FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 03/12/2009

Words and Legacies

March 11, 2009                                            Volume 2 Issue 6
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Elaine Phillips
Several years ago, I did a small amount of research on Fanny Crosby, one of America's foremost hymn writers from the 19th century. By all accounts, she was a remarkable woman, having written more than 8,000 hymn texts. Even more compelling, however, is the fact that she was blind from the age of six weeks.  
Nevertheless, despite her physical limitations, Crosby could "see" in ways that seem somehow to elude most of us. Among the things she saw were the transforming beauty of God's grace for sinners and the firm hope God's people have in Jesus. Before she was ten years old, she reputedly had memorized the first four books of the Old Testament, and also the four Gospels.  Among Fanny Crosby's most memorable hymn texts were "To God Be the Glory" and "Blessed Assurance." What a marvelous legacy this woman left.
So did Frances Ridley Havergal. Born in England in 1836, she began writing verse when she was only seven, though her health was often limiting. Her hymns likewise have endured: "Take My Life and Let it Be" and "Like a River Glorious." By the age of 22, she knew by heart the entire New Testament, the Psalms, Isaiah, and was beginning work on the minor prophets. No wonder she--and Crosby--wrote poetry that was rich with theology.

As we celebrate Women's History Month this March, the lives of these two hymn writers from the 19th century offer a radical alternative to the frenetic pace and obsession with accomplishment that characterizes our contemporary culture. Some might question whether all their memorizing could amount to much. Others today might tell them to "get a life!" But that is precisely what they were doing--with much more lasting impact than some of the things we think of as "real living."
Why? Because words, all words, are powerful. The book of Proverbs, along with our own experiences, repeatedly demonstrates that. Proverbs 18:21 says, "the tongue has the power of death and life" and we see evidence of that when a truly evil person controls a nation or a culture by means of rhetoric and ushers in more horrifying death engines than we could possibly imagine.  
Or we see what damage our own words do in our own little spheres. My guess is that we have been skewered many times over by what we have heard others say about us. Words can destroy and deceive; they can also restore and inspire. These hymn writers knew the power of using words well, and they did so because they had first been changed by words infinitely greater than their own.
The prophet Jeremiah described God's word as fire and a hammer, neither of which is particularly gentle. While fire warms and gives light, and those are splendid when we are immobilized by cold and terrified of the dark, it also purifies and refines, generally through destruction of useless material-and many of us are harboring heaps of useless material. Hammers also break rocks, the latter being a sadly realistic image for the quality of my heart at times; maybe yours too.

The author of the book of Hebrews asserts that God's word is living and active and can do some major and necessary damage to our inner patterns of self-satisfaction, self-justification and self-deception (4:12). Of course, the Word doesn't sit on our shelves and accomplish this from afar. Women like Crosby and Havergal--as well as countless other poets and writers before and since--had the courage and discipline to look at themselves in the mirror of Scripture, absorb its life-changing truths and then create stirring hymns and texts that continue to inspire future generations.
The indwelling Word, if it is seriously indwelling, will indeed transform us so that our redeemed actions and words will be a consistent, inseparable whole. And that will be a legacy worth leaving.
Dr. Elaine Phillips is professor of biblical and theological studies at Gordon College. She and her husband live in Magnolia, MA.


Elaine Phillips