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Christian Biography

F. R. H.—Her Life and Work

by W. M. L. J.

Frances HavergalAstley, Worcestershire, England, is a quiet inland village, too small to be found on any but a county map, too like scores of its neighbors to require a detailed description. It lies on the bank of the Severn, sheltered by the picturesque Malvern Hills; its chief charm, to American eyes, being the light mould of antiquity that still clings about it, despite some fresh breezes of modern innovation. It has divers quaint, weather-beaten cottages, an ancient manor, and traces—or, at least, traditions—of an "alien priory," founded in 1160. The church, dedicated to St. Peter, is low-roofed and ivy-grown; its square, battlemented, Saxon tower reckons its age in centuries, yet is sound and hearty still. Here William Henry Havergal, poet and musician as well as priest, faithfully ministered to his small rural congregation for more than twenty years; and in the adjacent rectory, so pleasantly sequestered amid its vines and flowers and overshadowing trees, he wrote sermons, hymns, and music, and reared six active, clever children,—the youngest of whom was Frances Ridley Havergal, born December 14th, 1836.

As seen through the loving recollections of friends, she was a child of rare grace and beauty; fair-complexioned, sunny-haired, with an expression at once sweet and vivacious. In spite of her extreme mental precocity—as shown in reading easy books when three years old, and beginning her first manuscript book of verses at seven—she was full of life and spirits, winning the pet names of "Fairy" and "Little Quicksilver" by her lightsome grace and agility, and distinguishing herself no less in wild tree-climbing and wall-scaling than in picking up German from lessons given in her hearing to her older brothers and sisters.

Though generally sweet-tempered and affectionate, she was by no means the model child of the goody-goody story-books; she says of herself that she "utterly abominated being 'talked to,'" and would "do anything on earth to escape" kindly-meant admonitions, unhesitatingly adducing any slight scratch or bruise as a reason why she could not possibly kneel down to be prayed for. As she grew older, she had frequent fits of unhappiness and penitence, called forth by a sermon, a book, or, more frequently, by a lovely bit of nature: for, reversing the usual order, she seems to have been more sensitive to the influences of natural beauty in early than in later life, or she became so much more sensitive to others that these appeared weak in comparison. The skies and clouds were like friends to the impressionable, imaginative child; golden light, swaying boughs, and shadow-mottled grass always touched and subdued her: a distant hill-top, seen between smoke-begrimed walls, furnished ample foothold for a whole legion of thoughts and fancies: albeit she utters a whimsical complaint that these inanimate creatures often reminded her of their Creator with an almost irritating pertinacity! It is as well that few children look so deeply into a landscape, or are disturbed by such solemn voices.

She early decided that to be a Christian was the most desirable thing in life, even while taking a "sort of savage joy" in her own perversity, and despairing of amendment. But an unconquerable reserve withheld her from any disclosure of the deeper, gentler moods that now and then filled her young heart with dimly-comprehended pain; she fancied that she "could as soon speak Sanskrit" as utter a word about them to any human being. By reason of this reserve, she was often misjudged—all the more that her natural buoyancy of temperament allowed her to pass quickly from an agony of weeping in her own room to a merry burst of laughter or a sudden light-heeled and light-hearted scamper up and down stairs. "Among the best gifts of God to me," she says later, "I count a certain stormy-petrelism of nature, which seems to enable me to skim any waves when I am not actually under them."

In 1845, Mr. Havergal, having received an appointment to the Rectory of St. Nicholas, and become a canon of the Cathedral, removed to the City of Worcester. Here Frances, when scarcely ten years old, began the charitable and missionary labors with which so large a space in her after life was to be filled, by teaching a Sunday School class of still younger children, and organizing herself and a favorite playmate into a "Flannel Petticoat Society." The story of this whole period, its occupations and interests, trials and enjoyments, is pleasantly told in "The Four Happy Days," one of her few published books for children:—seldom does an author take her material so directly from her own heart and life.

There is also in existence a fragment of autobiography, which deals almost exclusively with inward struggles and difficulties, and gives a singularly clear picture of the thoughtful phases of a child's mind. The tender, self-tormenting conscience; the scornful overlooking of home examples of goodness for those farther off and less known; the unreasoning expectation of being set right and made happy as quickly as a turn of the hand substitutes one kaleidoscopic figure for another; the vain attempt to force reluctant trains of thought into heavenward channels by pious ejaculations which neither come from, nor penetrate far into, the disquieted heart; the refusal to accept aught but certainty and perfection at an age when faith and immaturity are alone possible; all these touches are inimitable in their life-likeness and suggestiveness. At the same time, it is easy to see—what the discouraged young penitent was slow to discover—that the divine paradox, "Work out your own salvation"—"for it is God who worketh in you," was only getting its necessary illustration in her person.

But nothing in the autobiography itself gives so vivid a conception of its writer's instinctive habit of reserve, and of the strong contrast between her outward carelessness and inward disquietude, as the fact that it was written to prove to an elder sister, upon occasion, that her childhood was not without its softer, soberer side; its thoughts, if not deeds, of grace! This fact is especially worth noting, in connection with the frank and free way with which she spoke of her spiritual experiences in after years, when persuaded that such frankness might be helpful to others. Plainly, it was not a grace in herself, nor a gift to them, which cost her nothing.

Unlike most home-petted girls, she was "delighted" to go to boarding-school, first in England, afterward in Germany. At the former, without attempting to fix any date of conversion, she began to "have conscious faith and hope in Christ;" at the latter, she found the indifference, not to say enmity, of her foreign schoolmates to religion "very bracing," forcing her to keep careful watch over herself lest any slip or failure should bring discredit on her profession. Under the stimulating influences of new scenes, a foreign language, and unaccustomed methods of instruction, her mind developed rapidly, as shown by some curiously mature reflections on leaving school, always a momentous epoch in a young girl's life. Yet she did not make the common mistake of thinking her education finished, but threw herself with enthusiasm into an advanced course of study, under the supervision of a German "Pastor." In truth, she had a life-long thirst for knowledge, which she strove to slake at every available fount within her reach. Early or late, she studied—in most cases mastered—French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; in Wales, she learned enough Welch from her donkey-girl to be able to join intelligently in the Sunday services; at the sea-shore, she was eager for nautical information; she taught herself harmonics by reading a chapter from a "Treatise" at night, and mentally working out the exercises on her pillow; during an Irish expedition, it was noticed that she was less interested in studying the scenery than in discussing Hebraic lore with an eminent scholar of the party; at the same time, she was content to seat herself side by side with the smallest children of the Vicar's Bible Class, and often afterward referred to the pleasure and benefit derived from his teachings. Like every true lover of knowledge, she was as generous to impart as diligent to acquire, and all through her life gave lessons to those who, by reason of one disability or another, were unable to command professional instruction. How diligently and systematically she "searched the Scriptures," can only be understood by those who have seen pages of her Bible—so crowded with lines and cross-lines of reference and annotation as to be well-nigh unintelligible to other eyes than her own, though done with the perfection of neatness—a characteristic, by the way, of all her work. Her musical and literary manuscripts were beautifully clear and correct, and must have been the delight of editors and compositors; most remarkable of all, her needlework was equally perfect, "from the oft-despised darning to the most delicate lace and embroidery."

Returning to England, and ripening into womanhood, she naturally became the object of much social attention and admiration. Portraits taken of her at this time show a singularly attractive figure and face; the one slender and graceful as a flower-stem, the other fresh and bright as the flower itself. An acquaintance still keeps green the memory of their first meeting :

"In a few seconds Miss Frances, carolling like a bird, flashed into the room! Flashed! yes, I say the word advisedly, flashed in like a burst of sunshine, like a hillside breeze, and stood before us, her fair sunny curls falling round her shoulders, her bright eyes dancing, and her fresh sweet voice ringing through the room...I sat perfectly spellbound as she sang chant and hymn with marvelous sweetness, and then played two or three pieces of Handel, which thrilled me through and through...One felt, all the time, that there must be the music of God's own love in that fair singer's heart, and that so there was joy in her face, joy in her words, joy in her ways."

Seeing her at once so charming and so gifted, one feels how fortunate—nay, how providential—was her early environment. It would have been so easy for her to become the petted darling of society, or the flattered leader of a coterie, without nobler motive for action, nor higher measure of attainment than the gratification of the passing moment; yet, so far as we can judge, she was never greatly tempted by this sort of ambition. The influences of her home were all of a counteractive tendency, and were helped by her intellectual tastes and culture. That she did not wholly escape les défauts de ses qualités may be inferred from occasional references to the power of worldly friends and lamentations over the inroads of worldly pleasures. Life, on the whole, was a very enjoyable thing to her; she drank eagerly of the full, sweet, exhilarating cup, and only now and then stopped to think of the dregs at bottom, to listen to the old, wailing, rebuking inner voice that would not leave her quite alone, but continually stirred her up to new longings, new seekings, new strivings after the higher, holier life of her dreams and her desires. What if also to new failures, new discouragements, new faithlessness? The wave that climbs the shore ever slides back again, and its effort seems to have been in vain; yet the tide rises! Slowly, surely, one by one, the rocks, the wrecks, the seaweed and the slime, sink out of sight, and the rejoicing sea rolls its victorious waters unhindered, unbroken, over them all.

From her father, who declined the chair of music at Oxford, Miss Havergal inherited such decided musical talent that she at one time thought of making it her life-vocation, being encouraged thereto by Hiller, whose judgment she sought upon her works. Her touch upon the piano was not only technically free and brilliant, but "instinct with soul;" and her voice had that sweet and sympathetic quality which satisfies both the critical and the uncultured ear. She was an acceptable solo singer in charitable and philharmonic concerts, choirs, and private entertainments; she wrote songs and hymn-tunes, adapted to her own words and those of others; she acted as organist, at need; she trained missionary and voluntary choirs; she assisted in the editing of the hymnal, "Songs of Grace and Glory;" and, after her father's death, she took up his unfinished work, preparing "Havergal's Psalmody" for the press, and contributing to its contents. She could play from memory all of Handel's music (in which she especially delighted), and much of Mendelssohn's and Beethoven's. Her rendering of the "Moonlight Sonata" was pronounced "perfect:"—how she attained to such perfection is told in her poem of the same name, which, like all her works, is largely autobiographical.

Her first consciousness of the power to create melody and harmony, as well to interpret them, seems to have lifted her a little off her balance; she says that she forgot the Giver, and found such delight in the gift that "other things paled before it." She also alludes to the "delicious delusion" of public applause; but in better moments she prays that the gift of song may be withdrawn if it is really a snare and a hindrance, that she "may be made white at any cost." In good time the prayer was answered, not by withdrawing the gift, but by enabling her so to consecrate it to the Master's service that she could write:

"Literal 'singing for Jesus' is to me, somehow, the most personal and direct commission I hold from my beloved Master; and my opportunities for it are often most curious, and have been greatly blessed; every line in my little poem, 'Singing for Jesus,' is from personal experience."

Often, when asked to sing, she sent such songs as Mendelssohn's "Woe unto them," "The Lord is mindful of His own," or Handel's "Comfort ye," "Rest in the Lord," ringing through crowded drawing-rooms with such power and pathos that all sounds were hushed, all hearts touched, and many sought the singer to learn, if possible, the secret of their musical and spiritual effectiveness. "I prefer to sing Scripture words," she once explained, "because He did not promise that our words should not return to Him void."

Few persons will need to be told that such thorough self-consecration, such willing self-effacement for God's glory, was not leached all at once, nor by rapid and easy stages. Signal success is rarely won except through loss and failure. The soul's shapeliest temples rise on sites strewn with the ruins of earlier erections; their materials, like those of certain old-world churches, have been wrought over from walls once dedicated to pagan gods. That Miss Havergal knew how to suffer intensely, profoundly, womanly, from other than spiritual causes, is plain to all who can "read between the lines" of even her published works. There are references to "transgression of the first great commandment of the Law;" to the deep darkness of "unseen trials," which cannot be told to the nearest friend, and can only be "wordlessly laid before God;" to a time of "unmitigated suffering," when her natural stormy-petrelism of character forsook her utterly, and she "felt crushed and forsaken of all or any help or cheer," which need no definite explanation to be profoundly suggestive. More than one "turned lesson" was hers before she learned to interpret the significance of such dispensations for others. Never did poet more truly "learn in suffering what she taught in song;" never did Christian more literally obey the injunction, "What I tell thee in darkness, that speak ye in light." The lesson once mastered, the suffering endured, the darkness passed through, she entered into possession of such fullness of knowledge, such depth of joy, such uncloudedness of light, as to be made a veritable beacon on a hilltop to others. Had her life been shut in by closer domestic ties, it could not have shed abroad so free and wide an illumination. Not that she suffered from lack of home affections; similarity of tastes and occupations made the companionship of her father an ever-growing delight; her devotion to her stepmother was something unique; and after both had gone before her into the "many mansions," her relations with her unmarried elder sister left little to be desired, in point of strength, intimacy, or tenderness. While there was room in her sympathies for the needs, sins, and sorrows of the whole world, she was none the less a charming home-companion, full of winsome gayety and original humor, unselfish and responsive, with a light foot and ready hand for every dainty ministry and loving service. The inward "twilight gropings," the doubts and difficulties, of her earlier years, seem never to have cast any extended shadow over her outer life; and when she had won through them into the clear Beyond of unfaltering faith and confidence, friends and strangers alike seem to be at a loss for words strong enough to picture the brightness of her face, the charm of her "sunshiny ways." It should be well understood that hers was never the so-called doubt of the present day—which would better be termed denial, so little of conscious dubiousness is there in its bold assumptions and assertions—but the offspring of a fastidious standard and a self-distrustful spirit, with a clearer sight of God's justice than His mercy, a truer conception of His sovereignty than His fatherhood. She did not doubt Scripture promises and verities, but only her own fitness for laying hold of the former and bringing forth fruit unto the latter.

It would be hard to tell when her poetic talent was first made manifest. If she did not "lisp in numbers," she very early began to string rhymes together in friendly letters, and to write verses for family festivals and anniversaries. Some of these early productions are still in existence, and even in print; they belong to the order of things which undiscriminating affection does not willingly let die. Her first formal debut as a poetess was about 1860, in the columns of "Good Words;" thence­forward she went on adding grace to grace and strength to strength of poetic skill and fervor, till capable of the sustained flight of "The Thoughts of God," and the varied melody and deep insight of "Loyal Responses." Many of the latter have become household words not only in human homes, but in sacred temples; more than once their author knew the awed blissfulness of hearing her own hymns and tunes sung to the praise of Him that inhabiteth eternity.

In the widely known "Consecration Hymn," she builded better than she knew. Writing it in an outburst of joy at having been permitted to be instrumental in the conversion of dear friends, she did not at first comprehend all that was implied in its quickly improvised couplets, but year by year a deeper interpretation, a fuller significance, were revealed to her; and it is good to see how unshrinkingly, even joyously, she followed wherever the new light led, at whatever sacrifice. "A Song in the Night" was dictated to her sister during a severe illness in the Wengen Alps—a tour in search of health having suddenly left her stranded on a sick bed. "Tell it out among the Heathen" was written, both words and music, one Sunday morning, when she was unable to go to church. Her friends left her in bed, but found her at the piano, singing her new possession in a brisk, ringing time, that was really electrifying. Many of her poems have, equally interesting histories, but here is not time nor place for telling them.

It is scarcely necessary to say that she wrote with extraordinary ease and fluency; but she best tells her story:

"I have a curious vivid sense, not merely of my verse faculty in general being given me, but also of every separate poem or hymn, nay every line, being given...The Master has not put a chest of poetic gold into my possession, and said, 'Now use it as you like!' But He keeps the gold, and gives it me piece by piece, just when He will and as much as He will, and no more...

"I can never set myself to write verse. I believe my King suggests a thought and whispers me a musical line or two, and then I look up and thank Him delightedly, and go on with it. That is how the hymns and poems come. Just now there is silence."

At one time there was a long silence—about five years;—which, nevertheless, is eloquent enough to those who have ears to hear. But the power returned as suddenly as it went; one night a poem shot into her mind, "Minerva fashion, full-grown." "All my best have come in that way," she says.

She does not tell us how her prose came to her, but it is full of felicitous expressions and original thoughts. Her "Letters from Switzerland" give delightful descriptions of scenery and incident; at the same time, they show how quick she was to discover spiritual analogies in material things. In her series of "Royal" books, "Kept for the Master's use," etc., the style is clear, direct, forcible, as suits the subject and the intent, making them the cherished companions and teachers of devout hearts and minds. "Morning Bells" and "Little Pillows" show how well she understood childhood's needs.

But she will be best and longest known by her poems. Their special field is wide; in them, almost every phase and tendency of Christian life and growth is revealed to itself and to others. Their power to soften, to soothe, to inspire, to warn, to uplift, is acknowledged by thousands of loving readers, who will give them a high place in the religious poetry of the age. A just criticism will find in them much to commend, a generous one much to admire, a forbearing one something to condone. Miss Havergal's talent could not quite escape paying the penalty of its versatility; who would do many things well must consent to do some things—not ill, but not perfectly. Yet the beauties, the excellences, everywhere outnumber the flaws in her poems; they improve on acquaintance; it is not so much a sudden as a gradual sense of enrichment that comes to us in reading them. The tone is uniformly healthy; she could never have wished to blot out a line that she had written.

But her best achievement, her best legacy, was her character and life. As "a babe in the spiritual life," she longed "to grow up in Him," and seldom is prayer more abundantly answered. In the light of her mature faith, even shadows ceased to have any distinct outline; when confronted with sudden trial and disappointment, she could say, "'Thy will be done' is not a sigh, but only a song!" She was always busy, yet seldom hurried; she "redeemed the time," yet lived "without carefulness;" she was ever at work for the public weal and pleasure, yet never failed to respond to every private claim, every individual demand for aid and sympathy. As her life goes on to maturity, one is simply amazed to read of the missionary and charitable societies of which she was an active member—of the Bible Classes, Sunday Schools, cottage visitations, charitable collections, hymn-meetings, servants' classes, etc., that she carried on side by side with her literary and musical labors. Added to all this was a large and varied correspondence; friends and strangers were continually writing to her for advice, sympathy, criticism, revision, explanation, and receiving from her kindly, conscientious answers, till it is no wonder to see, in her "Journal of Mercies," the pathetic entry—"A little respite from letter-writing." Nothing but the most untiring industry, and great buoyancy of temperament, could have carried her through such an amount of work, with its inevitable drain on the emotional, no less than the physical nature. No wonder that she longed for "a lull in life," that she wrote—"While most thankful for success, I am almost alarmedly wondering whereunto this work will grow. Yet oh, how one wants to have Him make the most of all that we have and are!"

It is a life on which one loves to linger, but we must hasten to the end. In October, 1878, she and her sister established themselves at Caswell Bay, Swansea, Wales, partly for the benefit of the sea air, partly for a few months of workful (not restful) quiet. A cold, resulting from exposure at an out-door meeting, developed painful and alarming symptoms. When her friends were distressed to see her suffer, she hushed them with, "It's home the faster." When told that the inflammation was increasing, she answered, "If I am really going, it is too good to be true." Once she whispered, "Splendid to be so near the gates of heaven," and often was heard murmuring, "So beautiful to go!" Toward the last, she sang "clearly but faintly" a verse of a favorite hymn, to one of her own tunes: "Jesus, I will trust Thee."

"And now," says her sister, "she looked up steadfastly, as if she saw the Lord; and surely nothing less heavenly could have reflected such a glorious radiance upon her face. For ten minutes we watched that almost visible meeting with her King, and her countenance was so glad, as if she were already talking to Him! Then she tried to sing; but after one sweet, high note, her voice failed; and, as her brother commended her soul into her Redeemer's hand, she passed away."

She had taken "the one grand step beyond the stars of God;" she had exchanged the broken note, the unfinished earthly melody, for the full chord and wondrous harmony of the "new song" in Paradise. "I have such a craving for the music of heaven," she had once said;—can any human imagination picture the blessedness of satisfaction which quenched that thirst?

She died on the 3d of June, 1879. On the 9th, she was laid to rest, under wreaths of flowers, laurels, and bay-leaves, in Astley churchyard, very near the home, the church, and the friends of her childhood. On her tomb, at her own request, was engraven the text which she had found especially healing and precious, a very key-word of faith and hope:

"The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin."—I John 1:7.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Poems of Frances Ridley Havergal... New York: E. P. Dutton, 1883.

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