Frances Ridley Havergal - A Sweet Singer
HER WORDS AND HER WITNESS
1. “TAKE MY LIFE”
The life of Frances Havergal was relatively short, certainly busy, generally happy, and sometimes sad. In that respect it is like many lives. However, her legacy through her hymns and other writings, is assuredly not. We shall begin by taking a brief overview of her life, before looking in more detail at those aspects that concern us most this afternoon.
Frances Ridley Havergal was born on 14 December 1836 to the Reverend William Henry Havergal of Astley in Worcestershire, and his wife Jane. She had three sisters and two brothers, all older than herself. Her father enjoyed poor health most of his life, although he lived to a good age. Of the siblings, she was closest to Maria in later life, though to Ellen earlier. The eldest, Miriam, was more distant, due mainly to the age gap of nineteen years. Of her brothers, she was closest to young Frank. Henry caused much distress by embracing Tractarian views whilst at Oxford, which he maintained during the remainder of his life.
Astley Parish was small and rural, a delightful place for a child to grow up. Ill health forced Mr Havergal to retire temporarily in 1841, and the family removed to Henwick House, near Worcester. In the large grounds and cultivated gardens Frances could escape with Flora her spaniel, from the loneliness of being the only child in the house—or indeed in the area, as far as she knew. Four years later, in 1845, her father’s health had improved, and he was appointed to the Parish of St Nicholas, Worcester, and was made a Dean of the cathedral in recognition of his work in the diocese over the years. He would later be made a Canon. Life in Worcester was not to Frances’ liking, who called herself a ‘caged lark’. The death of her mother in 1848 was a devastating blow to the twelve year old, who had done her best to blot out the knowledge that her mother would die through the long and painful illness that preceded her death. Her mother’s dying prayer was that Frances would become a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Frances was sent away to school, as her sisters had been before her. She went to Campden House in London, to a school that enjoyed something of a revival atmosphere following the conversion of the headmistress, Mrs Teed, through the influence of Evangelical friends. Preachers were often invited, and Mrs Teed was a tireless witness to the Gospel. Although Frances was not converted yet, the experience was most beneficial to her.
She accompanied her father to Germany in 1852, on a trip he undertook to seek a cure for his failing sight. It was a success for him, and for her, as she proved to be most proficient in learning German. She attained a distinction for her academic achievements, never before awarded to a girl, let alone to a foreigner!
Upon her return in 1853 she went to Worcester cathedral in June for her confirmation. It took over an hour for all the candidates to come before the bishop for the laying on of hands and the prayers, and she was conscious in a very deep manner of the presence of God. Indeed she felt as though choirs of angels sang the ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer, each time it was repeated. This was a most precious time to her, as she was able to declare publicly her love for and faith in her Saviour Jesus Christ.
In 1859 Canon Havergal moved, with his new wife, two daughters, and two spinster sisters to the tiny and very poor parish of Shareshill near Cannock. His health demanded a quieter life; their energies required more. The two Nott sisters had agreed together to devote themselves to the care and support of this godly though frail pastor, but Frances was glad to take up an offer to become governess to her sister Miriam’s children. This occupied her from 1860 to 1867. By this time she had published some hymns and poems in a work entitled The Ministry of Song, and writing was becoming her life’s work. She was also in demand as a singer, whose untrained voice had been recognised as of a high quality by a German professor of music.
Canon Havergal retired in 1867, and the household settled in Leamington. Frances found that she was not welcomed by her stepmother, and life was strained. Her father’s death in 1870 did nothing to ease the strain, which was only lifted briefly when Frances contracted typhoid on the return from a European holiday. On that occasion her stepmother proved a devoted nurse, but the change was only temporary. Caroline’s death in 1878 brought that unhappy chapter to a close, and Maria and Frances decided to make a home in Wales. By this stage Sankey and Moody, who told her they were singing her hymns in Chicago, asked her to assist on a tour of Ireland. She prepared to leave in May 1879, but was taken ill. Peritonitis was diagnosed, and the prognosis was not good. Realising that her condition was hopeless, she called for her brothers and sisters. They gathered around her bed on June 3 1879, and she sang one verse of her hymn ‘Golden harps are sounding’. A short while later she tried to sing again, but after one note, clear and sweet, fell back on the pillow, and died. She was forty two years of age.
Frances was laid to rest in Astley churchyard, with her beloved mother and father and with her stepmother who had been so used of God to bring her to faith. She died at the height of her writing ability, and with years of faithful service apparently before her. But the Judge of all the earth does right, and took her from this world according to His perfect will.
2. “THOU ART COMING”
In examining the life of any Christian believer the record of their awakening from death to life is of vital interest, and we shall now return to look at her spiritual journey.
Frances was brought up, as we can doubtless imagine, in a godly and evangelical home. Zeal and piety were the order of the day, and from a young age Frances accompanied her older sisters on their visits to the homes of the poor parishioners. Mr Havergal held family prayers as often as his health would allow. The pupils who boarded at the house were required to read and discuss the Greek text of the New Testament each Sunday, and the children were encouraged to join in the discussions. None of these things, good as they are, can make a person a believer, and Frances went through years of turmoil before finding peace at last.
At Astley, and then at Henwick House, her love of the outdoors had impressed upon her the reality of God. Not only was she brought at home up with the knowledge of God’s existence, but she experienced the reality of it in all she saw, and she was a good observer. But she lacked peace, and this was made most obvious to her when her mother said to her,
These words, spoken when she was ten or eleven, remained with her vividly. She heard a sermon when only six years old that affected her deeply. Ten years later she wrote,
As with all those with whom God is dealing, there were times when all religious exercise was hard, others when it was a comfort. She would keep up a routine of Bible reading and prayer, possibly as much as anything because it was her habit. But on occasions she rebelled against prayer, and was thankful for a bump or bruise that meant she could not—to her mind at least—kneel and pray. Then again she could sit in the garden in spring and enjoy the beauty of all she saw, and earnestly desire that God would make her good, if He would make her “a Christian before Summer comes”, as she put it. Her reason was, “I longed so to enjoy His works as I felt they could be enjoyed”.
She was not mistaken in her views of herself, knowing that she was naughty. Indeed her failed attempts at self-reformation left her with the certain knowledge that she had to be ‘made a Christian’ or would not be one at all, for she had no power of herself to help herself.
As the Rector’s daughter she knew what was expected of her, and she did it. But being the Rector’s daughter meant that she was not taken seriously when she spoke to one of the Curates about her troubled state. He though her overanxious. She wrote,
The two-year illness of her mother with cancer was a trial to Frances. Her mother’s conversation was almost exclusively on spiritual matters. She told them all how she trusted in the merits of Jesus Christ, of her confidence in His righteousness, and of her joy at the prospect of heaven. She told Frances, “Fanny dear, pray to God to prepare you for all that he is preparing you for’. The child misunderstood the words, not realizing that her mother was looking ahead to what God had in store for her. This included coping with her mother’s death, a thing Frances found very hard. Indeed, she seems to have refused to accept that it had occurred, when, on July 5 1848, her mother was at last released from pain and suffering. Six days later, as she looked out of her attic window, she saw that the shops were shut, though it was not Sunday, and she saw the streets lined with parishioners, come to pay their last respects. When the front door opened and the coffin was carried out, she broke down suddenly as the reality of the situation hit her.
Her mother’s death seems to have awakened her to the passing nature of life, that it is vanity. The site of a dead four year-old child lying cold in his coffin when she was herself the same age had done nothing to stir her soul, but her mother’s death did. She was often melancholy, though could hide it well. This gave others the impression that she had no cares, though she said it was because she could forget sadness in a moment, though it was never far away.
We have already mentioned her time at the school of Mrs Teed, where, although she was not saved herself, she saw many girls come to saving faith. It was one of her sister Ellen’s friends, Caroline Cooke, the second Mrs Havergal, who was instrumental in bringing Frances through her crisis. She came to visit the family in February 1851, and had the opportunity to speak with Frances. Caroline encouraged her to picture the Second Advent as occurring at that moment, and then challenged her by asking, “Could you not commit your soul to Him, to your Saviour, Jesus?” And quite suddenly Frances got up and rushed to her room knowing that at last she could say ‘yes’. She wrote,
The Saviour had come for her, and she rejoiced to go out to meet Him on the way. Hymns such as ‘I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus’, written in 1874, ‘In full and glad surrender’, written at the very end of 1873, and ‘I bring my sins to Thee’, written in June 1870, reflect, at least in part, her conversion experience.
When she was confirmed in 1853 she wrote a poem, ‘In the Cathedral’.
She was also made aware of the fact that she had been redeemed with a price, and as such was no longer her own master. She had learned long sections of Exodus off by heart at school, and now a part of the twenty-first chapter described her own position. She was the slave, freed in the seventh year, and she loved her Master. She wrote,
As the servant of her Lord and Saviour, she was ready to be spent in His service. With her love for Him, her love for others, her joyous nature, and her many gifts, she was prepared for all that God had prepared her for.
3. “WHO IS ON THE LORD’S SIDE?”
Frances Havergal was tireless in her work for the Saviour. She had begun to use her pen to good effect at a young age. Newspapers published ‘Enigmas’—word puzzles—and cash prizes were offered for those who could solve them. The money she won in this way was given to the Church Missionary Society, for which her father had been a stalwart deputation speaker in his younger and healthier days, and to the Bible Society. She organized groups in the parishes, where girls were taught needlework so they could make items to sell. The proceeds went to missionary work. Later she organised groups to support temperance work, though with more success among girls than boys. Her writing style did not appeal to boys.
Frances did a good deal to promote the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the Irish Society. In this she was encouraged by visits to her sister Ellen and her husband Giles Shaw. Giles was a mill-owner in Celbridge, near Dublin, and he had an evangelical concern for his workers. Most were Irish-speakers, almost all were illiterate. If these people were to be saved they needed the Bible in their own language. But in order to read the Bible they needed to be able to read. Frances raised surprisingly large sums of money through her classes and clubs, so that teachers could be trained and sent into the villages. In her circular letter of 1879, sent to all who were engaged in raising money for the work, she gave the following points for prayer, 1. That God would give His Holy Spirit to all the Irish teachers and their pupils, 2. That very many may, during the year, seek and find Jesus, 3. That those who find Him may be filled with love, and that the joy of the Lord may be their strength, especially in bearing persecution for His sake, 4. That every one who finds Christ, may begin at once to bring others to Him. Bibles were printed and distributed by the Irish Society, a body that took a more gentle line in the controversy with Rome that the more direct Irish Church Missions. It is worth noting in passing that the Irish Church Missions is still active; I am unaware of the continued existence of the more gentle body.
The contemporary controversy with Rome will bear a little more examination, for it was seen as a crucial issue in that day.
The catalyst for concern was the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. This was opposed fiercely by many staunch Protestants, who saw it as the opening of the door to a papal revival in the realm. One response was the founding in 1845 of the Protestant Alliance by Lord Shaftsbury. At present the Evangelical Alliance are seeking to claim that they are the senior society, on the grounds that the date on which the Protestant Alliance was founded cannot be ascertained due to the destruction of records in a fire many years ago. The Protestant Alliance are in no doubt as to who is the older body. Be that as it may, in 1865 the Church Association was founded, with particular reference to the Established Church. This body continues as Church Society. William Havergal was a founder member, and a lifelong supporter of the work of the Association. That his own son should reject the historic faith of the Church of England in favour of ritualism was a sore trial to him.
William Havergal was typical of his generation in understanding 2 Thessalonians 2 as referring to the Pope, though Frances’ biographer tries to suggest that he was an extremist. Protestants were knowledgeable concerning Roman doctrine, particularly purgatory, auricular confession and the Mass. Frances wrote a poem that told the story of a young girl who discovers the error of Rome’s teaching on purgatory and rushes home to tell her dying mother. The mother dies without saying whether she has understood or not, and leaves the child in turmoil. She is quoted as saying,
The poem ends,
According to her biographer, Frances was satisfied if a Roman Catholic professed faith in Jesus Christ. Her sister Maria evidently was not. One feels that a certain revisionist touch has lighted on this area of Frances’ witness. Consider, after all, her appreciation for her own name. She had been baptized Frances Ridley after her godfather, William Ridley, a former pupil of Canon Havergal. Of her name she wrote,
And of Ridley himself, she wrote,
She read her way through her father’s extensive library, including all the works of the Protestant Reformers he had collected. One can hardly imagine that she could read such books and not, like her father, see that it is an either/or response that is required to the question of Rome and orthodoxy.
This was by no means the only political act to have repercussions on the evangelical scene. The year 1869 saw the Irish Church Act, which led to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. This move was opposed by many Evangelicals, who feared it would open to door to Rome. We must bear in mind that Ireland was one country at this time, and that Roman Catholicism was deeply ingrained in the illiterate in particular.
The Elementary Education Act of 1870 removed the monopoly of the Established Church on the teaching of religion in schools. Indeed there was growing pressure in some quarters for the banning of religious education altogether. Frances threw herself into the work of promoting religious education in schools. It was to be a bitter struggle that would divide Christians in a less than spiritual manner. However, because the Methodists put the spiritual needs of children above denominational concerns, and so worked with the Church of England, and because public opinion was awakened, the move failed.
Frances and her father had a deep concern for the education of children, especially of the poorer classes, to whom this was closed. While at St Nicholas, Worcester, Mr Havergal was approached by a local man, who wished to make a financial contribution to the Lord’s work in recognition of the financial success his business partner and he had known over so many years. They were bottlers of the local spring water, and had diversified into other areas. He was Mr Lea; his partner Mr Perrin. He wished to give £1000, and allowed the Canon to convince him to use it to build a school for Sunday teaching. Frances was one of the first teachers, and was clearly loved by her fellow-teachers and her pupils. She took a particular delight when, during one Sunday School parade, she saw a banner which read, ‘We will never give up the Bible’. One wonders whether this sentiment was perhaps inspired by the visit of a converted Roman Catholic priest, Gavazzi, to London. He had joined General Garribaldi, the unifier of Italy and gaoler of the Pope, and Gavazzi came to London to call on all Britain’s subjects to remember the Reformers and to “Defend the Bible from all attacks within and without.”
Following her father’s death Frances became involved in a project that affected the family more directly. Hymns Ancient and Modern had been published, and was seen as serving the ritualists in the Church of England. Canon Havergal was recognized in his lifetime as an authority on church music, and had composed chants for psalms, hymns and tunes over the years. The Vicar of Perry Barr, the Reverend C B Snepp, a staunch Calvinist by conviction, wanted to publish a book more worthy of the Protestant heritage of the Established Church. He wished to include some of the Canon’s compositions, and approached Frances for assistance in researching the manuscripts. In this she met an almost pathological opposition from her stepmother, who refused to allow anyone to touch her deceased husband’s papers. In point of fact they had been bequeathed to Frank, whose musical talents were evident from a young age. Mr Snepp sought to intervene in order to ease the tension, but Frances asked him to desist, as it made matters worse rather than better. Mr Snepp then approached Caroline Havergal directly, and won her over. Work was put in hand, and the manuscript was sent to the printers. Even this proved slow, for Mrs Havergal, who was by now involved in the project, was prone to holding things up for no apparent reason. Her most common failing was a refusal to pass on proofs when they were sent in. However, in due time two volumes were published, Havergal’s Psalmody, and Mr Snepp’s own Songs of Grace and Glory. It is interesting to note that Frances and Mr Snepp disagreed on some hymns. Anything that was in Ancient and Modern was out to him, until Frances pointed out that both Dean Alford and C H Spurgeon had included one, Bishop Mant’s ‘See the destined day arise’. Frances was also involved in that most controversial of matters, the rewriting of extant hymns. She referred to this as ‘rewriting sundry queer old hymns’. This exercise made her aware of what she considered to be gaps in hymnody, ‘subjects no hymn-writer seems to have touched’.
Frances repaid Mr Snepp’s kindness by accompanying the family to Switzerland for a holiday. While there she convinced them to hire guides and climb one of the higher peaks, the Aeggischhorn. This they did, and it was not until Mr Snepp dropped his spectacles down a crevasse that they began to realise how dangerous an expedition this was! The guides however, recovered the spectacles, and brought the party down safely, via the summit! Frances liked adventure, and had built her ‘castle in the air’ in hoping that she might be called to missionary work one day. It was not to be. Frances knew that hers was a ministry of song, and it was to composition and singing that she devoted herself chiefly.
4. “IN FULL AND GLAD SURRENDER”
In all her activities for the spread of the Gospel she never forgot the needs of her own family. She was writing to her niece Cecilia, Henry’s daughter, for whom she had an especial love and concern. She made every effort to bring to Ceci that assurance that her stepmother had brought to her so many years before. In due time she had the joy of seeing her niece come to faith, and when she visited the family, she wrote the hymn, ‘Take my life and let it be’. The sentiments of this best-loved hymn would soon be tested, for Frances contracted typhoid on the return journey from her continental holiday in 1873. Throughout her illness her stepmother proved to be a selfless and devoted nurse. The following year she had to bear the news that the manuscript, both words and music, of her latest hymn book, had been destroyed by fire, along with all the set type, when the printing firm burned down. Her response was to attempt, like William Carey, to reproduce the work, and make it even better than before. Although the kindness of her stepmother was only temporary, at her death in May 1878 after a long and most painful illness, Frances was the recipient of her final and brightest smile.
The visits of Moody and Sankey to local towns such as Bewdley were occasions when Frances and Miriam could assist the Lord’s work. The typhoid scare of 1873 had left her prone to bouts of feverish illness, and these weakened her considerably. However, it was in this weakened state that she wrote her best hymns. When in Perry Barr she walked with Mr Snepp to the boys’ school, but was too tired to enter. He left her outside, leaning against the wall. When he came out he saw that she was writing on a scrap of paper. At his request she showed him what she had written; it was the hymn ‘Golden harps are sounding’. She said once that she had learned that a good deal of living went into a small amount of writing, and it is perhaps for this reason that her writings were so popular, for she spoke for the common experience of many believers.
1873 was an important year for Frances, for not only did she come close to death because of typhoid, but she also underwent a profound experience. Her biographer likens it to the experience of Teresa of Avila; it reads entirely differently.
Towards the end of the year she was sent a little book entitled All for Jesus! She read it, and was arrested by its contents. It set forth an experience and fulness of blessing that exceeded anything she had known. She had always had a deep sense of the love of Christ to her, and had been grateful for that. This was something else, and she began to see that there is a difference between consecration and total consecration. She desired earnestly to know, in the words of John 14.21, the power of His resurrection, even if that meant Jesus’ suffering as well. She wrote, “It is not knowing doctrine, but being with Him, which will give this.” She considered that the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin, I John 1.7, and she was able to reply ‘I see it all, and I have the blessing’. For her this meant the passing of shadows of doubt, of worries over any matter, of utter devotion to her Saviour, and of complete patience without murmur in all the troubles caused by her stepmother. Although she had only a few years left to life this season of spiritual blessing left an indelible mark. She saw that when a person comes to Christ to be cleansed, they are not to walk away again, but to remain in the fountain of His blood, always and ever clean. It is in this state of utter purity in God’s sight that we are free to trust Him implicitly, doubting nothing.
Frances had expressed sentiments of this sort before, when, in June 1870, she wrote the hymn ‘I bring my sins to Thee’. Perhaps it was not until December 1873 that she began to understand the full significance of what she had written.
It is hard to put into words the motions of the soul, and Frances was experienced with the pen. Let us be satisfied to know that she was brought into a deeper relationship with Jesus, to a fuller knowledge of His grace, and a more perfect trust in the grace of God.
For her the time from the end of 1873 to her death was the most peaceful part of her life, and when she lay dying she rested in the finished work of her Saviour Jesus, Whose blood alone could make her acceptable to God. She said with sorrow, when she moaned because of the intense pain, that she had not “confessed Him in the fire”. Yet she was at peace at the end, asking that the Holy Communion be administered to her, not because she trusted in the rite, but because she wished to obey Jesus’ dying command that His death be remembered—and what better time to remember His death than at one’s own?
Her love for the Saviour shone through from the moment of her conversion to the moment she died. Her life of obedience is before us as an example of complete consecration to God. These are the things she sought to declare in words and song, as she who was ‘Kept for the Master’s Use’ gave herself in full and glad surrender to the One who had bled and died for her.