The life of the English hymn writer Mary Peters was short, like that of Philipp Bliss, her contemporary in the USA. Yet she produced around 58 hymns, many of which live on in our hymnbooks and are often sung in our assembly meetings. She was only 43 years of age when she died, after only four years of marriage to John Peters. Her maiden name was Mary Bowley (sometimes Bowly).
Most of Mrs Peters' hymns were written with specific gatherings of the local assembly in mind, such as the Lord's Supper. In contrast to those of the other writers whom we have been considering most recently, only a few are overtly evangelical, addressed to the needs of unbelievers. Hers are more worshipful and thoughtful and always Christ exalting, eminently suited to times of praise, prayer and remembrance. A full collection of her hymns was published by Nisbet & Co, London, 1847, as Hymns Intended to Help the Communion of Saints. This is a title most appropriate for the type of hymns she wrote.
Searching current commonly used hymnbooks we find that twelve of her hymns are in The Believer's Hymn Book (BHB); twenty two are in Hymns of Light and Love (LL). Here is a selection of them.
For singing at the Lord's Supper we have:
Around Thy table, Holy Lord BHB 4; LL105
O Lord, how much Thy Name unfolds BHB 201; LL 27
O blessed Lord, what hast Thou done BHB 173; LL 63
The holiest now we enter BHB 270
By Thee, O God, invited LL 16.
A specially evocative one is LL 283 when sung to the tune of Just as I am:
O Jesus Lord, 'tis Thee alone
The Holy Spirit would enthrone
In every heart, that we may own
Thou art our chiefest joy!
Feebly Thy value we conceive;
Yet with our hearts we do believe,
And would confess, from morn to eve,
Thou art our chiefest joy!
At least two were written for baptismal services, LL 554 and 556 one verse of which reads:
Death to the world we here avow,
Death to each fleshly lust;
Newness of life our calling now,
A risen Lord our trust.
In addition she gave us songs of pilgrimage and hope, such as:
We're pilgrims in the wilderness LL 412
Through the love of God our Saviour BHB 296; LL 327
Many sons to glory bringing LL 243
'Tis we O Lord whom Thou hast shown The deadly bitterness of sin... BHB 300
with the well loved and often quoted verse
And we have known redemption, Lord,
From bondage worse than theirs by far;
Sin held us by a stronger cord,
Yet by Thy mercy free we are.
The depth of sentiment and spiritual understanding revealed in all these hymns may belie the fact that Mrs Peters wrote most of her hymns before she was thirty years old. No less an accomplished hymn writer than Francis Ridley Havergal later wrote of her: "Calmer, riper and maturer are the hymns of Mary Bowly. They are not the hymns of a young Christian, but evidently of one who has found 'grace for grace' and gone from 'strength to strength', every line, generally speaking, contains some distinct reality of Scripture truth or Christian experience. The bright assurance of faith is expressed in these hymns with the simple, absolute rest of the soul in the infinite and absolute love of the Father in His Son, Jesus Christ".
Such an assessment of her hymns is well supported when we consider, for example, just two of the five verses of this one (LL 212):
"Praise ye the Lord!" again, again,
The Spirit strikes the chord;
Nor toucheth He our hearts in vain -
We praise, we praise the Lord.
"Clean every whit" – Thou saidst it, Lord,
Shall one suspicion lurk?
Thine, surely, is a faithful word,
And Thine a finished work.
It is of interest to note that when Mrs Peters died, Miss Havergal was twenty years old, and she herself died at the early age of forty-two. What a rich heritage of different types of hymns these two young, godly and gifted women have left us! Histories like these show us again that many young women and men, as well as older ones, have left their lasting mark on the work and worship of the church.
Mary Bowley was born on 17th April, 1813 in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, the sixth of seven children of Richard and Mary Bowley. Richard Bowley was a Quaker, and a draper to trade. Mary was brought up in this type of godly family. Little is known about her early years, but she appears to have been a serious and talented girl. One of her interests was a painstaking study of ancient and modern history.
This interest and evident aptitude were put to good use in that she wrote a very ambitious and comprehensive literary work called The World's History from the Creation to the Accession of Queen Victoria. It ran to no less than seven large volumes. Its shorter and more descriptive title is Universal History in Scripture Principles. In it she shows how God's hand had been upon all the great events of history up to her time, as it is up till now and will be until the end. This is worthy of our notice today when different and perhaps more sinister forces are at work on the world stage.
Her spiritual life was developed in the great movement of the Holy Spirit which took place in her part of England in those days, when New Testament truths about the church and its ministry were being discovered and taught. Men like George Müller travelled and taught the Word throughout that area in 1841 (Cirencester is only around 30 miles from Bristol). Many were leaving the established church and gathering to the name of the Lord Jesus. These were the early halcyon days of expansion of assemblies thereabouts and in many other parts of the country.
Mary Bowley was married at the age of thirty-nine. Her husband was John William Peters, a widower of six years, who was "a minister of the gospel at Quenington, Gloucestershire". Their marriage in Cirencester on 13th April, 1852 was conducted by George Müller. John Peters had been for some years a rector and a vicar of the Established Church, but more recently he too had found that the practices of that church did not match what he found when reading the New Testament. So he had resigned from his post and built a non-denominational chapel in Little Farringdon, Oxford, for preaching the gospel. In it was a baptismal tank for believers' baptism by immersion.
After their marriage they moved to Clifton in Bristol. There they had just four happy years together, for Mary died on 29th July, 1856. She was buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol. Her burial service was conducted by Henry Craik, another well-known name among the early brethren.
A fitting description of the kind of person she was is given in the last verse of one of her hymns (LL 412):
Lord, since we sing as pilgrims,
May we have pilgrims' ways:
Low thoughts of self, befitting
Proclaimers of Thy praise!
Oh, make us each more holy,
In spirit pure and meek,
Like citizens of heaven,
As we of heaven speak!
To be continued.
Much of the biographical information here has been taken from the account given by Jack Strahan in Hymns and their Writers, Vol 1, Gospel Tract Publications, Glasgow, 1989, pp.165-169, which the author gratefully acknowledges.