I am dependent on the excellent recent biography of Anne Steele by Sharon James found in her book “In Trouble And In Sorrow” (Evangelical Press 2003). I have also used “The Works Of Anne Steele in 2 Volumes” (Boston ed. 1808) for this lecture. There has been a renewed interest in Anne Steele lately. Well worth reading are the full biography of her by J.R. Broome “A Bruised Reed: The Life and Times of Anne Steele” and the excellent study of her hymns by Cynthia Aalders “To Express The Inefable: The Hymns and Spirituality Of Anne Steele.”
I. A Brief Sketch Of Her Life: She was born in Broughton, England where her father, who was a fairly well-off timber merchant, preached at the Particular Baptist church for 60 years. She actually lived only 15 miles from the great Isaac Watts. Although it is unlikely that they ever met, she mentions his work with fondness in one of her hymns. Her mother died when she was 3 years old, and by 14 it seems she was bothered by chronic recurring malaria which took a progressive toll on her health. She also had painful stomach problems and severe teeth pain and her health was never very good. She received her education through being sent to boarding schools, even though the local pastor condemned her stepmother for doing this. Her home was one in which reading literature and poems was one of the fondest activities.
She was thrown from a horse and injured when she was 19, but makes no mention of this later in her diary and it is not true (as some have reported) that she was an invalid for life from this injury. It has been widely reported that when she was 21, she was engaged to Robert Elcomb, but that the day before the wedding he was drowned while bathing in a river! However, while he may have been courting her, they were not a day from their wedding when this tragedy occurred. In fact, she had numerous wedding proposals after this (including one from Baptist pastor and hymnwriter Benjamin Beddome) but she chose a life of singleness. Her stepsister had a difficult marriage and this may have influenced Anne’s decision, but she also felt that singleness provided her the opportunity to serve the Lord in other ways. Had she chosen to become a busy pastor’s wife she may not have been able to write so many poems and hymns. So, she lived with her father and stepmother, who cared for her health problems, and who fixed her an elegant room with a fireplace to write her poems. She assisted her father in his pastoral labors, although for the last 9 years of her life, she was never able to leave her bed.
Still in spite of all of this her disposition was described as “cheerful and helpful” and her life as one of “unaffected humility, warm benevolence, sincere friendship, and genuine devotion.” In reading Sharon James’ account of her home-life I am reminded of the settings in some of Jane Austen’s novels. She was a bright and cheerful woman, but one who suffered greatly from her ongoing health problems. Her hymns reveal that her health problems provoked great spiritual struggles as well and she is often wrestling with doubts and assurance of salvation.
Caleb Evans describes her death, “Having been confined to her chamber for some nine years, she had long waited with Christian dignity for the hour of her departure. And when the time came, she welcomed its arrival; and though her feeble body was excruciated with pain, her mind was perfectly serene. She took a most affectionate leave of her weeping friends around her, and at length, the happy moment of her dismission arriving, she closed her eyes, and with these words upon her dying lips, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ gently fell asleep in Jesus.”
II. Her Poems And Hymns: John Gadsby says that “from early life she was exceedingly fond of poetry, but was very unwilling for her productions to be submitted to the public eye. When at last she gave her consent, she would not have her own name attached to the volumes, but published them under the signature of Theodosia, and gave all the profits to charity.” Her father wrote in his diary, “Today Nanny sent part of her composition to London to be printed. I entreat a gracious God, who enabled and stirred her up to such a work, to direct in it and bless it for the good of many. I pray God to make it useful, and keep her humble.”
In total 3 volumes of her poems were published. The first two in 1760 as Poems, On Subjects Chiefly Devotional by Theodosia – she oversaw the editing of these 2 volumes herself. The third volume was published after her death. (In 1967 The Gospel Standard Baptist Trust published an edition of her hymns, without the poems or Psalms, but even this is long out of print.) She wrote 144 hymns, as well as 48 psalms in verse (she does not “Chrstianize the Psalms like Watts does by the way), and her works also contain a number of miscellaneous poems, prose writings, and letters. Amos Wells (writing in 1914) says she was “the first woman writer whose hymns came to be largely used in hymn-books, and she is the greatest Baptist hymn-writer.” He describes her hymns as “very simple, clear, and beautiful, breathing a spirit of Christian faith and resignation.”
200 years ago her hymns were very popular – in 1808, an Episcopal church in Boston published its own hymnal, and out of the 152 hymns in the volume, 59 were by Anne Steele! (To recognize the significance of this fact you need to realize that at this period Baptists and Episcopalians were pretty far removed from each other and the fact that a Baptist would compose 1/3 of the hymns in an Episcopalian hymnal is truly remarkable!) Henry Burrage in Baptist Hymn Writers And Their Hymns (1888) says that over 100 of her hymns can be found in “modern” hymnals – more than any other Baptist hymn writer! He says that “her hymns, written to lighten her own burdens, give beautiful expression to the sweetness of her Christian character, and the depth of her Christian experience.” I must concur! I find her hymns so rich, and yet easily understood even by those living 250 years after her death!
- Kevin Twit