by Al Maxey

Issue #540 ------- July 20, 2012
Just as I am -- without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee
-- O Lamb of God, I come!

Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871)
"Just As I Am"

The Invalid Hymnist
Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871)

The Christian author, speaker and missionary Elisabeth Elliot (b. 1926), after losing her husband and then choosing to spend two years as a missionary to the very tribe in Ecuador that killed him, observed, "Self-pity is a death that has no resurrection, a sinkhole from which no rescuing hand can drag you because you have chosen to sink." Helen Keller (1880-1968) stated, "Self-pity is our worst enemy, and if we yield to it we can never do anything wise in this world." Here were a couple of saintly women who, if anyone did, had a right to a bit of self-pity. Life had handed them a very difficult set of circumstances, and yet both these women, and many more like them, chose to rise above their personal afflictions. That strength of character and powerful faith was demonstrated by a daily determination to be used by God to His glory rather than be swallowed up by their suffering. By their example, and the example of others like them, many souls who are suffering have found the inspiration to rise above their own circumstances and to allow themselves to be used by the Lord for some special purpose. No person, regardless of their situation, is truly useless! All have worth; all have a special reason to be. Perceiving that truth is sometimes difficult, especially in the midst of personal struggles, but when it is grasped it lifts one out of the depths of despair and opens the doors wide to the glorious possibilities before them. It also helps them focus on something other than their own plight, and in so doing helps generate a healthier self-perception (which is one of the keys to battling self-pity).

In this current issue of Reflections I would like to introduce you to a woman whose name you may never have heard and about whom you may not know very much, if anything at all, but whose hymn is most certainly well-known to you (being one of the most beloved hymns of all time). She was a woman who suffered greatly for over fifty years of her life, ending up bedridden for much of that time, and who came close to being completely overwhelmed by despair and a sense of personal uselessness. However, a series of providential events led this beleaguered woman, who was sinking ever more deeply into the mire of self-pity, to firmer spiritual ground where she found the strength of faith to pen poetic words of encouragement to her fellow afflicted saints that would in time become the hymn: "Just As I Am." Her name was Charlotte Elliott, and this is her inspiring story.

She was born on the outskirts of London, England, in a village called Clapham, on March 18, 1789. Her father, Charles Elliott, was a silk merchant and her mother, Eling Venn Elliott (she and Charles were married on December 20, 1785), was a descendant of a very well-known religious family in England. Eling's father (and Charlotte's maternal grandfather) was Henry Venn (1725-1797), a noted evangelical minister and author who was one of the founders of the Clapham Sect (an influential group within the Anglican Church). This group did not give themselves this name; in fact, they went by no name at all (it was given to them by James Stephen in an article he wrote about this group of reformers in 1844). They were simply a group of people in the Clapham area who were devoted to social reform: specifically, to the abolition of the slave trade, the liberation of slaves, and the reform of the penal system. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was one of the members of this group. They published the journal The Christian Observer, and founded the British & Foreign Bible Society, the Church Missionary Society, the Anti-Slavery Society, the Abolition Society, the Sunday School Society, just to name a few. They also founded Freetown in Sierra Leone, Africa whose purpose was "the abolition of the slave trade, the civilization of Africa, and the introduction of the gospel there." Through their efforts, as well as the efforts of other like-minded saints and citizens, the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807 (banning the trade in human beings in the British Empire) and the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 (freeing those who were being held as slaves). It was into this family, who were leaders in this movement within the Anglican Church, that Charlotte was born. Thus, her heritage, religiously, socially and politically, was a rich and respected one.

The first three decades of Charlotte's life were spent in Clapham. She lived a somewhat privileged, carefree life and became rather popular as a talented writer of humorous verse and a portrait artist. She remained unmarried all her life, for early on she developed a number of maladies that kept her rather frail and sickly. These eventually increased to the point where she became somewhat of an invalid. The last fifty years of her life were spent in physical and emotional bouts of suffering which would often leave her bedridden for extended periods of time. Bishop Moule of Durham, who was related to the family, would later write, "Ill health beset her. Besides its general trying influence on the spirit, it often caused her the peculiar pain of a seeming uselessness in her life." One friend referred to her condition as "a crippling fatigue," which may very well have described her emotional and spiritual state as much as her physical state. Charlotte herself wrote, "My Heavenly Father knows, and He alone, what it is, day after day, and hour after hour, to fight against bodily feelings of almost overpowering weakness and languor and exhaustion, to resolve, as He enables me to do, not to yield to the slothfulness, the depression, the irritability, such as a body causes me to long to indulge, but to rise every morning..." There were times when just getting up in the morning was almost more than she could bear to do. It doesn't take long for such affliction of the body and mind to wear a person down to the point of despondency and despair. Charlotte was often in the full grip of such emotions, and she would not infrequently find herself indulging in a full-fledged pity party.

Needless to say, her condition affected her spiritual point of view. Even though raised in a very religious family, she herself was often filled with doubts that undermined her faith and trust in God. Indeed, because of her infirmities, she rarely assembled with Christians in a church setting, but remained at home alone. She didn't much care to discuss religious matters with people, and the whole topic became somewhat of a "sore point" with her. This very well could have continued for the remainder of her life, with her dying a bitter, broken old woman, were it not for a chance meeting with a man who decided to challenge her to something better. Her family often enjoyed entertaining distinguished guests in their home, and in 1822 they had welcomed to their table a young man (just two years older than Charlotte) by the name of CÚsar Malan (1787-1864) -- no relation to "The Dog Whisperer" of television fame, whose name is Cesar Millan. The former CÚsar (pictured below) was an evangelist and hymn writer from Geneva, Switzerland. He was a staunch Calvinist and noted for his autocratic manner among the laity and his blunt sermons. A number of times he was suspended from his preaching duties because of his teaching, and he was finally "defrocked" in 1823. The year before, however, he found himself at the table of the Elliott family, and it was here that he and Charlotte had their "encounter."

According to the most popular version of the story (and there are several versions, some of which have been embellished rather heavily), as recounted in Christopher Knapp's book on hymn writers, "One evening, as they sat conversing, the servant of God turned the subject to our personal relation with God, and asked Charlotte if she knew herself to be really a Christian. She was in poor health and often harassed with severe pain, which tended to make her irritable. A severe illness had left her a permanent invalid. She resented the question thus pointedly put, and petulantly answered that religion was a matter she did not wish to discuss. Dr. Malan replied that he would not pursue a subject that displeased her, but would pray that she might give her heart to Christ and employ in His service the talents with which He had gifted her." It is said that Charlotte regretted her sharp retort to the visiting evangelist and later apologized to him, saying, "I am miserable. I want to be saved. I want to come to Jesus, but I don't know how." CÚsar Malan is reported to have responded, "You must come just as you are, a sinner, to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world." The words "just as you are" resonated with Charlotte; she never forgot them. Indeed, she and Dr. Malan carried on a written correspondence for the next several decades.

"His visit proved to be a turning point in Charlotte's life. ... Throughout the remainder of her life, Miss Elliott celebrated every year the day on which her Swiss friend had led her to a personal relationship with Christ, for she considered it to be her spiritual birthday" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 146-147]. She would later write, "God sees, God guides, God guards me. His grace surrounds me, and His voice continually bids me to be happy and holy in His service just where I am." Charlotte came to realize that in spite of her infirmities -- indeed, just as she was -- she could be accepted by and be useful to her Lord. God wasn't calling the perfect, but the infirm. Thus, she accepted His call. It would be another fourteen years, however, before the words of Dr. Malan would be transformed into a poem that millions have since sung -- "Just As I Am." It would be a poem "characterized by tenderness of feeling, plaintive simplicity, deep devotion and perfect rhythm" [Dr. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology, p. 328]. Prior to this time, Charlotte had written a number of poems and hymns, working closely with another invalid, Miss Kiernan of Dublin, with whom she corresponded for years. They produced the Invalid's Hymn Book in 1834, which contained hymns designed for home use rather than congregational use, being written with the homebound invalid in mind. She wrote over 150 hymns, but the one best remembered is "Just As I Am."

According to her brother and sister, the writing of that hymn came about as follows. In the year 1835, her brother, who was a pastor in Brighton, sought to raise funds for a school designed to educate the daughters of clergymen at a nominal cost to these families. It would be called St. Mary's Hall. A large bazaar was planned for the town in which funds would be raised for this school. Charlotte wanted to help, but felt completely useless due to her condition. The night before the bazaar began she could not sleep; she remained awake all that night bemoaning her uselessness. Her doubts began to overwhelm her, and she began to fall into a deep despair. At some point in the early morning hours the words of Dr. CÚsar Malan came back to her, and it seemed to her that God filled her with a sense of worth. She decided she would write a poem to encourage others who, like her, were feeling useless and unwanted. She felt that if she couldn't raise money for the school, she could at least raise the spirits of those who were infirm. Later that day her sister-in-law came to the house to report to Charlotte how the bazaar was going. She saw the poem, read it, and then asked for a copy. To make a long story short, it found its way into print, appearing as the lead hymn in the second edition of the Invalid's Hymn Book in 1836, as well as in other publications. It has been translated into countless languages and was eventually joined with the tune composed by William B. Bradbury (1816-1868), who also composed such beloved tunes as "Jesus Loves Me," "He Leadeth Me," and "Sweet Hour of Prayer," just to name a few.

The initial funds were raised to start St. Mary's Hall, but over the years "the sale of her hymn brought in more funds for the school than all her brother's fund-raising projects combined." Indeed, her brother wrote, "In the course of a long ministry, I hope to have been permitted to see some fruit of my labors; but I feel more has been done by a single hymn of my sister's." A "useless" invalid?! Far from it. God showed her that even in her affliction, and, indeed, from out of her affliction, could come great good. She simply needed to give herself into His hands, just as she was, and let Him use her!! Charlotte never got any better physically, and she experienced further losses in her life. Over the years her father, mother, and siblings passed away. She spent her final years with her only surviving sister, and much of that time was spent bedridden. Charlotte Elliott died on September 22, 1871 at the age of 82. After her death, more than a thousand letters were found in her room -- letters she had received over the years from people who had been deeply touched, and whose lives had been changed for the better, by her hymn "Just As I Am." Indeed, Billy Graham states that he came to Christ in 1934 at a revival meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina after hearing this hymn sung at the altar call. He went on to use that same hymn during his own campaigns, and in 1997 he titled his book: "Just As I Am -- The Autobiography of Billy Graham." Dora Wordsworth, the daughter of the renowned poet William Wordsworth, had her friends and family read the words of this hymn over and over to her on her death bed. We could go on and on with the tributes of how this woman's poem was used by the Holy Spirit to lead people to the Lord.

"Only eternity will reveal the vast number of individuals whose lives have been dramatically changed through the use of this one hymn from the pen of an invalid woman. It is a hymn that can and should be used more frequently than merely an invitational number at the close of a service. Its message is one that we as believers need to be reminded of frequently -- that our eternal standing and peace with God depend solely on Christ's merits and not our own" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 148]. "Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me!" Thank you, Charlotte, for reminding us that it's not about us, it's about Him. Our God can take even the weakest, weariest vessel and use it to His glory; it's amazing what can be done through us by God when we step out of the way! Charlotte Elliott was buried, along with her brothers, in the churchyard at St. Andrew's Church. May she rest in peace until that day we are all raised up and called home!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in [Withheld by Request]:

I appreciate your Reflections articles -- it's good stuff. You and I have visited in the past, and I have indicated to you my dissatisfaction with some of the attitudes and perspectives of my brethren within the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ. That frustration remains. In fact, for several years now I have been moving away from the "works" paradigm that I grew up with. As I have now gone public with the new paradigm, I am meeting significant resistance from some of the ultra-conservatives. I'm including links to some of my recent blog articles that have generated quite a bit of "fire" on Facebook; these should give you a good idea of where I'm coming from. I would like to speak with you via telephone and get some advice and direction on how to better frame what I'm trying to express to these brethren. I would really appreciate any time you can spare to help.

From a Minister in Massachusetts:

I am a pastor with a large church with plantings in both Canada and Jamaica. I am currently writing a book and would love to have permission to use some of your writings as research material for this book. Please let me know your protocol for granting permission. Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:

Your article on Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is beautiful. Brother, you should have been a history teacher!!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

What a wonderful in-depth essay on perhaps my favorite heroine of history! Thank you! Harriet Beecher Stowe is, without doubt, my first choice of a woman that I want to meet some day in heaven. I would just want to kiss the hand that wrote the words that changed a nation. God used her and worked through her. When I think of equality, I think of her. Thank you again. What strikes me as ironic is that those who think and write about important issues affecting our humanity, and who encounter such deep resistance, are the very ones we need to be listening to today. I spoke candidly to a dear friend who is a retired elder and preacher, and he said that his entire view of our church heritage has been forever changed thanks to folks like Ketcherside and Fudge. I also place you in that category, my dear friend, as well as others who share your vision of true unity and who dare to speak what needs to be said. Love and blessings to you and your family.

From a Reader in Maine:

The Harriet Beecher Stowe house in Brunswick, Maine is just a few miles from where I live, and it was, until a decade or so ago, open to the public as a restaurant. My wife and I went there on an anniversary in the '90's. It is now owned by Bowdoin College, and it's used for administrative or dorm purposes, I think. That is the house where Harriet wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" during the time her husband was a professor at the nearby college. At least one can drive by it now, but I'm not sure if it has any kind of visible identification on it. Thanks for your article on this great lady!

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