Thursday, October 19, 2017

Father, Whate'er of Earthly Bliss

Praise for the Lord #148

Words: Anne Steele, 1760
Music: NAOMI, Johann Nageli, 1836, arr. by Lowell Mason, 1836

Anne Steele (1717-1778) was a leader among the first generation of English hymn writers to follow in the tradition begun by Isaac Watts, and was the most prominent woman hymn writer in the English language during her era (Watson). Julian rated her, in fact, "by far the most gifted Baptist hymn-writer of this period" (112). The landmark Ash & Evans Collection of Hymns Adapted to Public Worship (1769), also known as the "Bristol Hymnal," included 62 hymns by Steele out of 412 (%15), under her pen name "Theodosia." The only authors to exceed this number were Philip Doddridge (87) and of course Isaac Watts (122); no one else came even close. This was all the more unusual in an era when women did not yet commonly publish on religious topics (Aalders 23). Her continuing importance to English Baptists is reflected in the 27 hymns included in Gadsby's Hymns, a 19th-century collection that is still in use among some churches, and 13 hymns in the American Baptist hymnal published by Judson Press in 2012--an impressive feat after 250 years. Steele published the majority of her works in the 1760 collection Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional (vol. 1vol. 2), to which her friend and champion Caleb Evans added the posthumous Miscellaneous Pieces in Verse and Prose (Watson).

Despite the obvious importance of her contributions, Anne Steele's reputation as a hymnwriter was long a victim of her own admirers. Dr. Cynthia Aalders hits the nail right on the head in the introduction of her excellent study of Steele:
Prior to recent scholarly advancements in the study of hymnody, hymns were treated as a kind of folk genre; writing about hymns typically was limited to stories related to the circumstances or personalities behind the composition of particular hymns. For this reason, perhaps, the biographical stories typically relayed about Steele tend to capitalize on the dramatic, despite dubious archival evidence... It would seem that the approach most often taken toward the telling of Steele's life story has had more to do with hagiography than biography (8-9).
A typical summary of Steele's biography often includes her retiring nature, a weak physical condition that left her nearly an invalid, and the tragedy that changed her life when her fiance drowned on the morning of their wedding day. Not only are those items exaggerated (and the last one demonstrably false), they make her story into a sympathetic tale of the "brave little woman," as though her accomplishments were not sufficient on their own. Perhaps there was even some tendency to make her an oddity, a gifted recluse whose art grew out of intense suffering, instead of recognizing that she was simply a woman who wrote hymns better than most men of her generation. (The same could be said of much that is written about Fanny Crosby--she was not a remarkable songwriter "for a blind woman," she was a remarkable and influential songwriter, period.)

Michael Dixon and Hugh Steele-Smith made a study of Anne Steele's health on the basis of contemporary letters and diaries, concluding that she likely suffered from malaria, with other complications multiplying in her later years, that frequently left her weak and unable to be as active as she wished (353). But her health did not enter a serious decline until the last decade of her life (Aalders 107), well after the publication of her first volume of hymns. There was even greater exaggeration of the star-crossed lovers trope. The basic facts of the death of James Elcomb of Ringwood by drowning on May 23, 1737 are accurate as given by the earliest Baptist historians (Ivimey 4:312), but Dixon and Steele-Smith found a letter written to Anne's father by James Manfield, a family friend, reporting the event as follows:
I heartily wish the Subsequent part of my letter may not be an Unseasonable surprize to any of your Family and therefore tis with very great concern that I acquaint You that this Evening our dear friend Mr Elcomb was unfortunately drown'd in the River . . .
I submitt to your Prudence to Communicate this Unhappy Accident to the rest off your Family in a Suitable manner & not knowing how far he may have prevail'd in the Affections of Miss Steele I send my Man on purpose to prevent any Shock that may attend her hearing It in too sudden a manner (352). 
Elcomb therefore had at least paid court to Anne; but surely such a thoughtful friend of the family would have known had they actually been engaged to marry the next day! In fact there is no evidence that Anne Steele reciprocated Elcomb's feelings, and she later turned down at least two other offers of marriage (Aalders 21 n.51). (One of these, coincidentally, was from Benjamin Beddome, author of the hymn "God is the fountain whence.")

The reality of Anne Steele's life was far from that of the "wounded dove." She was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant in Broughton, Hampshire whose family connections included many prominent thinkers among the Dissenters, and as was the custom of the day for her social circle, Anne and her relations spent extended visits in their homes in neighboring towns (Aalders 10-13). Though she lost her mother at age 3, she had a reasonably good relationship with her stepmother, who supported her father's decision to let Anne go to school. In addition to a formal education, Anne Steele benefited from the wide range of intellectuals she encountered through visits and among her parents' guests (Aalders 18-20). And though she had great difficulties later in life and was never in robust health, most of the personal tragedies she encountered were after the bulk of her written work was done: her stepmother passed in 1760, months after the publication of her two-volume collection (Whelan), followed by her father in 1769 and her half-sister in 1772 (Aalders 12). Though these losses hit her hard, they could not in themselves have been an influence on the bulk of her hymns.

The hymn "Father, whate'er of earthly bliss" was adapted from the last three stanzas (out of ten) in Steele's poem titled "Desiring Resignation and Thankfulness," the first line of which is "When I survey life's varied scene." Its first appearance in its current form was in Augustus Toplady's Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship (1776) (Julian 1269). The famed opponent of John Wesley apparently did not find Steele's language sufficiently Calvinist for his taste, altering "Thy sovereign hand" to "Thy sovereign will" in the first stanza, and changing "let me live to Thee" to "make me live to Thee" at the end of the second stanza. Toplady also changed the second line of the third stanza from "My path of life attend" to the more sobering "My life and death attend," but perhaps that is attributable to his illness at the time (which did in fact lead to his death in 1778) (Bennett).

The omitted stanzas of Steel's poem follow:

When I survey life's varied scene,
Amid the darkest hours,
Sweet rays of comfort shine between,
And thorns are mix'd with flowers.

Lord, teach me to adore thy hand,
From whence my comforts flow;
And let me in this desert land
A glimpse of Canaan know.

Is health and ease my happy share?
O may I bless my God;
Thy kindness let my songs declare,
And spread thy praise abroad.

While such delightful gifts as these,
Are kindly dealt to me,
Be all my hours of health and ease
Devoted Lord to thee.

In griefs and pains thy sacred word,
(Dear solace of my soul!)
Celestial comforts can afford,
And all their power control.

When present sufferings pain my heart,
Or future terrors rise,
And light and hope almost depart
From these dejected eyes:

Thy powerful word supports my hope,
Sweet cordial of the mind!
And bears my fainting spirit up,
And bids me wait resign'd.

The preceding stanzas are the context, and the hymn is just the summary. In the first stanza, Steele proposes to examine both "thorns and flowers" in life, referencing that timeless irony so often made the subject of poetry and song. Both are part of every life, and the presence of one does not take away from the other. Neither does their presence in various combinations negate the fact that God remains sovereign. As Job said to his wife's remonstration against his continuing faith, "Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?" (Job 2:10). Though his understanding of the situation was incomplete, his attitude was right. He had earlier said,
Naked I came from my mother's womb,
And naked shall I return.
The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the LORD.
(Job 1:21)
It was not the Lord who had taken everything away, but Job was correct in his long-range view: we bring nothing into this life, we are promised nothing while we are here, and we will take nothing away from it. Humanity has long asked, "Why is there so much evil?" but we may as well ask, "Why is there so much good?" Anne Steele reminds us to look at both sides.

The next stanza introduces the Biblical image of God's hand, providing for his people. Steele calls up the image of God's provision for His people in the Sinai wilderness, where they were became dependent on Him alone, traveling through a land that could not sustain such a multitude by natural means. As David said generations later, "You open your hand; You satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Psalm 145:16). Additionally, the "hand of God" suggests His authority, as in Psalm 123:2, where the servant of God waits on His good time.
Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
As the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the LORD our God,
Till He has mercy upon us.
This image ties into the original wording of the first stanza of the hymn, "Thy sov'reign hand," which perhaps unfortunately was altered by Toplady.

The third and fourth stanzas of Steele's original poem promise gratitude for the good times. She would have us remember to be thankful, and "making the best use of the time" (Colossians 4:5). It is an odd but widely understood truth, that it is harder to be grateful during times of plenty than when we are in need. The fifth, sixth, and seventh stanzas examine the times of "griefs and pains," and the less specific but often more troubling "future terrors." How often is the fear of what may happen, worse than the bad things that actually do! In these Steele encourages us to find solace in Scripture, which gives "hope" in the midst of these troubles and can "all their powers control." Though we cannot live here without sorrows, we can find that help that Paul promised in Romans 15:4, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." These stanzas not included in the modern hymn conclude with another reference to "waiting on the Lord," that hopeful and patient attitude that appears throughout the Psalms and Prophets, even in the darkest of circumstances.

Now to the hymn as we have it:

Stanza 1:
Father, whate'er of earthly bliss
Thy sov'reign will denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise:

This stanza needs careful reading. The first two lines alone might cause us to think this is another of those hymns which expound on the author's suffering in life in a sort of self-congratulatory manner that implies, "Yes, Lord, I am suffering so much! But I'm not complaining." I confess that I have long overlooked the quality of this hymn by just such an assumption, and by not knowing more of Anne Steele's quality of hymn-writing. Having seen the stanzas that originally preceded this, however, it is obvious that self-pity or self-righteousness is the furthest thing from her intent. She has acknowledged that both good and ill are our lot in life, in different measures and at different times, and accepts it as God's will.

In this stanza, however, she poses a direct request. Regardless of whatever else she may be denied in this life ("whate'er of earthly bliss / Thy sov'reign will denies"), she asks that "this petition" (the requests detailed the final two stanzas) be "accepted at Thy throne of grace." She has narrowed down her list of wants to those things a Christian needs, and asks boldly for God's will to grant them. It recalls the beautiful statement of David in the 27th Psalm:
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
That will I seek after:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
To gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
And to inquire in his temple.
(Psalm 27:4)
We find our wants and needs easily confused, especially in wealthy countries where even a middling income allows luxuries that would have made us fabulously rich a few generations ago. It is often necessary for circumstances to force us to rethink our needs and realize what is truly necessary. During the recent hurricane in southern Texas a picture made the rounds, showing a dog named Otis carrying a bag of dog food in his mouth. I believe I understand its popularity. Not only did people recognize Otis as a survivor, they also saw in him an illustration of the pragmatism that takes over in a time of need. Otis could only carry one thing in his mouth, and he chose wisely. He might have liked to carry his bed, or a favorite toy, but he would definitely need that bag of food. Human beings in similar circumstances found themselves equally concerned with the basics of food and shelter. At that moment, the rich and poor alike saw the value of a cup of hot soup and a warm bed.

There are needful things on the spiritual level as well, as necessary as food, clothing, and shelter. People seek them in many places, and find as many disappointments, but keep looking. The final two stanzas are Anne Steele's conclusions about what these spiritual needs truly are.

Stanza 2:
Give me a calm, a thankful heart,
From ev'ry murmur free;
The blessings of Thy grace impart,
And let me live to Thee.

The first line of this stanza could serve as a paraphrase for Paul's reminder to the Colossians, "And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful" (Colossians 3:15). For someone who saw so much conflict in his life, Paul spoke a great deal of his peace; yet following the Hebrew concept of shalom, a Christian's peace is not an absence of external conflict, but the presence of an internal wholeness and balance. It is not a passive state; we must pursue peace (Romans 14:19, 2 Timothy 2:22), and the writer of Hebrews even calls us (counter-intuitively!) to "strive for peace" (12:14). This active, deliberate quality is "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding," that "will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7).

Thankfulness is intertwined with this frame of mind in at least two ways; it is enabled by the peace of mind just described, and it reinforces it at the same time. It is all too easy--and I know this too well--to count our sorrows instead of our blessings. The losses and hurts of this life are real. But if we would not be consumed by them, we need to learn thankfulness for every good thing, great and small. Thankfulness for small things is the opposite of the "murmuring" described in the second line of the stanza. This word recalls the Exodus (two-thirds of the instances of "murmur" in the King James Version are found from Exodus through Deuteronomy, and many of the remaining third look back to that period). The open rebellions against Moses and Joshua were relatively few; it was the slow burn of low-key but persistent complaining that dragged things down. (Parents of small children will understand.)

What if we could do the same thing, but with thanksgiving? What if we could train ourselves to give thanks for every small blessing that comes our way? "Lord, thank you that I can get out of bed this morning" (as I listen to the various creaks and pops that accompany that action). "Lord, thank you for coffee" (this is not humorous). "Lord, thank you that I have a job to go to, and that I got here safely in that traffic." This won't solve all our problems, but perhaps a constant practice of giving thanks for the good things that happen day by day will keep us from dwelling on the disappointments.

Paul's ever-present wish for his readers was "Grace and peace," as expressed at the beginning of nearly every letter, and Steele counts the blessings of God's grace as needful things to the Christian. It may be no accident that Paul always speaks of grace first, and then peace, for there is no true peace before God's grace is received. God's grace first provided a means of salvation: "redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace" (Ephesians 1:7). His grace continues to sustain the Christian, as the Hebrews writer says, "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:16). Paul shared this lesson that came from his thorn in the flesh, when God's answer to his pleas for help was "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is the life--at peace, thankful, and dependent on God's grace day to day, that is "lived to the Lord" (Romans 14:8).

Stanza 3:
Let the sweet hope that Thou art mine
My life and death attend,
Thy presence through my journey shine,
And crown my journey's end.

The final thing that Steele's petition asks is for hope. Hope, of course, is an intangible. "For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience" (Romans 8:24-25). Just because it has not yet arrived, however, does not mean that it is of no present use. The present effect of hope is very real. In Paul's figure of the Christian armor, the "hope of salvation" is the helmet (1 Thessalonians 5:8). It is a necessary protection every day. Setting that hope as our focus is part of "preparing [our] minds for action, and being sober-minded" (1 Peter 1:13). It is a chief part of our motivation: "For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe" (1 Timothy 4:10).

It is also worth noting that the Christian's "hope" is a far cry from a mere "wish." We may hope in that sense for things in which we have little assurance, such as fair weather or a good seat on the bus. The Christian's hope is backed up by the unchanging character of God himself:
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us (Hebrews 6:17-18).
Our "blessed hope" is in "the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13), a return promised by Christ himself. It is a hope "laid up for you in heaven," in the keeping of One whose bank will never fail, with a written guarantee in "the Word of Truth" (Colossians 1:5). This is a hope that sustains through "life and death," as Steele says, providing the strength and energy for each passing day and "crowning the end" with serenity that can only be found in such assurance. No wonder it was so often part of Paul's prayers for the saints:
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints (Ephesians 1:16-18).
Cynthia Aalders has well noted the underlying strength and joy of Steele's hymn, in spite of the serious tone of the subject matter:
Despite her prolonged meditations on earthly suffering and human inarticulacy--despite her perception of God as ineffable--Steele's hymnody remains essentially hopeful, enabling her to make affirmations about God and the spiritual life . . . Steele's confidence that a sovereign God deals both joy and sorrow persuades her that the appropriate spiritual posture is consistently one of thankfulness and calm acceptance, whether life is characterized by "health and ease" or "griefs and pains" (Aalders 159, 161).
About the music:

Hans Georg Nägeli (1773–1836) was a German Swiss composer, music publisher, and music educator of considerable importance in his time. He was contemporary to Beethoven, and was the first publisher of Beethoven's op. 31 piano sonatas, groundbreaking works in that composer's famed middle period. Nägeli's compositions were primarily choral music and solo songs, prefiguring the rapid expansion of the latter genre in the hands of his younger contemporary Franz Schubert (Grove).

Nägeli was firm believer in "music for the masses," and did much to found the Liederkranz tradition ("singing circle," more or less) in Switzerland. These were men's (sometimes women's) amateur choirs, and in an age in which clubs and societies were very popular to begin with, they became a fixture of middle-class entertainment. The music was essentially popular but made occasional forays into the classical realm, and was a mixture of sacred and secular works. A somewhat similar tradition in the United States is the glee club and the barbershop chorus.

Lowell Mason, the great "improver of public taste" and founding father of American music education, took a great deal of inspiration from Nägeli's theories about music education. On his 1837 trip to Europe he carried a letter of introduction to the Swiss composer, and traveled to Zurich specifically to meet him. Unknown to Mason, Nägeli had passed away prior to his arrival. Mason's travel journal reports that he bought all of Nägeli's published works that he did not already possess (Mason, 9). He also met with Nägeli's widow and son to offer his condolences. The son gave Mason a copy of one of his own songs (Mason, 96), and Eva O'Meara's 1971 report on the Lowell Mason collection at Yale University indicates that Mason acquired over fifty titles in all from Nägeli's family (O'Meara, 200). It is possible that some of these materials worked their way into hymns that Mason attributed to Nägeli. Given the difficulty of unraveling Mason's attributions even with composers whose works are thoroughly studied (how exactly is ANTIOCH arranged from Handel?), this may remain unresolved.

The hymn tune which Mason named NAOMI first appeared in his periodical Occasional Psalm and Hymn Tunes, issue no. 3 (1836).

This is considerably altered in its next appearance, in Mason's Carmina Sacra, or, Boston Collection (Boston: Wilkins & Carter, 1841).

Given the degree of alteration from the first to the second arrangement--a complete change of the rhythmic foot in the opening line, and a revision of the cadence ending the second phrase--Mason certainly took a free hand in his arrangements.


Aalders, Cynthia Y. To Express the Ineffable: The Hymns and Spirituality of Anne SteeleStudies in Baptist History and Thought, no. 40 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009).

Ivimey, Joseph. A History of the English Baptists, 4 volumes. London, 1811-1830.

Wilkinson, John. "The Farming of Hampshire." Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society volume 22 (1861), pages 239-371.

Dixon, Michael F. & Hugh F. Steele-Smith, "Anne Steele's Health: A Modern Diagnosis." Baptist Quarterly 32:7 (July 1988), 351-356.

Watson, J. R. "Steele, Anne (1717-1778)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition. Oxford University Press, 2005, viewed 12 May 2016.

Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology, 2nd revised edition (1907). New York: Dover, 1957.

Benson, Louis FitzGerald. The English Hymn: Its Development and Use in Worship. New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915.

Whelan, Timothy. "Steele, Anne Cator--Biography." Nonconformist Women Writers, 1650-1850. Accessed 11 September 2017. 

Hadden, James Cuthbert. "Steele, Anne." Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1895-1900.,_Anne_(DNB00)

Bennett, Henry Leigh. "Toplady, Augustus." Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1895-1900.,_Augustus_Montague_(DNB00)

"Nägeli, Hans Georg." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 20 vols. London: MacMillan, 1980.

Mason, Lowell. A Yankee Musician in Europe: The 1837 Journals of Lowell Mason, ed. Michael Broyles. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1990.

O'Meara, Eva. "The Lowell Mason Library." Notes, Second Series, vol. 28, no. 2 (Dec., 1971), pp. 197-208.