Saturday, 31 October 2015

22 Frances Ridley Havergal, Christian Poetess

22. Frances Ridley Havergal (photos: plaque, house, Astley church,Frances) - 31/10/15

When Frances Ridley Havergal moved in October 1878 into a rented house in Caswell, she was a 41 year-old hymn writer, an accomplished musician and singer, a writer of devotional books for children, and an esteemed speaker at Christian meetings.  The house then called ‘Park Villa’ stands at the top of Caswell Hill, at the junction with Caswell Avenue.  It was later re-named ‘Havergal’, with a plaque placed in the wall in 1937 stating that Frances Ridley Havergal, Christian poetess and hymn writer, lived there before her death on 3rd June 1879.

In Victorian times it was still customary for families on Sundays to attend a place of worship.   The vicar of a parish was an important person in the community, and such was Rev. William Havergal, a notable church organist and composer, whose contribution to church music is remembered by a plaque inside Worcester Cathedral.  His youngest child Frances was born in 1836 in the Rectory of Astley, a village in Worcestershire.

As she grew up her musical and poetic abilities became evident, but Frances experienced times of poor health, and with her alert mind she chafed at the enforced rest.  A good linguist, she became fluent in French and German to appreciate visits to Switzerland and Germany.  But being the daughter of a clergyman and accustomed to attending church did not make her a Christian, for only after her mother’s death when Frances was aged 11 did she come into a relationship with God through Christ Jesus.  Her own times of illness and the later deaths of two nieces and one of her brothers did not undermine her trust in God, whom she knew to be good, personal and in control whatever happened to her. 

Many of her seventy hymns in English (she wrote one in French) are still sung today – among the 12 in the Methodist Hymn Book are ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’, ‘Like a river glorious’ and ‘Take my life and let it be’ - which has been translated into Arabic, among other languages.  Frances preferred ‘Take my life’ to be sung to a tune of her father’s instead of what she called ‘that wearisome hackneyed Kyrie of Mozart’, but the Mozart tune named ‘Consecration’ prevails today. 

When she joined her elder sister Maria at Caswell it was not for a holiday.  Requests for writing and to check her proofs flowed in from English and American editors, while correspondents sought her advice and help.  Frances enjoyed walking on the cliffs, going onto Caswell beach at low tide to explore rock pools, watching the ships with all sails up entering Swansea harbour, and she was interested to visit Mumbles Lighthouse and talk with Mr Ace, the lighthouse keeper.  Furthermore Frances became involved in temperance work, encouraging the young people to ‘sign the pledge’, and, with the Vicar of Swansea’s permission, she took Bible readings among cottagers in the village.  She sang and spoke at Swansea’s YWCA, giving a card containing the words of ‘Take my life’ to each of the women.

With no St Peter’s Church yet built in Newton, Frances would attend the village’s only place of worship - Paraclete Congregational Chapel - to play the organ and to assist with the children’s work. 

An animated personality, Frances declined several marriage proposals.  In May 1879 following a visit from American Ira D. Sankey (of the Moody and Sankey missions), she became ill and had to cancel a visit to Irish mission stations.  After a short illness she died of hepatitis and acute peritonitis, being buried in the family grave at Astley, where at her request the verse ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin’ is around her grave.  
Over the next 20 years ‘Memorials of Frances Ridley Havergal’ edited by her sister sold 250,000 copies, but her lasting legacy remains her hymns, written to the glory of God.            

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