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The hymns not fit for children Powerless politicians inevitably drum up culture wars

A very British culture war. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

A very British culture war. Matt Cardy/Getty Images


December 19, 2023   6 mins

It should have been a formality. The education committee for Somerset had already approved Day School Hymns for use by teachers in the county; now all that Bath Council had to do was nod the thing through for schools in their city. But that didn’t happen. Labour councillors raised objections to some of the material included in the collection, and the resulting dispute propelled Bath to the frontline of a culture war about censorship and the political indoctrination of children.

This was — to avoid confusion — exactly 100 years ago, in December 1923. But the essential features of the controversy feel very familiar today. There was a Gadarene rush of commentators staking out their positions, and the views being expressed were exactly as they would be now. The key difference, to which we shall return, was the tone.

The thing that so upset Bath councillors a century ago was one of the most popular and enduring of children’s hymns, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, written by Cecil Frances Alexander — also of “Once in Royal David’s City” fame. The hymn is an inclusive celebration of God’s Creation: not the most sophisticated theme, but not a particularly contentious one either. And then comes the third verse:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate;
God made them high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

“Christ never meant children to sing such a verse,” protested one councillor: this was simply propaganda in support of the class system, the words clearly suggesting divine disapproval of socialism. They might have added that it was surely no coincidence that this reactionary attempt to shore up the status quo had first been published in 1848, the year revolutionary voices were being raised across Europe, as Marx and Engels were writing The Communist Manifesto. In case there was any doubt of where Alexander’s sympathies lay, exception was also taken to a verse in another of her hymns, “Day by Day the Little Daisy”:

God has given each his station;
Some have riches and high place,
Some have lowly homes and labour –
All may have His precious grace.

There had been criticism of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” before, and some schools elsewhere in the country had unilaterally chosen to omit the offensive words. But it was Bath that declared open season on the story. On the Left, Lady Clare Annersley — the socialist, pacifist, vegetarian daughter of the 5th Earl Annersley — said she was “horrified” by the verse; it would “have scandalised the prophets of the Old Testament”. James Adderley, a leading Christian socialist who was Rector of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, took a more performative approach: he would interrupt the singing of the hymn just before the offending passage, calling out: “Children, don’t sing the next verse, because it is a lie!”

From the Right came accusations that removing the verse would be a “mutilation” of the hymn, and that those who wished to do so were killjoys. The conservative press complained that these Socialists thought that “the Christian religion was inimical to the progress of their cause because it is aimed at making people happy and contented”. The charming innocence of a childhood favourite was being corrupted because “class hatred was being preached by certain poisonous sections of the community”.

The problem with starting down this path, some ruminated, was not knowing where it might end. “A great many hymns in school hymn books are not fit for children to sing,” said Dr Frank Ballard, a Methodist minister in Sheffield. “Fifty per cent of them are not fit to be sung in churches and chapels because they are not sensible.” And why stop at hymns? “What about Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson?” asked the Daily Express. “There is hardly a classic which would not be disembowelled by majorities and minorities.” Further still: “The agnostic might demand a revised version of the Bible on the ground that his feelings were hurt by being described as a fool.”

Then there were the facetious responses: really, who could afford a castle these days, what with income tax and supertax and death duties? And there were those who loftily dismissed the whole row as a tiresome irrelevancy. No one had sung that verse for 25 years anyway, wrote a Middlesex vicar to the Daily Mail: “Hymn books soon get out of date owing to a better understanding of social life and the different aspirations of the ages.” No one, however, could suggest any precedent for the censorship being proposed.

Besides, it was not as if the hymn’s suppression would do any good, observed a columnist in the Birmingham Gazette: “The banning of the verse will not eject any rich man from his castle, or give any poor man a permanent pass through the gate.”

And maybe, it was suggested, the Labour councillors were out of touch with the values and concerns of those they claimed to represent. The verse might be seen not as insult, but inspiration, a reassurance that the poor, too, were loved by God. “To me, as a working woman, it has been the greatest comfort,” said a Bath resident. She added: “I hope the poor man at his gate will not always be as poor, but I don’t think it will be brought about by dragging the rich man down to the poor man’s level.”

In the end, Bath council referred the matter to its own education committee, which — embarrassed by the national publicity — instructed schools to drop the verse. Elsewhere, in Nottinghamshire, there was a recommendation that it be retained, though only if accompanied by an advisory note that it could be omitted at the discretion of teachers. Complaints continued, however, and in 1939 the Church of England finally yielded to pressure and advised that the verse be removed, not because Alexander meant any harm by it, but because it was “open to misinterpretation”. They didn’t quite apologise if any offence has been caused, but they weren’t far off.

It was a mostly trivial episode, as any individual skirmish in a culture war tends to be, but it did illustrate the state of politics at the time. This kind of story proliferates when there is broad agreement on the big questions of government: the economy, tax and spending, international relations. That was the case 100 years ago, as a post-war consensus emerged.

The row in Bath came just days after the general election that produced the first ever Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald. It wasn’t exactly an electoral triumph, though. With barely 30% of the vote, an increase of just one point, Labour had 191 MPs – some way behind the 258 Tories — and was able to govern only with the informal support of the Liberals, and only on the assumption that it wouldn’t do anything that might be construed as socialism. No one had any great expectations and nothing much was delivered. All the talk of nationalising the railways and the coal industry had faded away, no concessions were made to the trade unions. The government didn’t last a year, and had little to show for itself, save the reassurance that Labour in office was not going to be red in tooth and claw. As MacDonald told the King, the Party had demonstrated that it was not “a band of irresponsible revolutionaries intent on wreckage and destruction”.

In the absence of real power, a marginal fight over a children’s hymn book provided a happy diversion from politics. Labour activists could take heart from making a principled stand for socialist doctrine, Tories could paint their opponents as inherently hostile to the nation’s culture and traditions, everyone else could get on with their lives. No one was hurt, and little was at stake. It was a very British culture war.

A century on, the treatment of such a story would be much the same, but with a level of bitterness that was not evident in 1923. The difference, perhaps, is the general acceptance then of the hymn’s central message: the wonder and harmony of God’s Creation. There was, despite the differences being voiced, a shared culture beneath the war. Now, the common ground is narrower.

And that perhaps reflects a much longer period of political stagnation. Ramsay MacDonald’s government had just ten months to disappoint his activists; Tony Blair had 10 years. There was an attempt, under Jeremy Corbyn, to redraw the lines on economic grounds but it failed, and — with little prospect of change — positions have become ever more entrenched.

But “All Things Bright and Beautiful” was part of that shared culture and, shorn of what one columnist called its “Victorian class-snobbery”, it remained a fixture in school assemblies for decades to come. It was even sung in radical institutions, such as the South Islington Socialist Sunday School — though they did, of course, rewrite the words:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
They shall be gone for ever,
Completely out of date.


Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.

AlwynTurner

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Doug Mccaully
Doug Mccaully
6 months ago

I remember going to school carol services as a 14 year old boy and having to sing the line ‘the swelling of the merry organ.’ Not fair, I’d certainly ban that.

William Perry
William Perry
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Mccaully

That may be down to a 14-year-old’s hormonally-influenced imagination. The text actually speaks of ‘the playing of the merry organ’, though no doubt a 14-yo could place certain interpretations upon that as well.

Doug Mccaully
Doug Mccaully
6 months ago
Reply to  William Perry

The version I sang was ‘swelling’ as a musical term. I wouldn’t have enjoyed singing ‘playing’ either.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Mccaully

Why not?

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
6 months ago
Reply to  William Perry

Dear William,

I think we can all be confident that if a14 year old Doug played his organ, it would also swell.

Merry Christmas all.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Mccaully

That’s hilarious!

RM Parker
RM Parker
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Mccaully

And let us tactfully pass over “the purple headed mountain” in “All Things Bright and Beautiful”


Derek Smith
Derek Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  RM Parker

I remember Spitting Image’s Mary Whitehouse puppet making a big deal of that!

Douglas H
Douglas H
6 months ago

Great article! Very enjoyable – thanks.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
6 months ago

I recall once in RE class at school they showed us a parody of that particular hymn made by an atheist. It was mostly just a list of all the animals he didn’t like. Including squid, for some reason. Certainly the strangest argument I’ve heard against the existence of a deity. “How could a just and ever loving God make squid?”

Cynthia W.
Cynthia W.
6 months ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

Squid are amazing. The giant squid, the colossal squid, Humboldt’s squid. If there were no squid, toothed whales would starve to death. If squid had longer lifespans, like more than five years, they’re smart enough to have civilizations.

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
6 months ago
Reply to  Cynthia W.

They taste good too with chilli & lime juice.

Amy Cools
Amy Cools
6 months ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

That was a Monty Python parody song:
All things dull and ugly / All creatures short and squat / All things rude and nasty / The Lord God made the lot.
Each little snake that poisons / Each little wasp that stings / He made their brutish venom / He made their horrid wings.
All things sick and cancerous / All evil great and small / All things foul and dangerous / The Lord God made them all.
Each nasty little hornet / Each beastly little squid / Who made the spikey urchin? / Who made the sharks? He did!
All things scabbed and ulcerous / All pox both great and small / Putrid, foul and gangrenous / The Lord God made them all.
I never saw this as an argument against the existence of a deity, per se. It just pokes playful fun, in a delightful way, at theodicy, or a sentimentalist form of Christianity that presents the pleasant and beautiful things in nature as proof of the existence of God while ignoring the unpleasant and not-so-beautiful things

Simon Tavanyar
Simon Tavanyar
6 months ago
Reply to  Amy Cools

Bravo! Not ‘ignoring’ per se, but the explanation of Life the Universe and Everything is likely to have a bit more to it than beautiful colours and tiny wings. Besides, people who mock the idea of God always mock a strawman ‘god’ who couldn’t logically exist, instead of the real God, who has declared himself to be knowable in our deepest intellect as well as our souls. The unmatched New Testament unlocks the spiritual door to that journey.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
6 months ago
Reply to  Amy Cools

Good ‘ole Monty Python! Love it.

RM Parker
RM Parker
6 months ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

As AE Houseman had it: “Malt does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to man”.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
6 months ago
Reply to  RM Parker

In the States we primarily recognize those lyrics from the “James Herriott” books and, moreso, the TV shows of yours we watched, about the veterinarians in rural interwar England.
For a long time, we assumed that vets all spoke in flawless BBC/RP English, and farmers mostly sounded like Ozzy Osbourne’s road crew.
And, speaking of malted beverages, that the local pub was basically an extension of one’s living room.

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
6 months ago

OK, now we’ve started on the subject … let’s all sing the 6th verse of the National Anthem & implore Marshal Wade to crush a few rebellious Scotts 🙂
Happy Christmas one and all

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

We were singing Hills of the North Rejoice in church on Sunday. For whatever reason, it has been so completely rewritten since the version I sang in primary school that it is basically the Ship of Theseus.

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

We sang it but I thought the words were those I sang at school. I didn’t need the hymn book. Unless I was belting out something different to everyone else. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Oliver Nicholson
Oliver Nicholson
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader
Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
6 months ago

As far as I know there are still rich men in their castles, some of which can literally rise into the air, and among the multitude of poor a few that still have gates to lean on. The next two lines could be read as resigned realism, or to create a rhyme, or simple nonsense. One should take culture seriously, but not necessarily its content.
There is little point in serious criticism of absurdity unless that absurdity is taken seriously. Even when it appears to be taken seriously, it may be only a consensual indulgence, such as the one we saw in May, though of course one should be vigilant.
I have a wonderful old 1891 copy of Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense. I haven’t checked it for content offensive to the modern self-conscious sensibility, but it makes no claim other than to be nonsense, albeit intelligent nonsense.
By the age of 14, I had concluded that the litanies and hymns of the Christian church were unintelligent nonsense (though had I encountered the ‘swelling organ’ I might have changed my mind – maybe some sharp-eyed teacher spotted that one). I wonder actually whether hymns are fit for anyone other than children.
As for what ‘Christ’ meant, or is supposed to have said, it’s been there in black and white for two thousand years, so there should be no room for dispute. But I struggle to find any connection between those stories and the pews, bells, smells, cassocks and candles in the photograph and in what it represents. It’s culture, an encrustation of time and trivia, and if the children sing, and the words go right over their heads, what harm is done?
This is traditionally a time of year for not taking absurdity too seriously.

Last edited 6 months ago by Nicholas Taylor
Simon Tavanyar
Simon Tavanyar
6 months ago

Begging your pardon, but hymns are not nonsense, at least not to the people who originally wrote and sang them. What may be nonsense is to sing something you don’t understand because the context and application have long since been forgotten. But in today’s comments, we just learned today that the reason for God not abhorring the Virgin’s womb had nothing to do with virgins or wombs or any other anatomy, but omniscient Creator God stooped from eternity to become a human fertilized egg, and yet that was not abhorrent to him. He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) save humanity from heaven, so he became human to begin the process of defeating evil on our behalf. That revelation, “God with us”, is what Christmas is actually all about.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Tavanyar

Begging your pardon, but having read your comment, i have doubts about your ‘nonsense detector’ – and you might wish to note my name isn’t Thomas.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
6 months ago

Of course, Hymns were originally written for Sunday School and children and were not sung as part of Christian worship.

Oliver Nicholson
Oliver Nicholson
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter Lee

The hymns of Mrs. C.M. Alexander were certainly written for children and were intended to illustrate clause by clause the elements of the Apostle’s Creed. So “All things bright and beautiful” illustrates “Maker of Heaven and Earth, “Once in Royal David’s City”illustrates “Born of the Virgin Mary”, and “There is a Green Hill Far Away” illustrates “Was crucified, dead and buried”. She covered the whole creed in this way

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

I remember singing that verse at my CofE primary school in the early 70’s so it wasn’t banned everywhere.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago

Many thanks to Alwyn W. Turner for this seasonal invitation to Unherd readers to vent their spleen about hymns and carols. So let me set the ball rolling. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Church of Scotland who regrets the Kirk’s drifting away from its traditional Bah Humbug stance on Christmas carols.)
There is no point in objecting to the lines stating that there are rich folk in castles and poor folk elsewhere. The dodgy bit (IMHO) is whether the assertion that this has been “ordered” implies that there should be no questioning of the status quo, even if the bloke in the castle is Blue Beard. More importantly, the words suggest that there is no point in aspiration on the part of the poor bloke. It is no wonder that the UK has 5 million people of working age not gainfully employed if such sentiments are generally accepted.
My least favourite line of a hymn is in ‘O Come all ye Faithful’: “Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb’. I have never been able to figure out a reason why anyone’s womb should be abhorred, though I expect some Unherd readers can assist with plausible-sounding explanations as to why some wombs are more abhorrent than others. 150 million years ago, our ancestors were egg laying until a retroviral infection settled into our ancestors’ egg cells. So did He cause the retroviral infection to give Himself something to abhor?

Last edited 6 months ago by Peter Principle
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

I like your style, PP. The only thing i could add would be to point out that if the Faithful were to “abhor the virgin’s womb”, they’d never Come.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

They are coming less and less. My church is about to be shut down. These days, the Church wouldn’t dare to abhor anything whatsoever, for fear of an accusation of being something-or-other-phobic.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

A different article on this site alludes to just such a fear what with the Catholics shifting views on same sex unions.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
6 months ago

Can we then hope that this is the beginning of the end of religion?

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
6 months ago

My least favourite line of a hymn is in ‘O Come all ye Faithful’: “Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb’. I have never been able to figure out a reason why anyone’s womb should be abhorred, though I expect some Unherd readers can assist with plausible-sounding explanations as to why some wombs are more abhorrent than others. 

I don’t know whether it is plausible-sounding, but my understanding is that this is pointing to the astonishing fact of the incarnation – the fact that God became man – and therefore did not abhor human existence. The reference to one particular womb rather than another is merely an allusion to the specifics of the story, which are known to most Christians. God might have been expected to abhor human existence, bound up as it is with sin, suffering, and death, but didn’t.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

I get that. But what what made a virgin’s womb less abhorrent? Would it not be even more astonishing if He had chosen any old womb, one that had had previous occupants? And why would God abhor human existence when He is its omniscient creator? That sounds to me like an anthropomorphization too far.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
6 months ago

Maybe it symbolises the radical break with the hitherto “normal” state of mankind?
Either way, there appear to be those with ears to hear, and others who are bewildered rationalists.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Ears to hear need to be used in conjunction with little grey cells, otherwise the result is a bewildered irrationalist.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
6 months ago

Indeed, it’s a balance of faculties, isn’t it.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Rationalism does not preclude a deeply spiritual approach to our existence, despite what it may be comforting for some to believe. Bewilderment would rather be the state of those who choose to trust in faith, should it then falter.

Oliver Nicholson
Oliver Nicholson
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

The Latin original of Adeste fideles names neither virgin nor abhorrence:
Gestat puellae viscera

Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

I like it. The whole second verse is an affirmation and restatement of the Nicene Creed.

William Perry
William Perry
6 months ago

It’s a reference to the Te Deum, which contains the line (in the Book of Common Prayer translation) “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man : thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb” (non horruisti Virginis uterum) – meaning that he did not fear (horreo) to be born as a human. There’s no implied contrast between the Virgin’s womb and any other womb – simply that the womb of which he was actually born was that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thuzbuz
Thuzbuz
6 months ago
Reply to  William Perry

Have learnt something. I also never understood this line. Thank you!

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  Thuzbuz

You could have got the info from the Wikipedia page on this subject.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  William Perry

Yes, but why does the Te Deum say that it was a virgin’s womb that was not abhorred. Why not wombs in general not being abhorred? I suspect it is related to the sick idea, dreamt up by the early fathers of the church, that original sin is transmitted from Adam and Eve through sex and childbirth down to the present day. They needed an excuse for mysogyny and that was the best that they could come up with.

William Perry
William Perry
6 months ago

With respect, you seem to be reading into it things which are simply not there. The reference to “the Virgin’s womb” (not, be it noted, just a virgin’s womb) is simply because his mother was the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why would it have gone off into a wider discourse on the nature of wombs in general? He did not fear, or dread, or shun (any of those or possible translations) birth from the womb of his mother, “the Virgin”. What’s misogynistic about that?

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  William Perry

I do not say “He” is mysogynist. I said that the early fathers of the church were mysogynist.

Ann Looker
Ann Looker
6 months ago
Reply to  William Perry

…and to clarify further the Te Deum (once known as the tedium to the children in our family) goes on to talk about Him experiencing the sharpness of death. So the human birth and death opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers. (Am off to rehearse Bizet’s version tonight. A pre-Christmas jolly)

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
6 months ago
Reply to  William Perry

It’s all so damn cryptic and open to interpretation. That’s why it gets co-opted by cults.

Michael Prueller
Michael Prueller
6 months ago

Interestingly, the original Latin version ,Adeste fideles’ only mentions that the viscera (womb) of the maiden had carried God from God, Light from Light (as a baby in her womb). In his popular traslation, Frederick Oakeley took – apparently for rhyming purpose – a sentence from the Te Deum: Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem, non horruisti Virginis uterum (when you resolved to save the human race, you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb). It is a way of expressing the wonder that the infinite God took it upon himself to become a restricted human being, that the almighty God became an helpless embryo. That the absolute ruler over the universe let himself be imprisoned in the tiniest space a human being can inhabit – the uterus – to free Man from Man’s self inflicted prison of sin. And the mention is of course of the Virgin Mary, not any unspecified virgin. But I understand that a schoolboys fantasy might be misled by the faintest possible allusion to sex. Maybe not only a schoolboy’s, as purity always attracts lewdness.
And please pardon my English, it is not my first language.

Last edited 6 months ago by Michael Prueller
Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago

So was it just a coincidence that she happened to be a virgin?
I am not sure who you are accusing of “lewdness”, but the word seems to fit the early father’s of the church who dreamt up the notion of how original sin is transmitted.

S Wilkinson
S Wilkinson
6 months ago

Prurience might have been a better word choice than lewdness.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
6 months ago

I suspect that ‘abhor’ had a slightly softer meaning at the time the hymn/carol was written. Perhaps ‘God was not distainful……’

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
6 months ago

Stuff and nonsense, the object of education is to encourage the young people to think for themselves.

Saul D
Saul D
6 months ago

Carols. Are they hymns or hyrs?

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
6 months ago

No wonder they never get past the first verse! I think the 2nd verse would be more appealing to my 14 year old aesthetic. We ought to print the whole lot on a big banner and take it on a tour of European cities – excluding Edinburgh unless you wish to have your ears nailed to a door – to see which ones have the greatest sense of humour.