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Hymn Writers and Their Hymns: Anne Steele

December 22, 2014

Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul

 Anne Steele (1717-1778) was one of the most widely published hymn writers in her time and almost a century after – maybe only 2nd to Isaac Watts – yet you probably don’t recall her name nor recognize many of her hymns. She originally wrote her hymns for personal devotion but her father (who was a wealthy timber merchant and also a lay pastor) began using them in his worship services and later helped get them published.They largely fell out of publication in the late 1800’s and no one really seems to know why. One speculation and likely cause is that the increasingly popular falsehood that a Christian ought not to experience any doubts or struggle with their beliefs stands in direct contradiction to many of Steele’s hymns which speak plainly about such experiences being part of the normal Christian life.

One such hymn is, Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul:

 

Dear refuge of my weary soul,
On thee when sorrows rise;
On thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies.

While hope revives, though pressed with fears,
And I can say, “My God,”
Beneath thy feet I spread my cares,
And pour my woes abroad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first verse is a confession that is rare to find these days, acknowledging that her soul is weary and her hope is fainting. Steele faced many difficulties during her life. Her mother died when she was at the age of three and by age 14 began to be bothered by chronic malaria. Her health then was never very good. A young man she was courting drowned, and though she received numerous wedding proposals after that, chose a life of singleness. Yes, she experienced frequent joys and many of her hymns and poems reflect her “cheerful and helpful” disposition described of her, but it’s good to know that she did not write these words glibly.

Have you ever felt soul-weary? Did you tell God? He is the only refuge for a troubled mind. Look back to verse three that begins, “To thee I tell each rising grief.” We often associate hymns with a lack of emotion and modern choruses with emotional excess at times. But a careful study will reveal that the emotional range touched on by modern choruses is really rather narrow compared to hymns. Why does that even matter? What should we feel about the way we feel? As Calvin says in his commentary on the Psalms, “there is not an emotion of which one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror…[and] they call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of ourselves in particular so that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and the vices with which we abound, may remain concealed.” Because of the idol factory that is our heart, feelings are often quite deceptive. Steele is here reminding us to bring whatever emotions we have to Him so that His word will stand us aright.

Steele also shows us that we must not wait for “right” emotions or thoughts before telling them to God. Many of her hymns are a model of what it is to “gospel argue” with the soul. Look at verse four. Her doubts that she is beloved by God don’t just seem to poke at her – they prevail. Yet in the following verses she asks the questions, “Where shall I flee? Hast thou not bid me seek thy face? Can the ear of sovereign grace be deaf?” And the answer, “NO! The ear of sovereign grace attends the mourner’s prayer and his mercy-seat is open!” Arguing with the soul is a vital discipline that is lost on many people; and oh, how we all need reminding of our refuge! It really is a shame, in my opinion, that many hymns and devotions that show us how to do it are so often neglected and even criticized for their “negative tone”.

I encourage you to read the hymns of Steele and hope that in doing so you would be comforted and moved to worship! You can find them here.

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