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Frances Ridley Havergal

by E. R. Pitman

Frances HavergalMiss Havergal is one of the sweetest singers of the Church militant. Her hymns have found their way into stately cathedrals, roadside conventicles, mission-rooms, and camp-meetings alike. They are sung everywhere, and by Christians of all sects, because they so beautifully express the power of religion upon the heart and life. Who that has read it can ever forget the "Consecration Hymn"? It seems to make the deepest chords of one's spiritual nature vibrate as with a touch of Heaven's own influence.

Miss Havergal was born on December 14, 1836, at Astley, a little village in Worcestershire; her father, Canon W. H. Havergal, being already known in the musical world as a composer of sacred music. Probably the child derived her musical and poetic faculty from him; at any rate, she was a tuneful successor of a worthy sire. She displayed extraordinary precocity in early childhood, and at seven years of age "lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." By the time she reached womanhood she was known as a composer of hymns, and her experiences of foreign travel, frequent ill-health, successes and reverses in literary matters, and the common events of life, all were consecrated to the development of the poetic faculty. We find that some of her best poems were thrown off on the spur of the moment. Thus, "I gave my life for thee" was written in Germany in 1858, when, coming in weary from a ramble, she sat down opposite a picture with this motto. The ideas and words flashed upon her with the speed of lightning, and at once she wrote them off in pencil upon a scrap of paper. Many of her best hymns were written in this way. She herself said once, " All my best poems have come in that way, Minerva fashion, full-grown."

Her own account of the way in which she used her talent of hymn-writing is most interesting. "Writing is praying with me; for I never seem to write even a verse by myself, and I feel like a little child writing. You know a child would look up at every sentence and say, 'And what shall I say next?' This is just what I do. I ask that at every line He would give me, not merely thoughts and power, but also every word, even the very rhymes. Very often I have a most distinct and happy consciousness of direct answers." It is not to be wondered at that hymns written in this spirit have accomplished such a wonderful mission.

This spirit of consecration was carried out in her life. She had many sharp attacks of illness, and consequent journeys in search of health; but all these dispensations were made means, in God's hand, of increasing her own spiritual life and her usefulness to others. Many a "turned lesson" was her lot: sometimes it was a long illness coming in the midst of well-arranged and all but finished work, sometimes a fire or a publisher's failure, at other times it was a bereavement; but in all these things she recognized the dealings of a Father's loving hand, and a wisdom that could not err. At such seasons her song assumed an added note of submission and consecration.

Her humility was a striking feature in her character. Writing to Miss Mary Shekleton of Dublin, another hymn writer, she says, very characteristically: "My experience is that it is nearly always just in proportion to my sense of personal insufficiency in writing anything that God sends his blessing and power with it...I think he must give us that total dependence on him for every word, which can only come by feeling one's own helplessness and incapacity, before he can very much use us."

Another extract gives one an idea of her busy life, even amid the repeated attacks of illness. To a correspondent she writes: "Your letter would take two hours to answer, and I have not ten minutes—fifteen to twenty letters to write every morning; proofs to correct; editors waiting for articles, poems, and music I cannot touch; American publishers clamouring for poems or any manuscripts; four Bible-readings or classes weekly; many anxious ones waiting for help; a mission week coming; and other work after that." And wherever her lot was cast, whether it were on a short visit or a lengthened sojourn, she sought for, and set in motion, new ways of doing good.

In the autumn of 1878, Miss Havergal, having lost both parents, fixed on the Mumbles, Swansea Bay as her home. Accompanied by her sister Maria, she settled down there. She had come to the point of exhaustion, what with the death of her mother, her own fragility, and the many demands made on her for work; so it seemed that the Lord was guiding her into a quiet resting-place, where she could take breath and recruit. It was her habit to keep a "Journal of Mercies" in 1879, and a few extracts from this Journal will indicate the thankful tone of her mind better than any words:—"January 1st. Able to come downstairs first time. 2nd. Sleep. 3rd. Maria, and all her care of me. 4th. Opportunities of speaking of Christ. 5th. Rest and leisure to-day. 6th. Warmth and comfort. 7th. Spirit of prayer in answer to prayer;" and so on.

But manifold Christian work among the poor population of the Mumbles entailed too great and continuous a strain upon her strength. She caught cold one day in May while talking to some donkey boys about religion and temperance, and though not at first seriously ill, the debility and feverishness increased so alarmingly that she became too ill for work. Inflammation supervened, and the pen fell for ever from the fingers that had worked so long and loyally for her King. A few days of agonizing pain followed, but through it all her words were, "Oh, how splendid to be so near the gates of heaven!" On June 3, 1879, she passed away In her own words,—

  "She took
The one grand step, beyond the stars of God,
Into the splendour, shadowless and broad,
Into the everlasting joy and light."

Miss Havergal's hymns may now be found in most modem collections, for they give expression to the universal Christian experience, and nobody stops to ask whether she wrote as an Episcopalian or not. Her hymn for the New Year is both plaintive and trustful.

"Another year is dawning:
  Dear Master, let it be,
In working or in waiting,
  Another year with thee.

"Another year of leaning
  Upon thy loving breast,
Of ever-deepening trustfulness,
  Of quiet, happy rest.

"Another year of mercies,
  Of faithfulness and grace;
Another year of gladness
  In the shining of thy face.

"Another year of progress;
  Another year of praise;
Another year of proving
  Thy presence 'all the days.'

"Another year of service,
  Of witness for thy love;
Another year of training
  For holier work above.

"Another year is dawning:
  Dear Master, let it be,
On earth, or else in heaven,
  Another year for thee."

It would be possible to quote many well-known hymns, including that precious gem, the "Consecration Hymn," as well as some which have more recently found their way into various hymn-books; but to our thinking a poem of hers, entitled "The Rest of Faith," surpasses many better-known hymns. Hence we make no apology for giving it in its entirety. It is purely a hymn of personal Christian experience.

"Master, how shall I bless thy name
  For love so great to me,
For the sweet enablings of thy grace,
  So sovereign, yet so free,
That have taught me to obey thy word,
  And cast my care on thee?

"They tell of weary burdens borne
  For discipline of life,
Of long anxieties and doubts,
  Of struggle and of strife,
Of a path of dim perplexities,
  With fears and shadows rife.

"Oh, I have trod that weary path,
  With burdens not a few,
With shadowy faith that thou dost lead
  And help me safely through,
Trying to follow and obey,
  And bear my burdens too.

"Master, dear Master! thou didst speak;
  And yet I did not hear,
Or long ago I might have ceased
  From every care and fear,
And gone rejoicing on my way
  From brightening year to year.

"Just now and then some steeper slope
  Would seem so hard to climb,
That I must cast my load on thee;
  And I left it for a time,
And wondered at the joy of heart
  Like sweetest Christmas chime.

"A step or two on winged feet;
  And then I turned to share
The burden thou hadst taken up
  Of ever-pressing care:
So what I would not leave to thee,
  Of course I had to bear.

"At last thy precious precepts fell
  On opened eye and ear,
A varied and repeated strain
  I could not choose but hear,
Enlinking promise and command
  Like harp and clarion clear:

"'No anxious thought upon thy brow
  The watching world should see,
No carefulness, O child of God;
  For nothing careful be,
But cast thou all thy care on Him
  Who always cares for thee.'

"Did not thy loving Spirit come
  In gentle gracious shower,
To work thy pleasure in my soul
  In that bright blessed hour,
And to the word of strong command
  Add faith and love and power?

"It was thy word, it was thy will—
  That was enough for me:
Henceforth no care need dim my trust,
  While all was cast on thee; 
Henceforth my inmost heart could praise
  The grace that set me free.

"And now I find thy promise true
  Of perfect peace and rest;
I cannot sigh, I can but sing
  While leaning on thy breast,
And leaving everything to thee
  Whose ways are always best.

"I never thought it could be thus,
  Month after month to know
The river of thy peace without
  One ripple in its flow,
Without one quiver in the trust,
  One flicker in its glow.

"Oh, thou hast done far more for me
  Than I had asked or thought;
I stand and marvel to behold
  What thou, my Lord, hast wrought,
And wonder what glad lessons yet
  I shall be daily taught.

"And if it be thy will, dear Lord,
  Oh, send me forth to be
Thy messenger to careful hearts,
  To bid them taste and see
How good thou art to those who cast
  All, all their care on thee."


Copied for Wholesome Words from Lady Hymn Writers by E. R. Pitman. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1892.

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