“Jerusalem the golden!” has a complex history, taken from a medieval poem by twelfth century monk, Bernard of Cluny and resurrected and translated in the nineteenth century by John Mason Neale as part of the Oxford Movement to bring back hymns of the ancient church. From his long poem, four hymns were made, “Jerusalem the Golden” being the most significant. Alexander Ewing composed the tune for a different part of Bernard’s work, but it was set to this text, to a different time signature (4/4, not 2/3), in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) (McCutchan, Our Hymnody 510-3). Biblical (“with milk and honey blest” v. 1) and beautiful (“bright with many an angel” v. 2), with the Prince presiding over all (v. 3), this hymn seems more of an adult’s fantasy of heaven; even the “jubilant song” is not attached specifically to children. The last verses further the connection to adults: “Strive, man, to win that glory/ Toil, man, to gain that light” (v. 3). Nothing in this hymn’s history or its text translation suggests it as a child’s hymn so it is stunning to find it in 22% of children’s hymnbooks. Neale appears to put his finger on the answer when discussing the tune: Ewing’s tune is “with children the most popular” which is “no small proof in my estimation of the goodness of church music” (qtd. in McCutchan 513). Indeed, its stately melodic lines that build in power in lines 2 and 6 of each verse are thrilling to sing.
More discussion of this hymn can be found in Chapter 6, British Hymn Books for Children.