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The Other Fanny 

Frances Ridley Havergal was a contemporary of Fanny Crosby and a hymn writer, too. In hymn output, Fanny Crosby wins hands-down. She has 530 hymns listed at Cyberhymnal—and wrote, they say, over 8000—while Frances Havergal has 81 hymns listed there. Eight-one hymns, of course, is nothing to sneeze at, but compared to 8000, it’s small-scale.

But sometimes less is more. If you asked me, I’d have to say that I prefer the hymns of Miss Havergal to those of Miss Crosby. The lyrics are more poetic, I think, and the tunes attached to Havergal’s hymns are better than the ones for Crosby’s.

Frances Ridley Havergal was the youngest child in a very gifted family. Her father was an ordained minister in the Church of England and  a hymnist, too, so she grew up surrounded by music and poetry and literature. Little Fanny was a very bright girl, reading as a three-year-old and memorizing texts of scripture at four. One biographer tells us that as a girl she memorized the whole New Testament, the Psalms, and Isaiah. Impressive, right? But there’s more: She was developing into an exceptional pianist and singer, and also learning “French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew languages, and daily read the Old and New Testaments in the originals.”

What all this knowledge of language and things musical and biblical didn’t give young Fanny was peace with God. When she was six years old, she was convicted of her sin while listening to a sermon, but she found no relief from this burden of guilt, carrying it always for several years. The adults she dared to approach for help tried to comfort her but couldn’t, perhaps because they didn’t understand her problem, or maybe because they didn’t understand the gospel.

When Fanny was fourteen, she spoke with the woman who would become her stepmother, telling her how much she wished that she could find Christ as Saviour. “Why,” said Miss Cooke, “can’t you trust yourself to him at once?”

Here’s how Frances Havergal tells the rest of the story:

Then came a flash of hope across me, which made me feel literally breathless. I remember how my heart beat. ‘I could surely,’ was my response; and I left her suddenly and ran away upstairs to think it out.  … I could commit my soul to Jesus. I could trust Him with my all for eternity. … Then and there, I committed my soul to my Saviour, I do not mean to say without any trembling or fear, but I did—and earth and heaven seemed bright from that moment—I did trust the Lord Jesus.”

Finally there was peace for young Fanny. Later she would write a hymn that paints us a picture of God’s peace, a hymn that also happens to be on of my very favorites.

Like a River Glorious

Like a river glorious, is God’s perfect peace,
Over all victorious, in its bright increase;
Perfect, yet it floweth, fuller every day,
Perfect, yet it groweth, deeper all the way. 


Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest
Finding, as He promised, perfect peace and rest.

Hidden in the hollow of His blessed hand,
Never foe can follow, never traitor stand;
Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,
Not a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Every joy or trial falleth from above,
Traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love;
We may trust Him fully all for us to do.
They who trust Him wholly find Him wholly true.

Frances Havergal’s trust in and devotion to the Lord Jesus stayed with her. She never married, not because she wasn’t asked, but because the one she truly loved did not share her love for Jesus. So she filled her life with Bible study, writing, caring for the poor, and doing house to house visitation, both to encourage believers and  evangelize unbelievers.

According to some who write of her life, Miss Havergal’s health was always delicate. I’m not so sure this is exactly right, for she also loved travelling and hiking in the Alps. What is certain is that people loved her for her good humour and joyfulness.

Frances Havergal died young—at forty-three—from peritonitis. She was, she said, glad to be seeing her King: “If I am really going, it is too good to be true!”

She left behind for us a collection of wonderful hymns and devotional writings, along with a whole bunch of people who have claimed her for their particular brand of Christianity. She was a pietist, some say, and others argue that she was an advocate of the second blessing or sinless perfection. I don’t see any evidence, especially of the last two claims, in the writings of Frances Havergal that I’ve read.

Here’s what I do know: Frances Havergal was pious, devoted and revivalistic. But all her action and all her devotion was grounded in a deep theology that came from her study of God’s word, a theology that included a penal substitutionary atonement, the imputed righteousness of Christ, the total inability of the unbeliever and grace that does the job. If I didn’t know better, I might think she was a Puritan.

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Reader Comments (2)

She sounds like she was a very extraordinary woman.

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKim in ON

Thank you for this!

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJen

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