The Life of Francis Ridley Havergal, 1836-1879
“Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord, to Thee” is probably Frances Ridley Havergal’s best-known hymn, and it is a fitting summary of her life. It was her whole-hearted devotion to God that characterised everything about her. What we find in her hymns is an expression of her heart’s desire to know Christ better; and to serve Him more devotedly
Victorian English vicarages seem to have produced some very interesting and creative, as well as some very mature, Christians. The home of William Henry Havergal, vicar of Astley in Worcestershire, was no exception. He himself was an accomplished musician; and his discussions with Frances on music, composition and hymn-writing were the major encouragement for her own work. William wrote a number of hymn tunes still in use today, including ‘Baca’. Frances was affectionately devoted to both her family and her church. She loved her middle name, Ridley, that of the martyr Nicholas Ridley, who died during the reign of Catholic Mary, and to whom the family was related. She wrote once:
‘But ‘what the R. doth represent’
I value and revere,
A diamond clasp is seems to he,
On golden chains, enlinking me
In loyal love to England’s hope,
The church I hold so dear.
The Havergals were an ordinary, happy, faithful Christian family. Frances had three sisters (one of them, Maria, later wrote her biography) and two brothers, both of whom entered the preaching ministry She was an attractive, cheerful and intelligent child, full of fun. By the age of four she could read the Bible, and had learned to write. The family would gather on Sunday evenings to sing hymns, and little Frances keenly joined in. During these years her father was unwell. His great solace was composing music for cathedral services, many hundreds of chants (for singing the Psalms), and hymn tunes. He always gave the income from these to the work of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), a missionary society of the Church of England. Both parents were very keen to teach their children to love the Saviour, and in one letter written to Frances when she was staying with her grandparents her mother Jane wrote, “May my Fanny know and love Jesus Christ! Then she will be sure to go to heaven whether she dies young or old.” Sadly, Jane herself died when Frances was only eleven. When she became ill, something she said to Frances was forever etched in her memory: “Fanny dear, pray to God to prepare you for all that He is preparing you.” Frances had not expected her mother’s death, and it was a deep shock to her.
However, her interest in the gospel had been increasing for some time. Frances wrote in her twenties that one of the turning points in that direction was a sermon she heard when about nine years old, which aroused uneasiness about the state of her soul. “At this time,” she later wrote, “I don’t think I had any clear ideas about believing on the Lord Jesus, and so getting rid of the burden which had pressed so long upon my little soul. My general notion was that I didn’t love God at all, and was very bad and wicked altogether; and that if I went on praying very much, something would come to me and change me all at once, and make me like many whom I read about and a few whom I saw As for trying to be good, that seemed of next to no use; it was like struggling in a quicksand, the more you struggle the deeper you sink.”
THOSE WHO HELPED HER
Frances was very sure, when she came to believe, that salvation was entirely a work of God. In the years after her mother’s death she read the Bible a great deal, and used to pray often for real faith – as she was becoming increasingly conscious that she didn’t have it, and that this was, above all what she needed. Her older sisters, Ellen and Maria, would talk often with her about Christ and how “sweet and pleasant a thing it was to love Him who first loved us.” But it was not until she went – to her “great delight” – to boarding school that she really came to know the Saviour. It seems that the instrument God used was a delightful Christian mistress, Mrs. Teed. Mrs. Teed spoke and prayed with the girls often, with an “intense yearning” which reminded Frances of the apostle Paul. “The result was,” she later wrote, “what might really be called a revival among her young charges. There may have been, and probably was some excitement [she means over emotionalism] but that the Holy Spirit was even then and there, sent down into many a young heart, and that many dated from that time their real conversion to God, and went home that Christmas rejoicing in a newly and truly found Saviour, I have no doubt whatever.”
Another person used to help Frances was Miss Caroline Cooke, a lady who later married her father and became, as Frances called her, “my loved mother.” She was visiting Frances’s married sister Miriam at the same time as she was, a few months after the Christmas referred to above. One evening, sitting on the sofa, as they were talking, Frances told her there was nothing she longed for more than to be forgiven. Miss Cooke asked Frances a question which led to the hearty answer that she would be willing to lose everything – even her best-loved papa, her brothers and sisters and all she loved – if she could gain this. Miss Cooke encouraged her that if that was the case, she was sure it would not be very long before her desire was granted. And then she asked, “Why cannot you trust yourself to your Saviour at once? Supposing that now at this moment, Christ was to come could you not trust Him?” That was enough for Frances. As soon as she could, she raced upstairs to her room, flung herself on her knees and committed herself, in real faith, to Jesus. The change in her heart was unmistakable. The Bible was, for the first time, a delight to her, and she understood it with new eyes. The Holy Spirit had truly changed her heart.
HER PHYSICAL LIFE
The rest of her life, while quiet and, perhaps to our eyes, rather unremarkable, was spiritually very fruitful. She lived until her death with her parents or her sisters, simply taking every opportunity to talk about the gospel with whose lives brushed hers, to tell them of the Saviour’s love. She was a warm, cheerful Christian who loved to share the truth in a natural and friendly, though earnest, way.
But she was also an intelligent woman, with unusually developed gifts, and she used these very much to God’s glory. Languages were a special talent. At one time she studied Hebrew with one of her brothers in law, and made a particular study of the Psalms (no doubt helpful to her in hymn writing). She had earlier learned Greek with her father, so that she could study the New Testament in the original. She was also fluent in German and French; and in her late teens spent a number of months at school in Germany (delighting herself by coming first in German in a class of German-speaking girls!). But her greatest study was Scripture. She made it her business to read it morning and night; reflecting on the daily, practical ways she should be changed by it “into the likeness of Christ.” Together with one of her lifelong friends, Elizabeth Clay (whom she had met at school), she memorized large portions of the Bible. By her early adulthood she knew all the gospels, the Epistles, Revelation, the Psalms and Isaiah (her favourite book) by heart; and later she memorized the Minor Prophets. In addition, she would often make important biblical passages, such as the fruits of the Spirit, subjects of her morning meditation and prayer. In her journal she recorded taking each fruit, one per day, and praying for its increase in her life. The year she died, she began writing a “Journal of Mercies”; recording each day God’s kindnesses to her. Always, despite sickness or disappointments, there was something. She wrote devotional books for children and for adults, and often wrote down her lessons of spiritual self-discipline. In her memoirs she gave a list of “12 reasons for attending church on a wet Sunday” – which apply equally well as lessons for us, whenever we might find ourselves unwilling to make the effort. They include:
1.God has blessed the Lord’s Day and hallowed it, making no exceptions for hot or cold or stormy days.
2.I expect my minister to be there. I should be surprised if he were to stay at home on account of the weather.
6.Such weather will show me on what foundation my faith is built; it will prove how much I love Christ. True love rarely fails to meet an appointment.
7.Though my excuses satisfy myself, they still must undergo God’s scrutiny, and they must be well grounded to do that.
HER STEADY MEDITATION
From her youngest years Frances wrote poems to express the spiritual lessons she was learning. Many of these speak of her earnest commitment to Christ, of her desire to be completely consecrated in service to Him. The effect of her steady meditation on Scripture was that biblical ideas and phrases would come naturally to her speech and to her pen, when writing these poems that were later used as hymns. It is not hard to see this at work in the words:
“Lord, speak to me that I may speak
in living echoes of Thy tone
As thou hast sought, so let me seek
Thine erring children lost and lone.”
Musically, she was also very gifted. She was a talented pianist and a good singer. Though never formally taught musical theory, she composed a number of hymn tunes. Once, when on a visit to Germany (she went several times with her parents when her father was consulting an eye doctor) she went to see the German musician, Ferdinand Hiller, in Cologne. Some friends of hers had urged her to show him some of the songs she had written, to get an experienced opinion of them. He found her melodies “very pleasing and many really very good”, but lacking the stamp of genius. But he was astonished at her harmonies… “It is something singular to find such grasp of the subject, such power of harmonization, except where there has been long and thorough study and instruction; here I can give almost unlimited praise.” Hiller recommended studying under someone first-rate, and gave her the title of book on harmony. The study proved impracticable, but Frances purchased the book and learned a lot from it.
SERVING THE CAUSE OF THE GOSPEL
Probably the best use she made of her musical talents was in serving the cause of the gospel. She played Handel, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and sang for friends and acquaintances. On one such occasion, while traveling in Switzerland with her sister Maria, she was staying near Lausanne (where Francis and Edith Schaeffer were to settle 100 years later). On one occasion she sang a hymn she had written, “Only for Thee” for a French Catholic audience. They liked the tune so much that she decided to rewrite the hymn in French, emphasizing instead the fact that we can come to the Father “Only by Thee [that is, Christ]”. Her aim was to make clear that salvation is by grace alone, to ensure that her Roman Catholic audience would hear the truth plainly. Concerned particularly about the local priest, Maria went to him to borrow his French bible, and used the opportunity to witness to him about Christ. Shortly afterwards, Frances’s piano playing attracted the admiration of guests at a hospice run by the Catholic church. They asked her to sing to them, so she told them she would sing from the Scriptures, and so sang “Comfort ye” and “He shall feed His flock” from Handel’s Messiah in French, repeating the words in German and Italian. She used many occasions to lead travelers, tourists and invalids to Christ through her singing and her warm conversation.
Frances was an active supporter of the Church Missionary Society, and gave singing lessons for them. She also trained choirs, and led hymn meetings during mission weeks for the Young Women’s Christian Association in Liverpool. Sometimes, even at London parties, she would be asked to sing for her fellow-guests; and she often found that simply singing her hymns gave her opportunity to speak about Christ. On one such occasion she wrote: “Afterwards I had two really important conversations with strangers; one seemed extremely surprised at finding himself quite easily drifted from the badinage with which he started into a right-down personal talk about his personal danger and his only hope for safety; he took it very well, and thanked me. Perhaps that seed may bear fruit. . .”
THE IMPORTANCE OF DOCTRINAL TRUTH
As a deeply devoted Christian in an age that still valued theology, Frances was careful about doctrinal truth. Of her father, she wrote that she honoured his “holy and consistent example ever holding forth the Word of life and sound doctrine.” She was similarly careful about the way emotions and religious “feelings” could easily be mistaken for true devotion to Christ. Visiting the Munster Cathedral in Germany as a 17 year old girl, she was impressed by its beauty and by the sound of its bells. “Altogether I cannot describe the impressions made upon one, but I can well imagine how the worshippers, kneeling about the cathedral, might mistake the quiet soothing feeling which such a scene induces, for holy devotion. Popery knows well how to lull and deceive, knows well how to entrap the sense; and nothing can be better suited to the natural [as opposed to spiritual] heart than such a religion.”
When writing the words to her hymns, Frances prayed carefully about every line, even every rhyme. She described it thus: “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 how a child would look up at every sentence and say ‘And what shall I say next?’ That is just what I do; I ask that at every line He would give me, not merely thoughts and power, but also every word, even the very rhymes.”
A PARTICULAR PERIOD OF CONSECRATION
During a period in 1873 Frances became increasingly aware of the seriousness of sin, and wrote that any compromise, any dalliance with it spoils our fellowship with God, even though it be for a moment, till we repent and ask forgiveness. Soon she became increasingly convinced of the need for total consecration of ourselves to God a – and this became a constant theme of her conversation and of her hymns. The famous hymn, “Take my life and let it be” comes from this period, and she has recorded the circumstances of it in a letter. She had been making a five-day visit at a household, and characteristically, she saw the visit as an opportunity to speak of Christ:
“There were ten persons in the house, some unconverted and long prayed for, and some converted, but not rejoicing Christians. He gave me the prayer, ‘Lord, give me all in this house!’ And He just did! Before I left the house every one had got a blessing. The last night of my visit I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration, and these little couplets formed themselves and chimed in my heart one after another, till they finished with Ever, ONLY, ALL For Thee!”
This desire to share Christ with others was the pattern of all her short life. Energetic in service, she continued her pattern of Sunday school teaching, helping in her own congregation, and visiting her married sisters to help them in their households and to teach their children. Her last illness and death came quite suddenly, while she was on holiday with Maria in Wales in 1879. At the age of only 42, she succumbed (it is thought), to peritonitis, dying with the words “So beautiful to go” on her lips.
Frances wrote many hymns – for her, poetry was a natural way to express spiritual truths. Those that we still sing today in modern hymnals are only a tiny fraction of those she wrote; but that is always true of hymn-writers. Only the best will stand the test of time. Historians of hymnody generally honour her for the devotional character of her hymns; and there is no doubt that it is the depth of her devotion to Christ that enabled her to write the quality of hymns that she did. However, her devotion is nowhere mushy, sentimental or self-centred. Her focus is all on Christ and His finished work – and on this being the motive for our service.
[Taken with permission from ‘Faith in Focus’ magazine (May 2004) of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.]
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