Once in Royal David’s City

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Cecil F. Alexander, 1848
Alexander was a prominent Irish hymn writer and was devoted to social and charitable causes.

Though the hymn appeared in earlier hymnals, it became a Christmas tradition in 1919 when it became the processional hymn for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols service.

IRBY, Henry J. Gauntlett, 1849
Guantlett was a prolific English hymn composer who wrote over 10,000 hymn tunes. IRBY was first paired with “Once in Royal David’s City” in 1868.

Complete hymn history can be found by hymnologist C. Michael Hawn and Kristen Hanna at UMC Discipleship Ministries.

Text can be seen as controversial in it’s outright moralistic instruction to children, specifically in verse 3. Additionally, Hawn writes:

The hymn’s controversial nature comes from the language expressing the cultural patronizing of children during the Victorian era (words such as “little,” “weak” and “helpless” are ones found particularly appalling in a 21st-century context)… One could make a case that Alexander’s third stanza was more concerned with supporting Victorian child-rearing principles—children as submissive and “seen, but not heard”—rather than providing an accurate account of Jesus’ life. On the other hand, the child who is God incarnate surely felt the human and childlike feelings that all children face.

However, the hymn’s beauty reveals itself it the narrative contrast between Christ humbling himself in human form – in the “lowly cattle shed” – and his exaltation – “seated at God’s right hand on high.”

Hawn, C. Michael and Kristen Hanna. “History of Hymns: ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ serves as a processional hymn.’” Discipleship Ministries. The United Methodist Church. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Check out Sufjan Steven’s version of Once in Royal David’s City from his collection Songs for Christmas. It is a very clearly sung recording with unique instrumentation. Available to listen to for free on Spotify.

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