Chapter 3 Some Lady Hymn Writers

Some of the sweetest hymns in the language are the production of women. In this chapter an attempt will only be made to include a few writers whose names are familiar to the average reader. Elsewhere in this volume mention is made of many of the sweet singers in the ranks of women, whom God has inspired to pen messages of song, it may be in the quietude of the sick chamber, or amid the cares of their daily household duties. Among such hymns few hold so high a place in our affections as Charlotte Elliott’s “Just as I am.” Translated into almost every European language as well as Arabic, this immortal hymn, fragrant with rich evangelical doctrine, has doubtless been used in bringing more souls into the Kingdom of God than any other composition. Written in 1834, when the authoress was forty-five years old, a halo of romance has been woven around the occasion of its birth. The true history of how it came into being is a simple story, and has been told by the late Dr. Moule, Bishop of Durham, whose wife was a Miss Elliott of the same family of the famous authoress.

“Charlotte Elliott was living at Brighton with a married brother, a clergyman, the Rev. Henry Venn Elliott. The whole family had gone off to a bazaar in which they were greatly interested; and the frail invalid had been left at home alone, lying on her sofa, with her heart a little sad at being, as usual, shut out from all good works. For her own comfort she began to ponder on the grand certainties of her salvation— her Lord, His power and His promises. Then came a sudden feeling of peace and contentment, and taking her pen, she wrote these beautiful verses, “Just as I am,” without any apparent effort. Surely they were God-given—a precious and priceless gift indeed—from her Heavenly Father to His chastened and much-loved child. As the day wore on, her sister-in-law, Mrs. H. V. Elliott, came in to see her and to bring news of the bazaar. She read the hymn and asked for a copy. So the hymn first stole out from that quiet room into the world, where since that day it has been sowing and reaping till a multitude which only God can number have been blessed through its message.”

“Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.”

The story of the gifted authoress’s conversion which led up to the writing of this hymn, is worthy of relating here. When Charlotte Elliott was thirty-three years of age, Dr. Malan of Geneva, a noted evangelist, visited her father’s house. One evening, when in conversation with Miss Elliott, he desired to know if she were a. Christian. The young lady at first somewhat resented the question, but the subsequent conversation of this spiritually-minded preacher made a deep impression, and Dr. Malan was the means of guiding her feet into the way of peace. It is said that she afterwards kept the anniversary as a festal day, “the birthday of her soul.”

A general favourite with home missions, “Just as I am “has been blessed to myriads of souls the world over. Referring one day to this hymn, the brother of the noted hymnist stated: “In the course of a long ministry I hope I have been permitted to see some fruit of my labour, but I feel that far more has been done by a single hymn of my sister’s.” It is recorded that after Miss Elliott’s death, over a thousand letters which had been received from grateful writers to whom her hymn, “Just as I am,” had been blessed, were found in a locked box.

Though the name of Charlotte Elliott is best remembered by “Just as I am,” her hymns number a hundred and fifty, and possibly the two next best known are, “My God, my Father, while I stray,” and “Christian seek not yet repose.”

Miss Elliott died at Brighton on the 22nd of September, 1871.

Of the many consecration hymns to be found within the covers of present day hymnals, none can surpass Frances Ridley Havergal’s:

“Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee…”

This beautiful hymn had its origin in a visit by Miss Havergal to some friends in London, where she had gone for several days’ stay. In the home there was a family of ten persons, most of whom were unconverted. Desirous that she might be used to lead them to the Saviour, she prayed to God that ere she left, all in the house might be saved. The result was, before she returned to her home, every one received a blessing. On the last night of her visit, she had just retired to rest when the governess came to her bedroom with a message from the two daughters of the house. They were deeply troubled about their spiritual condition, and were shedding tears. Miss Havergal was able to put before them in simple language God’s way of salvation, and that night the two sisters put their trust in Jesus. Overjoyed at what had taken place, Miss Havergal was unable to go to sleep, and spent most of the night in praise and renewal of her own consecration. Before the sun rose, there took form in sweet flowing lines, one after another:

“Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

* * * * *

Take my love: my Lord I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself; and I will be
Ever, only, ALL for Thee.”

Another favourite by the same writer had its origin in a singular way, when Miss Havergal was travelling in Germany. One day, coming in tired and weary after a long walk, she sat down opposite a picture, which at once attracted her attention. As she gazed on the canvas, under which were the words, “I gave my life for thee,” her thoughts instinctively wandered to that sacred scene on Calvary’s brow, and in a moment the words of the hymn came to her with remarkable swiftness:

“I gave My life for thee,
My precious blood I shed…”

It is refreshing to read the authoress’ own words, contained in a letter to a friend, written fifteen years later, concerning the sirnple Gospel hymn: “Yes, ‘I gave my life for thee’ is mine, and perhaps it will interest you to hear how nearly it went into the fire instead of nearly all over the world. It was, I think, the very first thing I wrote which could be called a hymn—written when I was a young girl, in 1859. I did not half realize what I was writing about. I was following very far off, always doubting and fearing. I think I had come to Jesus with a trembling faith, but it was a coming ‘in the press’ and behind, never seeing His face or feeling sure that He loved me. I scribbled these words in a few minutes on the back of a circular, and then read them over and thought, ‘Well, this is not poetry, anyhow; I won’t trouble to write this out.’ I reached out my hand to put it in the fire, when a sudden impulse made me draw it back, and I put it, crumpled and singed, in my pocket. Soon after, I went to see a dear old woman in the almshouse. She began talking to me, as she always did, about her dear Saviour, and I thought I would see if she, a simple old woman, would care for these verses, which I felt sure nobody else would even care to read. I read them to her, and she was so delighted with them that I copied them out and kept them. And now the Master has sent them out in all directions, and I have heard of their being a real blessing to many.”

Frances Ridley Havergal was born on December 14th, 1836, at the little village of Astley, in Worcestershire. From an early year she displayed unmistakable signs of being possessed of a keen literary gift, and by the time she reached womanhood her writings in prose and verse revealed the promptings of a sincere spiritual life, and were attracting attention.

A writer of consecration, this spirit was manifested in her life, and is embodied in the hymns she has left as a legacy to each succeeding generation. In the autumn of 1878 Miss Havergal went to reside at the Mumbles, Swansea Bay, where in the following year she passed away.

Other familiar hymns by the same gifted writer, which have a wide circulation, are: “Like a river glorious,” “I could not do without Thee,” “Who is on the Lord’s side?” “Golden harps are sounding,” and “I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus.” The last named hymn, for which Miss Havergal composed the tune Urbane, was written in 1874. It was the late hymnist’s “own favourite,” and was found in her little pocket Bible after her death.

Among lady writers of devotional and other poetry, few names are more widely known than Harriet Auber, although she is remembered by a single composition only. That one composition is a hymn of great beauty, commencing:

“Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed
His tender last farewell,
A Guide, a Comforter bequeathed
With us to dwell.”

The original manuscript was one of quite an unusual and unique character, for the hymn was first written by the gifted authoress with a diamond on a pane of glass in a window of her house at Hoddesdon, where for many years Miss Auber resided, and where, in 1862, at the patriarchal age of eighty-two, she died. She lies buried in the quaint old churchyard nearby the house in which she lived. “I happened to pay a visit some nine years since, to old Daniel Sedgwick’s out-of-the-way shop of hymn literature,” once wrote the Rev. Andrew Carter, editor of the British Messenger, “and while there met the late Rev. Dawson Campell, of Ware, Herts, an ardent lover of hymns, who, like myself, had gone to the shop in Sun Street in search of hymn books. In the course of an interesting conversation, he told me that he had for some time occupied the house at Hoddesdon in which Harriet Auber had formerly lived. She had written her beautiful hymn, ‘Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed,’ on a pane of glass in one of the windows with a diamond, and when Mr. Campbell came into possession, the pane of glass was still intact. Anxious to have it as a curiosity specially interesting to him, he asked permission of the landlord to remove the pane, and put another in its place; but the landlord declined. And so, up to that time, some seventeen years after the author’s death, the valuable manuscript of this sweet hymn remained in its place. Mr. Campbell died, I believe, only a short while afterwards; and I have often wondered what became of that pane of glass; whether it still remains unbroken, or whether some child’s elbow, or some street boy’s ill-habit of stone-throwing, has made an end of it. Among all the curious forms in which hymn writers have written their compositions, I fancy this is the only case on record of a hymn written by its author on a window pane.”

From another source we learn that an old resident of Hoddesdon, whose relations lived in Miss Auber’s house after her decease, remembered seeing the hymn on a panel of glass in one of the bedroom windows, but at a later period it was removed by some person, and since then no trace of it was ever found.

This singular circumstance of hymn writing recalls a similar instance, for, on one occasion, Robert Burns, borrowing a diamond ring from a friend, wrote some verses of a song on a window pane in the house where he stayed overnight, and this unique form of MS. is still preserved in the house at Dumfries, where the poet died in 1796.

Another lady writer whose name is remembered by a single hymn is Mrs. Margaret Mackay, a native of Inverness. This hymn, by a singular circumstance owes its origin to a visit paid to a country churchyard in Devonshire. Entering the little wicket gate of God’s holy acre, she reverently paused for a moment to admire the beautiful surroundings. “Here was no elaborate ornament, no unsightly decay. The trim gravel walk led to the house of prayer, itself boasting of no architectural embellishment to distinguish it; and a few trees were planted irregularly to mark some favoured spots.” The silent mounds were carpeted with green, and there was an atmosphere of restfulness and tranquility. Wandering amongst the tombstones her attention was arrested by the words, “Sleeping in Jesus,” carved on a quaint old stone, words that told of a peaceful end to a chequered life. With the magic words running through her mind, Mrs. Mackay returned home and wrote these beautiful lines:

“Asleep in Jesus! Blessed sleep,
From which none ever wakes to weep,
A calm and undisturbed repose
Unbroken by the last of foes!

Asleep in Jesus! Peaceful rest,
Whose waking is supremely blest;
No fear, no woe shall dim that hour
That manifests the Saviour’s power.”

Mrs. Mackay died at Cheltenham, in 1887, in her seventy-sixth year.

To an American lady, Mrs. Annie Sherwood Hawks, we are indebted for the hymn dear to every Christian heart:

“I need Thee every hour,
Stay Thou near by;
Temptations lose their power
When Thou art nigh.”

Written towards the close of last century, this hymn was wafted out to the world on the wings of love and joy, rather than under the stress of a great personal sorrow, with which it has been so often associated in the minds of those who sing it. Writing in 1915, Mrs. Hawks has this to say about its composition: “I remember well the morning, more than twenty years ago, when, in the midst of the daily cares of my home, then in a distant city, I was so filled with a sense of nearness to the Master, that, wondering how one could live without Him, either in joy or pain, these words, ‘I need Thee every hour,’ were flashed into my mind, the thought at once taking full possession of me. Seating myself by the open window in the balmy air of the bright June day, I caught my pencil, and the words were soon committed to paper, almost as they are being sung now. It was only by accident, as it would seem, that they were set to music a few months later and sung, for the first time, at a Sunday School convention held in one of the large western cities of America. From there they were taken farther west and sung by thousands of voices before the echo came back to me, thrilling my heart with surprise and gladness. For myself the hymn was prophetic rather than expressive of my own experiences at the time it was written, and I did not understand why it so touched the great throbbing heart of humanity. It was not until long years after, when the shadow fell over my way— the shadow of a great loss—that I understood something of the comforting power in the words which I had been permitted to give out to others in my hours of sweet security and peace. Now when I hear them sung, as I have sometimes by hundreds of voices in chorus, I find it difficult to realize that they were ever, consciously, my own thought or penned by my own hand.”

Though Mrs. Hawks is the authoress of hundreds of hymns, “I need Thee every hour,” is the one that has written her name indelibly on the heart of the Christian world. She passed away at the home of her daughter in Bennington, Vt., on January 3rd, 1918, at the advanced age of eighty-three.

The historic town of Melrose on the Scottish border, made famous in song and story by Sir Walter Scott, was the home of two lady hymn writers, one being Miss Clephane, who wrote “The Ninety and Nine.” Regarding the birth of this remarkable hymn it is of interest that it was originally written for children. Miss Clephane was asked by the editor of The Children’s Hour for a contribution for this magazine, and in the quiet of her room at Bridge End House, Melrose, the hymn was written as we now know it. This was about the year 1868, just the year before her death. It was not, however, till 1874 that it was discovered by Sankey, set to music, and sent forth upon its world-wide mission.

Elizabeth Cecilia Douglas Clephane, daughter of Andrew Clephane, Sheriff of Fife, was born in Edinburgh, 18th June, 1830, and when quite young was taken by her parents to reside at Melrose, where she spent the remainder of her life. “Miss Clephane and her sister were members of my church at Melrose,” says Rev. James Irwin, “and though this was long before my time, there still remains a treasured memory of their whole-hearted devotion to their church. The sisters Clephane were, as Paul and Phoebe, succourers of many, and their generosity was a constant joy to my predecessor and the Church Treasurer.” It was the custom of the two sisters to send for the Church Treasurer at the end of the financial year, and if he had to report a deficit, he always came away with a cheque for the amount. It is said that they gave up their horses and carriage that the sisters might have more to devote to charity.

Miss Clephane died 19th February, 1869, at Bridge End House, near the spot where once stood the old bridge referred to by Scott in The Abbot and The Monastery.

Living in this little border town about this time was another poetess, who had already penned her most famous hymn, although the verses had not yet been carried beyond her native land.

Just over fifty years ago, there appeared a little volume of devotional verse bearing the title, Immanuel’s Land and Other Pieces, by A. R. C. The authoress, who thus modestly announced herself, was Anne R. Cousin. She lived to the ripe age of eighty-two, but long before she passed away she had the satisfaction of knowing that two of the pieces in her little book had found a place in a large number of hymnals, and that at least one of them was a popular favourite. The piece which gives the title to the volume is now better known as the hymn beginning, “The sands of time are sinking,” while another which she entitles “The Substitute,” appears in most hymn books as “O, Christ what burdens bowed Thy head!”

Mrs. Cousin was a daughter of Dr. David Ross Cundell of Leith, and was born in 1824. Her father served in the British army for several years as a surgeon, and was present at the Battle of Waterloo with the 33rd Regiment. After the peace of 1816, Dr. Cundell settled in his native town, Leith, where he died when his only child was just three years old. Mrs. Cundell, after her husband’s death, removed to Edinburgh, where she resided until her daughter’s marriage in 1847 to the Rev. William Cousin, then minister of Chelsea Presbyterian Church, London, but who had previously been minister at Duns, Berwickshire. Shortly after her marriage, Mrs. Cousin removed with her husband to the Free Church of Irvine, and it was there, about the year 1856, that she composed her best known hymn, “The sands of time are sinking,” a hymn which is now known and used throughout the English-speaking world.

The hymn is a selection from a poem of nineteen verses, inspired by a long and loving study of the Life and Letters of Samuel Rutherford, and founded on the Scottish Martyr’s dying words, “Glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s Land.” A song of heaven, it deservedly takes high rank, for no other hymn on this theme—so dear to the Christian heart—expresses with such emphasis, the secret joy of heaven’s attraction: the glory of the Lamb that was slain.

“The sands of time are sinking,
The dawn of heaven breaks,
The summer morn I’ve sighed for,
The fair, sweet morn awakes.
Dark, dark has been the midnight,
But dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land.”

Dr. John G. Paton, of the New Hebrides, in a letter to the authoress, tells of the profound impression it made upon his mind when sung by a large congregation in St. Kilda, Australia, as the old year was passing away and the new year coming in.

“O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy head,” by the same writer, has been much used, and was greatly loved by Mr. Sankey, who referred to it as “a hymn very much blessed.”

It was in 1860 that Mrs. Cousin removed with her husband to the Free Church, Melrose, in which town they resided for eighteen years, living afterwards in Edinburgh, where the gifted authoress died on December 6th, 1906.

“In the secret of His presence how my soul delights to hide! O how precious are the lessons which I learn at Jesus’ side! Earthly cares can never vex me, neither trials lay me low; For when Satan comes to tempt me, to the secret place I go.”

These sublime lines were written by Ellen Lakshmi Goreh, a Mahratta Brahmin lady of highest caste. She was born at Benares, September 11th, 1853. For many years she has laboured among her own countrywomen, often encountering opposition, but also often cheered by finding women glad to listen to the Gospel story, and by getting welcomes here and there, even in the darkest places.

Rescued from heathenism, trained by missionaries, she developed a deep spiritual life, which found expression in these beautiful lines. Truly, no one can read the experience of this converted native of India as here portrayed, without realising something of the “secret of His presence.” Miss Goreh, though now in her seventy-eighth year, is still a zealous worker for the Master among her own people in that dark land.

A hymn which has been blessed to thousands of people, and will remain one of the authoress’s best productions, when many other songs are forgotten, is:

“Go bury thy sorrow, the world hath its share,
Go, bury it deeply, go, hide it with care;
Go think of it calmly, when curtained by night;
Go tell it to Jesus, and all will be right.”

The authoress of this hymn, Mary A. Bachelor, wrote these lines when staying with her brother, to whom she was greatly attached. He was a minister, and in the usual course of his pastoral duties, felt the ever increasing cares and burdens begin to tell on his health. To him his sister confided all her joys and Sorrows. One day, after having disclosed to her brother some peculiar trial which she was enduring, her conscience reproached her for having needlessly added to his already numerous cares. Standing by the open window she looked out upon the scene before her. Across the daisy-strewn lawn fell the heavy shadows cast by the tall poplar trees, and as she gazed, there came to her the thought. “That is just what I have done to my brother! Why did I do it? Why did I not rather bury my own sorrow, and allow only words of cheer and brightness to reach his ears?”

With these thoughts in her mind, and with tears of regret filling her eyes she retired to her little bedroom, and there penned the words of the hymn which has proved a solace to many a troubled heart.

From the sick chamber of an American lady came the hymn:

“There is a gate that stands ajar,
And through its portals gleaming,
A radiance from the cross afar,
The Saviour’s love revealing.

Mrs. Lydia Baxter, the writer, was born in Petersburg, New York, in 1809, and was an invalid for many years. This hymn was written about three years before her death, when she had passed her sixtieth milestone.

During the Moody and Sankey mission in Great Britain, in 1873-74, this hymn was much used. It was sung at the watch-night service in 1873, in the Free I Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, when there happened to I be present a girl, Maggie Lindsay, of Aberdeen. She was much impressed by the hymn, and those seated by her side heard her exclaim, “O, heavenly Father, is it true that the gate is standing ajar for me? If it is so, I will go in.”

“That night,” says Sankey, who tells the story, “she became a disciple of the Lord Jesus. The next day she called on her pastor, the Rev. J. H. Wilson, minister of the Barclay Church, and told him of her decision. He was greatly pleased and advised her to tell her school companions of her experience. This she did, and succeeded in leading several of them into the light of the Gospel. Scarcely a month later, on January 28th, Maggie took a train for her home, but never reached there alive. At Manuel Junction a collision took place between a mineral train and the one on which she was travelling. A number of passengers were killed, and Maggie, all crushed and broken, was found in the wreck. In one of her hands was a copy of Sacred Songs and Solos, opened at her favourite hymn, ‘There is a gate that stands ajar,’ the page of which was stained with her life’s blood. She was carried into a cottage near the station, where she lingered a few days, and was frequently heard to sing on her dying couch, the chorus of the hymn so dear to her—‘For me, for me! was left ajar for me!’”

In commemoration of this touching incident, Mr. Sankey wrote the words and music of his first hymn, “Home at last.”

No name is more familiar among lady hymn writers of recent times than that of Ada R. Habershon, whose first hymn was written at the opening of the present century. Since then hundreds of songs for mission services have flowed from her pen. Before Miss Habershon took to writing hymns she was noted as an able writer and lecturer upon the Word of God, and on the invitation of D. L. Moody she paid a visit to America, where she delivered lectures in various parts of the country on the types of the Old Testament, which were afterwards published in book form. During the visit of Moody and Sankey to London in 1884, Miss Habershon had the privilege of a close friendship with the American evangelists, and on several occasions sang with Mr. Sankey. Later, when Mr. George C. Stebbins, the composer of many of Sankey’s popular hymns, visited this country he stayed at the home of the Habershons. “Thus,” says Miss Habershon, when speaking of these days, “the subject of hymn-writing was very prominent as we practised duets with him, and learnt and copied some of his new tunes.” It was not, however, till 1901 that Ada R. Habershon attempted to write any poetry. “As I lay very ill,” she tells us in her autobiography, “sweet thoughts came to cheer me, and the words arranged themselves in metre. A word of sympathy about wasted time led me to think of the Transfiguration, and of how the disciples had been led away from busy work in the plains to climb the mountains with the Master, and I wrote down the lines of ‘Apart with Him.’ “From that time onward her pen never ceased to respond to the promptings of the Spirit in the ministry of sacred song.

During the Torrey-Alexander Mission, Mr. Charles M. Alexander came one Sunday morning, in April, 1905, to sing and speak to the poor tramps in Gray’s Yard. Miss Habershon was present at the meeting, and during the service, a thought bearing upon the theme of the speaker came to her mind, which she at once committed to verse, and jotting it down on a scrap of paper, passed it on to Mrs. Alexander. A few days later Mr. Alexander called upon her, and asked if she would write some Gospel songs for him. To this she replied that she could not write to order, but that she would pray about it, and if the Lord gave her anything he should have it. Not many hours after, Miss Habershon began her first song for him, suggested by Dr. Torrey’s address that evening, and by the following April she had supplied Mr. Alexander with two hundred hymns. One day at Brixton, after an address by Dr. Torrey on the coming again of our Lord, Mr. Alexander happened to mention to Miss Habershon that very few hymns on this subject had taken hold on the people and become favourites. That night she began to write the hymn, “Oh, what a change! “and by the next day it was finished. This was the first of the hymns given to Mr. Alexander which was set to music and used at the meetings. It proved to be one of the favourites of the great mission, and has since been sung in many parts of the world.

It was always Miss Habershon’s aim to have a definite theme in each hymn. To her the “ministry of song “had proved a very happy service, and she tells how the thoughts which have formed the subjects of the hymns have seemed to come so definitely in answer to prayer, that she could only praise the Lord for what He had given to her through them.

Ada Ruth Habershon was the youngest daughter of Dr. S. O. Habershon. She was born on January 8th, 1861, in London, where the greater part of her life was spent, with the exception of a few years at a boarding-school at Dover. “Brought up in a Christian home, with believing, praying parents, the young heart was early led by God’s grace to believe in the Saviour’s love, and her whole life was devoted to His service. As she grew in years she also increased in knowledge of that love, and lived in the sunshine of it.” She was called home on February 1st, 1918.

Other hymns by this gifted writer which have become popular, especially in connection with mission services, are: “He will hold me fast,” “No burdens yonder,” “The Pilot song,” “Will the circle be unbroken,” “Bearing His cross,” and the hymn “Longings,” based on the text, “Lord Thou knowest all things: Thou knowest that I love Thee,”—John 21:17, which so fittingly expresses the soul breathings of this gifted writer:

“I long to know Thee better
Day by day,
I want to draw much closer
When I pray;
To listen more intently
For Thy voice,
To let the things Thou choosest
Be my choice.”