There is a green hill
by Cecil Francis Alexander 1818-1895
There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the 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.
It’s said that Mrs. Alexander wrote this hymn while sitting at the bedside of her sick child.
At the time she lived not far from the old walled city of Londonderry, where her husband was the Bishop. The sight of the massive town walls and the green hills beyond might well have inspired her to begin writing her well known passiontide hymn for children.
Cecil Frances Alexander was born at Redcross, County Wicklow, the second daughter of a British Army Major. She was a devout Christian who came under the influence of the Oxford [high Church] Movement. From an early age she showed a great aptitude for writing.
When she was just twenty five she published her Hymns for Little Children  with an introductory note by the celebrated Revd. John Keble. Dedicated to her ‘little godsons’ the book was written to illustrate and explain the Church Catechism. The hymnal also contained other well known hymns, among them, All things bright and beautiful and Once in Royal David’s City, written to celebrate the credal statements, Creator of heaven and earth and born of the Virgin Mary.
Two years after the publication she married the Revd. William Alexander. He was six years her junior and the marriage caused quite a stir within her own family. It is said that her father arranged, for the sake of propriety, for her birth date to be altered in the registers. [In some old hymn books her year of birth is given as 1823]. The two enjoyed a blissfully happy marriage and her husband later became Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh.
Her poetical works were much admired and came to the attention of Alfred Lord Tennyson. The composer Charles Gounod once remarked that There is a green hill was ‘the most perfect hymn in the English language because of its charming simplicity.... the lyrics seemed to set themselves to music.’ She is rightly regarded as one of the greatest of British women hymn writers.
There is a green hill was written to illustrate the words of the creed, ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.’ Mrs Alexander begins the first verse by painting a picture. As a skilled teacher she knew that her first task was to capture a child’s imagination. In the second line she originally wrote ‘without’ a city wall, but changed it to ‘outside’ to remove any ambiguity.
The second verse celebrates the mystery of the cross, ‘We may not know, we cannot tell....’ The passion of Jesus, though difficult to comprehend, is something he endured for us and for our salvation. This is celebrated in the next two verses, ‘He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good... There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.’ The noted New Testament scholar, Professor A. H. Hunter, once wrote, ‘It was given to an Irish woman, in a hymn she wrote for little children, to express better than many a learned tome the purpose, the necessity and the challenge of that sacrifice which has in principle redeemed our prodigal race.’ The hymn ends with a call for us to ‘love as he has loved us.’
Though written for children this is a classic hymn for young and old. It sets the scene of our Lord’s passion and celebrates the mystery, the purpose, the necessity and the challenge of the cross. It is usually sung to the tune Horsley, written by Willam Horsley [1774-1858].
Mrs. Alexander devoted her life to Christian education, to the care of the young and the poor. All the profits from the sale of her writings were donated to a home for deaf children. She was widely respected as a writer and many of her poems were published posthumously by her husband who survived her by sixteen years. She was buried in her beloved Derry, outside the city walls.