British 19th Century Children’s Hymns

In today’s society, hymns, when they are still sung at all, are primarily sung in church, or church-related activities (camps, etc.), and they are usually sung as the entire congregation, of all ages.  Pop music dominates what children sing on their own, even what might be sung in schools and at home.  In the nineteenth century, in both England and America, folk songs and popular music existed but what children—of all classes—would sing on a daily basis were hymns: they sang them at home, they sang them at the church-sponsored schools, they sang them at the public (boarding) schools, later they sang them at the national schools.  Yet this culture of children’s hymn-singing has not been studied thoroughly.  My study stems both from my personal love of hymn-singing, as a youth and now as an adult, and from my two areas of scholarship—Victorian aesthetics and children’s literature—as they converge into a study of Victorian children’s hymnody.  It focuses primarily on the situation in England and spans the entire nineteenth century.  It is based on three research trips to England, as I delved into archives and libraries for extant hymn books for children of the era, and amassed an incredibly large bibliography of over 200 hymn books.  Placing their indices into an Excel database, I began to determine the most commonly appearing hymns in these hymn books.

From this research of nine years, I consider children’s hymns from many different disciplinary angles, from children’s literature to 19th century hymnody.  The results are a book published by Ashgate Publishers (2016): British Hymn Books for Children, 1800-1900: Re-Tuning the History of Childhood, with the following chapters:

  1. Creating Communities of Song: Class and Gender in Children’s Hymn-Singing Experiences;
  2. Re-Writing the History of Children’s Literature: Three Periods of Children’s Hymnody;
  3. Erasing Child-Adult Distinctions: “Crossover” Children’s Hymn-Texts and Tunes;
  4. Staging the Child: Agency and Stasis for Children in Art and Hymn-Book Illustrations;
  5. Reforming Society:  Missionary, Bands of Hope, and Bands of Mercy Hymns; and
  6. Resurrecting the Child: The Cult of the Deathbed, Hymns of Faith, and Children of Life.

In my analysis of these various hymn venues I make the following claims:

  1. Hymns challenge and empower children, placing deep theology and rich poetry within the grasp of children.
  2. The music is just as powerful, and perhaps even more inspirational at times, as the text, making hymns for adults with engaging tunes very popular in children’s hymn books.
  3. Victorians offered hymns to children as a way that those children could impact the world around them, in missionary work, temperance work, and even animal welfare (temperance leagues for children were called Bands of Hope and animal-welfare organizations were called Bands of Mercy).

I invite you to purchase the book at

My daughter, Annetta Itnyre, grew up during the writing of this book, accompanying my husband and me to England all three times and learning quite a few of these hymns.  Then, in June 2015, with immense help from my colleague Dr. Jessica Raposo, director of music at Indiana University East, I auditioned for and created a “Hymn Camp” for 18 children grades 4th through 8th grade to learn some of these hymns.  For a week, Jessica taught them about 17 hymns which we then recorded at the end of the week.  It was inspiring to see children of today become as excited about hymns as I imagine many nineteenth-century children becoming!  

On this accompanying website, sponsored by my home School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indiana University East, therefore, you will find the following: below, a chart of the “top 30” children’s hymns of the era, with date of composition and most commonly used tune name.  Linked there, or also on a separate page of top hymns listed alphabetically, you can go to find my analyses of each of these hymns, though much more is said in a larger context in the book whose relevant chapter(s) is given.  Then, thanks to these children from the Hymn Camp, my daughter, and two of her friends, you can click links to audio versions of these hymns as sung by children.  You can also view the score of the hymn as taken from nineteenth-century children’s hymn books that I own.  Finally, you will note a credits page which lists all these many talented children as well as the adults who helped. Immense credit must be given to Dr. Gregory D. Weber who, as computer instructor at IU East, spent his summer 2015 creating this website.  It is thanks to him and these many other people that I may share the joy of children’s hymn-singing with the world.  Enjoy!

     Dr. Alisa Clapp-Itnyre
     Professor of English,
     Indiana University East

30 Selections from the Top Ranking Hymns for Children

In the following table, "No." is the hymn number, in order of popularity; "Pop." is the popularity of the hymn (percentage of 100 19th-century children's hymnals surveyed). The title of each hymn is linked to a page with more information about the hymn: interpretation, audio recording, hymn text and musical score.

No.Pop. (%)TitleDateAuthor of textTune (composer if known)
146I think, when I read that sweet story of old1841Jemima Thompson LukeGreek tune
243Awake, my soul, and with the sun1674Thomas Ken"Morning hymn"
342Sun of my soul, Thou Saviour dear1827John Keble"Hursley"
441From Greenland’s icy mountains1823Reginald Heber"Missionary Hymn" by Lowell Mason
540Hark! The herald angels sing1739Charles Wesley"Berlin" from Mendelssohn
638There is a happy land1843Andrew Young"Happy land"
733Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty1826Reginald Heber"Nicea" by J. B. Dykes
833Rock of Ages, cleft for me1776Augustus Toplady"Redhead" by Richard Redhead
931All hail the power of Jesus’ name1779Edward Perronet"Diadem" by James Ellor
1031Glory to Thee, my God, this night1695Thomas Ken"Tallis’ Canon"
1129Abide with me, fast falls the eventide1847Henry Francis Lyte"Eventide" by Wm. H. Monk
1229I sing the almighty power of God1715Isaac Watts"Washington"
1326Nearer, my God, to thee1841Sarah Flower Adams"Horbury" by J. B. Dykes
1425Around the throne of God in heaven1838Anne Shepherd"Glory"
1525Great God, and will Thou condescend1810Anne and Jane Taylor"Holley" by G. Hews
1625There’s a Friend for little children 1859Albert Midlane"Children’s Friend"
1724Gentle Jesus, meek and mild1742Charles Wesley"Innocent"
1823Here we suffer grief and pain1832Thomas Bilby"Joyful"
1922Christ the Lord is risen today1739Charles Wesley"Easter Hymn"
2022Jerusalem the golden1861John Mason Neale"Ewing" by Alexander Ewing
2120Hushed was the evening hymn1857James Burns"Samuel" by Arthur Sullivan
2218We are but little children weak1850C. F. Alexander"Alstone"
2316Once in Royal David’s City1848C. F. Alexander"Irby" by H. J. Gauntlett
249Jesus, Lover of my soul1740Charles Wesley"Hollingside" by J. B. Dukes
258I love to tell the story1866Katherine Hankey"Hankey" by Wm. Fischer
267Jesus bids us shine1881Susan Warner"Little Soldiers"
271Father, in high heaven dwelling1896unknownMusic by W. Jackson
281One day, dear children, you must die1862unknownMusic by John B. Dykes
291Voice of the Helpless (Band of Mercy)1897Carlotta PerryMusic by L. B. Marshall
301Lift aloft our banner (Band of Mercy)1897Thomas Timmons"Battle Hymn of the Republic"
311There is a happy time (Band of Hope)1861unknown"Happy Land"
The Children's Hymn Choir