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Miss Frances Ridley Havergal

Author of The Ministry of Song, Under the Surface, Under His Shadow, etc. etc.

Frances HavergalThe honoured and well-known name of FRANCES RIDLEY HAVERGAL has become to thousands of Christians, in all parts of the world, a household word. She has spoken to us in her writings so personally as to be a real friend of all. Little children go to sleep on one of the "Little Pillows," and wake to the chime of a "Morning Bell." The older folk are helped, stimulated, and cheered by wise and loving words, unfolding some of the promises and commands of the King whom she loved and served, or showing forth the privilege and blessing of being wholly His—" kept for the Master's use"; whilst many voices, the wide world over, take up the echo of her songs of praise. The "Memorials" [Note: "Memorials of Frances Ridley Havergal" by her Sister. J. Nisbet & Co.] of her life have brought us yet nearer to her, and explained the power of her words by showing her lowly walk with God.

This child of song was born on December 14, 1836. She was the youngest of the family of Rev. W. H. Havergal, who was at the time of her birth Rector of Astley, Worcestershire, and who subsequently became Rector of St. Nicholas, Worcester, and Hon. Canon of the Cathedral of that city. Astley Rectory was a holy home; and one of the recollections associated with it is that of this little creature when rather over two years old sitting on her father's knee at morning prayers whilst he read the Scriptures. As a mere child she was very precocious; and at three years old she could read easy books and sing little hymns, whilst a year later she could read the Bible correctly, and write in a round hand. French and music were subsequently added; but care was taken not to excite or urge on this very youthful scholar. She acquired a little German by simply being present and listening whilst her elder sisters were taking their lessons. She "lisped in numbers." At seven years of age she began writing childish hymns and rhymes; and a couple of years later she penned little descriptive letters in verse to her young friends.

The record of her youthful spiritual history is of deep interest. For some years she appears to have groped her way, so to speak—feeling after God if haply she might find Him. There were many around who could have helped and guided her; but the extreme sensitiveness of the child made her reticent and uncommunicative as to her mental condition. In her "Autobiography" she states, "Up to the time that I was six years old I have no remembrance of any religious ideas whatever." Her first impression was awakened by a startling sermon on hell and judgment. She says. "No one ever knew it: but this sermon haunted me; and day and night it crossed me." She spoke of herself as "almost angry at feeling so unhappy, and wanting and expecting to get a new heart, and have everything put straight, and be made happy all at once." Little idea had the preacher that his words had aroused such desires in the heart of a little girl. Under another phase of feeling she writes, "At such times I utterly abominated being 'talked to,' and would do anything on earth to escape kindly-meant admonitions or prayers." Again, "One sort of habit I got into in a steady way; which was persevered in with more or less fervour according to the particular fit in which I might be. Every Sunday afternoon I went alone into a little front room, and there used to read a chapter in the Testament, and then knelt down and prayed for a few minutes; after which I usually felt soothed and less naughty."

Somewhat later on she wrote: "One spring (I think 1845) a dozen times a day I said to myself, 'Oh, if God would but make me a Christian before the summer comes!' because I so longed to enjoy His works as I felt they could be enjoyed." When about ten years of age a sermon by the curate of St. Nicholas, on the text, "Fear not, little flock," stirred her to the inmost depths. She was emboldened to speak to the preacher as to her state: but he proved so unskilful an adviser that the anxious little enquirer was driven in upon herself; and she writes, "After that, my lips were utterly sealed to all but God for another five years or rather more." A subject very unusual to a child often occupied her mind in these years—that of the Lord's Supper. "Almost every monthly Sacrament made me thoughtful. I begged to be allowed to stay in the church, and see it administered, 'only once'; but this apparently mere curiosity was not gratified: so I used to go round to the vestry, and listen through the door to the service."

When fourteen years of age Miss Havergal went to a Ladies' School; and here the ice of her reserve melted. A spiritual movement was discernible amongst the girls; and the manner and walk of one of the scholars so impressed Frances, that after several struggles she unburdened her heart to this young companion. Writing nine years afterwards Miss H. says, "The words of wise and even eminent men have since then fallen on my ear; but few have brought the dewy refreshment to my soul which the simple, loving words of my little Heaven-taught school-fellow did." There were other factors in the case; other influences of the same kind more or less affected her; but the climax appears to have been reached in February, 1851, after a conversation with a dearly-loved lady friend, whom she had made a confidante:—

"I left her suddenly, and ran away upstairs to think it out. I flung myself on my knees in my room, and strove to realize the sudden hope. I was very happy at last. I could commit my soul to Jesus. I did not—and need not—fear His coming. I could trust Him with my all for eternity. It was so utterly new to have any bright thoughts about religion that I could hardly believe it could be so—that I had really gained such a step. Then and there I committed my soul to the Saviour; I do not mean to say without any trembling or fear: but I did (and earth and heaven seemed bright from that moment), I did trust the Lord Jesus."

About twenty months after this (i.e., in Nov. 1852) Miss Havergal accompanied Canon and Mrs. Havergal to Germany. She entered as a pupil in the "Louisenschule," [Note: The "Louisa School": so called after the Queen of Prussia of that date.] Dusseldorf, where she made considerable progress. When she left, a year later, she had the "reward of leaving with the best zeugniss (certificate) in the whole school, and with the highest praise and regret from every one." And it is pleasant to note that she was able to maintain a faithful Christian testimony during this academic period: she says, "It was a sort of nailing my colours to the mast."

That early acquaintance with German which she had formed as a little child, stood her in good stead; and she could now write, "The German language is very easy to me, for, except on Sundays...I never hear or speak English. It is most absurd now when I begin to speak English: I cannot get to think in it, and keep translating German expressions, which seem so much more natural to me to use."

Her linguistic and other attainments were very extensive. Besides her familiarity with German, she had acquired considerable fluency in French; possessed a knowledge of Italian and Latin; was acquainted with New Testament Greek; and knew something of Hebrew. Moreover, to these polyglot acquirements she added some command of the Welsh language: "The donkey-girl teaches me Welsh. I think I learn it very fast; and I have a Welsh Testament and Prayer Book. At what May calls 'the Taffy service' I can sing, and chant, and respond, as fully as the natives themselves." It is pleasant to meet in her correspondence with references here and there to the Greek of passages on which she was commenting: it serves to show how close was her study of Scripture, and how earnest she was to grasp the full meaning of the Word.

Her needlework is said to have been exquisite, "from the often-despised darning to the most delicate lace-work." And she exhibited aptitude for occupations of a very different order: for she rowed upon the Rhine with her German friends; and at Oakhampton she rode, swam, and skated, with her young relatives.

It is well-known that she was a skilled composer: she was also a pianist of no mean ability. "She would play through Handel, and much of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, without any notes." A pupil of Beethoven thought her rendering of the Moonlight Sonata perfect: "her touch was instinct with soul; as also was her singing."

But not in reference to music alone were her great powers of memory called into exercise. She knew the whole of the Gospels, Epistles, Revelation, and Isaiah, by heart; and the Minor Prophets she learnt in later years.

Her chief talent, and that which will endear her to posterity, was her skill as a hymn-writer. By this she glorified her Divine Master; and by this she gained an entry for the Gospel to hearts all over the world.

But she was not pinned down to the desk, or shut up to the seclusion of the study. Active work for Christ, and that in many different channels, took up much of her time. On Sept. 23rd, 1867, she joined the Young Women's Christian Association; and with this organization she was closely identified during her twelve remaining years. Sunday-school work also had its share of her attention.

At Oakhampton she busied herself with cottage meetings and Bible classes. At Bewdley she assisted in preparatory work for a mission. During a mission week at Liverpool, we find her holding a young women's meeting, and having "five days' incessant work." Her interest in the welfare of servants was a pleasing feature in Miss Havergal's life. "Frances' constant consideration for the servants wherever she visited secured the most loving service. Bible readings in the servants' halls; kind talks alone; and helpful prayers—are all remembered."

She took deep interest in the Church Missionary Society; in Zenana work in India; and in the operations of the Irish Society: and to these several branches of Christian effort she devoted no inconsiderable portion of her own limited means; whilst she aroused the interest of numbers of young people and led them to take collecting cards for these favourite objects.

Of her diligence in searching the Scriptures, two most interesting facsimile manuscript pages from her Bible, which are given in the "Memorials," give striking evidence; and the spiritual intelligence evidenced is equally noteworthy. The page from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which, in the volume referred to, is reproduced with its numerous marginal notes, under-scorings, and "railroads," deserves careful study: and, indeed, so does the page of WORDS and SUBJECTS. And there were two Bibles (each consisting of both Old and New Testaments) marked in this fashion!

Wherever she was, whether in England or on the Continent, she was ever ready for the Master's business. We read of her, in Switzerland, laying aside her literary work without a moment's hesitation, even when a strong poetic impulse was upon her, to stop and speak the message of grace to a labourer and his children. And her biographer writing of Chapipèry, says, "I could testify of much happy work here, in leading others to rejoice in God, her Saviour. Strangers, invalids, tourists—to all she was a shining light."

The CONSECRATION which she, by her pen, commended to others, she rejoiced in herself. She shrank neither from sacrifice or self-sacrifice. Writing on August, 1878, she presents us with a striking evidence of growth in grace:

The Lord has shown me another little step; and, of course, I have taken it with extreme delight. "Take my silver and my gold," now means shipping off all my ornaments (including a jewel cabinet, which is really fit for a countess) to the Church Missionary House, where they will be accepted and disposed of for me. I retain only a brooch or two for daily wear, which are memorials of my dear parents; also a locket with the only portrait I have of my niece in heaven—my Evelyn; and her "two rings" mentioned in "Under the Surface." But these I redeem; so that the whole value goes to the Church Missionary Society.

In 1878 Miss Havergal went to live with her sister near Swansea. Here for a few months she was fully occupied in writing; helping others; and working in the neighbourhood of her new home. On May 21st, 1879, she took cold from being out in the damp on one of the Master's errands: a feverish attack ensued; then followed inflammation and peritonitis.

Through intense suffering and constant sickness, her patient endurance and gladness in God's will witnessed to His power. Through the last hours again and again were heard the words, "Splendid, to be so near the gates of heaven!" and "So beautiful to go!" At dawn on June 3, the change came, and with the King's name on her lips—trying to sing, but just uttering "HE"—she passed into His presence to behold Him in His beauty.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Christian Portrait Gallery containing over one hundred life-like illustrations with biographic sketches. London: Morgan and Scott, [1900?].

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