Like a River Glorious

Frances Havergal was the youngest of six children in her family. Her father was William H. Havergal, a Church of England minister who authored over 100 hymns himself. As an infant, sitting on his knee as he led morning prayers, bible reading and hymn singing, she learned to sing at the same time she was learning to talk.

Something of a prodigy, Frances was reading children’s books by age 3, reading the Bible and memorizing portions of it at age four, and writing poetry at age seven. As a teen, she was educated at private schools in England and Germany becoming an accomplished singer and pianist, and a linguistics scholar, fluent in French, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. She also continued memorizing prodigious amounts of scripture, and by age twenty-two could recite the entire New Testament, as well as the books of Psalms, and Isaiah.

By this time she was writing poems and hymns which were printed as leaflets and ornamental cards. “I Gave My Life for Thee” written when she was twenty-two became her first well-known hymn.

Describing how hymn lyrics came to her, she wrote: "I believe my King suggests a thought, and whispers me a musical line or two, and then I look up and thank Him delightedly and go on with it. That is how my hymns come. . . . Writing is praying with me. You know a child would look up at every sentence and say, 'And what shall I say next?' That is just what I do; I ask Him that at every line He would give me not merely thoughts and power, but also every word, even the very rhymes. . . . All my best have come in that way, full grown. It is so curious, one minute I have not an idea of writing anything, the next I have a poem; it is mine, I see it all, except laying out rhymes and metre, which is then easy work. I rarely write anything which has not come thus."

Although Frances Havergal had a delicate constitution and was often in very poor health, she very much enjoyed traveling. In 1876 while vacationing in the south of Wales she caught a life-threating severe cold and inflammation of the lungs. When told that she might die she received the news complacently, responding, “If I am really going, it is too good to be true.” Her friends were amazed at her response wondering how one could face death so peacefully. She did recover and in November of that year wrote “Like a River Glorious,” describing the source of the peace. When she did die, three years later, at the age of 42, her final words were “Come, Lord Jesus, fetch me.”

(Hymn story by Nathan Sarvis, originally published in The Autoharp Quarterly, Summer 2016, Volume 28, Issue 3)

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