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Frances Ridley Havergal: The ministry of song

July 2008 | by Pamela Bugden

Frances Ridley Havergal: The ministry of song

What has a woman living in Victorian England in the 19th century to offer to people in the 21st century? The answer has to be ‘a great deal’.

Frances Ridley Havergal was one of the significant figures of the Victorian age. She took little part in public affairs, yet through the simple directness of her spirituality, expressed in her writings and personal contacts, she exercised a profound influence on her contemporaries.1 This could also be said of today, for we have much to learn from her life and writings.

Frances, the youngest of six children, was born on 14 December 1836 in Astley, Worcestershire, where her father was rector of Astley parish church. She was converted at the age of fourteen and confirmed in Worcester Cathedral when she was seventeen.

In 1873 she came into an experience of deeper consecration through reading a book,

Although Frances died at the early age of 42, the wealth of the writings she left – including hymns, poems and letters – was immense. At the time of her death she was widely known and greatly valued on both sides of the Atlantic and, within thirty years of her death, her sister Maria wrote a memoir of her which achieved a circulation of nearly a quarter of a million.

Love for children

Frances Havergal’s best known hymn is probably her ‘Consecration Hymn’ – ‘Take my life and let it be, Consecrated, Lord, to thee’, but there are many others, some of which are still sung today. She composed music to accompany several of her hymns, including ‘Urbane’ to ‘I am trusting thee, Lord Jesus’, and ‘Hermas’ to her grand Ascension song, ‘Golden harps are sounding, Angel voices ring, Pearly gates are opened, Opened for the King’.

Frances wrote many children’s books which were very popular. She had a deep love for children and a strong desire for them to know and love the Saviour. The one that caught the imagination of the day was a book called

It was about a little girl who had become the first contributions collector of the Irish Society – which was brought to Frances’ notice when she was staying with her sister and brother-in-law in Celbridge near Dublin. Bruey’s work for the society, her illness and peaceful death, were all factual but there was some criticism of the story. She wrote:

‘I am sometimes remonstrated with for “making Bruey die” … I didn’t make her die; she did die and I could not help the fact. Had I been writing a fiction, I should have made her go to the seaside and collect [contributions for the Irish Society] and “live happily ever after”, as the fairy tales say … It struck me you might find it really useful to be able to assure people that Bruey was “a real little girl”.’

Ministry of song

Frances loved to travel and particularly enjoyed visiting Switzerland. The mountain air seemed to invigorate and restore her health which was at times fragile, and the letters she wrote to her family reveal her sheer delight in climbing the mountains.

Her escapades there as told in

Her first book,

In April 1879 – shortly before Frances’ death on 3 June – Mrs Spurgeon made a gift to the 300 pastors who attended the Annual Conference of the Pastors’ College and wrote:

‘This year, after due consideration, I have decided to give Miss Havergal’s “Royal” books (two to each pastor) as a choice and dainty morsel for their spiritual refreshment and quickening.

‘No commendation is needed to insure a hearty welcome to a work by this devoted lady. Miss Havergal’s pen is guided by a hand fast clasped in that of her Master, and therefore her simple words thrill to the inmost depths of the soul and touch many a hidden spring of tender, deep, religious feeling’.

Charles Spurgeon himself also appreciated Frances’ writings and the following comments relating to

‘I must confess of my short discourse, as the man did of the axe which fell into the stream, that it is borrowed. The outline of it is taken from one who will never complain of me, for to the great loss of the Church she has left these lower choirs to sing above. Miss Havergal, last and loveliest of our modern poets, when her tones were most mellow and her language most sublime, has been caught up to swell the music of heaven’.

Musical gifts

She loved the Bible and would rise at seven in the summer to study, keeping her Hebrew Bible, Greek testament and lexicons at hand. In the winter she was up at eight o’clock and her sister, Maria, would urge her to draw nearer to the fire.

But Frances said she would not be able to draw neat straight lines in her Bible if she withdrew from her desk. ‘Just see what a find I’ve got!’, she exclaimed. ‘If only one searches there are such extraordinary things in the Bible’.

It is amazing how much of the Bible she memorised – all the New Testament (except the Book of Acts), all of the Minor Prophets, Isaiah and all the Psalms. It is no wonder that her writings are so full of Scripture!

Her musical talents were inherited from her father, William Henry Havergal, who was himself very gifted musically. He had been offered a professorship in music at Oxford University, but declined because he knew his first calling was to the gospel ministry.

He did much to encourage Frances in developing her own musical gifts and she would often ‘rush down with her new poems or thoughts, awaiting his criticisms’. His classical knowledge, his poetic and musical skill, settled many a point.

So it is not hard to understand why his sudden death in 1870 left a sorrowful blank in the home in Leamington. Frances would no longer have his help in her writings and music, nor know his fatherly love for her.

Jesus I will trust thee

Much has been written about Frances Havergal over the years but to read her own words and works illuminates her character in a more intimate and personal way than can be obtained from reading research material.

Towards the end of May 1879 Frances became seriously ill with peritonitis and it was clear that she would not recover. When told of this, her response was ‘Splendid to be near the gates of heaven’.

She died early in the morning of 3 June having sung clearly the first verse of one of her favourite hymns (though not written by her) – ‘Jesus I will trust thee’.

On Monday 9 June her mortal remains were laid to rest in the family vault in Astley churchyard in the presence of a great company of friends and relatives who had come to give thanks for a life so blessed to many throughout the world. Frances had requested that a text which meant so much to her should be carved on her gravestone – ‘The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin’.

For the last eight months of her life she had lived in Mumbles, near Swansea, with her sister, Maria. In 1937 a plaque was placed on a stone wall at the house where she had lived:

To the glory of God and in ever loving remembrance of

FRANCES RIDLEY HAVERGAL

Christian poetess and hymnwriter who lived

at this house and died here on 3rd June 1879

‘She being dead, yet speaketh’

Erected by public subscription, July 1937

We end with a quotation from her book

<

In thy sovereignty rejoicing, we

thy children bow and praise,

For we know that kind and loving,

just and true are all thy ways.

While thy heart of sovereign

mercy, and thine arm of

sovereign might,

For our great and strong salvation

in thy sovereign grace unite.

Reference

1.

Pamela Bugden

Pamela Bugden has recently published Ever, only, ALL for Thee <- Frances Ridley Havergal: Glimpses of her life and writings (Leith Books, 4 Eastwood Court, Carlton Miniott, Thirsk, YO7 4PA) ISBN 1-893531-09-0