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Favorite Women Hymn Writers

November 19, 2006

I recently reread the book, Favorite Women Hymn Writers. It’s the third time I’ve read it since I bought it 16 years ago. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print, but you can get in from places that sell used books like Half.com.

Written by two women who currently serve the ministry of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, they are writers Betty Carlson and Jane Stuart Smith (a former opera singer) who are well-qualified to write such a book and desire to see the arts used within the Christian community with excellence.

The book is rather short and very easy to read. It gives the “birth” story of many famous and precious hymns as well as some biographical information about the women who wrote them. From famous hymnists who’s names we know like Fanny Crosby (“To God be the Glory”), Elizabeth Prentiss (“More Love to Thee”) and Christina Rossetti (“In the Bleak Mid-Winter”) to the more unknown Charlotte Elliot (“Just as I Am”) and Anne Warner (“Jesus Loves Me”) the most famous thing about these women’s lives is their words that have lived beyond them and encouraged millions.

Two threads that were common themes in most of these women’s lives was suffering and devotion. And it was often a combination of suffering and devotion that birthed the hymns we sing today. Overwhelmingly, these women suffered physical ailments that somehow kept them from the more practical service to the Lord that they desired to give. (Christina Rosetti had Grave’s Disease, Elizabeth Prentiss lost all her children and suffered from chronic insomnia and headaches, Frances Ridley Havergal was ill for 9 years, and Fanny Crosby was blind.) But during their personal times of devotion to the Lord, they wrote the words we sing today. Most of these songs were written as private prayers without a thought initially to being used as hymns, or they were used in their own churches locally. Many only gained wide recognition when D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey discovered them and used them in their evangelistic services. As Frances Ridley Havergal (“Take My Life, and Let It Be”) is quoted as saying, “Most of the time I just put down in verse a personal experience. Writing hymns is like praying, for I never seem to write even a verse by myself.”

I was encouraged by these women’s examples of faithfulness during challenging times, and their willingness to be used by God in quietness and solitude. Many were not able to pursue dreams of missions but instead used gifts of writing and music to encourage themselves, and in turn others. Many also taught Bible classes locally, visited and reached out to the poor in their midst, and sent money for missions. I was also impressed with what a faithful woman can do right where she is. I’m sure these women did not “feel” like they were producing “art” or some of the greatest hymns ever written. Instead many felt depression and despair. Many were interrupted by the cares of the household, children, and ill husbands. They didn’t always have endless hours to sit around contemplating their writing. But God used their pain, physical and spiritual, to serve others. I could not but be inspired and say “amen” to the last quote in the book:

“Remembering that the Christian Church from the first made use of the arts, we should be challenged to have them take their proper place again . . . The arts in a Christian framework are an act of worship, and we should be willing to work on them, striving to make artistic statements worthy of the Lord in whom we believe.”

Obviously, this is a specific passion of mine, to see the arts (writing, music, photography, art, etc.) used for God’s glory with excellence to make the truths of God grip us in new ways. This can sound monumental. But as this book over and over stresses, ordinary women across the centuries have done so in the quietness of a moment with a pad of paper and faithful devotion.

Note: For thought-provoking books on the topic of Christianity and the Arts I recommend:

Addicted to Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts by Franky Schaeffer

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeline L’Engle

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Ashleigh permalink
    November 20, 2006 1:07 pm

    Danielle, as a stay-at-home mom who LOVES the arts yet sometimes feels like I’ll never be able to make an impact in hat area, this was a very encouraging post! I’m going to see if our library has the book.

  2. November 20, 2006 1:15 pm

    Danielle…I love your recommendations! I was just looking for a new book to start. I might check it out! Thank you for sharing these reviews!

  3. November 20, 2006 1:27 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. I love hymns and find it facinating to read about the lives and stories of those who wrote them. I’ll add it to my list of books to read next. I’ve also enjoyed The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer. She talks about art and beauty in the christian home.

  4. November 20, 2006 3:54 pm

    Thanks for the book recommendations.

  5. November 21, 2006 3:38 pm

    Sure appreciated your review here. I’ve never a bibliophile like you. Keep it up. I keep meaning to read Elizabeth Printiss. Every quote I read from her makes me say, “I’ve got to read more from this lady.” I didn’t know she lost all her children. How? (Or should I read a biography and find out??) It’s funny how the Church thru the centuries has viewed the arts. AT one time, no musical instruments were allowed. Today some churches have every imaginable instrument. When peeople were illiterate except for clergy, stained glass pictures told the story of Christ’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension. Today some churches put nothing on walls. Jewish believers seldom put a cross in their midst in any form, such a reminder of the heinous crime committed against the Messiah, why glorify it? *My own husband refuses to have pictures of JEsus in the house, and doesn’t like crosses in jewelry.hat Eliz Prentiss book would you recommend I sart with? I love old hymns and the stories of their origins!

  6. November 26, 2006 3:48 pm

    Zoanna, Girl Talk is starting a biography on Elizabeth Prentiss as part of their bookclub, if you’re interested in reading her bio (I haven’t yet, except for what was in this hymn book). I’m not sure what else Prentiss wrote, but she’s famous for “Stepping Heavenward” which is still in print and I first heard about through E. Elliot’s radio program. I remember reading it when I was younger and liking, although it’s been a while I don’t remember much else. I think it’s pretty easy.

  7. November 26, 2006 10:28 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up on Girl Talk. I might join this next go-around, I’m not sure. I have a hard time keeping up w/ homeschool reading. Still not done Pride & Prejudice! I checked christianbook.com and got a list of other Prentiss books. Among them: Aunt Jane’s Hero, Little Susy Stories, Urbane & His Friends, The Flower of the Family, and Golden Hours. (In case you want to copy and pasted this to your Christmas Wish list!)

  8. September 17, 2009 8:10 am

    Thanks for sharing your love for our traditional hymns–and information on the book about women hymn writers. Your comment that they shared “suffering and devotion” is perceptive. That applies to men hymn authors too, of course. One reason is that the Lord reveals Himself to us in special ways, during times of trial. We reach out to Him in faith, and find His grace abundantly sufficient for our need. Long ago, David (the hymn writer of Israel) learned the same thing (Ps. 28:6-7). This is what makes our hymns so rich in spiritual insight.

    If you’ll forgive me a blatant “commercial,” I encourage you to check out my daily blog, Wordwise Hymns. There I post information about things that happened in hymn history on each day of the year. God bless.

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