Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Anne Steele

English hymnwriter Anne Steele died on this day in 1778 (her exact birthdate, in May of 1716, was unrecorded) in the town of Broughton, where she lived her whole life. Her father was a timber merchant and unsalaried Baptist minister, and she committed herself to that church when she was 14, assisting her father in his work until his death. The circumstances of her life were somewhat tragic; a disabling hip injury when she was 19 was followed two years later by the death of her fiance, Robert Elscourt, on the day of their planned wedding.

Her interest in poetry from a young age led to writing hymns, though she resisted having them published until much later. Two volumes were published in 1760 (Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional) under the pseudonym of Theodosia, followed by a posthumous third volume in 178o. The income from the books was entirely given to charity.

Steele lived about fifteen miles from Isaac Watts (though they probably never met) and must have sung his hymns. Like him, she wrote psalm paraphrases (still the customary hymns of the time) and also branched out into original themes. Many of her hymns were intensely personal and it was believed that she introduced a certain sentimentality into English hymnody.

It was not until 1860 that her Complete Works were published, including nearly 180 hymns (of which 34 were psalm paraphrases) and 50 "moral poems." By then many of her hymns were widely sung in several different denominations in both England and the US. When the Episcopalian Trinity Church in Boston published their own hymnal in 1808, 59 of its 152 selections were by Steele. The preface claimed that this high proportion was a tribute to Steele's "poetical superiority, and to the ardent spirit of devotion which breathes in her compositions."

Ye high and lowly, rich and poor,
Behold a heavenly feast,
Where mercy speads its bounteous store
For every searching guest.

See, Jesus stands, with open arms,
And calls, and bids you come;
Doubt holds you back, and fear alarms;
But see! there yet is room.

O come, and with God's people, taste
The blessings of great love;
While hope attends the sweet repast
Of nobler joys above.

There, with united heart and voice,
Before the eternal throne,
Ten thousand thousand souls rejoice
In ecstasies unknown.

And yet ten thousand thousand more
Are welcome still to come;
O longing souls, God's grace adore --
Approach, there yet is room!

Anne Steele, 1760; alt.
Tune: NEWBURY (C.M.)
Traditional English melody;
arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906

Anne Steele is the first woman writer of hymns to be widely sung; in the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries her hymns were generally considered comparable to those of Watts and Philip Doddridge. In 1888, Henry S. Burrage writes in Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns that more than 100 of Steele's hymns were still included in "modern" hymnals -- more than any other Baptist writer up to that time. Though her name is less known today, if you check your own denomination's hymnal you may still find a hymn or two by Anne Steele.

The tune NEWBURY is another folk melody arranged for the 1906 English Hymnal by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He apparently found the tune in a collection by a "Miss Arkwright" where it was used for a Christmas carol, There's six good days set in a week.

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