The Havergal family was raised in the idyllic parish of Astley in Worcestershire where their father the Rev William Henry Havergal served as rector. It was a happy home in which the two sons and four daughters felt the wise and holy influence of their godly parents. Frances, born on 14th December, 1836, was the youngest. Her famous middle name was bestowed in honour of her godfather, Rev W H Ridley of Hambledon, Buckinghamshire, a descendent of Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, one of the Oxford martyrs burned at the stake in 1555 during the Marian persecutions.
Childhood and conversion
Frances was a lively and pretty child, the baby of the family! Her education began at home where her eldest sister Miriam was her first teacher. Frances soon showed signs of the rich talent that blossomed in later years. When aged six she began to long to be a Christian, but some years passed before she found peace. She experienced sorrow and loss for the first time when eleven years old. Her mother was gravely ill, and on her deathbed she spoke to Frances: I do pray for the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you. Remember, nothing but the precious blood of Christ can make you clean and lovely in God's sight. Mrs Havergal died on 5th July, 1848 and Frances was not yet saved, but she never forgot her mother's words.
Two years later Frances left home to go to a boarding school for girls. Her father had made a careful choice, for the Principal was a wise and godly woman concerned not only for the education of her pupils, but for their salvation and spiritual advancement. In the closing months of 1850 a number of her fellow pupils were saved, and Frances became increasingly anxious and yearned for salvation. In February, 1851 she visited her sister Miriam now married and living in Oakhampton. There she met Miss Caroline Cook who in the summer of that same year married Frances' father. They had many talks until one day Miss Cook asked Frances why she could not trust the Saviour at once. Could she not commit her soul to Him? Was His promise not enough? Frances went to her room and tremblingly she did trust Jesus and committed her soul to Him. She now realised that trusting not trying brings peace. Later she recalled, For the first time my Bible was sweet to me, and the first passage I distinctly remember reading, in a new and glad light, was the fourteenth and following chapters of St. John's Gospel.
School days were interrupted by erysipelas (an inflammatory disease) in her head and face, and Frances had to return home. For a time it seemed that she might not be able to return to school but happily that was not the case for she was an avid learner. From November, 1852 Frances spent thirteen months in Germany with her parents while her father received treatment for incipient cataract. She attended the Louisenschule in Dusseldorf and enjoyed studying German literature and history. She found no other girl who was a believer, and in a small way there was persecution of the "Engländerin". It was valuable experience in growing up and growing in grace. Back in England Frances continued to read and learn the Scriptures systematically, using her remarkable memory to good effect. Her sister Maria recalled that when they took walks in the countryside Frances would repeat alternate verses with her. She memorised the Gospels, Epistles, Revelation, the Psalms, and Isaiah. She spoke German, French and a little Italian, and with her father she studied Hebrew and Greek, becoming sufficiently proficient in both to enable her to read Scripture in the original tongues.
She shared with her father an interest in music. The Rev W H Havergal had composed a number of tunes and in 1847 had published Old Church Psalmody. He was greatly interested in preserving the purity of old tunes and in encouraging a calm and earnest devotion in the singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Frances inherited his love of harmony. She had a fine singing voice, was an accomplished pianist and had a talent for music composition.
Hymns and Poems
Space permits reference to only a few choice examples of her very considerable output. Her first book, Ministry of Song included I Did This for Thee! What hast Thou Done for Me? A Scripture reference was given for every line. The thoughtful reader will ponder the sacrificial love and condescending grace of the Lord Jesus. Two verses suffice to give the tenor of thought:
I gave My life for thee, Gal. ii. 20
My precious blood I shed, 1 Pet. i. 19
That thou might'st ransomed be, Eph. i. 7
And quickened from the dead. Eph. ii. 1
I gave My life for thee; Tit. ii. 14
What hast thou given for Me? John xxi. 15-17
My Father's home of light, John xvii. 5
My rainbow circled throne Rev. iv. 3
I left, for earthly night, Phil. Ii. 7
For wanderings sad and lone. Matt. vii. 20
I left it all for thee; 2 Cor. vii. 9
Hast thou left aught for Me? Luke x. 29
A suited response to the appeal of the above verses is found in her beautiful Consecration Hymn based upon Romans 12.1.
Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take myself, and I will be
Ever, only, ALL for Thee.
This hymn was the first piece in Loyal Responses or Daily Melodies for The King's Minstrels a collection of thirty-one hymns or poems – one for each day of the month. Some have been well used as Gospel hymns:
Precious, precious blood of Jesus,
Shed on Calvary;
Shed for rebels, shed for sinners,
Shed for me.
Though thy sins are red like crimson,
Deep in scarlet glow,
Jesu's precious blood can make them
White as snow.
Trusting Jesus expresses the repose of a believing heart:
I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus,
Trusting only Thee;
Trusting Thee for full salvation,
Great and free.
I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus;
Never let me fall!
I am trusting Thee for ever,
And for all.
Another hymn deserves notice. Perfect Peace was written on 3rd November, 1874 while Frances was slowly recovering from typhoid fever. The illness had been serious and her condition grave. Consideration of the circumstances adds poignancy to the familiar words - Like a river glorious / Is God's perfect peace, / Over all victorious / In its bright increase. Every line of the verses breathes trust and confidence in God, as does the chorus, Stayed upon Jehovah, / Hearts are fully blest, / Finding, as He promised, / Perfect peace and rest.
Master, say on! from Ministry of Song contains verses familiar to us and often sung in ministry meetings - Master, speak! Thy servant heareth, / Waiting for Thy gracious word. It comprised nine verses, of which only four appear in The Believers Hymn Book. Other hymns continuing in common use include:
I could not do without Thee, O Saviour of the lost!
Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
Who is on the Lord's side?
She loved children and wrote Little Pillows, a collection of children's stories. This was followed by Morning Bells. She suggested that if the motto for the first book was Come to Me, then for the second it should be Follow Me.
Frances Havergal remained unmarried, and some months after the death of her step-mother in May, 1878 she and her sister Maria made their home at Caswell Bay, The Mumbles. Frances lived for only eight months in her new home. She had not enjoyed robust health, and after getting wet and chilled on a showery day she felt weak and feverish. Initially her illness was not thought to be too serious but peritonitis rapidly came on. After a few days of great suffering the Lord called her home on 3rd June, 1879 when only 42 years old.
Her life and writings adorned the doctrine of God her Saviour in all things. Her deep inward spirituality imparted weight and character to her hymns and poems. Their sweetness and beauty have enhanced the rich spiritual legacy of the evangelical Anglican community.
To be continued.
1. Much information has been derived from Memorials of Frances Ridley Havergal by her sister MVGH.
2. The Poetical Works of Frances Ridley Havergal is obtainable in second-hand bookshops. It is worth searching for!