The nineteenth-century secular women’s movement paved the way in many countries for more women’s education, writing, and publishing. The church also benefited by this escalation of women in leadership; many Christian hymnbooks printed material by women for the first time.
Revivals and church renewal movements contributed to the outburst of inspiration for women to reach higher ideals and intellectual achievement. Preceding the period of women hymnwriters, the eighteenth century experienced the Wesleyan groups breaking away from the Church of England, “societies” which later became the Methodist denomination. Their leader John Wesley worked with his brother Charles, who provided the music for their evangelistic meetings.
The Wesleyans emphasized a personal experience of accepting Christ as Savior. They became more subjective in their worship, as opposed to the more objective Anglicans. Consequently their hymns emphasized the life-saving aspect of Christianity.
A large number of English women hymnwriters were associated with the “evangelical wing” or “evangelical side” of the Church of England. This group was influenced by the Wesleys, but did not want to break from the Anglican tradition.
Such a hymnwriter was Charlotte Elliott, who wrote what has been called the world’s greatest soul-winning hymn, “Just As I Am.” The most popular and the first of one hundred fifty hymn texts she wrote during her literary career, it has been translated into nearly every language.
Charlotte Elliott was born in Clapham, England in 1789, a year after Charles Wesley died, and lived for eighty-two years. Even though her life was long she lived most of it as an invalid because of a serious illness which struck her at age thirty-two. Her life was transformed after she met the evangelist Cesar Malan, with whom she corresponded for forty years.
Much of her poetry appeared in Hymns for a Week, which sold forty thousand copies. She published other books, and for twenty-five years (1834-1859) she edited a periodical called Christian Remembrancer Pocketbook where she contributed many of her own hymns.
“Just As I Am” was written in 1836 when she was forty-seven. Her minister brother was raising funds to help Mary’s Hall, Brighton, a college for the daughters of poor clergymen. A bazaar was held for this purpose, and all the Elliott family were busy preparing for it. Charlotte was awake most of the night before the bazaar feeling sad that, because of her crippled condition, she could not contribute. During the day of the bazaar, while she lay useless on her couch, she remembered the words of the evangelist, Cesar Malan. He had urged her to give her heart to Christ and become a Christian worker. At first she resented this suggestion, although later she responded, “But I do not know how to find Christ.” The preacher said, “Come to Him just as you are.” As she thought about that conversation she wrote “Just As I Am.”
This hymn was first published in The Invalid’s Hymn Book (1834), which she edited. One woman admired it so much that she reprinted it in leaflet form, evidently without the author’s name. A copy came into the hands of Charlotte’s physician, so one day he gave it to her thinking it might comfort her. To his surprise he discovered he was giving the hymn to its author.
Her brother seemed overwhelmed by the popularity of her hymn as he commented, “I hoped to have been permitted to see some fruit of my labors, but I feel more has been done by a single hymn of my sister’s.” He was right After her death over one thousand letters of appreciation were discovered among her papers.
Frances Ridley Havergal
Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879), another prominent English writer and musician, was born in Worcestershire where her father, William Havergal, was a rector. Her mother died when she was four. One of her very familiar hymns is “I Gave My Life for Thee,” written when she was eighteen. Four years earlier she had given her life to Christ through the influence of a special Christian school. Her father, who was a musician and hymnwriter as well as a clergyman in the Church of England, influenced her greatly. He wrote melodies she wanted to be used with her hymns, but even though he had a book of hymn tunes published, the hymnal editors overlooked her request. In 1930 a study of twenty-five hymnals in England and America discovered fourteen different tunes in use for her hymn “Take My Life.”
Frances was exceptionally talented and intelligent, memorizing vast portions of Scripture from an early age. Her father called her “Little Quicksilver.” She became a linguist, speaking Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, and also excelled musically as a composer, singer and pianist who was noted in her day for her performance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” But instead of a concert career she turned to her high ideals of service for God. She spent her time writing hymns, letters, leaflets and books. She taught Sunday school, planned and led religious meetings, and delivered public addresses. Although she must have taken time for some recreation since she admits in one of her books that she liked to hike and ski in the Swiss Alps, nevertheless the work she felt was demanded of her gradually broke her health and wore down her spirit. She commented once that she hoped “the angels would have orders to let her alone a bit when she first got to heaven.”
She said concerning her poems, which filled six volumes with over 65 hymns, that they came to her without effort. “Writing is praying with me, for I never write a verse by myself... I ask at every line that God would give me not merely thoughts and power, but also every word, even the very rhymes.” Once, when her hymns were sung at a service where she was present, she remarked, “I was so overwhelmed on Sunday at hearing three of my hymns touchingly sung in Perry Church. I never before realized the high privilege of writing for the great congregation.”
Her hymns included: “Lord Speak to Me,” “Like a River Glorious,” and “Who Is On the Lord’s Side.” A volume of her writing, Poetical Works, was published in 1884. Two devotional books which came from her pen were Kept for the Master’s Use and Royal Commandments and Royal Bounty. The Ministry of Song was published after the death of her father in 1870. Following her own death, a fund was collected to publish and circulate her work.
Sarah Flower Adams
Another hymn writer, Sarah Flower Adams, was born in Harlow, England, in 1805. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Sarah was small and later, when she was twenty-four, her father died. She went to live with the family of a man who edited the magazine Monthly Repository, and soon she began writing for it.
About 1837 the dream of her heart came true, a dramatic role as Lady Macbeth, which she hoped would begin a career in drama. Instead, she suddenly developed ill health and was forced to give up the stage. She next tried writing and created a long poem, “Vivia Perpetua,” on the sufferings of the early martyrs. In the poem Vivia’s conversion to Christianity symbolizes the author’s own devotion to the high ideals which inspired her life.
Sarah’s sister, Eliza, was also in poor health. They worked together on hymns, and were always close friends; when Sarah married and moved to London her sister followed. Their pastor there asked Sarah and Eliza to help him compile a hymnbook (published in 1841); the sisters contributed thirteen texts and sixty-two new tunes.
When the pastor asked Sarah what he could use as a closing hymn for a sermon about Jacob, Esau and Jacob’s dream, the poem “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was her answer. Three years later this hymn was introduced in America. Sarah wrote many other poems, as well as a catechism entitled The Flock at the Fountain.
When Eliza became very ill with tuberculosis Sarah nursed her and caught it from her. Sarah died at forty-three in 1848, just one and a half years after Eliza died.
All who knew Sarah Adams personally spoke of her with enthusiasm. In her days of health she was high-spirited and playful, with a charming personality. She has been described as a woman of singular beauty and attractiveness, delicate and truly feminine. Many thought her remarkable.
These early women hymnwriters had the courage to use their talents as God directed and inspired them, and left us a legacy of their love as we continue to pray and sing the words they wrote that draw us nearer to God in worship.
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Johnson, Guye. Treasury of Great Hymns and Their Stories. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1986.
Julian, John, A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Dover Publications, 1957.
Marks, Harvey B. The Rise and Growth of English Hymnody. New York: Fleming H. Revel], 1938.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1982.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1985.
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Smith, H. Augustine. Lyric Religion: The Romance of Immortal Hymns. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1931.
Smith, Jane Stuart and Carlson, Betty. Favorite Women Hymn Writers. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990.