October 26, 2012

Birth of Payson Prentiss: Sweet their refrain

Elizabeth Payson already faced extreme religious pressure beginning with her birth in Portland, Maine, on October 26, 1818. Her father, Congregationalist minister Edward Payson was extremely pious, once telling his wife he would hate her if his love began to compete with his love for Christ ("I am Christ's; I must be Christ's," he wrote her). In fact, he was so worried about his burgeoning happiness that, upon his daughter Elizabeth's birth, he anticipated the baby or his wife would die as punishment. "Truly, my cup runs over with blessings," he admitted the day after her birth. "I can still scarcely help thinking that God is preparing me for some severe trial; but if He will grant me His presence as He does now, no trial can seem severe."

Young Elizabeth grew up being called a "little angel," but she was often sick or weak. "I never knew what it was to feel well," she recalled in 1840. She eventually married another minister, George Lewis Prentiss, and moved to New York. Some of her earliest writings were published in the 1830s in Nathaniel Willis's Youth's Companion (Willis, in turn, named two children after Edward Payson, including the daughter who changed her name to Fanny Fern). She also published an autobiographical novel Stepping Heavenward in 1869 and, ultimately, she published some 20 books. Her most famous work, however, is likely the hymn published under her married name Elizabeth Prentiss titled "More Love to Thee, O Christ":

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,
   Send grief and pain;
Sweet are thy messengers,
   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!

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