A Celebration of Women Writers

"Woman in Sacred Song." by Mrs. Eva Munson Smith (1843-).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 416-422.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 416] 



Without doubt Eve sang in that garden of gardens, at first for very joy, to express her love and gratitude to the Creator for the boon of life. Some of the most gifted and imaginative of our woman poets have put songs in her mouth depicting her sorrow after the edict of banishment had been pronounced. "Must I leave thee, paradise?" is the saddest of songs, bringing out in the harmonic minor passages which form the most mournful of all intervals, the deep pathos and bitter anguish experienced by our first parents.

I am not before you today to affirm that the gift of song is particularly feminine, but simply to do justice to woman, in setting forth, to some extent, the part she has taken in sacred song.

There is no sex in the gift of song writing; for years I doubt not that many of us here today sung "Nearer my God to Thee," and "Just as I Am Without One Plea," before we knew that Sarah Flower Adams, in 1841, and Charlotte Elliott, in 1833, were, respectively, the authors.

Let us go back to the earliest sacred songs on record by women. About three or four thousand years B. C. we have the triumphal song of Miriam as she marched forth, accompanied by her maidens, with timbrel and dance after the safe passage of the children of Israel through the Red Sea, chanting: "Sing ye to the Lord! for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea!"

Then there is the song of Deborah and Barak, which seem somewhat in responsive measure. Intense joy or sorrow calls for a song. No cause, or reform, or form of oppression takes deep hold upon the heart of a community until the service of song is enlisted. Hence, in Russia, as in other lands that have been prosperous at times and oppressed at others, we find both the joyful and the sad; but the minor strains of sadness prevail in the so-called sacred or religious songs of that country. The Gregorian chant was the simplest, as it was the most primitive, and was weird and mournful.

Prominent among the names of the song writers among women of that country is Anna Brenin, born in 1774, who, under great difficulties, wrote much that was meritorious, and so won the heart of the Empress Elizabeth that she had a pension bestowed upon her. Very few of their hymns have been translated into English, though a considerable number are found translated into the French. The Countess Tolstoi is one of the leading composers of Russia today.

Among the hymnologists pre-eminent among women during the years of 1700 [Page 417]  may be mentioned Lady Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, 1707, who wrote, "When Thou, my righteous Judge, shall come," and "Fading, Still Fading, the Last Beam is Shining;" also Madame Guyon, who wrote while in prison,

"A little bird am I,
Shut from the fields of air."
Of her numerous hymns, the best known in the churches of the present day are:–"If life in sorrow must be spent;" "Oh Thou, by long experience tried;" and "Oh Lord, how full of sweet content!"

But it was Anne Steele (born in England in 1716, and died in 1778) who is the author of more hymns than any other woman of her time, which have been generally accepted and are still sung by the churches of all denominations, one hundred and forty-four of which were printed just after her death, the profits of sales going to aid benevolent objects, and gradually finding their way into all hymn-books in all Christian climes.

Mrs. Anna Letitia Barbauld, whose name until recently was simply given as Barbauld by compilers, was of the same nationality as Miss Steele, and was contemporaneous with her. All of us have sung hundreds of times her "Come, said Jesus' sacred voice;" "When as returns this solemn day;" "Again the Lord of life and light awakes the kindliest ray;" "How blest the sacred tie that binds!" "Praise to God! immortal praise!"

But it is when we have reached the year 1800 that a perfect flood of sacred song bursts forth.

In 1850 Caroline Southey, wife of the poet, wrote "Calvary," and near that date the well-known, "Oh, fear not thou to die;" and the celebrated, "Launch thy boat, mariner."

Of Mrs. Heman's sacred songs, so full of tenderness, pathos, beauty, and at the same time vigor and intensity, more is known.

When her name is mentioned, that of Mrs. Sigourney is at once suggested. The former, born in England in 1793, dying in 1835; the latter, born in Norwich, Conn., in 1791, dying in her later home, Hartford, Conn., in 1865, were, as is seen, contemporaneous; and though they never met, as far as known, or became acquainted each with the literary works of the other, there is thought to be a similarity in their productions.

Mrs. Sigourney's hymns, "The Lord is on His Holy Throne; He sits in kingly state;" "Go to thy rest, fair child;" "Onward, onward, men of Heaven!" "When adverse winds and waves arise;" and especially the very familiar and greatly beloved hymn, "Lab'rers of Christ, arise!" will endure as long as the world has need of such songs.

Of Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning what need be said? She whom even the most eminent among the brotherhood of poets acknowledge as their peer. Vigorous and strong in her utterances, she is yet tender and appealing. Her "Cry of the children" is known and quoted the world over wherever wrong and oppression exist toward any of earth's little ones. All of her poems seem sacred.

In her poem entitled "Work" occurs the oft-repeated words–

"God did anoint thee with His odorous oil,
     To wrestle, not to reign."
"The last flower with a brimming cup may stand
And share its dewdrops with another near."
Her "De Profundis" and "He Giveth His Beloved Sleep" are known everywhere.

How many of us, while singing:–

"'Tis religion that can give
Sweetest pleasure while we live;"
[Page 418]  ever thought of the words being by a woman–Mary Masters? I am glad to know a woman wrote it, and hundreds of others we sang so long with the supposition that they emanated from the heart and brain of the brotherhood. Not that they are any better for belonging to the sisterhood of authors, but because I believe in "Honor to whom honor is due."

If women have written hymns so good and acceptable that all Christendom is singing them, let them have the credit.

"Work for the night is coming," was written by Annie L. Walker, of Canada? For years after its first appearance in 1860, it was over the signature, Rev. Sidney Dyer; and in some of our standard and comparatively recent revisions and late compilations his name is still appended to it. But gradually the name of the true author is given with the song. Dr. Dyer did write a song of that name, but he does not claim this one that we all sing.

Even in a hasty, running review like this, in which only a comparative few can be mentioned, it would not do to omit the names of Mrs. Prentiss, author of "More love to Thee, O Christ;" Harriet B. Buell, in "I'm the child of a King;" Mrs. Dana, in "Flee as a bird to your mountain;" "Pass under the rod," and that famous old temperance song–

"Sparkling and bright,
in its liquid light;"
Mrs. Mackay's "Asleep in Jesus;" Mrs. Dr. Herrick Johnson's "The whole wide world for Jesus."

"The Ninety and Nine," by Mrs. Clephane, has been pronounced by some of our devout men and evangelists "the sacred song of the century," despite some lame or imperfect feet which unfits it somewhat for congregational singing, but does well for solo use. It is the sentiment so beautifully and touchingly expressed that goes home to the sinner's heart and wins him or her to Christ.

Let us beware of prescribing too narrow limits to what may be considered hymns of a high order.

Do not those who accomplish the most good deserve to be ranked very high? Are not the grandest of all those who set forth the doctrines of grace, the compassion of Jehovah, the condescension of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit? The "Ninety and Nine," and "Nearer, my God, to Thee," may be called the great world hymns, alike acceptable, as they are, to Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, the world over.

Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp, of Brooklyn, a lady of wealth, culture and position, and her sainted mother, Mrs. Phœbe Palmer, of "holiness" fame, gone years ago to her reward, have done much to enrich sacred song. Mrs. Knapp composes from very love of it–an inspiration that moves her to give expression to the well of joy and gratitude that continually springs up within her consecrated being. Some of her best music is the setting she has given to the hymns of the blind hymnologist, Fanny Crosby (Mrs. Van Alstyne), of New York.

And this brings us to this wonderful blind singer. It used to be said, a woman may be found now and then who has written one or two acceptable hymns, but it requires a man to write many that are meritorious. Fanny Crosby, seven years ago, was reported by Dr. Herbert P. Main as having written nineteen hundred for Bigelow & Bain's publications alone. She had also written for many other firms, and has been writing continuously ever since. She is certainly entitled to the crown, as the most prolific hymnologist of the day, regardless of sex, so far as diligent inquiry and research can determine, she having written, without doubt, over three thousand that have been accepted.

To mention all the musical productions of the lamented Frances Ridley Havergal, of England, would require several pages. and the incidents connected with them an entire day. Though she may not have written any greater number of hymns that are sung everywhere than has Fanny Crosby, she has composed much music of a high order; for instance, her setting of "Tramp, tramp, tramp, on the downward way," [Page 419]  "Resting," and her verse, so comforting to mourning hearts, or those going through the furnace of any affliction, fill numerous volumes; to say nothing of her booklets, and poems in illuminated and illustrated souvenir style. Among her best known and cherished songs, sung everywhere, are: "I gave My life for Thee;" "Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee;" "Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King!"

Among the song collections for use in temperance meetings, and they are numerous, with two-thirds of the contents by women, Anna Gordon's "White Ribbon Hymnal," and "Marching Songs for Young Crusaders," deserve mention, as does "White Ribbon Vibrations," by Mrs. Flora H. Cassell, of Nebraska.

Frances E. Willard, chieftain of the temperance hosts, and Mary B. Willard, her sister-in-law, though making no pretentions as poets, have written some rare verse that will live.

The cluster of Easter and Resurrection carols, by Mary Lowe Dickinson, cannot be excelled. One might dare challenge the world to produce a better set than those by this graceful and forceful, consecrated daughter of the King. There is a ripple of love and devotion in them throughout.

It was in 1841 that the Electress of Brandenburg wrote, "Jesus Lives," which was translated from the German into English by Frances Elizabeth Cox, the author of "In some way or other the Lord will provide."

Jane Taylor's "Far from mortal cares retreating;" "Come to the hour of prayer;" Ellen M. Gates' "I will sing for Jesus," set to music and first sung by Philip Phillips; "The Home of the Soul;" "Your Mission" (the great favorite of President Lincoln;" "If we knew;" "Beautiful Hands;" "The Prodigal's Return;" Anna L. Warner's "In heavenly love abiding," are among those that cannot be passed by.

Clara H. Scott is the only woman in the world, so far as known, to compile and publish an anthem book. Her "Royal Anthem Book," of some three hundred pages, has met with great favor among church choirs, and her "Oh, when shall I be free?" and "Te Deums," are sung all over the United States.

May Riley Smith's "Tired Mothers" and "If" have brought comfort to many. Who does not know them, and that they belong to her, though often seen anonymously in the papers? Her "Sometimes" was once credited to Helen Hunt, whose verse all admit to be of a very high order. When asked if she was the author, she replied in the affirmative. "One day," she went on to say, "I was on the cars, going from Chicago to Springfield" (which latter was then her home), "and I noticed a lady and gentleman in front of me, the former of whom held in her hand the portrait of a lovely child. As she talked of the original, gone to her heavenly home, tears fell fast, and ofttimes she kissed the picture of the beautiful child. I grew sober, and then sad. Taking a pencil and crumpled bit of paper from my pocket, I composed that poem." Or, rather, it seemed to compose itself; she simply wrote it down as it rapidly came to her.

Just a few lines of one of her gems:

"If we knew the baby fingers,
   Pressed against the window pane,
Would be cold and stiff tomorrow,
   Never trouble us again:
Would the bright eyes of our darling
   Catch the frown upon our brow?
Would the print of rosy fingers
   Vex us then, as they do now?"

Next to Fanny Crosby, perhaps Miss M. E. Servoss, of Chicago, has furnished as many acceptable hymns as any one woman in this country. They are found in thirty-nine or forty different collections, accompanied by the name, M. E. Servoss, and for years the author was supposed to be a man. She interprets a high plane of religious [Page 420]  emotion, associating it with a sentiment and imagery which Christian hearts will ever love and cherish, and in which they will find refuge and comfort. Such hymns strike light across the consciousness of Christians everywhere. Other names not yet mentioned, associated with other lines of thought and action, who have written creditable sacred verse, are: Julia C. Dorr, Margaret J. Preston, Margaret E. Sangster, the latter of whom we associate with journalism, as we also do Alice M. Guernsey, Laura M. Rittenhouse, Mary H. Krout, author of "Little Brown Hands;" Hester M. Pool, Mrs. Nicholson, so long editor of the New Orleans Picayune; Marie L. Eve, of Georgia; Lide Merriwether, of Tennessee; Emily Huntington Miller, Dinah Muloch Craig, who wrote, "Where is the unknown country to which my soul must go?" Adelaide Proctor, in "The Lost Chord," "Will He Come?" who also wrote the words of "Cleansing Fires," which Virginia Gabriel set so charmingly to music; Annie Wittenmeyer in, "I have entered the valley of blessing so sweet;" Ellen Oliver in, "The Prayer of the Wanderer," and Lucy Larcom, whose productions are noted for their brightness and sunshine, and who not long since passed from earth to heaven, taking some of earth's brightness with her. It is always a genuine pleasure to quote any of her lines; for instance, the simple couplet:

"Thank God for the work He lets us do!
I am glad that I live in the world with you."
Lucy Larcom was in love with toil, and sung it as a lover sings to his adored one.

And the triplet, claiming all the children as her very own:

"Too many for one house you see,
And so I have to let them be
   In care of other mothers."
She had the true mother instinct.

Mary Clemmer Ames-Hudson was one whom we associate with journalism who has written choice verse.

What shall be said of Jean Ingelow, with her matchless "Songs of Seven" and myriad other gems; of Charlotte Brontè and others who deserve mention in this connection? What need be said? They are known and their works speak for them.

Of the deaf mute sisterhood whose names are among those taking the lead, may be mentioned Angie Fuller Fischer and Laura Redden Searing (nom de plume, "Howard Glyndon"). The latter's "Sweet bells jangled out of tune" is extensively known and largely quoted, while Mrs. Fischer's volume of poems entitled, "The Venture," was extolled by Whittier and other people of eminence.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox has written on a multiplicity of topics. Her patriotic verse and that on temperance may be classed as sacred, and her poem entitled "The Engine," is among the most forcible of all her word-paintings, and ranks with the best of that style among men.

All are familiar with Mrs. Elizabeth Aker's "Rock Me to Sleep, Mother," and many know the sweet sacred songs of Susan P. Bartlett, Susie V. Aldrich, and many of whom time and space forbid mention in a limited paper.


Does anyone assert we have no high order of music or song composers among women? What can be finer than Mrs. Gen. W. S. Hancock's "Magnificat," and her "Te Deums?" Her "Song Service Book," for the Episcopal Church, has won high encomiums. The "Ave Maria," in six flats, of Helen Douglas, now wife of Lieut. John F. French, of the Regular Army, is unique, decidedly original and very difficult, being most pleasing to the higher grade of cultured singers. The instrumental "St. Agnes Eve"–a song without words, by Madam Careno–is exquisite, and is placed among the classical music of the century. Mme. Clara Schumann took up the thread of harmony divine dropped by her lamented husband, and is still carrying it on with marvelous success. [Page 421] 

Despite all discouragement, woman as a composer is getting to be a known quantity. Mme. Marie Bird de Marion is a publisher of music in Chicago, and among her own meritorious compositions is a lullaby recently issued, which is meeting much praise.

All nationalities have had their singers. Nilsson and Jenny Lind were the pride of the Swedish people. Of the latter an eminent divine of New York said recently in a sermon: "I once paid six dollars to hear Jenny Lind warble. I have never paid a cent to hear anyone groan." As lyric artists women have commanded the largest pay ever accorded the sex for anything. Thousands of dollars for a single evening's performance has been given Nilsson, Patti, and others. * * * Even the African race has had its "Black Swans;" and of our own American songsters the names of Emma Abbott, Clara Louise Kellogg, Emma Thursby, Minnie Hauk, Jessie Bartlett Davis, our own Illinois contralto, but begin the list of those who have attained distinction. Among those who have already shown what women can do in composition are: Liza Schumann, of London, who writes for the piano and voice, and sings beautifully herself; Miss Ellicott, daughter of the bishop of Gloucester, in England, who has written some fine cantatas; Miss Smith, the protege of the Empress Eugenie; Maud Valeri Whilt, who composes religious works; Augusta Holmes, an Irish girl living in Paris, who composes ballads and symphonic poems with great success; the Countess Tolstoi, of Russia, who has written some excellent songs; Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, of Boston, who writes great dramatic arias for the voice and orchestra; Mme. Bandman, of Vienna, whose church music is very popular; Miss Helen Hood, of Boston, who wrote those beautiful songs," Disappointment" and "The Violet;" Miss Margaret Ruthven Lang, of Boston, whose compositions are quite pretentious; Miss Clara Kathleen Rogers, of Boston, who wrote "The Clover Blossom," besides many other songs and sonatas for piano and violin; Mlle. Chaminade, Miss Gertrude Griswold, Helen Hopekirk, and Eleanor Smith. To these let us add the names of Caroline Richings Bernard, the celebrated singer and composer of many gems, prominent among which is "Oh Word of God Incarnate;" Isadore De Laro, who is the author of "The Garden of Sleep"–a rare bit of melody; Mrs. E. R. Johnson, Mrs. Le Moncrieff and Edith Cooke. As regards the lyric songsters, their voices live after them in memory only. They instinctively feel the incentive to work now; to be heard and known now. The future is not theirs.

Composers and poets are content to wait. They are not in such haste for recognition. Their works do follow them. Their tuneful children will speak for them, if worthy of perpetuation, long after they are gone from earth.

We have omitted to mention the name of Lady Carew, wife of Sir Henry Carew, whose setting to music of "The Bridge," by Longfellow, is regarded as the most fitting melody of the eight or ten by other composers. She also wrote much sacred verse, in addition to her musical compositions, "Revenge of Injuries" being one of the best known.

Miss Anna Sneed (now Mrs. Cairn), of St. Louis, has the honor of being regarded the most successful person in placing appropriate music to Tennyson's "Break, Break O Sea!" The very sobbing of the winds and beating of the waves upon the beach can be heard. Mrs. Julia B. Metcalf, of Nebraska City, evinces decided musical taste and talent as a composer, her melody and accompaniment to Poe's "Annabel Lee" being especially fine and original.

Missionaries in heathen lands sent sweet, tender hymns, written by converts to Christ. What can be dearer to the Christian heart than "In the secret of His presence, how my soul delights to hide;" "Who will go for us?" and "Harken! hear an Indian sister's plea," when it is known they are by Ellen L. Goreh, a Brahman of the highest caste, whose people were not accessible to missionary teaching until woman crossed the blue main as a teacher and messenger? This heathen convert is the adopted daughter of Rev. W. T. Strers.

Mrs. Voke has written more hymns bearing upon foreign missionary work than [Page 422]  any other person of either sex, so far as known, that have had an acceptance with all denominations. "Soon may the last glad song arise! Hasten, O Lord, that happy day!" "Behold th' accepted time draws near;" "Sovereign of worlds, display Thy power;" "Ye Messengers of Christ!" are familiar to all.

Whenever the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe is mentioned one is reminded of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Why may we not also associate her name with that appealing hymn: "Knocking! Knocking! who is there?" and some of her other sacred verse? When the name of Mary T. Lathrop is heard we at once remember that she is one of the most able and effective lecturers on the temperance platform, which today means prohibition. In future years her name will also be more familiarly associated with her sacred verse; for she is a true poet. Never was more touching or perfectly metrical dirge than hers on the death of John B. Gough. But she surpasses that, if possible, in some regards, in her poem, "What Means this Stone?" inspired by and for the ceremonies of laying the corner-stone of the Temperance Temple in Chicago, in November, 1890.

The songs of Christian women are immortal, because they speak the language of the heart in its love for their Saviour, which changes not, and is the same in all ages. These heart songs teach a language unsurpassed by all the Greek and Roman literature, or the classics, of this or any other period of time.

[Page 416] 

Mrs. Eva Munson Smith was born in Monkton, Vt., in 1843. Her parents were of stanch New England stock, and her father was one of the most eminent educators and patriots of his day. She was educated at Mary Sharp College, Winchester, Tenn., and at Rockford College, Ill. From the latter she was graduated in 1864. She has traveled extensively in the United States and has seen life in many phases. She married Mr. George Clinton Smith in 1869, in Nebraska. They have resided in Illinois for twenty years. Mrs. Smith is a temperance worker and philanthropist. At present she is president of the Suffrage Association of Springfield. For five consecutive years she was president of the North Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Her principal literary works are "Woman in Sacred Song," "The Field is the World," and a great number of sketches. Mrs. Smith is a member of the Presbyterian Church. Her postoffice address is 511 North Grand Avenue, Springfield, Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom