Hymn Writers who Overcame – Eliza Hewitt

The name of Eliza Hewitt may not be a household name, but her hymns are known to anyone who has attended Sunday School.

She was born in Philadelphia on June 28, 1851. She was the second child in a family that would eventually have six children. She grew up during the tragic Civil War in America, being educated through those turbulent years. She was an intelligent young woman who graduated as valedictorian from the Girls’ Normal School which she attended. Subsequently, she became a teacher in the Philadelphia public school system. It was while working as a teacher that tragedy struck. It is alleged that she was struck by a student who used his heavy slate and hit her across her back while he was being disciplined. So, not all children in the 1800s were respectful and feared their teachers!

As a result, she became bedridden, being place in a heavy cast for six months. Confined to bed, she faced the same choices that each individual so affected has faced: “Will I become bitter over this or will I seek to use it in some way for others?” She gave herself to the study of English literature at first, and then began to write hymns. One of her first was:

Sing the wondrous love of Jesus, sing His mercy and His grace

In the mansions bright and blessed, He’ll prepare for us a place.

As she continued writing, her poems became well-known. One of her poems, “Winning souls for Jesus,” was placed in the cornerstone of the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church in West Philadelphia. Her poems were put to music by Professor W. J. Kirkpatrick. Soon, her writings were being sung in distant areas of the USA and beyond.

Many of her hymns were penned while an invalid in her home in Philadelphia. Adversity and tragedy were turned to the gold of heaven because a woman refused to become bitter and angry at the circumstances God allowed into her life. Eventually, however, she regained strength and was able to return to work as a teacher (it is rumored that she only distributed foam slates from that time on). She became a close friend of Fanny Crosby and the two often met to discuss their hymns. 

Other hymns which she penned in include: “When we all get to heaven,” “Will there be any stars in my crown?” “More about Jesus would I know.”

For a period of time, she lived at 804 South 10th St in Philadelphia, thus sharing with the writer the distinction of being raised in South Philadelphia. Sadly, the similarity ends there. She died April 24, 1920 and is buried in Woodlands Cemetery in the City.

There are lessons which may seem trite, and even hackneyed to some, but which her life illustrates so emphatically. When a sovereign God allows adverse circumstances into any life, it is not with a whimsical or curious intent to see how someone will react. His plans and purposes are rich with intent and potential blessings. His Providence may allow the circumstances; our faith will determine how we respond. To those who like the Fanny Crosbys and Eliza Hewitts of the world respond by a gracious submission, there is the satisfaction of lives marked by usefulness, and by an eternity promising compensation beyond calculation.

None of us may have a crippling back injury or sustain blindness from birth (Fanny Crosby). Each of us, however, will know at some time in life, circumstances which seem to change the course of life we have outlined for ourselves. It is then that we are tested and the result of that test will have eternal consequences. 

Hymn Writers who Overcame

There has likely not been anyone as prolific in the field of hymn writing, nor marked by such heights of hymnology, as Isaac Watts. A diminutive musical genius, he stood a total of five feet in height, yet His gigantic shadow still falls upon us in this age.

Isaac was born July 27, 1674 at Southampton, England, the eldest of nine children. His father was a Dissenter from the Anglican Church and on at least one occasion was thrown in jail for not following the Church of England. Isaac followed his father’s strong Biblical faith. He was a very intelligent child who loved books and learned to read early. He began learning Latin at age four and went on to learn Greek, Hebrew, and French as well. He showed a propensity to rhyming from an early age, and often even his conversation was in rhyme (some people we know speak in alliteration!). His father became quite annoyed at this and told him to stop. When the rhyming persisted, the father started to spank him, and little Isaac cried out:

“O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make.”  

Isaac would not follow the national Church of England, and so he was not able to attend the Universities of Cambridge or Oxford. No one apologized in that day for discrimination. He went to an academy sponsored by Independent Christians. It was during this time that he began as never before to study the Scriptures. In 1707 he published his first edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

He knew suffering and illness. The Lord used Watts’ sufferings to produce a gentle, modest, and charitable spirit. Out of his compassion, one-third of his small allowance was given to the poor. Watts’ tenderness to children can be seen reflected in his lovely Divine Songs for Children, published in 1715.

The road to becoming a writer of hymns was quite unique in Watts’ experience. In the time in which he lived congregations sang only the Psalms in the churches. One day he complained to his father, AThe church ventures to sing a dull hymn or two at church, in tunes of equal dullness.” At which point, his father told him, “Why don=t you write some yourself, then?” So be careful what you complain about!

Watts would often take Psalms and paraphrase them into rhyme. Examples of Watts’ method can be seen in his paraphrases of Psalm 72 into the hymn “Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun,” Psalm 90 into “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and Psalm 98 into “Joy to the World.”

We are indebted to none other than Ben Franklin for his assistance in making Watts known in the American colonies. He was the first to publish Watts’ psalm paraphrases in America in 1729. Franklin was not the only American publisher to take an interest in Watt’s hymns. His hymns were published in Boston, in 1739. They were well-loved by Americans of the Revolutionary period. 

Besides over 600 hymns, Watts published 52 other works, including a book of logic used in the universities, books on grammar, pedagogy, ethics, psychology, astronomy, geography, three volumes of sermons, and 29 treatises on theology. After his death on November 25, 1748, a monument to Watts was erected in Westminster Abbey. His greatest monument, however, are the hymns to his God still used by us today. He has rightly been called the Father of English Hymns.

But there is a lesson from his life, in the truth that you cannot have it all. Though he had a beautiful soul, apparently Isaac Watts was not much to look at. He was frail and often sickly. His head seemed too large for his five-foot-tall body; his small, piercing eyes and hooked nose did not enhance his appearance. A lady, Miss Elizabeth Singer, once fell in love with Isaac by reading his poetry. This led to a correspondence between them. When she met him face to face, however, she was very disillusioned, though he fell in love with her. He asked her to marry him, but her reply was, “Mr. Watts, I only wish I could admire the casket (jewelry box – the outer person) as much as I admire the jewel.” Watts never married, though the two remained good friends for over 30 years

A few of his hymns which we sing today include:

  • Alas and did My Savior Die
  • Not all the Blood of Beasts
  • When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
  • Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun 

Illness, discrimination, even a lack of physical appearance could have caused him to wallow in self-pity and despondency. Instead, he left a rich legacy to future generations through the hymns he contributed to us.

Hymns and their History

It might be good to refocus our attention from all that is around us and to consider some hymns which we cherish and appreciate. The name of Cecil Frances Alexander is hardly one that trips off your tongue every day. She was born in the Republic of Ireland and later lived in Londonderry. She was marked by compassion and care for others. She expressed that concern for those disadvantaged by traveling miles each day to the sick and poor, providing clothes, food, and medical supplies. She also founded a school for the deaf. All this was quite progressive in the 1800s.

She became well-known for her writing of children’s hymns and poetry. But she is best known to us by some of the hymns which came from her pen. The two which will occupy us in this brief discourse are linked by the two events which “bookend” the life of our Savior and by the fact that the two locations of which she wrote were a mere 6 to 8 miles apart.

At Christmas time we sing the words of one of her hymns:

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle-shed
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for His bed
Mary was that mother mild
Jesus Christ her little child

He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all
And His shelter was a stable
And His cradle was a stall.

But at the Breaking of Bread we often sing another touching hymn which moves from Bethlehem and a cradle to Jerusalem and a cross:

There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where our dear Lord was crucified
Who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell,
what pains He had to bear,
but we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

Bethlehem and Jerusalem, at the one He was worshiped; at the other, He was mocked. At Bethlehem, He came down, but at Golgotha He was lifted up. We look to Bethlehem and remember He was a real man. We look to Calvary and remember He is our Great God and Savior (Titus 2:13) Who gave Himself for us. Cecil Frances Alexander captured the essence of both of these eternity-shaping events in her hymns of worship.

The full text of these hymns can be found in www.Christianmusicandhymns.com