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Published Date: October 31, 2001

Published Date: October 31, 2001

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Like a River Glorious: Frances Ridley Havergal, 1836–78

Taken from Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns, by Evelyn Bence. Copyright © 1997 by Evelyn Bence. Used by permission of Zondervan. Bence, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, is a frequent contributor to Priscilla Papers. She is also the author of Prayers for Girlfriends and Sisters and Me (Servant-Vine, 1999).

Like a river glorious
Is God’s perfect peace,
Over all victorious
In its bright increase.

We are most aware of inner peace—its presence or its lack—in the midst of trial.

I expect that was true for Frances Ridley Havergal. A prolific British hymn writer, Havergal created poetic texts for the glory of God, but she also saw writing as her profession and livelihood. With great hopes of reaching a new market, she had signed a contract with an American publisher, but in January 1874 she received devastating news.

I was expecting a letter from America, enclosing the 38 pounds now due me, and possibly news that “Bruey” was going on like steam, and “Under the Surface” pressingly wanted. The letter has come, and instead of all this, my publisher has failed in the universal crash. He holds my written promise to publish only with him as the condition of his launching me, so this is not simply a little loss, but an end of all my American prospects of either cash, influence, or fame, at any rate for a long time to come.

Months later, another publishing reversal: a printer’s fire destroyed the only copy of a Havergal manuscript. She assessed the loss as a “winter’s labor” of which she had “not even a memorandum left, having sent everything to the printers.”

There may be no direct connection between one or both setbacks and the 1874 writing o f “Like a river glorious / Is God’s perfect peace.” But I suggest the link. After all, every event or experience is food for a writer’s imagination. Besides, aren’t we most conscious of peace when we walk through chaos?

Havergal’s underlying “peace like a river” image is biblical, appearing several times in the prophecies of Isaiah. I find one reference particularly interesting, as it is directly preceded by a description of God teaching his children the road to the riverbank. Here’s the complete picture:

I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river.

Did Havergal find peace in the midst of her trials? Yes. Her account of the failed American publisher continues: “Two months ago this would have been a real trial to me, for I had built a good deal on my American prospects: now ‘Thy will be done’ is not a sigh [a personal pain], but only a song!”

And here’s her take on the manuscript destroyed in the fire: “It may be that [God]has more to teach me… . He is giving me the opportunity over again of doing [the work] more patiently, and of making it the ‘willing service’ which I don’t think it was before.”

Here is a woman well on her way to “perfect peace”—what the Hebrews called “shalom shalom”— peace to the second degree. Isaiah 26:3 gives the promise: “You [God] will keep in perfect peace / him whose mind is steadfast, / because he trusts in you.” The peace is discovered, as Havergal found, as one learns to be

Stayed upon Jehovah, [where]
Hearts are fully blest;
Finding as he promised,
Perfect peace and rest.

Like Havergal, you and I may have more lessons to learn before we find the perfect peace that stills a heart in the midst of chaos or loss. But today we can take one step— choosing to stay our hearts and minds upon Jehovah, turn our eyes upon Jesus, the Prince of Peace.