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Frances Ridley Havergal, Attuned to Heavenly Music

by Basil Miller

Frances Havergal

The voice of God is heard in many ways. Frances Ridley Havergal heard God speak in music. A recipient of Christ's glorious light, she became a messenger of Jehovah's beauty by pouring forth the power of the Spirit in sacred melody.

Frances was born in Astley, England, on December 14, 1836, where her father was rector of the Anglican Church. Her parents were devoted Christian workers. The year following her birth she was christened Frances Ridley. She was called Fanny until her first book of poems was published, when she used her legal name.

She inherited musical ability from her father who was a man of education as well as piety and was known for his musical adeptness. His ability to compose sacred songs was passed along to his charming daughter.

Frances was able to read at the age of three. Often the parents would find the child hidden in some out-of-the-way place entertaining herself with a story book. When Frances was four years old she was able to read the Bible and other adult books. She acquired the art of writing with very little tutoring and French and music were soon added to her list of studies.

On Sunday evenings the family enjoyed devotional singing. Frances' father composed hundreds of chants and songs and these were included in the Sunday evening family concerts. The rector set a fine example for his family by giving the profits from the sale of his songs to churches. He found great delight in restoring old churches to their former beauty.

Frances always took an active part in games with the neighborhood children. But these childish pursuits were only incidental to her desire to become a poet. When she was seven she wrote her first book of poems. One of the poems of this small collection is as follows:

Sunday is a pleasant day
When we to church do go;
For there we sing and read and pray,
And hear the sermon too.

On Sunday hear the village bells;
It seems as if they say,
Go to church where the pastor tells
How Christ for man has bled.

And if we love to pray and read
While we are in our youth,
The Lord will help us in our need
And keep us in His truth.

The family moved to the Rectory of St. Nicholas in Worcester. A very religious atmosphere pervaded the home. "Beside the rich chords and tuneful songs in our home," she wrote later, "there were wise and holy influences. Our parents' prayers and their fine example for living which they gave us were the keynotes of our childlife."

When Frances was eleven she was called to her dying mother's bedside. The mother urged the girl to give herself and her talents wholly to the Lord. "You are my youngest little girl," she said. "And I feel more anxious about you than the rest. I do pray for the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you. And, remember, nothing but the precious blood of Jesus can make you clean and lovely in God's sight." A little later she added, "Fanny, pray to God to prepare you for all that He is preparing for you." These words remained with the girl throughout her entire life.

As a child she did not attend school as other children do, for she was advanced far beyond her age level. She studied English, German, French, Hebrew, Latin and Welsh, and read the literature of those languages. At the age of fourteen she was sent to a select school for girls at Belmont and it was while she was at this school that she took a definite stand for Christ.

"The sunless ravines were now forever past," she wrote of the experience of salvation, "and henceforth peace and joy flowed outward, deepening and widening under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It was the word "cleanseth" which opened a door of very glory and hope to me. Not a coming to be cleansed in the fountain only, but remaining in the fountain, so that it may and can go on cleansing.

"The utterly unexpected and altogether unimagined sense of its fulfillment to me, on simply believing in its fullness, was indescribable. I expect nothing like it short of heaven."

Frances took an active part in church work and taught a Sunday school class in her father's church for fourteen years. She kept their names, birthdays, something about their home conditions and the impression each child made on her in her roll book.

When Frances was sixteen, her father remarried. His ill health prompted the family to visit Germany where the rector was about to consult with world-renowned physicians. The Havergal girls were sent to a German school for young ladies. The students there cared little for religion and Frances took this opportunity to make her life an example of Christian living.

Returning to the homeland, she was confirmed in Worcester Cathedral. The ceremony made a lasting impression upon her and she consecrated herself to Christian work. On the day of confirmation she wrote:

Oh! Thine for ever, what a blessed thing
To be for ever His who died for me!
My Saviour, all my life Thy praise I'll sing,
Nor cease my song throughout eternity.
  —In Cathedral, July 17, 1854.

For a short time she studied at a famous school in Celebridge, and upon her return home her father taught her Greek so that she could read the New Testament in the original. During this period she also wrote many poems in the German language.

A school-girl wrote the following account of a visit which Frances made to Celebridge Lodge, Ireland, in 1856.

...We were in a great state of delight at the thought of seeing "the little English lady." In a few seconds Miss Frances caroling 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 eyes dancing and her great 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 Handel compositions which thrilled me through and through. When she finished, she said with a merry laugh, "The next time I come to Ireland we will get up a little singing class, and then you can all sing with me."

Another of the class thought that there must be the music of God's own love in that fair singer's heart. There was joy in her face, joy in her words and joy in her ways. And the secret cry went up from that young Irish heart, "Lord, teach me, even me, to know and love Thee, too."

Due to ill health, Frances' father took a smaller church in the country parish of Shareshill, and Frances visited the home of a sister where she taught two nieces. She led a consecrated life. The following is her schedule for prayers,

Watchfulness. Guard over temper. Consistency. Faithfulness to opportunities. For the Holy Spirit. For a vivid love to Christ.

Earnestness of spirit in desire, in prayer, and in all work. Faith, hope, love.

Forgiveness. To see my sinfulness in its true light. Growth in grace. Against morning sleepiness as hindrance to time of prayer.

Much to her delight, Frances was able to take a trip to Germany the following winter, where she submitted her compositions to Ferdinand Hiller, an outstanding composer and authority on music. He was very much impressed with her work especially in view of the fact that she had had no special training. Hiller advised Frances to study music under some competent teachers and to continue to write music. She also did solo work in the Philharmonic Society in Kidderminster, of which she writes:

"A power entirely new and unexpected was given me, and rejoicing in this, I forgot the Giver, and found such delight in this that other things paled before it. I prayed that if this was hindering me, the gift of song might be withdrawn."

Her gift of song was temporarily withdrawn because of illness and she took a new interest in religious activities and joined the Y.W.C.A., which was a new organization. She also gave vocal lessons for the Church Mission Society and attended a Bible Society. She spent the remaining time studying voice. Though she was kept very busy with these religious activities, her heart was flooded with poetic melody.

"I have not had a single poem come to me for some time," she writes, "until last night when one shot into my mind. All my best have come in that way, full grown. It is so curious, one minute I have not an idea of writing anything, the next I have a poem; it is mine, I see it all, except laying out rhymes and metre, which is then easy work. I rarely write anything which has not come thus."

Opening her heart to us, she gives a glimpse of how a wonderful hymn of consecration came into being. She says, "Perhaps you will be interested to know the origin of the consecration hymn, Take My Life. I went for a little visit of five days. There were ten persons in the house, some unconverted and long prayed for, some converted, but not rejoicing Christians. He gave me the prayer, Lord, give me all in this house.' And He did. Before I left the house every one received a blessing. The last night of my visit, in praise and renewal of my consecration, these little couplets formed themselves and chimed in my heart, one after another, till finished with, 'Ever, only, all for Thee.'"

Her beloved hymn, I Gave My Life For Thee, was written in Germany. One day as she sat opposite a picture bearing the motto, I Gave My Life For Thee, the lines flashed into her mind and she wrote them on a scrap of paper. They did not satisfy her, so she tossed them into the fire. However, through a miracle of grace they fell out unmarred. Months later she showed them to her father who encouraged her to preserve them and wrote a tune to fit the words.

Frances led a well-rounded and active Christian life. She made money from the sale of her poems and hymns which she gave to charity at home and abroad. For a while she trained the choir of the beautiful St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and she visited Switzerland several times. Six years before her death, in 1873, she visited Switzerland to regain her health.

Restored, she returned home to find that her fame had grown tremendously. Many letters poured in from strangers expressing their appreciation for her soul-lifting poems and hymns, and many thanked her for bringing them the hope of salvation, joy in times of sorrow and comfort when death visited the family.

Her poems were printed in three books, entitled, Ministry of Song, Under The Surface, and Under His Shadows, and she in addition gave the world numerous poems which can never be blotted from man's memory as long as a desire to sing remains in the human heart. Her inspiration to write came from the Lord. This is expressed in the following poem:

I look up to my Father, and I know that I am heard,
And ask Him for the glowing thought and for the fitting word;
I look up to my Father, for I cannot write alone,
'Tis sweeter far to seek His strength, than lean upon my own.

On June 3, 1879, she went to meet Christ, her King.

From Ten Girls Who Became Famous by Basil Miller. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©1946.

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