As cars speed past my home with windows open and music spilling out, I wonder if singers—and more specifically, songwriters—are not among the most influential voices in our culture.
A couple centuries ago—before radio, iTunes, iPods, Pandora, or Spotify—I imagine hymn writers were some of the most influential people of their day. Men, women, and children sang their songs both corporately and as they went about their everyday work.
Anne Steele (1717–1778) was one of these major influencers—the first significant female hymn writer in history and purportedly the most popular Baptist hymn writer in the history of the church.
I was introduced to the late Anne Steele a couple years ago by my hymn-loving husband. In fact, if you ever unearth her three-volume work* in a used bookstore and sell it to me, Trevor and I just might name our first child after you in profound gratitude! (Anne is Trevor’s favorite hymn writer, and this book is a highly coveted treasure.) But I digress . . .
A Humble Heart
Anne never set out to become a successful writer. She wrote for her own personal reflection until her beloved pastor-father began to use her hymns in the church he pastored.
According to John Gadsby:
From early life [Anne] was exceedingly fond of poetry, but was very unwilling for her productions to be submitted to the public eye. When at last she gave her consent, she would not have her own name attached to the volumes, but published them under the signature of Theodosia (“The Gift of God”), and gave all the profits to charity.
Anne’s hymns first appeared in a hymnbook in 1769. Her father wrote in his diary:
Today Nanny sent part of her composition to London to be printed. I entreat a gracious God, who enabled and stirred her up to such a work, to direct in it and bless it for the good of many. I pray God to make it useful, and keep her humble.
Humble she remained. In one letter to her father—whom she affectionately referred to as “honoured father”—Anne wrote:
If while I am sleeping in the silent grave, my thoughts are of any real benefit to the meanest of the servants of my God, be the praise ascribed to the almighty Giver of all grace.
Oh, how they have benefitted Christ’s Body! And not because she was perfect. Anne wrestled with doubts and assurance of salvation. In fact, that’s one of the things I appreciate most about her writing: She’s so candid about a believer’s doubts, pain, fears, and—at times—profound suffering.
Centuries later, it’s apparent that Anne’s hymns have stood the test of time. Kevin Twit, founder of Indelible Grace—an organization that produces old hymns set to new music—writes, “I find her hymns so rich, and yet easily understood even by those living 250 years after her death!”
A Deep Faith
Another thing I appreciate about Anne’s hymns is that they aren’t merely intellectual exercises. As John Sheppard, author of a short memoir about Anne, wrote, “The emotions expressed were ever genuine, and the faith which awaked them was true and operative.”
That is probably due to how much she suffered:
- Just three years after Anne was born, her mother passed away.
- She suffered physically, living with chronic recurring malaria, painful stomach issues, and severe teeth pain . . . as well as seriously injuring herself when thrown from a horse at nineteen.
- When she was twenty-one, her fiancé, Robert, drowned.
And yet those who knew her personally testify that in spite of all this, she . . .
possessed a native cheerfulness, which not even the agonizing pains of her latter days could deprive her of. In every short interval of abated suffering, she would, in a variety of ways, as well as by her enlivening conversation, give pleasure to all around her (Dr. Caleb Evans).
The only explanation is her rich, intimate relationship with God. For a glimpse into her enjoyment of Him, look at just a few of the unique ways she referred to God in her hymns:
- Thou lovely source of true delight
- Dear refuge of my weary soul
- Eternal source of joys divine
- Great source of boundless power and grace
- Father of mercies in Thy word
- Dear center of my best desires
Personally, I wonder if the closeness she experienced with her heavenly Father was related to her relationship with her earthly father, who referred to her in letters as “dear little Nancy, more and more entertaining.”
Anne lived with her father and stepmother until her father passed away. She spent her days writing (144 hymns, forty-eight psalms in verse, and about fifty poems) and helping her father with his pastoral duties. Anne herself died at age sixty-one, after nine painful years confined to her bed. Dr. Evans writes:
She often spoke, not merely with tranquility, but with joy, of her decease. . . . she took the most affectionate leave of weeping friends around her . . . her last words: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
Her tombstone in Broughton churchyard reads:
Silent the lyre, and dumb the tuneful tongue, that sung on earth her great Redeemer’s praise;
But now in heaven she joins the angelic song,
In more harmonious, more exalted lays.
Anne’s hymns live on; may her legacy live on in you and me as well:
- Are you and I thoughtful and cheerful toward others even as we’re suffering?
- Are we diligent but humble in stewarding our gifts to bless members of Christ’s Body?
- Is our hope fixed on that day we will be with God face to face . . . or on the trivial pursuits we experience here and now?
- Are we honest with God and with others about our doubts and struggles?
- Do you and I deeply enjoy our glorious God and shower Him with the praise He deserves?
I leave you with two songs by Anne, set to music by Indelible Grace. The first is for those in pain; the second for those with hearts full of praise. Enjoy!
Want to learn more about Anne Steele? Kevin Twit lists several resources at the beginning of this post.
*possibly under her pen name “Theodosia”
(This post was originally featured in a series titled “25 Women Who Impacted the World for Christ” over on ReviveOurHearts.com.)