Monday, July 13, 2009

Expressing the Ineffable

Cindy Aalders has written a fine monograph on the hymns of Anne Steele (1717-1778), entitled To Express the Ineffable: The Hymns and Spirituality of Anne Steele (Studies in Baptist Thought and History, Paternoster Press/Wipf and Stock, 2008). Steele was once well-known for her hymns, sung particularly in Particular Baptist chapels in England but also elsewhere, for some of them were widely reprinted in various collections. There is also a CD of fifteen of the hymns set to new tunes, ‘Awake the Sacred Song’, composed (and sung) by Andrea Tisher, available from the Regent Bookstore.

In fact this is very much a Regent College effort. Cindy is Director of Admissions at Regent, Andrea directs the worship there, and the book began as a thesis supervised by Bruce Hindmarsh, who is Professor of Spiritual Theology at the College.

Steele was born and lived in Broughton, Hampshire, in well-off circumstances (her father supplied timber to the British Navy), living a life that was deeply embedded in the Strict Baptist communities of Hampshire and Wiltshire. Her grandfather, Edward Froude, had been a member of the 1689 Assembly of Particular Baptists which issued the well-known Confession of Faith of that year. Her mother died when she was young, and Anne never married. She regarded her literary talents as both a gift and a calling.

Cindy Aalders slays a couple of dragons, tales that in the past have been routinely accompanied introductions to Steele’s hymn, or at least severely wounds them: Steele’s fiancĂ© was not drowned in a river on the evening of their wedding (there is no evidence that she was engaged), though there was such a drowning, nor did she suffer life-long injury as a result of a fall from a horse, though she did fall, more than once. In a day of small-pox epidemics, and when a standard medical treatment was ‘bleeding’, Steele’s extended family were constantly plagued by ill-health and by the sorrows of premature deaths. Anne Steele was much caught up in this, in her expressions of sympathy and practical help, and in the offering of prayer. She was herself bed-ridden for the last years of her life.

Not only does the monograph serve to re-introduce Steele’s verse, but it also provides the results of interesting research based on the Steele papers which have recently been lodged in the Angus Library of Regent Park College, Oxford. Some of Steele’s correspondence is available there, as well as unpublished hymns and poems.

Anne Steele appears to have modelled her verse (and poetry) on Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, and her themes were drawn not only from her own life and the theology of the Particular Baptists, but often from Isaac Watts, the pioneer of what turned out to be a great flowering of evangelical hymn writing in the eighteenth century – Watts, Newton, Cowper, Charles Wesley, Toplady, and Benjamin Beddome, (with whom Anne was acquainted), and several others, including female hymn writers (besides Anne) such as Anne Dutton.

The hymns are noteworthy for their intense, nervous, questioning moods, and for their stress on the divine transcendence centring, of course, in the gift of the Saviour, and of his Cross. They are infused with Calvinistic doctrine and are ‘experimental’ in character. That is, they not only relate the ups and downs of Christian experience, but also recall its ‘testings’, the testings of faith and assurance by trials and losses and needs of various kinds. They are deeply personal, and I suppose one could raise the question as to whether some of them are suitable for congregational singing. Though to be fair to Steele, she did not intentionally write for congregational use as did, say, Newton and Cowper, and Beddome.

Cindy Aalders draws attention to the interrogative mood of the hymns, contrasting them with the exuberance of Charles Wesley, and even of Watts. She suggests that if the mark of Charles Wesley’s hymns is the exclamation mark, that of Steele’s is the question mark. Cindy offers well-informed, thoughtful and perceptive analyses of the hymns, from several angles; Steele’s recognition of the limited powers of our language to express the greatness of God, as in

But O, in vain our humble songs,
Attempt the honours of they Name,

Too weak our words, too low our tongues,

Thy countless favours to proclaim

And in her recognition of divine sovereignty in more straightforward terms

Eternal power, almighty God,
Who can approach thy throne?

Accessless light is thy abode,

To angel-eyes unknown

Before the radiance of thine eye,

The heavens no longer shine,

And all the glories of the sky,

Are but the shade of thine.

How strange! How awful is thy love!

With trembling we adore.

Not all the exalted minds above

Its wonders can explore.

While golden harps, and angel tongues,

Resound immortal lays,

Great God, permit our humble songs,

To rise and mean thy praise.

And the theme of Anne Steele’s own suffering, expressed in the attitudes of longing and resignation, and in the petitions of this verse, as the hymn-writer moves from physical disease to spiritual sickness

Dear Lord, we wait thy healing hand;
Diseases fly at thy command;

O let thy sovereign touch impart

Life, strength and health to every heart

Then shall the sick, the blind, the lame,

Adore their Great Physician’s name;

Then dying souls shall bless their God,

And spread they wondrous praise abroad.

And in this hymn

Thy deep decrees from creature sight,
Are hid in shades of awful night,

Amid the lines, with curious eye,

Not angel minds presume to pry.

Great God, I would not ask to see

What in futurity shall be;

If light and bliss attend my days,

Then let my future hours be praise.

Is darkness and distress my share?
Then let me trust thy guardian care;

Enough for me, if love divine,

At length through every cloud shall shine.

Cindy is careful to distinguish such expressions of resignation to the divine will from the Quietism of Fenelon and Madame Guyon.

As the inaccessible God is made known in Christ, the hymns express a deep reverence for the Saviour,

When sins and fears prevailing rise,
And fainting hope almost expires,

Jesus, to thee I lift my eyes,

To thee I breathe my soul’s desires.

And in the better-known hymn

And did the holy and the just,
The Sovereign of the skies,

Stoop down to wretchedness and dust,

That guilty worms might rise?

Yes, the Redeemer left his Throne,

His radiant throne on high,

(Surprising mercy! Love unknown!)

To suffer, bleed and die.

He took the dying traitor’s place,

And suffer’d in his stead;

For man, (O miracle of grace!)

For man the Saviour bled.

Questions, certainly. But also exclamations of praise.

The differences between these restrained, thoughtful, solemn addresses to Almighty God, and what today pass for 'worship songs', are obvious enough

(A selection of Steele’s hymns has been made available by John R. Broome, Hymns by Anne Steele, (London, Gospel Standard Trust, 1967))