Sunday, December 14, 2008

Frances Ridley Havergal

Today we mark the birthday of Frances Ridley Havergal (1836 - 1879), surely one of the most famous women hymnwriters. She was born into a musical family; her father, William Henry Havergal, was an evangelical minister who also wrote hymns and composed hymn tunes. Frances learned to play the piano at an early age, and wrote her first poems at seven. She became fluent in at least six languages, and memorized much of the Bible.

Havergal was in poor health for much of her life, though she did manage to travel to Germany in 1852 for a year of study, where she also wrote her first hymn. She became more and more dedicated to her religion, and after 1873 it was said that she only sang and played sacred music. She was also involved in several philanthopic causes.

Her hymns appeared in a few small volumes and periodicals during her lifetime. Her most famous hymn, still sung today, is the consecration hymn Take my life and let it be, which is sung in many denominations. Much less known are the several tunes she composed, though this one still appears today in some hymnals. Her text, though not an Advent one, seems appropriate as the end of the year comes closer.

Standing at the portal
Of the opening year,
Words of comfort meet us,
Hushing every fear;
Spoken thru the silence
By our Maker’s voice,
Tender, strong and faithful,
Making us rejoice.

Onward, then, and fear not,
Live the words we pray,
For God's Word shall never,
Never pass away.

“I, your God, am with thee,
Be thou not afraid;
I will help and strengthen
Be thou not dismayed.
Yea, I will uphold thee
With my own right hand;
Thou art called and chosen
In my sight to stand.”

For the year before us,
O what rich supplies!
For our care and comfort
Living streams shall rise;
For the sad and doubting
Shall God's grace abound;
For the faint and weary
Perfect strength be found.

God will never fail us,
God will not forsake;
The eternal covenant
God will never break.
Resting on the promise,
What have we to fear?
God is all sufficient
For the coming year.

Frances Ridley Havergal, 1873; alt.
Tune: HERMAS ( with refrain)
Frances Ridley Havergal, 1871

HERMAS was not written especially for this text, but for an earlier one by Havergal. It has been used for several other hymns over the years.

About a year before her death at age 43, Frances and her sister Maria moved to a part of south Wales called The Mumbles. After Frances's passing, Maria published Memorials of Frances Ridley Havergal, as well as a collected edition of her hymns and many of her letters. Today, an organization called the Havergal Trust, based in Missouri, is working to keep her works alive and available.

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