Total commitment

Posted in Blog, Christianity

Frances Ridley Havergal was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman: linguist (speaking French and German and reading Hebrew and New Testament Greek), musician, poet, athlete, swimmer and mountain climber. She was also a devout Christian with an intense sense of commitment to God which she desperately wanted others to share. In February 1874, when she was 38 years old, she visited Areley House, on a bank of the river Severn in Worcestershire. Today, Areley House is a residential home caring for people with dementia, but in the 1870s it was a retreat centre, almost like a mini Lee Abbey. On the last night of her visit, she wrote in her journal, There were ten persons in the house, some unconverted and long prayed for, 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 everyone 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!’

The ‘little couplets’, of course, formed the lovely hymn which remains popular today, Take my life and let it be. It has an unusual reference in verse 4 where Frances asks her Lord to take and use her ‘intellect’ as well as, in the other verses, her life, her moments, her hands, feet, voice, lips, silver and gold, will, heart and love. The final verse seems to pick up the image of the ‘woman who had lived a sinful life’ pouring out her treasure-store, the alabaster box of ointment, at the feet of Jesus (see Luke 7:36-50) making a moving climax to the hymn.

Four years later, in October 1878, Frances and her older sister, moved to a house close to the sea in Caswell Bay on the Gower peninsula. Here she finished her most influential prose work Kept for the Master’s Use, a commentary on her hymn Take my life, and developed a friendship with Samuel Gillespie Prout (1822-1911). Originally from Devon, Prout was the son of the water colourist Samuel Prout and himself a talented painter. She conducted Bible lessons and hymn singing in Newton school and with people living in nearby cottages, energetically making pastoral visits in the area.

Ira D Sankey and his wife visited the Gower on his way back to the USA after conducting one of his missions with the American evangelist D L Moody. Frances convinced him of the merits of a song by her friend Samuel Prout. Sankey’s last words to her were ‘We’ll meet again!’ to which she replied ‘Yes, if not here, in the bright city there!’

These were sadly prophetic words, because a few months later, on 3 June 1879, Frances died of acute peritonitis at the age of 42. It is said that she died singing the hymn Jesus I will trust Thee, trust thee with my soul to one of her own tunes. In July this year, Sheila and I visited the house where she lived with her sister for those happy but all too short months. The house, since named Havergal House, is currently shaded by trees which have been allowed to grow up around it since the photograph you see which was taken in 1987. But a plaque to Frances in the wall is still clearly visible. When I look due north across the Bristol channel from Ilfracombe (where I live) I often remember Frances Ridley Havergal, and her remarkable gifts, which outlive her in her matchless hymns.