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‘God Never Makes a Mistake’: The Experience of Elizabeth Prentiss

Author
Category Book Excerpts
Date January 17, 2024

Elizabeth Prentiss led a life that was far from easy. She knew hardship, toil, sickness, weakness, and the loss of precious children. Through it all, she received grace to submit to the wisdom and sovereignty of the Lord she loved, and ever longed to love more. The following excerpt, from Sharon James’s Elizabeth Prentiss: More Love to Thee, illustrates her spirit of faith in trial.

‘What a world of new sensations and emotions come with the first child!’

EVER SINCE she was a little girl Elizabeth loved babies. Looking back, her friend Carrie noted that one of Elizabeth’s most striking traits as a teenager was ‘a perfect passion for babies’. She ‘revelled in tending, kissing and playing with them’. She was overjoyed when her first child, Annie, was born in December 1846, a year and a half after her marriage to George. Like many new mothers, she lay awake at nights just to watch and marvel at her beautiful daughter. She wrote to a friend:

What a world of new sensations and emotions come with the first child! I was quite unprepared for the rush of strange feelings … I dare say the idea of Lizzy Payson with a baby seems quite funny to you, as it does to many of the Portland girls, but I assure you it doesn’t seem in the least funny to me, but as natural as life and … as wonderful, almost. She is a nice little plump creature, with a fine head of dark hair which I take some comfort in brushing round a quill to make it curl, and a pair of intelligent eyes, either black or blue, nobody knows which. I find the care of her very wearing, and have cried ever so many times from fatigue and anxiety, but now I am getting a little better and she pays me for all I do. She is a sweet, good little thing, her chief fault being a tendency to dissipation and sitting up late o’nights. The ladies of our church have made her a beautiful little wardrobe, fortunately for me.1Prentisss, Life and Letters, p. 102.

Since Elizabeth was quite a distance from her own mother, several of the older women in the church took a motherly interest in her, making sure she had every thing she needed and visiting often with little treats for her as well as gifts for the baby. Sadly, Annie’s arrival was overshadowed by the critical illness of George’s older sister Abby. Only thirty-two years old, she had been ill for some time with tuberculosis. She was near to death when Annie was born and Elizabeth was unable to travel up to Portland to say her final farewell. George was called up to his old home in January. He wrote to Elizabeth:

I found dear Abby still alive, and [she] rejoiced beyond expression to see me. She had had a very feeble night, but brightened up towards noon, and when I arrived seemed entirely like her old self, smiling sweetly and exclaiming ‘This is the last blessing I desired! Oh, how good the Lord is, isn’t He?’ It was very delightful… Mother is wonderfully calm and happy, and the house seems like the very gate of heaven … I so wish you could have seen Abby’s smile when I entered her room. And then she enquired so affectionately for you and baby. ‘Now tell me everything about them.’ She longs and prays to be gone. There is something perfectly childlike about her expressions and feelings, especially towards mother. She can’t bear to have her leave the room and holds her hand a good deal of the time. She sends ever so much love.2Ibid., p. 103, note 1.

Abby died on 30 January 1847, nearly two months after Annie was born. Elizabeth had loved Abby dearly, and grieved much for her loss, but she also felt deeply for her husband, his other sister Anna, and the other members of the family. She wrote to Anna expressing her feeling that Abby’s loss had taken away her own youth and that she could never again be so light-hearted and carefree as before. For a time she dreamed about Abby every night. On 11 April 1847 George noted that he ‘Baptized Anna Louisa, who behaved sweetly. It was a great joy to Elizabeth and myself, thus publicly to dedicate her to the Lord.’ In the autumn, George made an extended visit to Maine to preach as well as to see family. Elizabeth sorely missed him and wrote (at length!) daily:

Friday, September 3, 1847. Yesterday forenoon I was perfectly wretched. It came over me, as things will in spite of us, ‘Suppose he didn’t get safely to Brunswick!’ and for several hours I could not shake it off. It had all the power of reality, and made me so faint that I could do nothing , and fairly had to go to bed. I suppose it was very silly, and if I had not tried in every way to rise above it might have been even wicked, but it frightened me to find how much I am under the power of mere feeling and fancy. But do not laugh at me. Sometimes I say to my self, ‘What madness to love any human being so intensely! What would become of you if he were snatched from you?’ and then I think that though God justly denies us comfort and support for the future, and bids us lean upon Him now and trust Him for the rest, He can give us strength for the endurance of His most terrible chastisements when their hour comes.3Ibid., pp. 109–10.

Twenty-one months after the birth of Annie, Elizabeth gave birth to a little boy whom she named Edward Payson after her late father. This second pregnancy had been overshadowed by the critical illness of her mother. Mrs Payson spent the final months of her life in Williamstown, being cared for by her older daughter Louisa. She suffered greatly, and Elizabeth fretted constantly. She feared that her mother’s real condition was being concealed from her – which it was. Mrs Payson went downhill rapidly just at the time that Elizabeth gave birth to Eddy in October 1848. Within three weeks of the birth, Mrs Payson died, and Elizabeth was distraught that she had been unable to go and say goodbye . The shock of her mother’s death contributed, she believed, to her own incapacity to nurse her baby satisfactorily, and his subsequent weakness. She felt strongly that it had been wrong to deceive her as to her mother’s true condition. In future she always advocated honesty in such situations. Elizabeth now dreamed about both her mother and sister-in-law Abby every night. Her mind was also filled with worries for her brothers. In 1848 gold was discovered on the banks of the Sacramento river in California, and there followed a mass migration of men from the northern states hoping to make their fortune in the west. Among them were three of Elizabeth’s four brothers. Life was rough and hard, but for some the rewards were great. Elizabeth fretted about the conditions they worked in, the rough company they kept, and all the temptations of these primitive mining communities. It just made her flesh crawl, she wrote, to think of them involved in such gruelling physical labour all day. All this stress was compounded by her baby boy’s chronic colic. It seemed that he screamed incessantly for months. His exhausted parents tried everything they could think of but usually resorted to walking up and down with the infant. Elizabeth recalled years later: ‘Your sister’s allusion to Watts and Select Hymns reminds me of ages long past, when I used to sing the whole book through as I marched, night after night through my room, carrying a colicky baby up and down for fifteen months until I became a living skeleton.’

Such few hours of relief as they enjoyed were only achieved by giving Eddy laudanum (opium, commonly used at that time for pain relief). These trying months sapped what little strength Elizabeth had, her weight dropping to less than seven stone (45 kg). Her sleep patterns were permanently broken and she suffered from insomnia for the rest of her life. She found the demands of day and night exhausting. No longer could she maintain her routine devotional times. In a letter to Anna she wrote: ‘By far the greatest trial I have to contend with, is that of losing all power to control my time. A little room of my own, and a regular hour morning and night, all of my own would enable me, I think, to say ‘Now let life do it’s worst!’ Lamenting the poverty of her spiritual state she began to miss those rich devotional hours of her time in Richmond. George tried to comfort her, telling her that the Richmond years had been the time for contemplation: this season of her life was for action. God would not demand of her a consistency in prayer that was simply impractical. But despite her husband’s best efforts Elizabeth still felt miserable. Throughout her life Elizabeth felt a desolation of spirit if she could not enjoy communion with God. Space and time for reflection and prayer was necessary she believed if she was to have such closeness with her Lord. When illness or sleeplessness interrupted her routine, she seemed to suffer what can only be described as physical withdrawal symptoms. When Eddy was eight months old he was still hardly sleeping, and the doctor ordered that Elizabeth be allowed to get away from home for a while. Unless she could get some rest, he feared for her life. She agreed to go away for a week, but ended up staying away for a month. Eddy was left in the care of relatives, neighbours, and a nurse. (At that time, middle class families often employed a ‘nurse’ , if they could afford to, to care for young children. These women were not trained nurses as we think of them today. They were unqualified, and varied enormously in their commitment and efficiency. We would probably refer to them as ‘nursemaids’). One of the weeks away was spent with Anna and her family at Newburyport, with George and Annie joining them. Seargent, George’s brother, came up from his home in the south with his wife Mary, and their four children4Jeannie, George, Seargent, and Una.. Mrs Prentiss, George’s mother, was also there, making it a most enjoyable family reunion. But when Elizabeth, somewhat stronger, returned home, Eddy was no better. She realized that he was seriously unwell, and at this point she gave him over to God. When he rallied and regained strength, she felt as if another child had been restored to her – not her own child, but God’s. From that time on every day was precious. Each morning, Elizabeth thanked God that Eddy was still alive. She kept a journal of all he did, and as he began to talk, all he said as well. She sensed that she would not have him much longer, and would need tangible reminders of his brief life. Eddy was a delightful toddler. Once he was walking, it seemed as if he was everywhere all at once, quick as lightning in his movements and full of enthusiasm. ‘It is worth a good deal to see his face’, wrote his mother proudly; ‘it is so brimful of life and sunshine and gladness.’ Even though the family employed a nurse to look after the children, Elizabeth did not really get much stronger. Her hands reminded her of claws, they looked so scrawny. On average, three days of every week was spent prostrated with a sick headache. In such a condition she could not eat and began to worry about how the household was going to pieces around her. She also fretted about the family finances, as her ill health meant that more was being spent on ‘help’ than they could afford. However, even in these depressing circumstances she did not lose sight of God’s plan for her life. Writing to George she confessed:

I can truly say that I have not spent a happier winter since our marriage, in spite of all my sickness. It seems to me I can never recover my spirits and be as I have been in my best days, but what I lose in one way perhaps I shall gain in another. Just think how my ambition has been crushed at every point by my ill-health, and even the ambition to be useful and a comfort to those about me is trampled underfoot, to teach me what I could not have learned in any other school!5Prentiss, Life and Letters, p. 122.

Editor’s Note: we pick up the narrative in 1851, when the family had relocated to New York…

During their first autumn in New York, Elizabeth was overjoyed to see her three brothers, returned from their prospecting for gold in California. The Prentiss home was large enough for several visitors. George and Elizabeth also regularly took the children over to Newark to visit George’s mother. By December, Eddy’s health was giving cause for concern and Elizabeth was consumed with anxiety about her son. He grew weaker and weaker. By January he had succumbed to what seems to have been meningitis. He did not sleep at all for the last week of his life. This was a terrible time for all the family. They all knew what was coming. Even Annie tried to comfort her little brother in the face of death. When he said ‘I don’t want to die’, his mother replied, ‘Why? You know it is a great deal pleasanter in heaven than it is here … Little boys don’t have the headache there. I should love dearly to go if God said I might.’ ‘Yes’, Annie joined in, ‘Don’t you know how we used to sing about the happy land?’ Eddy kept asking for Annie, but his sister got so distressed that they didn’t always let her see him. There are harrowing day-by-day descriptions of Eddy’s last days in Elizabeth’s book, How Sorrow Was Changed into Sympathy.6Elizabeth Prentiss, How Sorrow Was Changed into Sympathy: Words of Cheer for Mothers Bereft of Little Children. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1884). His suffering was exacerbated by the treatments prescribed by the doctors, including the application of painful mustard plasters. Part of Elizabeth’s journal reads: On Sunday morning, January 4, not being able to come himself, Dr Buck sent Dr Watson in his place. I told Dr W that I thought Eddy had water on the brain; he said it was not so, and ordered nothing but a warm bath. On Thursday, January 8, while Margaret [the nursemaid] was at dinner, I knelt by the side of the cradle, rocking it very gently, and he asked me to tell him a story. I asked what about, and he said, ‘A little boy’, on which I said something like this: ‘Mamma knows a dear little boy who was very sick. His head ached and he felt sick all over. God said, I must let that little lamb come into my fold; then his head will never ache again, and he will be a very happy little lamb.’ I used the words little lamb because he was so fond of them. Often he would run to his nurse with his face full of animation and say, ‘Marget! Mamma says I am her little lamb!’ While I was telling him this story his eyes were fixed intelligently on my face. I then said, ‘Would you like to know the name of this boy?’ With eagerness he said, ‘Yes, yes, Mamma!’ Taking his dear little hand in mine, and kissing it, I said, ‘It was Eddy.’ Just then his nurse came in and his attention was diverted, so I said no more. On Friday, January 16, his little weary sighs became more profound, and, as the day advanced, more like groans; but appeared to indicate extreme fatigue, rather than severe pain. Towards night his breathing became quick and laborious, and between seven and eight slight spasms agitated his little feeble frame. He uttered cries of distress for a few minutes, when they ceased, and his loving and gentle spirit ascended to that world where thousands of holy children and the blessed company of angels and our blessed Lord Jesus, I doubt not, joyfully welcomed him. Now we were able to say, ‘It is well with the child!’7Prentiss, Life and Letters, pp. 131–2 The funeral was held the following Monday, and Dr Skinner led the service. The choir sang ‘Thy will be done’, which Elizabeth said was ‘like cold water to thirsty souls.’8Prentiss, Sorrow Changed into Sympathy, p. 126. She was submissive, writing the well-known words in her journal: “‘Oh”, said the gardener, as he passed down the garden-walk, “who plucked that flower?” His fellow-servants answered, “The Master!” And the gardener held his peace.’ She was also grateful for the support which friends and family had given. Her young cousin Louisa Shipman had been there for her throughout, and Mrs Bull moved in during the final week or so to provide nursing care at night. She later said ‘I used to think I could never endure to lose a child, but you see how it is. God does carry us through whatever he pleases.’9Ibid,. p. 108.

Sharon James’ biography Elizabeth Prentiss: More Love to Thee is available this week at 20% off.

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