that
military procession background. She had a tremendous love for children…had been
influenced at one point apparently by a child who didn’t like the Catechism, and
she wanted to write hymns specifically to help children better understand the
Catechism. Therefore this is technically a children’s hymn. She published a
volume in 1848, which is the date of this hymn, called Hymns for Little
. She would have been about thirty or so at that point, and she
dedicated it to her little godsons,

“…hoping that the language of verse may help to impress upon their minds what
they are, what I have promised for them, and what they must seek to be.”

And the collection actually included All Things
Bright and Beautiful
and interestingly enough, There Is a Green Hill Far
, which we don’t think of as a children’s hymn anymore.

She married a man by the name of William Alexander,
who later becomes the Archbishop of Amagh and Primate of all Ireland.

Now Amagh today of course is in Northern Ireland, the
division of Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland took place in the 1920’s…1927,
’28, ‘29. And we’re all familiar — at least I am — very familiar with the
politics of that. But this was before that. But the Archbishop of Amagh always
brings back memories to me because he bequeathed a piece of land just outside
Belfast which became a golf course, and a very fine golf course, on which the
Senior Open Championship takes place. And he bequeathed it on the grounds that
ministers of the gospel could play on that course on a Monday for nothing. Now
when I lived in Belfast, ministers had to pay roughly about $1.50 to play on the
golf course that was 125 years old, with oak trees that were 125 years old, on
which the Senior Open was played. So it was a beautiful, beautiful course.

But Cecil Frances Humphries Alexander — a great,
great lover of children, and had this wonderful marriage.

Dr. Duncan: She also wrote a number of other songs
that we sing. You’ve mentioned some of them: There Is a Green Hill Far Away,
being one of the songs that she has written. And when you realize that it is
written for children, you understand some of the choices of words that she

But take the first stanza of this hymn, Once in
Royal David’s City
. One hymnologist says that there is less theology, more
visualization, and some preaching on a child’s level in this particular hymn.
And you pick that up in the very first stanza, of

“Once in royal David’s city stood
a lowly cattle shed,

Where a mother laid her baby in a
manger for his bed:

Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.”

You can almost hear a Sunday School teacher teaching
children just the basics of the Christmas story so they know who the mother was,
who the baby was, where the city was, the connotations of that city of Bethlehem
(it was royal David’s city…King David’s city). And then you get a little more
theology in the second stanza:

“He came
down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all…”

There’s a very clear and unambiguous declaration of
the fullness of the deity of Christ, and even of the eternal deity of Jesus

“And His
shelter was a stable, and His cradle was a stall:”

There you see that jarring juxtaposition between the
person of Christ and the condition into which He was born.

“With the poor, and mean, and

Lived on earth our Savior holy.”

And so the celebration of Christ’s humiliation at the
heart of the wonder of the Christmas story is very beautifully and plainly and
clearly and evocatively put. Then we’re told — and here’s where, Derek, I think
you’re hearing that military discipline in the third stanza:

“Through all His wondrous
childhood He would honor and obey,

Love and watch the lowly maiden
in whose gentle arms He lay.

Christian children all must be
mild, obedient, good as He.”

And then I think that’s what you mean when you think of the
Major in the Royal Marines, you know: “You must be good, Cecil!”

Any reflections on the theology of that particular

Dr. Thomas: I think it’s interesting, you know, that
this is written in the early part of the nineteenth century when infant
mortality was extremely high. It still would have been, in the early nineteenth
century. And the phenomenon of teaching little children that she did, and she
later in life gave herself to establishing orphanages in Ireland…I think you see
that. And particularly the eschatology, the way the hymn looks forward in stanza
four to heaven, I think that that speaks very clearly to that. I was interested
in the “Bidding Prayer” — the opening prayer in the “Nine Lessons and Carols” —
which also was first written, you know, roughly about this time, which actually
mentions children:

“And let us this time remember in His name the poor and helpless, the cold and
hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind, and them that mourn; the
lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; and all who know not
the lovingkindness of the Lord. Let us also remember before God…” [and these are
beautiful words] “…all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in
a greater light: that multitude that none can number whose hope was in the Word
made flesh. And let us pray that we may be counted among that communion of
saints, receiving grace to offer unto God reasonable service, living in unity
and fellowship with all His people, and giving reverence to all that He hath

And there’s a…well, you know it borders on
sentimentality, which would be typical of the Victorian era, but there’s also…I
don’t see it as sentimental. I see it as a purity of thought in a very ugly and
cruel world, that many, many parents lost perhaps the majority of their children
during childhood. And there’s something about this hymn which seems to call upon
children to look to Christ, but also to have that hope and expectation that this
world is not the ultimate goal. It is the world to come.

Dr. Duncan: And speaking of that, as you’ve already
indicated, the last two stanzas do turn our eyes forward to what is to come. And
as much as I love the first stanza of this hymn, I think the last two stanzas
are among my favorite lines in all of hymnody:

“And our eyes at last shall see
Him, through His own redeeming love;

For that child so dear and gentle
is our Lord in heaven above,

And He leads His children on to
the place where He is gone.”

And you can hear the echoes of Jesus’ words to His
disciples in the Gospel of John, where He speaks of going to prepare a place for
them, and she puts it so beautifully:
“He leads His children on to the place where He is gone.”

Very appropriate for a children’s hymn, but of course very
appropriate for adults to meditate upon as well.

And then she muses on the manifestation of His

“Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing by,

We shall see Him, but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;

When like stars His children

All in white shall wait around.”

And when the music swells, and, Bill, you bring the
orchestra in, and the guy who’s over doing the various rhythm instruments is
tinkling something way up high — I’m not even sure what the instrument is, you
call tell me what it is…

Dr. Wymond: The glockenspiel…

Dr. Duncan: The glockenspiel! I love that sound,
when that all just swells up and the choir is belting this out! It’s
eschatological itself in the build up of the music, and you sense something of
the greatness of the final Day.

And so here you are. You’ve got Christ come down from
heaven in the midst of this lowliness and poverty, and then the song ends with
us contemplating the coming of our Lord and the displaying of him at the right
hand of God as the King of the universe. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful
Christmas hymn! And then you know, though the theology is simply put and though
it’s not packed, as we’ve seen some of the other hymns we’ve looked at so far
this year have just been packed, phrase after phrase with very profound
theological truths…these are profound theological truths, but relatively few of
them, put in beautiful language that evokes your memories of Christmas and
focuses your mind on the events of the first Christmas. I just love this tune!

Dr. Wymond: I love the tune of course, also; but I
like the gift that this lady has for taking the complex and hard to understand
and at least putting it in language that’s simple. And there’s a progress,
obviously, theologically that is nice, that you’ve been talking about. And I see
that in her other hymn, There Is a Green Hill Far Away. Someone told me,
and I know you know, that J. Gresham Machen, one of our good theologians from
the mid-twentieth century, thought that was one of the very best hymns.

Dr. Duncan: Right. It is interesting; she’s telling
a story in the hymn. Just like A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Luther’s
great hymn, really from stanza one all the way to stanza four it’s a story
that’s being told, and if you take out any of the stanzas it breaks up what the
story that’s being told…and this is told in a story form. And again, it’s so
appropriate for children. Derek?

Dr. Thomas: In the version that we have in our
Trinity Hymnal
, there is a verse that’s missing–the sixth verse (actually
the fourth, as it came originally). Following that line about “…Christian
children must always be mild, obedient, good as He.”

“For He is our childhood pattern,
day by day like us He grew.

He was little, weak and helpless;
tears and smiles, like us, He knew.

And He feeleth for our sadness,
and He shareth in our gladness.”

Dr. Duncan: The choir…your choir sings that line,
don’t they? You sing all the stanzas going into the sanctuary?

Dr. Wymond: That’s right. We do all six of those
stanzas, because we take the music from an arrangement by David Wilcox.

Dr. Duncan: Well, actually, don’t you think that
stanza actually helps that final line of the third stanza in our hymnal? Because
it puts a context on it that makes it more realistic. I mean, you get to the end
of stanza three…if you don’t have that stanza there you think, “Good grief! What
child can measure up to the obedience of Jesus?” And then there’s a realism to
that stanza, isn’t there?

Dr. Thomas: Well, I think last week when we were
talking about Away In a Manger (“no crying He makes”), this one says
“…tears and smiles like us He knew.”

Dr. Duncan: Very different! Even though written in
the same time frame — it’s the Victorian period; there’s a lot of sentimentality
about children, and no doubt that is connected to the infant mortality that you
spoke of, and yet this one is very, very realistic; and very, very helpful, I
think, to hear that particular assertion made.

We’ve been singing this song at the beginning of the
Christmas services at First/Jackson since the 1970’s, Bill?

Dr. Wymond: That’s right. Since about 1971.

Dr. Duncan: And so you’ve been doing Lessons and
Carols for 36 years, something like that?

Dr. Wymond: Yes, started at the age of four…..!

Dr. Duncan: Absolutely! I’ll be looking forward to
hearing it sung again this year, and to singing it myself a couple of times
during the Christmas season. Derek?

Dr. Thomas: I’m always impressed by the way — and
I’m on the edge now, speaking musically — but the way it begins with that treble
voice, as though depicting the infant voice of Jesus. But as it…and there’s a
processional feel to the melody line. You can almost imagine that…. Which comes
first, the chicken or the egg? Because we always imagine them processing down
King’s College Chapel. But then as the full choir comes in, there’s almost as
though you see the birth and growth of Jesus into manhood.

Dr. Duncan: …in the very depiction of the story of
the hymn. Well, let’s listen to it now, Bill.

Dr. Wymond: The Choir this morning singing Once
in Royal David’s City
will be the choir of the First Presbyterian Church
here in Jackson.

“Once in royal David’s city stood
a lowly cattle shed,

Where a mother laid her baby in a
manger for His bed;

Mary was that mother mild, Jesus
Christ her little child.

“He came down to earth from
heaven who is God and Lord of all,

And His shelter was a stable, and
His cradle was a stall:

With the poor, and mean, and
lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.

“And through all His wondrous
childhood He would honor and obey,

Love and watch the lowly maiden
in whose gentle arms He lay:

Christian children all must be
mild, obedient, good as He.

“For He is our childhood pattern,
day by day like us He grew.

He was little, weak and helpless;
tears and smiles, like us, He knew.

And He feeleth for our sadness,
and He shareth in our gladness.”

“And our eyes at last shall see
him, through His own redeeming love;

For that child so dear and gentle
is our Lord in heav’n above,

And He leads His children on to
the place where He is gone.

“Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing by,

We shall see Him, but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;

When like stars His children
crowned all in white shall wait around.”

Dr. Wymond: This has been “Hymns of the Faith”
brought to you by Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church. We wish you a good Lord’s

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