Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Elizabeth Payson Prentiss (1818-1878)

Elizabeth Prentiss was an American author born to Edward and Ann Payson in Portland, Maine in 1818. Edward Payson served as a pastor in Portland. Although Edward was a godly man; he was frail throughout his life. His daughter Elizabeth inherited his physical weakness. Elizabeth was almost never without pain and was a semi-invalid.

Elizabeth demonstrated a rare gift for writing poetry and prose. Her literary career began while she was still a teenage girl of 16 writing short articles for the Youth's Companion. Youth's Companion was a magazine of high spiritual and literary standards. She turned her attention to writing and publishing articles and stories for Youth's Companion in 1853. Furthermore, she wrote articles and stories for the New York Observer, and the Advance (Chicago). Prentiss continued to write hymns, poems and fiction for children. Eventually, she published more than twenty volumes of work.

Among her works are the following titles:

Peterchen and Gretchen – published 1860
Fred and Maria and Me – published 1868
Stepping Heavenward – published 1869
Nidworth, and His Three Magic Wands – published 1869
Religious Poems – published 1873
Golden Hours, or Hymns and Songs of the Christian Life – published 1874
The Little Preacher – published 1874
Little Threads – published 1874
The Story Lizzie Told – published 1874
Urbane and His Friends – published 1876
The Home of Greylock – published 1876
Griselda: A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts (translated from German)
Little Susy's Six Birthdays – published 1883
Little Susy's Six Teachers – published 1883
Six Little Princeses
Aunt Jane's Hero
Little Susy Stories
The Flower of the Family
Life and Letters (posthumous)

In 1838, she opened a school for small children in her mother's home where she taught for two years. Eventually, she taught school at a girl's school in Richmond, Virginia.

Although she was raised in a Christian home, Elizabeth realized that she was not a believer in Christ at the age of twenty-one years old. The burden of sin weighed heavy upon her conscience becoming more acute. After hearing a sermon concerning Christ's ability to save 'unto the utttermost' she was deeply affected.

Elizabeth wrote:

“While listening to it my weary soul rested itself, and I thought, 'Surely it cannot be wrong to think of the Savior, although He is not mine.' With this conclusion I gave myself up to admire, to love and to praise Him, to wonder why I had never done so before, and to hope that all the great congregation around me were joining with me in acknowledging Him to be chief among ten thousand and the One altogether lovely.'”

As she traveled home, she could hardly believe the personal peace she experienced. Her peace she experienced was unlike the negative emotions that had troubled her soul.

On April 16, 1845, Elizabeth married Pastor George Lewis Prentiss a Presbyterian minister. Dr. Prentiss eventually became a professor of Homiletics and Polity at Union Theological Seminary.

The young couple lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts for several years. Annie was born in 1846 and Eddy was born in 1848. In 1849, her husband Reverend Prentiss received a call to a Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey which he accepted. Two years later they moved again to New York.

She gave birth to her first son on October 22, 1848. Eddy was so poor in health, he wasn't expected to live. When he finally recovered Elizabeth wrote in her journal:

“To me he never seemed the same child...I often said afterward that a little stranger was running about my nursery, not mine, but God's.”

Throughout the era of 1840 until 1853 her only writing was in her personal correspondence, journals and writings preserving a detailed account of Eddy's days with her.

It was while she was in New York City that she experienced the tragedy of losing her beloved little boy.

Although the child was frail from birth, the little boy was a delight and joy to his mother. The following comment is a selection from her journal concerning the three year old boy's celebration of Christmas.

“He enjoyed Christmas as much as I had reason to expect he would, in his state of health, and was busy among his new playthings all day. He had taken a fancy within a few weeks to kneel at family prayers with me at my chair, and would throw one little arm round my neck, while with the other hand he so prettily and seriously covered his eyes. As their heads [Eddie and sister Annie] touched my face as they knelt I observed that Eddie's felt hot when compared with A's; just enough so to increase my uneasiness. On entering in the nursery on New Year's morning, I was struck with his appearance as he lay in bed; his face being spotted all over. On asking Margaret [his nurse] about it; she said he had been crying, and that this occasioned the spots. This did not seem probable to me, for I had never seen anything of this kind on his face before. How little I knew that these were the last tears my darling would ever shed.”

Elizabeth called for a doctor a few days later for the little boy's symptoms worsened as each day passed. The doctor suggested that she give the boy warm baths. Elizabeth lovingly cared for her darling child as best she could.

“I knelt by the side of his cradle, rocking it very gently, and he asked me to tell him a story. I asked what about, and he said, 'A little boy,' on which I had something like this: Mamma knows a dear little boy who is very sick. His head ached and he felt sick all over. God said, 'I must let the little lamb come into my fold; then his little head will never ache again, and he will be a very happy little lamb.' I used the words little lamb because he was so fond of them. Often he would run to the nurse with his face full of animation and say, 'Margaret, Mamma says I am her little lamb!' While I was telling the story his eyes were fixed intelligently on my face. I then said, 'Would you like to know the name of the boy?' With eagerness he said, 'Yes, yes, mamma!' Taking his dear little hand in mine, and kissing it, I said, 'It was Eddy.'”

Elizabeth Prentiss' little lamb ascended to the place where Lord Jesus, thousands of children and angels joyfully welcomed the precious little boy. God welcomed the little boy into his fold on Friday, January 16, 1852. Elizabeth wrote the poem:

“To My Darling Eddy, January 16th.” 
Blest child! Dear child! For thee is Jesus calling:And of our household thee –and only thee!Oh, hasten hence! To his embraces hasten!Sweet shall thy rest and safe thy shelter be.

Elizabeth Prentiss was devastated.

She published “Little Susy's Six Birthdays” in 1856 which was the first volume of her “Little Susy” series. The preface of the book alludes to childhood death in which she notes:

“Sometimes little children don't live to spend six birthdays in this world. They go to heaven and spend them there; and they are better and and happier days than any little Susy ever knew.”

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography indicates that Eddy was “immortalized in [the] Susy-Books” as the little brother of the title character.

Elizabeth Prentiss experienced intense physical suffering and acute spiritual conflicts. In 1856 while enduring physical suffering and sharp spiritual conflict; she wrote a beautiful hymn of prayer “More Love to Thee, O Christ.” Ms. Prentiss wrote a very popular deeply profound devotional titled “Stepping Heavenward” in 1869.

In the following year after the death of her little lamb Eddy; she gave birth to another child in April of 1853. Her health was already poor and now strained when she gave birth to a little daughter whom they named Elizabeth. Tragically, the baby lived for only a month and died suddenly.

Prentiss was so ill when she wrote in her journal:

“I was too feeble to have any care of her. Never had her in my arms but twice; once the day before she died and once when she was dying.”

It was the two tragedies of losing her beloved Eddy and tiny Elizabeth which propelled her into writing.

For several weeks Elizabeth was inconsolable. She wrote the following sentiment in her diary:

“...empty hands, a worn-out, exhausted body, and unutterable longing to flee from a world that has so many sharp experiences.”

Her broken heart was expressed in the words of a poem.

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography states:

“After her death, the following lines, written in pencil...were found in her desk:”

I thought that prattling boys and girls
Would fill this empty room;
That my rich heart would gather flowers
from childhood's opening bloom. 
One child and two green graves are mine;This is God's gift to me:A bleeding, fainting, broken heart –This is my gift to Thee

She published two additional books in the “Little Susy” series which reflect her emotions and experiences of motherhood.

In her journal Elizabeth wrote: 
"To help divert my mind from such incessant brooding over my sorrows, I am writing another book."

Her new book titled “Little Susy's Six Teachers” was not about human instructors but characters named Mrs. Love, Miss Joy, Aunt Patience, Mr. Ought, Faith, and Mr. Pain. The “Little Susy” series was very popular in Elizabeth's era and appeared in both British and French editions.

In an evening following a visit to the graves of her two children; the two bereaved parents experienced an emotional crisis. Elizabeth's heart was crushed and deeply wounded. Filled with the emotions of brokenness, in desperation she cried to her husband: 

“Our home is broken up, our lives wrecked, our hopes shattered, our dreams dissolved.”

Her beloved husband comforted her with words of divine wisdom gleaned from the Scriptures. 

“But it is in times like these that God loves us all the more, just as we love our own children more when they are sick or troubled in distress.”

Elizabeth took her Bible and began contemplating the Word of God, the God of all comfort and compassion. Sarah Adams had written of Jacob at Bethel in her infamous hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.” Elizabeth began meditating upon the story of Jacob of the Old Testament. God had met Jacob in a special way during moments of need and sorrow. She prayed with sincere earnest desire that she might too have a similar experience with God in her own life.

She wrote:
“To love Christ more is the deepest need the constant cry of my soul...out in the woods, and on my bed, and out driving, when I am happy and busy, and when I am sad and idle, the whisper keeps going up for more love, more love, more love!”

She searched her hymnal for encouragement and comfort. Elizabeth came to the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.” Elizabeth began to contemplate the words of her husband and the message of the beloved hymn.

The lyrics of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was written by Sarah F. Adams and the music was written by Lowell Mason.

Nearer, My God, to Thee! 
Nearer, My God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me,still all my song shall be,nearer, my God, to thee;nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,darkness be over me, my rest a stone;yet in my dreams I'd benearer, my God, to thee;nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;angels to beckon menearer, my God, to thee;nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise,out of my stoney griefs Bethel I'll raise;so by my woes to be'nearer, my God, to thee;nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky,sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly,still all my song shall be,nearer, my God, to thee;nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

As she began to meditate of the advice received from her husband and the message of the hymn; she began to compose a poem. Her poem was in the same metrical pattern as the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.”

While praying and meditating on God's word and Sarah Adams' hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” four stanzas of her hymn “More Love to Thee” were born. She completed the hymn in the same evening.

After writing the words to her hymn; she kept them to herself. Elizabeth revealed the lyrics of her hymn to her husband thirteen years later. He encouraged her to publish the poem. The poem was printed in a leaflet form in 1869.

William Doane saw the pamphlet containing the poem and wrote the music especially for the words. William Howard Doane was a successful businessman who was responsible for writing over 2,000 gospel song tunes. He became Fanny Crosby's collaborator in writing a multitude of hymns. He left a fortune in trust which has been utilized in several philanthropic endeavors. The Doane Memorial Music Building at the Moody Bible Institute was constructed through finances graciously contributed by William Doane.

William H. Doane composed the music to accompany Elizabeth Prentiss' poem and included the hymn in his hymnal “Songs of Devotion” which was published in 1870. The beloved hymn has been translated into several languages including Chinese and Arabic.

More Love to Thee
More Love to Thee, O Christ, More Love to Thee!Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee;More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest;now thee alone I seek, give what is best.This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ, to Thee;More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Let sorrow do its work, come grief and pained;sweet are Thy messenger, sweet their refrain,when they can sing with me; more love, O Christ, to Thee;more love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Then shall my latest breath whisper Thy praise;this be the parting cry my heart shall raise;this still its prayer shall be; More love, O Christ, to Thee'more love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Elizabeth Prentiss experienced joy in her life too. A year after the “Little Susy” series was concluded she gave birth to another son in 1857. In 1859 she gave birth to her sixth child in Switzerland while spending several years abroad.

She continued to enjoy writing works for adults and juvenile fiction. Her most popular adult novel is “Stepping Heavenward” published in 1869 which is semi-autobiographical. The popular book sold approximately 200,000 copies in the United States and was translated into various languages. Furthermore, she published a volume of poetry containing 123 poems.

Friends who knew Elizabeth best described her as “a very, bright-eyed, little woman, with a keen sense of humor, who cared more to shine in her own happy household than in a wide circle of society.”

Although Elizabeth was strong in spirit, she was frail in body. She remained a near invalid throughout her life hardly knowing a day free of pain. Elizabeth wrote these words of encouragement:

“I see now that to live for God, whether one is allowed ability to be actively useful or not, is a great thing, and that it is a wonderful mercy to be allowed even to suffer, if thereby one can glorify Him."

She was greeted by her Lord Jesus Christ, her little boy Eddy, and tiny daughter Elizabeth on August 13, 1878 when she departed this world. The pastor of the Congregational Church of Dorset, Vermont conducted the funeral on the day following her death. He held in his hand a well worn handwritten volume in which Elizabeth wrote down memorable events and special anniversaries. Each entry contained an appropriate verse from the Holy Bible.

The pastor read the entry of August 13th from Elizabeth's well-worn volume.

“I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, 'Write, Blessed, are the dead which die in the Lord, from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors and their works do follow them.” Revelation 14:13 KJV.

The pastor then read the entry of August 14th which was the day of Elizabeth's funeral.

“For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and your labor of love, which ye have showed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints.” Hebrews 6:10 KJV.

A grave side service ended with friends and family singing Elizabeth Prentiss' hymn “More Love to Thee.”

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