This page was created by Donal Hegarty.  The last update was by Alisa Clapp-Itnyre .

Sounding Childhood

We are but little children weak

No commentary on children’s nineteenth-century hymnody would be complete without reference to C. F. Alexander.  Her “We are but little children weak” was found in 18% of hymn books of my study, the highest occurring of her many hymns for children.  Though not published in her famous Hymns for Little Children (1848) (it was published in Dr. Hooks’ Sunday School Hymn Book [1850]), it still rose to prominence.  Its lines about “little children weak/ Nor born in any high estate” did not sit well with contemporary children, as one boy of the 1880s later complained in his adult autobiography: “If churchmen only knew the minds of children…they could never have compelled them to sing: ‘We are but little children weak’ … Little children are tough customers” (L. E. Jones, A Victorian Boyhood [1955] 26).  I would suggest that this hymn might have been misunderstood; indeed, Alexander exacts great work from children who have “much to do” (v. 1), to repress “thoughts of pride and anger” and “bitter words” (v. 3) and “offer smiles of peace and looks of love” instead (v. 5).  Moreover, a child may “fight a battle for our Lord” (v. 4) and, ultimately, “die for Jesu’s sake” (v. 1).  These are high expectations for children “so small and weak” (v. 6)!  The tune, “Alstone,” by C. E. Willing, was originally used in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861).

More discussion of this hymn can be found in Chapter 1, British Hymn Books for Children.

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