Anne Steele and Her Weighty Questions

Anne Steele and Her Weighty Questions

Anne Steele is remembered as one of the first British women hymn-writers, and one of the best appreciated during her time and the following century. The introspective, searching notes of her hymns, uttered with uncommon honesty, made them particularly cherished by the majority of Christians, who found in them a way to express their own feelings.

Anne’s Life

Anne was born in 1717 at Broughton, Hampshire. Her father, William Steele, was both a pastor and a successful merchant who could offer his family a comfortable life. Her mother died in 1720, probably from giving birth to her second son, Thomas, who lived less than two months. Three years later, Henry remarried and, in 1724 a new daughter, Mary, was born. The three Steele children, William Jr. (Anne’s older brother), Anne, and Mary, formed a close bond of friendship.

Anne’s step-mother, Anne Cator Steele, was a sensitive woman who cared for her children’s religious and academic education. Her decision to send her daughters to school was much contested within the family (an uncle called it a sin). But Anne Cator believed it was possible for women to gain a secular education without being affected by the “vanitys with which the world aboundeth.”[1]

The popularized story of the drowning of Anne’s fiancée shortly before their intended wedding is not confirmed (her father simply referred to him as a dear friend of the family). Staying unmarried was her choice, and she refused at least two proposals (including a passionate plea from Baptist pastor and hymn writer Benjamin Beddome). She preferred tranquility, solitude, and an ordinary life at home.

Some descriptions of Anne as an invalid have also been exaggerated. Records show that her 1735 fall from a horse (which is often suggested as the cause of her health troubles) didn’t stop her from continuing to ride (and fall), and her confinement to her room occupied only the last eight years of her life, due to a chronic illness that led to her death on November 11, 1778.

This is not to say she didn’t suffer. Her health was frail from a young age, and she was plagued by a variety of painful conditions. She often complained of headaches, general weakness, and stomach troubles. As it is the case with most chronic illnesses, her ailments were a frequent cause of discouragement and “faintness and dejection of spirit.”[2]

Hymns of Sorrow

            In Anne’s time, hymns had begun to take a predominant place in worship (often replacing the biblical Psalms that had been used for centuries). Much of this change can be traced back to Isaac Watts, who doubted the Old Testament Psalms could adequately express the Christian experience. Over time, this view ended up exacerbating the artificial divergence between the Old and the New Testament, and deprived worshipers of the wide range of emotions the Psalms powerfully convey.

            In fact, while most hymns written by Watts and his contemporaries are well-written, moving, and scripturally sound, few of them delve into the depths of pain and questioning that characterize some of the Psalms. Anne Steele’s hymns were among these few, as were the hymns and poems by William Cowper (who suffered from some form of mental illness).

            Anne’s writings are studded with questions. How can my words express the majesty of God? Why am I suffering? Will this suffering last forever? Is God hearing my prayers? Do I really belong to Christ? Does He really belong to me? Can His “Spirit rest in such a wretched heart as mine?”[3] And if so, why do I still look for happiness in earthly things?

Suffering in the Light of God’s Sovereignty

            From an early age, Anne had learned that everything in this life – including disappointing and painful circumstances – is ordained by God, who works all things for His glory and for the good of those who love Him.

            This thought is not, in itself, of much comfort to sufferers, unless they know that this sovereign God is truly “just, and wise, and kind”[4] – something that Anne brings up repeatedly in her poems.

            But sometimes God may not seem just, wise and kind. How do we know He really is? Anne reminds us that, while our human minds can’t discern God’s thoughts and plans in everything He does, we can know His faithfulness in what He has done in the past and how He has preserved His people in the biblical narrative, in the history of the church, and in their individual lives.

In fact, the culmination of God’s wisdom and love is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son for our sins. Of all her hymns, Anne’s thirty-nine verse “Redeeming Love” is a moving retelling of the gospel story, from the original sin of Adam and Eve, in whose “crime we fell,” to Christ’s “stupendous” and “mysterious” sacrifice in order “to expiate mortal guilt.”

"'Tis finish'd," now aloud he cries,

" No more the law requires:"

And now, (amazing sacrifice!)

The Lord of life expires.[5]

                       And the story continues, as Christ rises from the dead and ascends to Heaven, while “sin, death, and hell low vanquish'd lie beneath His awful feet.” On His glorious throne, His love remains unchanged.

The names He purchas'd for his own,

Still on his heart He bears.

Still with prevailing pow'r He pleads

Their cause for whom he died ;

His spirit's sacred influence sheds,

Their comforter and guide.

For them, reserves a radiant crown,

Bought with His dying blood ;

 

And worlds of light, and joys unknown,

Forever near their God.

            In response to this unfathomable story, Anne can only fall beneath His cross, as “my Lord, my life, my sacrifice, my Saviour, and my all.”[6]

Assurance of God’s Love and Presence

            If the gospel story is told with no uncertain terms, Anne’s persuasion of God’s love for her is still wavering, much to her puzzlement and frustration. If “faith leads to joys beyond the sky,” she wonders, “why then is this weak mind afraid to raise a cheerful eye to more than sense can find?”[7]

            Anne realizes that feelings have a strong pull downward: “Sense can but furnish scenes of woe in this low vale of tears.”[8] They cloud our view of Heaven and constrain us in a vicious cycle of unsound hopes and despair.

            But this realization is not always swift to come and, like many other sufferers, Anne has to wade through muddy waters, wondering:

Why sinks my weak desponding mind?

Why heaves my heart the anxious sigh?

Can sov'reign goodness be unkind?

Am I not safe, if God is nigh?[9]

Unafraid to express her doubts, Anne works through them, struggling with her “weak, inconstant mind,”[10] that she finds frail and ready to stray.

These struggles concerned at least one of her friends. After visiting her in 1763, Baptist minister Caleb Ashworth wondered about “some expressions [she] dropt of doubt.”[11] Her reply was not reassuring: “The thoughts which occasioned those expressions of doubt which you observed, frequently occur.”[12]

But if Ashworth was familiar with her writings, he knew that these doubts were necessary for Anne’s process of inquiry and refinement of her faith.

            While feelings are fleeting and unreliable, Anne knows that some, such as the calming of her inner tempest at the sound of His voice and her undying desire to be His, are so counterintuitive that can only be inspired and sustained by God.

 

Whene'er to call the Saviour mine,

With ardent wish my heart aspires,

Can it be less than pow'r divine,

Which animates these strong desires?

 

And when my cheerful hope can say*

I love my God, and taste his grace,

Lord, is it not thy blissful ray,

Which brings this dawn of sacred peace[13]

            Ultimately, however, Anne knows that the only reliable source of comfort is the gospel and its promises as they are told in God’s Word. “And can my hope, my comfort die, fix'd on thy everlasting word, that word which built the earth and sky?” she asks. Her answer, in this case, is an unchangeable no.

If my immortal Saviour lives,

Then my immortal life is sure;

His word a firm foundation gives,

Here, let me build, and rest secure.

             Here, let my faith unshaken dwell,

Immoveable the promise stands;

Nor all the pow'rs of earth or hell,

Can e'er dissolve the sacred bands.

Here, O my soul, thy trust repose;

If Jesus is forever mine,

Not death itself, that last of foes,

Shall break a union so divine.[14]

 



[1] Anne Cator Steele, Diary, 29 March 1731, STE 2/1/1, quoted in Cynthia Y. Aalders, To Express the Ineffable, The Hymns and Spirituality of Anne Steele, Eugene, OR: WPF & Stock, 2009, p. 18.

[2] Anne Steele to her sister Mary Bullock Steele, 16 March 1762, quoted in Aalders, To Express the Ineffable, p. 138.

[3] Anne Steele, The works of Mrs. Anne Steele, Boston: Munroe, Francis, and Parker, 1808, p.. 74 (see https://archive.org/details/worksofmrsannest00stee/page/n3/mode/2up)

[4] Ibid., p. 146

[5] Ibid., p. 34

[6] Ibid., pp. 35-36

[7] Ibid., p. 32

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 93

[10] Ibid., p. 94

[11] Caleb Ashworth to Steele, 31 August 1763, quoted in Aalders, To Express the Ineffable, Eugene, OR: WPF & Stock, 2009, p. 113.

[12] Ibid., p. 114.

[13] Steele, The works of Mrs. Anne Steele, p. 75

[14] Ibid., p. 39