History of Hymns: 'Jesus' Hands Were Kind Hands'
By Leanne Seabright
“Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands”
By Margaret Cropper
The United Methodist Hymnal, 273
Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all,
healing pain and sickness, blessing children small,
washing tired feet, and saving those who fall;
Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all.
© 1979, Stainer & Bell, Ltd. (Admin Hope Publishing Company)
Margaret Cropper (1886–1980) was born in Kendal, Westmorland (now Cumbria). She was the fourth of five children and raised in the Quaker faith. Interestingly enough, the county of Cumbria claims to be the “birthplace of Quakers,” also known as the Religious Society of Friends.
In 1900, Cropper served as a Sunday-school teacher, and then became a superintendent of a Sunday kindergarten around 1925 in a town near Kendal. Perhaps the tenets of her faith were influential not only in guiding children, but also in empowering young women. She was involved with the Girls Friendly Society (GFS), a charitable organization still in existence today that was established in 1875 through the support of the Anglican church to “protect working-class country girls who left home to take up urban employment” (Girls Friendly Society, n.d.). Margaret Cropper wrote pageants for the girls to perform, such as The Glorious Ranks—A Pageant with Scenes in Mime (1926) (Bartie et al, 2020, p. 154). She has been hailed as one of the leading “Lake poets”—poets from the Lake District in England—of the twentieth century, following in the tradition of the nineteenth-century “Lakes School” that included William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey.
In addition to writing hymn texts, Cropper was known as a poet, playwright, author of prayers for adults and children, and writings on other religious topics. She wrote both secular and religious plays, including The Nativity with Angels (1934) and Christ Crucified: A Passion Play in Six Scenes (1942). As a poet, Margaret Cropper published various collections between 1914 and 1932, and in 1958, her Collected Poems was published. Cropper’s books on religious topics include three separate books on seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century Anglican saints published in 1949, 1955, and 1963, respectively. She also penned the biography of her good friend, Evelyn Underhill, Life of Evelyn Underhill (1958). Underhill was a prolific writer on mysticism and living a spiritual life.
Children’s hymnody has, thankfully, evolved since some of the earliest hymn texts written by Isaac Watts in this genre. Watts’ collection, Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715), focused on nature, including the well-known hymn, “I sing the almighty power of God.” Other poems alluded to everyday life in the country or city, and still others were moralistic verse, admonishing children in a frightening way for misbehavior. The eighteenth century saw language for children’s hymnody range from intentionally expecting children to rise to the level of an adult, to hymnody being a vehicle for teaching the Christian year. In 1848, Cecil Frances Alexander was one of the first to successfully communicate in a simple yet wholesome way with her collection, Hymns for Little Children.
The nineteenth century saw an expansion of general literacy, an increase of singing in schools, and greater availability of hymnbooks, leading to more prevalent usage of hymn texts in school music lessons. It was out of this environment that Margaret Cropper first compiled a collection titled, Hymns and Songs for the Church Kindergarten (1939), which includes “Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands.” In the early 1900s, there was a shift away from sentimentality in hymnody for children, and Cropper’s collection was considered more suitable for small children. Margaret Cropper compiled these hymns, specifically for preschool-aged children or those entering school, to be “so simple that a little child from the simplest home can sing it and understand it” (“Children of God,” 2015, n.p.).
Following World War II, two important hymn collections for children were published, The School Hymn Book of the Methodist Church (1950) and Sunday School Praise (1958). “Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands” was included in both collections, and The School Hymn Book of the Methodist Church contained three other hymns by Cropper in the section “Hymns for Younger Children.” These collections sought hymn texts on topics considered more appropriate for children. The goal was to avoid not only sentimentality as well as any preoccupations with death and the afterlife—characteristics of Victorian hymns of the previous century. Cropper’s second collection, Hymns and Songs for Children (1963), was composed of selections with very small children in mind.
The text “Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands” (ca. 1926) is beautifully crafted as a way for children to learn the stories of Jesus. The first stanza begins with the title words, “Jesus’ hands were kind hands,” and continues with “doing good to all”—stressing the ethical ministry of Jesus. Cropper then begins to list the good works Jesus did, beginning with “healing pain and sickness,” a general reference to the many stories of healings performed by Jesus. The next phrase “blessing children small,” the story of Jesus welcoming children to bless despite the disciples’ discouragement, can be found in the synoptic gospels. The selfless act of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet just before the Passover festival and the night before he will die is reflected by the phrase “washing tired feet,” from John 13:1–15. The final phrase of stanza one is “saving those who fall,” possibly taken from Psalm 37:24, “though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand” (NLT) or Psalm 145:14, “the Lord helps the fallen and lifts those bent beneath their loads” (NLT).
The second stanza extends the image of Jesus’ hands to our hands becoming kind hands too. This stanza serves as prayer of petition on the part of the singer, asking Jesus to take “my” hands and “let them work for you,” until our hands are kind hands too. We ask guidance in serving others following Jesus’ example. Our “hands’ become symbolic for the many ways in which we can serve in the world. The petition is for our hands to become strong, gentle, kind and quick to work.
“Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands” was first set to the French folk tune AU CLAIR DE LA LUNE in The School Hymn Book of the Methodist Church (1950). The four 4-bar phrases of the melody, in 2/4 musical meter, follows the same rhythmic pattern in each phrase. Cropper’s lyrics follow a trochaic meter overall with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable with the exception of “kind hands,” two strong syllables. The song’s melodic patterns are similar in their repetition and simplicity. The first, second, and fourth phrases are the same melody employing only three notes—do, re, and mi—in the key of F major.
“Au clair de la lune” (“By the light of the moon”) is a well-known French children’s folk song that dates back to the eighteenth century. According to an interview with a group of twenty women averaging in their mid-to-late seventies and eighties from Charleston, South Carolina, on singing practices following the publication of The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), Don E. Saliers recorded a comment from one of the women that hearing children singing “Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands” in the Sunday morning service “caused her to immediately begin humming it at home” (Saliers, Canterbury Dictionary, n.d.).
According to Hymnary.org, in addition to The United Methodist Hymnal, “Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands” can be found in twenty-seven hymnals, including Voices United of the United Church of Canada (1996), the Korean-English Presbyterian Hymnal Chansong gwa yebae (2001), and Worship & Rejoice (2003). Margaret Cropper’s hymn has crossed denominational boundaries, and although originally intended for children, is enjoyed in worship by all ages.
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_____, “Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands, Doing Good to All,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jesus’-hands-were-kind-hands,-doing-good-to-all (accessed March 12, 2021).
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Leanne Seabright is Director of Music and Worship Ministries, Northway Christian Church, Dallas, Texas. She holds degrees from the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati (B.M.E.) and Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University (SMU) (MM in Choral Conducting). She is a student in hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel, Director of the Sacred Music program, Perkins School of Theology, SMU, where she plans to enroll for a Master of Sacred Music.
Bible verses marked NLT are from the New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.