Music for the Fifth Sunday in Lent — March 26, 2023

There Is a Green Hill Far Away – Text: Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) / Music: William Horsley (1774-1858)

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Some say that Cecil Frances Alexander wrote There is a green hill far away – this Sunday’s final hymn in church – while sitting by the bed of a sick child. Others claim that the inspiration came from a grassy hill near her home in Derry that reminded her of Calvary. While both stories are of questionable provenance, it is certain that in these stanzas the author attempted to explain, in terms children would understand, the phrase “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” in the Apostles’ Creed. This is indeed the finest among the hymns Alexander wrote on the phrases of the Creed. Parenthetically, line 2 of stanza 1 originally had – and still does in The New English Hymnal – “without a city wall”; the author changed it to “outside a city wall” when she learned that children were puzzled by a green hill that did not have a city wall.

The customary tune to this hymn has always been called Horsley. It was found in Twenty-four Psalm Tunes and Eight Chants 1844, but no name was attached. Only in subsequent hymn books was the composer identified as William Horsley (1774-1858). The first appearance of this tune to There is a green hill was in the 1868 supplement to Hymns Ancient & Modern, although it was likely written sometime between 1798 and 1812.

There is a green hill far away,
without a city wall,
where our dear Lord was crucified
who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell,
what pains he had to bear,
but we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiven,
he died to make us good,
that we might go at last to heaven,
saved by his precious blood.

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin,
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.

O dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
and trust in his redeeming blood,
and try his works to do.

Gerald Harder