Posted by: rcottrill | July 8, 2009

Suffering Hymn Writers

It is astonishing to discover how many authors of our hymns had some disability, or wrote out of some dark experience in their lives. For example:

  • Fanny Crosby (To God Be the Glory, All the Way My Saviour Leads Me) was blind. So was John Milton (Let Us With a Gladsome Mind), and George Matheson (O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go), and William Walford (Sweet Hour of Prayer), as was Lelia Morris, later in life (What If It Were Today? Nearer, Still Nearer).
  • Annie Johnson Flint (He Giveth More Grace, God Hath Not Promised) was confined to her room with crippling arthritis most of her life. So was Lydia Baxter (Take the Name of Jesus with You).
  • Charlotte Elliot was a bedridden invalid when she wrote the great invitation hymn, “Just As I Am.” Catherine Hankey (I Love to Tell the Story, Tell Me the Old, Old Story) wrote her hymns while confined to bed to recover from a serious illness. Eliza Hewitt (More About Jesus, When We All Get to Heaven) developed a severe spinal condition and was confined to bed for a long period.
  • Frances Ridley Havergal (Take My Life and Let It Be, Who Is on the Lord’s Side?) was in poor health all her life, and she died at the age of 43. Thomas Chisholm (Great Is Thy Faithfulness) served as a pastor for a short time, but frail health forced him to resign.
  • Major Daniel Whittle (Showers of Blessing, Have You Any Room for Jesus?) was a Civil War amputee.
  • William Cowper [pronounced Cooper] (God Moves in a Mysterious Way, There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood) suffered from bouts of suicidal depression. Joseph Scriven (What a Friend We Have in Jesus) seems to have suffered from depression as well.
  • Both George Young (God Leads Us Along) and Horatio Spafford (It Is Well) wrote songs as a declaration of faith after a time of great family tragedy.
  • Luther Bridgers wrote “He Keeps Me Singing” after the death of his wife and children in a fire. Thomas Dorsey wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” after his wife died giving birth to a son (who also died).

These are just a few examples of many. Even when there was not a prolonged disability, many created songs in periods of deep distress, or out of crisis circumstances. Because of such things, the poetry of their hymns grew out of the intense reality of their experience with God. No dry, dusty religiosity here. We sense in their message the ring of reality and the richness of their faith.

Perhaps we wonder how or why such beauty and blessing grows from times of suffering. There are could be many reasons. One is that those limited in some way–perhaps even bedridden–by a disability or adversity found time to explore new avenues of creativity and service for Christ. (One pastor never knew he could write hymns until he lost his voice and could no longer preach!)

Also, with their focus narrowed, their attention concentrated, they sometimes discovered deeper insights into the ways of God. They learned what it means to truly depend on God. Then, as the Lord blessed them, and blessed others through them in unique ways, they proved with the Apostle Paul what the Lord means when He says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9).


  1. Martin Luther who wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” suffered from depression his entire life and he did not hide that fact.

    • Absolutely. Thanks for adding him to the list. Like Paul, Martin Luther proved the sufficiency of God’s grace every day, and accomplished amazing things, in spite of his struggles.

  2. […] were born out of times of persecution, or times of personal suffering. My article on the subject of suffering hymn writers will be a […]

  3. […] It’s clear that illness, or other trials need not be the end of service for the Lord. Sometimes they merely redirect us into a kind of ministry we didn’t expect, or seemed to have no time for before. Some have become great prayer warriors, others have given us fine poetry. Our hymnody is sprinkled with examples of this. (See Suffering Hymn Writers.) […]

  4. This is such a lovely reminder. 2 Cor 4:7-10 says that we have a Treasure in our earthen vessels…and it goes on to say how we “are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.” The comfort of Christ for the afflicted (2 Cor 1:2-4) is so we may know His comfort and turn and comfort another in their affliction. How fitting that the comfort often offered comes out in song. “He giveth songs in the night”! (Job 35:10) It is thrilling to know that our brief years here on earth, if lived to the love and glory of Christ, can bear precious seed to help others for generations to come (through prayer, poetry, hymn writing, devotional writing, caring for others so they can bear fruit, etc.). Only our awe-inspiring, Sovereign Lord can do such wonders! Praise His name!

  5. I was so blessed to read all that was said on the lovely stories behind the beautiful inspirational hymns that I so greatly treasure. Thank God for the internet that all the way in India I can read and be helped in my time of trial and need. Yes, in dark times the beauty of our Lord Jesus is seen more vividly through tears the colors are brighter. Praise God.

  6. Thank you so much for this information
    It’s so encouraging I was blessed by it
    God bless you


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