Open a hymnal in nearly any English-speaking Protestant church today, and Frances Ridley Havergal’s name will appear on several of its pages. Why should a nineteenth century single woman who lived to be only forty-two years of age be so widely remembered?
Born in Victoria England, Frances grew up in a home filled with music. Her father was a clergyman as well as a gifted musician, and Frances inherited his passion for good church music. As a young child, she began composing hymn texts and tunes. Though her education was fitful, she learned quickly. She read widely, mastered French and German, and acquired a working knowledge of Latin, Italian, Greek, and Hebrew. She developed her voice to the point that she was assigned solo roles in local oratorio performances. Her vast knowledge of Scripture combined with her literary skill enabled her to write devotional hymns that are still widely used in our churches today.
We might think of hymnwriters as sober, sedentary types, spending most of their time in trancelike contemplation. But Frances was universally described as warm, vivacious and radiant. She had a ready laugh and an infectiously cheerful personality. Far from reclusive, she loved people and social gatherings, and she often sand and played for audiences at parties. Throughout her life, she was as active as her health would allow. As a young woman, she enjoyed horseback riding, swimming, and skating. She loved to travel, meet new people, and experience new things. Children were a special joy in her life. For several years, she assisted in the education of her sister’s children. Her biographer T.H. Darlow writes, “Her nephews and nieces all adored her; she shared their sports, and invented charades and acrostics for their amusement.” She also taught Sunday school and gave voice lessons to children in her community. Her two children’s devotional books, Little Pillows and Morning Bells, reveal her special tenderness toward the spiritual needs of young people.
Beneath all her vivacity and joy in living, however, was a deeper, defining quality. She was devoted to her Savior, and her overarching purpose in every area of life was to be useful to Him. No matter where she went or what she was doing, she had a constant sense of her spiritual mission, and everything was dedicated to this single purpose.
Darlow sums up this quality of Frances’ spirit in the term consecration. “What singled her out…was the note of absoluteness in her spiritual experience – that note which is the unfailing characteristic of Christian sanctity. In her training, in her religious belief, in her outlook on human affairs, there were not a few narrowing limitations; but in her consecration there was no limit and no reserve. She had learned the secret of abandonment, and she yielded herself utterly to God.”
This principle guided her attitude about marriage and singleness as another biographer, Sharon James, observes. “The theme of Frances’ life was consecration…This partly explains her contentment with her singleness. She received a number of proposals of marriage, but turned them down. She would not even have considered marrying a non-Christian, but probably would not have married someone who was half-hearted. This was not easy. She once wrote of the sense of ‘general heart-loneliness and need of a one and special love…and the belief that my life is to be a lonely one in that respect…I do so long for the love of Jesus to be poured in, as a real and satisfying compensation.'”
She had an intense desire to be a spiritual blessing to others. Her travels were not merely pleasure trips; they were opportunities to minister to people. Everywhere she went she sought out people with spiritual needs. She once gave up an outing with friends to witness to the man who was painting her study windows. When she opened the window to ask how he was doing, he replied, ” O Miss Frances, I’ve been longing for weeks for a chance to speak with you.” Frances promptly invited him to climb in through the window and gave him the spiritual counsel he was seeking.
Frances’ consecration extended to her private life as well as her public one. Her personal writings reveal a disciplined and fervent devotional life. We see the fruit of her times alone with God in her hymns. Frances did not view her hymnwriting merely as a pastime or a way to gain recognition. It was a service to God, a means of communicating gospel truth and encouraging others. She spoke of the composition process as a conversation between herself and God. “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 a child would look up at every sentence and say, ‘And what shall I say next?’ That is just what I do.”
As Frances entrusted her life to God day by day, His loving care became very real and personal to her. Despite years of painful illness and the burden of caring for a difficult stepmother, Frances was able to say near her life’s end, “How infinitely blessed it is to be entirely Christ’s!…I keep wondering every day what new loving kindness is coming next! Leaving everything to Him is so inexpressibly sweet, and surely He does arrange so much better than we could for ourselves.”
Frances’ best-known hymn, “Take My Life and Let It Be,” grew out of an experience she had sometime in the last five years of her life. She had recently come to a deeper realization of God’s forgiveness and love and been able to make a more complete surrender of herself to Him. More than anything, she wanted others to know the joy she had found in her Lord. During a visit in the home of friends, she prayed that she might be a spiritual encouragement to everyone in the house. On the last night of her visit, too happy to sleep, she reeled in the answer to her prayer, and the words of the hymn swelled up almost effortlessly in her heart. We still echo her prayer of consecration.
Written by Eileen Berry. This article was published in the Spring 2007 edition of The Beautiful Spirit magazine.
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