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The Hymns of Anne Steele

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The importance and influence of eighteenth century hymnody in the pages of church history cannot be overstated. The hymns of this period carried on their backs both the doctrines and piety of the recently Reformed and still-reviving church. New hymns were written in the wake of the Reformation that taught and reinforced the recovered tenets of our faith. The doctrines of the reformation were surely heralded from pulpits below, but they were carried on the wings of song. To show the contribution of hymns leading to the rise of evangelicalism, Mark Knoll explains, “Nothing so profoundly defined the faith of evangelicalism as its hymnody: what evangelicals have been is what we have sung”[1].

The eighteenth century in Britain was the golden age of hymnody [2]. Isaac Watts opened his new “school” of hymnody, with eventual contributions from iconic names such as Charles Wesley (1707-1788), John Newton (1725-1807), Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), and William Cowper (1731-1800). Baptist hymn-writers such as Benjamin Beddome (1717-1795), John Fawcett (1739-1817), and Samuel Stennett (1727-1795) also added their voices to the choir of preacher-poets. Anne Steele (1717-1778), the pioneer female hymn-writer of the eighteenth century, stands securely in this company of men who gave the church their songs.

With the introduction of Steele’s Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional in 1760, Baptist hymnody began a new chapter. The hymns of Anne Steele became the voice of the Particular Baptist church (the largest group of Baptists in the seventeenth century). Richard Arnold argues that what Isaac Watts was to independents, Charles Wesley for the Methodists, and William Cowper and John Newton for the Evangelicals, Steele was for the Baptists. He calls her “the really first as well as the most significant hymn-writer of that sect” [3]. In a matter of years, Steele became one of the best-loved names in hymnody. Just as Watts was crowned the “father of English hymnody,” Steele has been called the “mother of the English hymn” [4]. Since her day there has not been a woman hymn-writer who has matched Steele’s ability and nuance with the doctrinal fidelity and care she demonstrates.

The hymn writing that began in the privacy of her personal devotions found its way to the pews of England and America. She knew that “the arduous, yet delightful employment for which this soul of mine was made should be the primary focus of her personal energy, in order to fulfill the purpose for which her "powers" were given [5]. Through her willingness to shape the worship language of the church through her poetry, the “female poet of the Sanctuary” [6] became known as the “all-time champion Baptist hymn-writer of either sex" [7].

In recent years, Steele’s life and hymns have begun to reemerge. Helpful new biorgraphies of Anne Steele include To Express the Ineffable by Cynthia Aalders, Anne Steele and Her Spiritual Vision by Priscilla Wong, and J.R. Broome’s A Bruised Reed. The hymn, “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” the only Anne Steele hymn that has yet made its way back into use for public worship, was retuned in 1998 by Kevin Twit for Indelible Grace Music and again in 2013 by Matt Merker of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, returning the hymn to public consciousness.

1 Dear Refuge of my weary soul,
On thee when sorrows rise:
On thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies.

Opening with an intimate and personal title for the God she loved, Steele admits simultaneously that God is her refuge and that her soul is weary. In raw honesty before the Lord, she states how in sorrows and troubles her “fainting hopes” rely upon this refuge.

2 While hope revives, though prest with fears
And I can say, my God,
Beneath thy feet I spread my cares,
And pour my woes abroad.

3 To thee, I tell each rising grief,
For thou alone canst heal;
Thy can bring a sweet relief,
For every pain I feel.

4 But oh’ when gloomy doubts prevail,
I fear to call thee mine;
The springs of comfort seem to fail,
And all my hopes decline.

In verses 2 through 4, it seems as if the waters of sorrow rise and fall as a tide. In one moment hope revives and she confesses her fears to her Lord, but in the next she again sees her rising grief. At one moment in the ebb and flow, she believes God can bring relief to her tired soul, but in the next, all of her hopes decline.

In the next two verses, she asks God where she might flee when he is the truth she longs for. She petitions God and reminds him of his promises asking, “Hast thou not bidst me seek thy face?” Feeling unattended by her God she asks in verse 6, “Can the ear of sovereign grace / Be deaf when I complain?” Steele feels no hint of embarrassment in bringing the pains and sorrows she battles to her Refuge.

5 Yet, gracious God, where shall I flee?
Thou art my only truth,
And still my soul would cleave to thee,
Though prostrate in the dust.

6 Hast thou not bidst me seek thy face?
And shall I seek in vain?
And can the ear of sovereign grace
Be deaf when I complain?

The assurance of hope that trusts in the midst of storms is seen in answering her own question. The author is convinced that her feelings of abandonment are unfounded, and claims that God attends her and welcomes her to his grace.

7 No, still the ear of sovereign grace
Attends the mourner’s prayer;
O may I ever find access,
To breathe thy sorrows there.

8 Thy mercy-seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat,
With humble hope attend thy will,
And wait beneath thy feet.

The hymn closes with a sober assurance. All of her questions are not answered, but
hope is present in the waiting she must do before her God.

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Matt Boswell is the pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, and is the founder of Doxology & Theology. 

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[1] Mark A. Noll, “We Are What We Sing,” Christianity Today 43, no. 8 (July 12, 1999), 37.

[2] Louis F. Benson, The English Hymn: Its Development and use in Worship (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1915), 213.

[3] Samuel Willoughby Duffield, English Hymns: Their Authors and History, (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1886), 7.

[4] Cynthia Aalders, Expressing the Ineffable, 2.

[5] Aalders, 67. Aalders says in prose what Steele has said in poetry in her hymn “Human Frailty” (159).

[6] Henry S. Burrage, Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns. (Portland, Maine: Brown Thurston and Company, 1888), 46.

[7] Hoxie Neale Fairchild, Religious Trends in English Poetry (New York, 1942), 2:111, in English Hymns of the Eighteenth Century: An Anthology, ed. Richard Arnold, American University Studies, Series 4, vol. 137 (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 318.

2 Comments

Dr. Coleman,

Thank you for your comment and for your encouragement. I am thankful for the work that has been done on Steele's contribution to the church and hope her hymnody continues to serve people.

Matt

Excellent article and good theological/devotional analysis. As a Hymnology professor, the hymns of Anne Steele have been among my favorites for many years. William Doane's "Baptist Hymnal" (1886) included 19 of her hymn texts. It is unfortunate and disappointing that most fell from "favor" in subsequent Baptist hymnals. Yet, it is encouraging to see this text being revived by people like Matt Merker. Similarly, I appreciate your contributions, Matt Boswell, to the body of modern-hymnody and substantive theological texts.

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