North American Women Hymn Writers | CBE International

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North American Women Hymn Writers

In his book, Women Composers and Hymnists, Gene Claghorn lists 356 women hymn text writers who are North American. A few of the most outstanding are Julia Ward Howe (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”), Annie Sherwood Hawks (“I Need Thee Every Hour”), Mary Ann Thomson (“O Zion Haste”), Katherine Lee Bates (“America, the Beautiful”), Mary Lathbury (“Break Thou the Bread of Life”), and Margaret Clarkson (“So Send I You”).

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” lived from 1819 to 1910 in New York. Her talents became apparent when she was still young, for she learned several languages and was musically gifted. She contributed articles in magazines before she was seventeen; by the time she was twenty-one, a volume of her essays and poems had been published.

In 1843 Julia married Dr. Samuel Howe, head of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. During the Civil War, Dr. Howe was an officer of the Sanitary Commission. In the autumn of 1861 Mrs. Howe, her husband and several other officers visited the Army of the Potomac. On the way back to Washington the road was filled with infantry. As their carriage passed among the soldiers, she heard them singing popular songs of the day including “John Brown’s Body.” One of the officers turned to Mrs. Howe and remarked, “Why do you not write some good words to that stirring tune?” In her own words she describes the experience of writing the hymn:

I went to bed that night as usual and slept according to my wont quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses down lest I fall asleep again and forget them.” So with a sudden effort I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness and old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper—I feared to have recourse to a light lest I should wake the baby, who slept with me.

The Atlantic Monthly published “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1862, and in the North it became the greatest of the Civil War songs. The hymn was used again during World War I and has found its way into practically every American hymnal.

Annie Sherwood Hawks

Another American woman wrote the prayer hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour.” Annie Sherwood Hawks (1835- 1918) was born at Hoosick, New York. She contributed poems to newspapers when she was only fourteen years old. After her marriage to Charles Hawks and while raising three children, she lived in Brooklyn. Her pastor at the Hanson Place Baptist Church, Dr. Robert Lowry, encouraged her to keep writing, since he was also a hymnist. Of her 400 hymns, “I Need Thee Every Hour” became the most popular.

In 1872, an experience of God’s presence with her was the origin of this hymn. While at home, busy with the tasks of ordinary housework, she explained that the rooms around seemed to be like the house of God and the gate of heaven. Years later she wrote these words:

I was so filled with a sense of nearness to my Master that wondering how one could live without him in either joy or pain, these words, “I need thee every hour” were flashed into my mind. . . . Seating myself by the open window in the balmy air of the bright June day, I caught up my pencil and the words were soon committed to paper, almost as they are being sung now.

The verses were given to her pastor, Robert Lowry, who composed the tune and added the refrain. Their hymn was first published in a little pamphlet of hymns for the National Baptist Sunday School Convention held in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1872. The hymn soon found its way into Sunday School hymnbooks and then into present day church hymnals. Now, singing these words helps many Christians through times of discouragement, sorrow and suffering.

Sometime after composing this hymn, Annie herself experienced deep suffering which may have been caused by the death of her husband in 1888. Later she wrote,

It was not until years after, when the shadow fell over my way, the shadow of a great loss, that I understood something of the comforting power in the words which I had been permitted to give out to others in my hours of sweet security and peace.

After her husband’s death, she lived with her daughter in Bennington, Vermont, until she died at age eighty-two.

Mary Ann Thomson

Missions were strong in the nineteenth century. A hymn emphasizing missions is “O Zion Haste.” Mary Ann Thomson (1834-1923) gave voice to her vision in this text, recalling the church to its “high mission” of consolation and redemption.

The daughter of an Anglican priest and native of London, she married John Thomson, the first librarian of the Free Library of Philadelphia. She wrote more than forty hymns, which were first published in “The Living Church of Chicago” and in “The Churchman” of New York City. Four of her hymns appeared in the Episcopal Hymnal of 1894.

“O Zion Haste” was born after a mother’s fearful experience as she watched all night by the bedside of her feverish child. The realization came to her of the widespread evil of suffering, but also of the comfort always available in the enduring spirit of Jesus. Full of force and beauty, the hymn keeps a good balance between stateliness and enthusiasm.

Katherine Lee Bates

“America, the Beautiful” was written by Katherine Lee Bates who, in 1859, was born at Falmouth, Massachusetts into a clergy family. After graduating from Wellesley College, she taught high school English before returning to Wellesley as an instructor in English literature. In 1891 she became a full professor at Wellesley and remained in that position until 1925. She received an honorary degree from Wellesley and also a doctor of literature degree from Middlebury and Oberlin colleges.

Miss Bates’ first book of poems was published in 1887, only seven years after her graduation from college. Her approximately two dozen books include poetry, lectures, children’s stories, and travel records. She also edited many volumes of various classics in English and American literature.

Katherine Bates was one of a group of Eastern professors invited to teach in the new summer school started by Colorado College. On her trip to Colorado, her first journey West, she had a glimpse of the great far-stretching fields of golden grain. In a journal of the National Education Association she relates how her friend took her to the great Chicago World’s Fair, whose “White City” (set in beautiful green gardens) made strong appeal to patriotic feelings. She admits that this view was in large degree responsible for at least one stanza of “America, the Beautiful.” “It was with this quickened and deepened sense of America,” she writes, “that we went on, my New England eyes delighting in the wind-waved gold of the vast wheat fields.”

Before Katherine left Colorado she joined a group going up to Pike’s Peak. They rode in a prairie wagon part way up and on mules the rest of the way to the top. When she reached the peak, although tired from jiggling all the way up, she gazed in awe over the wide expanse of mountain ranges and described the experience as “... wordless rapture. Then and there, the opening lines of ‘America, the Beautiful’ sprang into being.” In Colorado Springs that evening, she wrote the hymn out, and put it in a notebook. There it stayed, forgotten for two years until, in 1895, she sent it to a Boston publisher who printed it that same year.

After Katherine retired from teaching she became Professor Emerita. She died at her Wellesley home March 28, 1929. In her writing Professor Katherine Bates reminds us of the richness, beauty, and greatness of our country, where God may “shed his grace.”

Mary Lathbury

Mary Lathbury (1841-1913) was the author of two well-known hymns, “Day Is Dying in the West” and “Break Thou the Bread of Life.” Several members of her family were Methodist ministers, including her father and two brothers. Her birthplace was Manchester, New York.

In the 1870s, the Methodists began a two-week summer camp meeting at Lake Chautauqua near Jamestown, New York. Through the years this gathering has broadened to continue through the summer and include cultural, literary and spiritual activities. In 1877, a few years after she helped to found Chautauqua, Mary Lathbury served there as private secretary for Bishop John H. Vincent.

Mary taught art at schools in Vermont and New York, and also became involved in Christian work as well as writing. She recalled later that in her youth she heard God’s voice encouraging her:

Remember my child that you have a gift of weaving fancies (words) into verse and a gift with the pencil of producing visions that come to your heart: consecrate these talents to Me as thoroughly and as definitely as you do your inmost spirit.

Miss Lathbury liked to paint pictures of children, and in 1898 a popular book she wrote for children called The Child’s Story of the Bible was published. She was assistant editor of several papers and founded a club for children called “Look-up Legion,” which attracted more than 4,000 boys and girls to the Church. Frances E. Willard, the Christian temperance leader and women’s advocate, wrote of her, “She had a high courageous faith, a loyalty to the best ideals, and devotion to the truth that gave inspiration to all with whom she came in contact.”

At Chautauqua in the summer of 1877, the bishop asked Miss Lathbury to write two hymns, one for a Bible study and one for a vesper service. As she sat beside the beautiful lake she prayed for guidance with regard to her assignment. She thought of the five thousand at Galilee and prayed, “Dear Lord, break thou the bread of life to me as thou didst break the loaves beside the sea.” Thus the words of her Bible study hymn poured forth. Later, as the sun began to set over the lake, she felt moved to write the first two stanzas of the vesper hymn, “Day Is Dying in the West.” Later she became known as “Poet Laureate of Chautauqua.”

The tunes for Lathbury’s texts were also composed at Chautauqua by the director of music, William Fisk Sherwin (1826-1888), who was lovable, witty and devout. Sherwin was a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Another Christian musician, George Stebbins, was there when “Day Is Dying in the West” was first sung. Describing the experience, he wrote,

On Saturday evening in August, about two thousand people gathered on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. On the water near the shore was a boat in which were the professor and I. About this central boat were thirty other little boats filled with men, women and children. It was a beautiful scene and a very impressive sight as we sang this lovely hymn together.

The two stanzas of Mary Lathbury’s “Break Thou the Bread of Life” make it one of the shortest hymns in the English language. Its seventy-one words take about seventy-five seconds to sing at a moderate tempo. The phrase “beside the sea” suggests the place where Jesus was and where the hymn was first sung. “The bread of life” gives the purpose of the Bible study, which is to be spiritually fed. As we sing this hymn we think of Christ our Living Word, who is just as present with us today as he was many years ago in Galilee.

Margaret Clarkson

A twentieth-century hymn writer, Margaret Clarkson, was born in Canada in 1915. She has written hymns of quantity and quality. Her first hymn “We Come, O Christ, to Thee,” was written for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and published in their first hymn book. “So Send I You” and “Declare His Glory” are among her popular hymns.

For thirty-eight years she taught elementary school in Ontario. She has published hundreds of poems, articles, songs and sketches as well as seventeen books in seven languages.

Miss Clarkson says that hymn writing is her response to her encounters with God in the pages of the Bible. It has been her lifelong compulsion to express herself in poetry, because God gave her “a singing heart.” Donald Hustad, Billy Graham’s former organist, writes of her:

Many churchgoers would echo their own gratitude because of the songs she has set ringing in their hearts, teaching them sound doctrine and expressing their joyful worship of God.

By knowing the lives of these six women hymn writers who had singing hearts, we can sing more meaningfully. In suffering and song these women authors have written about the God of creation, the Christ of redemption, and our consecration to God’s work and worship.

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