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Christian Biography

Frances Havergal

by R. E. Welsh

Frances HavergalMiss Frances Ridley Havergal belongs to our own generation, having died in 1879, at the age of forty-two.

The name of her father, the Rev. W. H. Havergal, is well known by his numerous chants and hymn tunes, as well as by his Cathedral Services and Sacred Songs. Of his tunes "Evan" and "Baca" are widely used.

At his vicarage at Astley, in Worcestershire, Miss Havergal spent the first nine years of her life, when her father removed to Worcester to be Rector of St. Nicholas, and Canon of Worcester Cathedral. She ripened early, and she died while in her prime.

At three she could read and at seven she " lisped in numbers." Beginning in her school days, she frequently went to the Continent. Although delicate in health, she delighted to climb the Swiss mountains, and reveled in the glory of the white snow.

Early anxious, she was led to Christ by a much-loved school companion. Her life was a close walk with God. At a later stage she was enabled to enjoy what is technically called "the Rest of Faith," and her peace and pleasure in Christ were thereby multiplied.

She acquired languages with great facility. She was versed not only in French and German, but also in Latin and Greek and even Hebrew, and could read both Old and New Testaments in the original.

She had musical genius; could play through Handel and much of Mendelssohn and Beethoven without notes. She also composed much original work; many of her tunes being published in her Songs of Grace and Glory and Loyal Responses.

Four of her tunes are well known, namely "Hermas," to the words,

"Jesus, I will trust Thee,"

"Epenetus," "Patmos," and "Nymphas."

Her memory was singularly powerful. She knew by heart the whole of the New Testament, the Psalms and Isaiah, and in later years committed to memory the Minor Prophets.

She was equally active in Christian service, in work in Bible Classes, Young Women's Christian Associations, and numerous other Christian agencies. Hundreds consulted her, personally and by post, on the concerns of the soul.

She wrote much, both in prose and verse. Of her little books in prose, perhaps the best known are Kept for the Master's Use, Royal Commandments, The Royal Invitation, Swiss Letters.

She does not profess to meet intellectual needs, or answer the deepest questions of life. She gives highly spiritual teaching in devout language. Some minds find her too mystical, too unhuman, too purely spiritual; others are led by her to a more perfect trust and a more constant joy in Christ.

When twenty-four she was contributing poems to Good Words, and thereafter she had applications for sacred pieces from numerous editors. The best known collections of her poems are: The Ministry of Song, Under the Surface, and Under the Shadow.

She could write hymns only when the inspiration came to her: she could not command it at will.

In a letter she says: "I have not had a single poem come to me for some time, till last night, when one shot into my mind. All my best have come in that way ... full grown.

"One minute I have not the 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."

Again she says: "Writing is praying with me: for I never seem to write even a verse by myself; and feel like a little child writing; you know how a child would look up at every sentence and say, 'And what shall I say next?' That is just what I do. I ask at every line that He would give me, not merely thoughts and power, but also every word, even the very rhymes. 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."

For five years the gift was suspended or unused and again, after a long illness, she lost the power to write verse, but it was restored.

She was a frequent sufferer, and was exceptionally sensitive to pain. But her enjoyment of Christ's presence made her, like Paul, glory in her infirmities. She did not submit to, so much as delight in, what was God's will. Her own description was true of her feeling throughout: "'Thy will be done' is not a sigh, but only a song."

The sheets of MS. music for Songs of Grace and Glory had been prepared at a great cost of personal labour. Soon she heard that the publishers' premises had been burnt down, and the stereotypes of her musical edition destroyed. She sat down with perfect acquiescence, and did the work over again. It was a six months' task, but she took it joyfully as the Divine Will.

Her sufferings prepared her for writing many of her sacred pieces. She wrote only what her own life or heart taught. Hence she is subjective, personal, introspective, dealing with the experiences of the heart.

She died at Mumbles, near Swansea. When told of the approach of death she said, "If I am going, it is too good news to be true."

On her tombstone is carved, at her own request, her favourite text: "The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin."


The hymn,

"Golden harps are sounding,"

was written thus:

Visiting some friends, she walked to the boys' schoolroom, and, being very tired, she leaned against the playground wall, while a clerical friend went in. Returning in ten minutes he found her scribbling on an old envelope; and at his request she handed him the hymn, just penciled, "Golden harps are sounding."

"Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King! Tell it out! Tell it out!"

was written one day when she was unable to go to church. She had been following the service in the Prayer Book, and had read, "Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King." "I thought," she said, "what a splendid first line! and then words and music came rushing in to me. There, it's all written out: words, music, and harmonies complete." The tune usually sung to it, "Epenetus," is her own, the tune referred to.

Among others well known are:

"I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus;"
"Jesus, Master, Whose I am;"
Jesus, Master, Whom I serve;

and

"Thy life was given for me,"

which as written began

"I gave My life for thee"—

the change being made so that the worshipper might address Christ, instead of using words meant only for Christ's lips.

This hymn first appeared in Good Words, and was written in Germany, when she was only twenty-two years of age.

"She had come in weary, and had sat down opposite a picture with this motto. At once the lines flashed upon her, and she wrote them in pencil on a scrap of paper. Reading them over, they did not satisfy her. She tossed them into the fire, but they fell out untouched. Showing them some months after to her father, he encouraged her to preserve them, and he wrote the tune 'Baca' especially for them."

Count von Zinzendorf, the head of the Moravian body, said he was led to devote himself to God by the sight of a picture in a gallery at Dusseldorf — a picture of our Saviour crowned with thorns, with the writing above it:

All this have I done for Thee:
What doest Thou for Me?'

Possibly it was some engraving of the same painting that Miss Havergal saw, and that gave rise to this hymn.

"Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee,"

was written while on a visit to a friend's house. There were ten members of the household, some not Christians, for whom she had long prayed; others Christians, but not able to rejoice in Christ. She prayed that God would give her all in the house. Her prayer was answered: all were blessed. And continuing the description of the event in a letter she says: "The last night of my visit I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration, and these little couplets formed themselves and chimed in my heart one after another, till they finished with

"Ever, only, all for Thee."

It was her practice to carry out literally the lines:

"Take my voice, and let me sing
Always, only, for my King."

She sang sacred pieces only. In this and in other things she overstrained duty. Yet we admire the intensity of her devotion and the thoughtful self-denial of her life.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Romance of Psalter and Hymnal: Authors and Composer by R. E. Welsh. London: Hodder and Stoughton; New York: Pott., 1889.

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