Posted by: rcottrill | December 2, 2013

Once in Royal David’s City

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Words: Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander (b. Apr. _____, 1818; d. Oct. 12, 1895)
Music: Irby, by Henry John Gauntlett (b. July 9, 1805; d. Feb. 21, 1876)

Wordwise Hymns (Cecil Frances Alexander)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: This hymn was written in 1848, and the tune for it was composed the following year by accomplished church organist Henry Gauntlett. (Irby is the name of a village in Lincolnshire, England.) As with a number of Mrs. Alexander’s hymns, this one was written to explain a part of the Apostles’ Creed to children–specifically the words: “I believe…Our Lord…was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.”

CH-1) 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.

F or more than six hundred years, the phrase, “Once upon a time” has been the traditional way to begin stories. It is represented at the beginning of Mrs. Alexander’s hymn by the word “once.” She is going to tell a story, and she identifies the main characters in the opening stanza. There is Mary, the mother, and Jesus, her child. Then, like many such stories that end with “And they all lived happily ever after,” the author concludes her hymn with a happy scene:  the children of God gathered around the exalted Christ in the eternal kingdom.

Scripture doesn’t say that Christ was born in a cattle-shed (CH-1), or stable, “with the oxen standing by” (CH-2, 6), but it’s certainly possible there were animals nearby. A manger is mentioned. And since they went to the inn (Lk. 2:7), there may also have been shelter there for the animals brought by travelers–either to ride on or carry their belongings. But the hymn writer is not simply concerned with rehearsing the actual events. She wants to teach some moral lessons as she presents the person of Christ.

The hymn teaches Christ’s eternal preexistence. He is “God and Lord of all,” who came to this earth to dwell among “the poor, and mean, and lowly” (CH-2). (“Mean” is used in the sense of low in rank, not to mean nasty and malicious.) As a child, He became for boys and girls “childhood’s pattern” (CH-4). The Bible says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Lk. 2:52), and was obedient to his parents (vs. 51).

The third stanza has elicited howls of protest in our post-Freudian era. Children, so the belief of some is, must be free to express themselves, not inhibited by rules. But the Bible teaches otherwise, and Mrs. Alexander has something worthwhile to say:

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

Christ not only did what was right, always. The author reminds us that He is able to sympathize with us in our struggles, since He was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).

CH-4) For He is our childhood’s 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.

Finally, the author turns her attention to the future. Through the “redeeming love” that took Christ to Calvary to pay our debt of sin, He is able to “lead His children on to the place where He is gone.” And we can rightly broaden the use of the term “His children” to include all those who have become part of the family of God, through faith, and the new birth. Shining brightly like the stars, with the glory of heaven (Dan. 12:3), these the saints will gather around the Lord, robed in white (Rev. 7:9-10; 19:7-8).

CH-5) 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.

CH-6) 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;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

1) What makes this carol superior to Away in a Manger (another children’s carol) as a teaching tool?

2) How could you help to make Christmas more meaningful, spiritually, to children?

Wordwise Hymns (Cecil Frances Alexander)
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Christian children all must be
    Mild, obedient, good as He.

    Post-Freudian we may be but ever since I could read to sing this hymn as a child, these two lines have been my promise to God that I’ll try harder this next year. Silly huh?

    Just wanted to say that as I was putting together our Cathedral Carol Service this year, trying as ever to make it meaningful and inspiring for the congregation, I have been dipping in and out of your posts about the meaning etc of the hymns I was considering. I found your words very useful and I thank you. I rarely comment on your posts but I read them and am interested. As I teach in a Church school I also find myself sometimes using information gleaned from you when explaining the meaning of hymns to the school children as I wholeheartedly believe that children should understand the words they are singing. I’m sorry I don’t let you know this more often, but you are providing this teacher and Church organist with a valued resource.

    • How delightful to hear from you, and learn of another way someone is putting the material to use. I was adding up, roughly, the other day: I’ve written blogs on over 500 hymns (not all posted as yet), articles in the almanac section of the blog on about a thousand hymn writers and their songs, plus another 700 newspaper articles on hymns, and several books (only one in print, to date). It does mount up!

      Glad to hear you’re finding the material useful in a church school. I taught some of it to grade 7 and 8 children in a Christian school some years ago. Parents reported later how much more their children were getting out of the worship services of the church. God bless you in your work, and Merry Christmas.


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