“I think, when I read that sweet story of old” was THE most frequently anthologized children’s hymn of my study, not surprising when Charles Nutter and Wilbur Tillett call it “perhaps the most popular of all modern hymns for children” (Hymns and Hymn Writers 355) and Erik Routley includes it as one of 24 significant children’s hymns of all times (A Panorama of Christian Hymnody 126). The only hymn written by Jemima Thompson Luke to become popular, she tells of hearing the tune, a Greek air, while helping at an infant school in London, then was inspired to write the words a few days later; it was published later in 1841. The tune, Salamis, is a cheerful tune often in G or A major, with high leaps into the upper register, making it appropriate for children’s young voices. In 188.8.131.52 meter, it provides a longer rhythmic meter allowing for more words per line. Luke appropriately uses a dactylic meter which further emphasizes the marching. Based on Matthew 19:14, about Jesus bringing the children to Him, the first verse reflects wistfully on that moment with many physical images of Jesus’ touch, the singer wishing that “his hands had been placed on my head,” that “his arms had been thrown around me” and that the child “had seen his kind look.” The second verse, though, is a reminder that the child may still go “to his footstool in prayer” and that she will “see him and hear him above.” Ultimately, “many dear children shall be with him there,” acknowledging both His grace and also that that place in heaven is not for everyone. The third verse, added later “to make it a missionary hymn” (Luke qtd. in McCutchan 440) and included in some (Golden Bells) but not all hymn books (e.g., Juvenile Harmonist), makes clear who may be left out: the unbelievers of other lands: “But thousands and thousands who wander and fall/ Never heard of that heavenly home.” It thus becomes the province of the child to mission to them: “I should like them to know there is room for them all” and to “long for that blessed and glorious time…/When the dear little children, of every clime/Shall crowd to his arms and be blest.” It is a fine example of Victorians writing with children in mind, a hymn which, sadly, has lost its currency in today’s hymnals.
More discussion of this hymn can be found in Chapter 3, British Hymn Books for Children.