Saturday, April 26, 2014

Is It for Me? -- Frances Ridley Havergal

This poetess had a few questions that she wanted to record as she felt the loss of a loved one in her 35th year. Frances Ridley Havergal was also travelling that year of 1871 with a  friend, a time for appreciation of His creation that struck her. These were just a few of the circumstances about her as Havergal penned the poem “Is It for Me?” Had she really doubts in her mind, as she thought about what lay ahead? Did this often-sick, but relatively young woman wonder whether her life would be cut short? Her poetry may also have been a learned response, the imitation of a parent she now could only remember, but to whom she could no longer speak.

Poetry was a craft that Frances learned from her father as a child, and which she used throughout her brief but productive life. William Havergal’s family, including his daughter Frances, lived in Anglican England where he ministered and composed verse and hymn, passing along key parts of his character to his children. While one brother Henry followed in his father’s footsteps as a ‘man of the cloth’ and an organist, Francis adopted her father’s poetic trait. Frances was a precocious girl who could read at age 4 and was writing verse at age 7. She learned several languages, and memorized several books of the bible, equipping her with a mind and a heart tuned specially for hymn-writing as an adult. These must have girded her spirit too, for she lost both parents before she was 40 – her mother at age 11, and her father when she was 34. The second loss was in 1870, the year before she would write her poem-question “Is It for Me?” It’s reported that her father’s death made her faith more acutely real for Frances, and perhaps that and her travel with a friend the following year played roles in the words she would write. She visited Switzerland with her friend Elizabeth Clay in 1871 when “Is It…” was composed. She marveled at the scenery before her eyes, with a growing appreciation for the Creator. You can sense the amazement still in her consciousness in the words of the poem she crafted, a woman who felt undeserving of her status in God’s kingdom. The few years of this particular period may have been something of a life turning point, as something coalesced inside her. Shortly thereafter, around 1873, she began to fully devote herself to lifting Jesus in all her efforts. It’s almost as if she was answering her own question ‘Is it for me?’, with a realization that God’s answer was indeed ‘yes’ to her.   

Frances would spend but a few years living her deepened devotion following “Is It for Me?” Sickness became more common and serious for her, finally taking her life in 1879 when she was just 42. But, she’d been prepared, with an attitude of joy in her last hours despite the pain that tormented her physically. She must have imagined it in many of her thoughts that are recorded poetically. These included words from the concluding verse of the hymn she’d written eight years earlier…’never grieve Thee more’. She meant it, in life and in death. May we all.  

See this site for all the verses:

See this site for further biography:

See this site for further biographic information:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Blessed Assurance -- Fanny Crosby

She certainly lived up to both words in the title of this song she penned in 1873. ‘Blessed with Assurance’ might as easily have been what she meant when she wrote one of her most well-known hymn texts in 1873, minus the contraction. For Frances Jane Crosby, better known as Fanny, no one might have imagined that this blind girl in the 1820’s would become someone whose life was blessed and who communicated such a positive aura-an assurance-to the world about her. Is it possible that what happened to her in infancy was a divinely inspired incident that would shape her as God’s tool - not an accident but instead an opening to a mission?  

Fanny was a 53-year old who was well on the way to a hall-of-fame reputation—one she would have denied for herself—when she showed why she was so gifted, with the help of a friend. At this point in her life, this ability to fuse music and poetic meter had already showed itself many times, and “Blessed Assurance” was just one example along Crosby’s life-path. How many times had she penned the words, and then allowed a collaborator to add the music, versus the opposite method in which she might have heard the tune first before envisioning the words? The latter technique must have been familiar, for Fanny’s friend Phoebe Knapp hesitated not in bringing to her a tune and asking Fanny to tell what its message was. Fanny listened closely, perhaps two or three times, tuning her ear and her heart to what was there, and announcing confidently the tune’s title within minutes. It wasn’t an accident that being blinded at six weeks old had honed Fanny Crosby’s aural skills exceptionally. But, she was likely as spiritually sharpened as she was aurally. If Phoebe’s tune spoke the words ‘Blessed Assurance’ to Fanny, could it have been because she was in touch with what God had to say about her certain salvation? ‘Assurance’ would have been a word packed with hope for Fanny, especially if she read her New Testament in the King James version (Acts 17:31; Colossians 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; and Hebrews 6:11 and 10:22). Here was but one entry in Crosby’s encyclopedic career. Call her a genius, a savant even, for she was someone specially prepared by Him for a specific task.

Fanny was able to summon at will, apparently, the poetry inside herself that spoke of Him. With some 8,000-9,000 hymns to her credit, Fanny composed almost like some of us breathe, reportedly at a rate of three songs per week for some time. There are others like her in musical history, apparently disabled in the layman’s perspective, but indeed gifted. Why? In Crosby’s case, her output’s vertical direction needs no explanation. There’ve been other musical geniuses, pointing in various directions. Fanny chose to point her listeners skyward. Which way are you looking?

See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see 101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Also see biography of composer here:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Peace, Perfect Peace -- Edward Henry Bickersteth, Jr.

He must have had plenty of questions that nagged at his conscience regarding various circumstances, but he didn’t feel the need to hide them. Instead, Edward Bickersteth wrote them for others to see when he composed “Peace, Perfect Peace” in 1875. What if he had forgotten the ending punctuation, and made it a period, not a question mark? Some of our contemporary hymnals do just that, to our detriment. Would it be important to know, that Edward had some tough, even sarcastic questions, and not declaring at the outset that he had the answers? Was it his own searching, pleading voice that Bickersteth used that day? See if it’s yours too.

Edward Bickersteth was, someone might say, a “professional” man of faith who did not take leave of his calling, even if he was on vacation in England. This 50-year old guy might have been excused if he had taken a mental holiday, but instead his ears perked up when the English minister’s sermon reached him in  an emotional place where he’d not been before. Isaiah 26: 3 told him that God’s peace is perfection. It must have been providential that he visited a dying relative a few hours later, and probably not an accident either that his kin was despondent. What does a close family talk about in their last earthly moments? We can guess what Edward and this individual may have discussed that afternoon – sorrow; life’s stresses; loneliness; unease with the beyond, even for the believer; and physical pain. These issues’ fingerprints are on Bickersteth’s poetry he composed that day. Some vacation, huh? Though Bickersteth must have previously been near others who were in death’s throes, did being with a fading family member change the dynamic? One might think so. Yes, he’d been trained at an institution of higher education, was an accomplished poet, and had been in ministry for over 20 years by the afternoon of that 1875 encounter with his relative. But in this crucible, he evidently drew on something most recent for this intense experience. He thought ‘I just heard something today that might help’. If it’s true that out of death comes life, then that’s what happened anew for Edward Bickersteth that day, as he gave life to a new hymn while watching and helping his relative expire with greater calm. The peace, perfect peace is not a stuttering disability. It’s a transformative experience, one that is a divine overwhelming of evil’s designs, as the composer reflected on what Isaiah has to say.  

Perhaps it helped to embrace the apprehensions, not dismiss them, Edward may have reasoned. That’s a ‘Job’ approach, you might say. Give voice to the anger and disappointment, yet maintain that He’s trustworthy. Even Jesus took this path in his death moment. “…why have you forsaken me?” Bickersteth’s hymn is so counter to what I most often do when I hear a dying person’s complaint. I avoid the tough, bitter-sounding words death vocalizes; instead, I might urge the person with something like‘Oh, don’t say that, just think of the good things’. But, Edward didn’t discard the questions. He listened and gave them a reply, the only one –the person of Jesus--that we’ll be able to check out, after we’ve checked out.     

See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.

See further biographic information on the composer here:

See this site also for song’s story, and to see all original eight verses, including one reportedly never published:

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Nearer, Still Nearer -- Lelia Naylor Morris

Lelia Naylor Morris wanted more of Him, a reader of her words might readily conclude. Was she voicing something that she knew was still far off, but yet expected to become more tangible as her life progressed when she sat down and penned the words to “Nearer, Still Nearer” as the close of the 19th Century approached? Or, was she particularly motivated at that point to reach out with her heart, indicating a longing for relief from something in her life?  Maybe she’d say ‘yes’ to both of those questions if she were here for us to ask. Was there light or darkness in her future, with this nearness to accompany her as the light dimmed (as the moonlight might, on many nights)?

Lelia had plenty in her background and foreground to draw upon for the words to “Nearer…” that year of 1898.  She was a 36-year old native and apparently lifelong resident of Ohio who’d been writing hymns for relatively few years, but she’d believed in and committed herself to the Savior for over 20 years at that point. And, she’d played the organ at the church since age 12, so, the music and words were within her. And, she likely was moved by the churches (Methodist and Methodist-Episcopal) in which she and her husband Charles were members. She was active in various ways as an adult, including in the choir and at camp meetings, from which it is said she often drew inspiration for her hymn poetry. Lelia’s hymn-writing career’s beginning apparently coincided with a re-commitment to God she made one summer as a 30-year old at a camp.  As a writer, she reportedly kept a paper and pencil close by so that she could note something if she felt moved by an incident within eye- or earshot. Whether there was a specific incident that spurred her to write in 1898 is not recorded, but there need not be one to appreciate the value of her words. She must have been a humble and penitent believer that day, as her words reveal a woman who brought nothing to offer Him except her devotion.

With a humble spirit, Lelia Morris composed perhaps as many as 1,500 hymns over her life, including some after her sight failed her while she was still in her early 50’s.  She must have been an inspiration to those around her, because they helped this woman, though blind, in her quest to continue writing songs. These included her son, who built his mother an immense blackboard to assist her before she was completely blind. Her daughter, a missionary in China, later helped Lelia write out some songs after sight completely left her. They and others who knew her must have sensed that “Nearer…” was genuine for its composer, as she persevered even when her body failed. Perhaps her prayer for God’s closeness when she was 36 was just what prepared her for what lay ahead, some 18 years hence as her vision disappeared. What’s ahead? I don’t know, and neither did Lelia. She just knew who she could count on being there.       

The following websites have some information on the song and its composer:
See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.

See biography of composer here, via a fellow blogger! :