The Famous Woman You’ve Never Heard Of

frances patron saint

“A great deal of living must go to a very little writing.” – Frances Ridley Havergal

You probably don’t recognise her name. But if she had been born today, you would. 

She was the equivalent of a famous Christian singer-songwriter. You would have gone to one of her gigs, sung her songs, heard her testimony. You would own at least one of her seven albums. 

Perhaps you would have gone to her book-signing, or heard her speak at a conference. She published 30 books: devotionals, hymnbooks and shorter evangelistic pamphlets. 

She wrote letters about her travels around Europe, which were read by a new generation of armchair tourists. Today this would be a mega-blog. She would have been Jamie The Very Worst Missionary, or Jen Hatmaker—known for her straight-talking preaching and witty storytelling.

If she had been born in our time, you would know her name. 

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

But she was born at a different time: 1836, in England, daughter of a minister.

Her life was privileged, but lined with tragedy. When she was eleven, her mother died. The family moved out of their country vicarage to a gloomy house in the city, and she was very lonely. 

Possibly it was this early suffering that formed her greatest strengths: a determination to live single-mindedly for God, and to see joy in the everyday. 

She did Big Things—missions, publishing books, traveling, but it all sprang from the small things, a daily determination to honour God.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

She was advised to go on trips abroad for the sake of her health. But while others were enjoying the luxury food in the hotels of Europe, she got to know local people in the villages, setting up impromptu evangelistic services, and praying for the sick. 

She had a gift of insight. One day she encountered some appalling customer service at her hostel. My response to rude staff is to flame them on Twitter; hers was to see into their soul:

“I went close to her, looked up into her wicked looking eyes, and said (as gently as possible) ‘You are not happy, I know you are not.’ She darted the oddest look at me; a sort of startled, half frightened look, as if she thought I was a witch! I saw I had touched the right string and followed it up…and then, finding she was completely tamed, spoke to her quite plainly and solemnly about Jesus. She listened…took A Saviour for you… thanking me over and over again…” (Havergal, cited in In Trouble and In Joy p.251)  

Most of her time was spent in small conversations like these: meeting strangers, loving them, pointing them to Jesus. 

She lived with purpose, but also with great fun. Once she and her friends decided to completely undress, and undertake an icy hike up the mountains at 4am in just their underwear “and not even a necktie.”  

She died at the relatively young age of 42. Weakened by a former bout of typhoid, she contracted peritonitis, and died in great pain. Ten minutes before she died, she gathered the energy to sing one last hymn: “Jesus, I will trust thee.” 

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

At the age of three she could read; as an adult she knew six languages including Biblical Greek and Hebrew; she taught herself advanced harmony, impressing even established composers.

If she had been a man, with her gifts and opportunities, she might have been a famous international evangelist, or started a church movement, another Charles Wesley or George Whitefield. You would know her name.

Instead, as a woman in 19th century, within the limitations of respectability at the time, she did her utmost to live her life as meaningfully as possible in the everyday. 

She wrote, she sang, she prayed, and she shared her faith with whomever she met. 

She wrote, she sang, she prayed, and she shared her faith with whomever she met.

If you are tempted to think your words don’t matter or your life doesn’t matter, remember Frances Ridley Havergal. Her songs were beautiful because they were a distillation of her life and heart, her undiluted desire to live for Jesus.

She did not campaign parliament, she didn’t start a school or a church, she was not canonised. She simply told others her story, and wrote her heart. 

Two hundred years later we are still singing her words. 

Today I join my prayer with hers: 

“Take my life, and let it be

Consecrated, Lord, to thee,

Take my moments and my days,

Let them flow in ceaseless praise.”

(With thanks to Sharon James’ book: In Trouble and in Joy)  

Tanya Marlow
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Tanya Marlow

Writer at Thorns and Gold
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology. Then she got sick, and became a writer. She loves writing honestly about finding God in hard places at tanyamarlow.com. She also loves belting out songs without knowing the words. She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, using the biblical book of Ruth as a path back from disappointment, which you can download for FREE here.
Tanya Marlow
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  • Great post! Thanks Tanya!

  • Thanks for this, Tanya. It reminds me of how God’s word will not return void. I don’t think ours will either, but we may never know the effect:)

    • God’s word will not return void – yes, a really good reminder, thanks.

  • This is so good! I’m so glad I’ve heard of her now!

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  • Awesome post! Great work bringing light to Frances’ life! I am a hymn –
    girl and did not know who wrote “Take My life” until your post! It made
    me do more research and I see that Frances also wrote another one of my
    favorite hymns “Like a River Glorious.” – – thanks for this series
    Mudroom– Cornelia Seigneur

    • I love it when mere names become more human for us! This series has been great for this. Thanks so much for stopping by. 🙂

  • NilsBoray

    This is quite interesting Tanya, but I’m struggling to understand why you think her gender made her less famous. the UK is and has been a very secular society, even amongst Christians – I don’t think hymn writers ever have been especially famous no matter what gender they belong to – Charles Wesley possibly being the exception. When you say she’d be the equivalent

    of a famous Christian singer-songwriter – I’m struggling to think of any – maybe Cliff Richard ? – I don’t know anybody who listens to that kind of stuff (including the Christians I know).

    Off the top of my head the only hymn writer (besides Wesley) whose name springs to mind is indeed female – Eleanor Farjeon – who wrote Morning has Broken. I also know that possibly the most popular Anglican hymn – All Things Bright and Beautiful – was written by a woman- but had to look up her name – Cecil Frances Alexander – she’s actually pretty prolific – There is a green hill far away, and Once in Royal David’s city being a couple of her other very well known songs. Anyway thanks for the article – I had not heard of Frances Ridley Havergal before today. Did you know there’s a school in Toronto named after her ? (I didn’t – just looked it up)

    • Hi – thanks so much for stopping by! My point re her gender is that she wasn’t able to lead a big church or start a big church movement like Wesley (which is why you know his name, and not hers) – but she was definitely able to lead churches, and to hold revival meetings. She would have been uber-famous, instead of just famous. She was pretty well-known at the time, but history has forgotten her. It makes me wonder why we remember some and not others.

      I totally didn’t know there was a school names after her! I very much like that fact – thanks for telling me!

  • What I love about this woman is that she didn’t PUSH to be the female Charles Wesley. That she loved and lived right in front of her. That we don’t have to “make it big” to make an impact. Thanks for her story Tanya.

    • YES. Yes – exactly. It’s a reassuring challenge when so much of the blog world today can be so pressurised. Love this insight.

  • Rebecka

    What an inspiring lady!

    • She totally was. I reckon I would have enjoyed being friends with her. I always like it when you find people in history like that.

  • Bev Murrill

    That’s fantastic to hear. I really appreciate getting to know our unsung heroes of faith – it’s a good thing God knows them …

    • Bev! How lovely of you to stop by. I really appreciate it. I also like celebrating the unsung heroes of faith – just as you were doing with ‘Certain Woman’ for She Loves!

  • daydreamerinca .

    I learned of her through a devotional called “Streams in the Desert” and one of her poems, “I Laid It Down In Silence”, so was happy to see her highlighted in your piece. I looked her up at the time, but learned even more today. Thanks, Tanya. This was good.

    • I’m so encouraged by all these accounts of people reading her work. I was really struck by the extracts I read – it seemed so current, so vivid. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  • Her hymns are some of my absolute favorites. Thanks for this mini-biography!

    • Mine too! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post, and I’d definitely recommend Sharon James’ book on her and three other women.

  • When I was seventeen I found my first very old copy of her poetry in a little used bookshop in Chapel Hill, NC. I have several first editions of other books written by her now. My favorite is “Royal Commandments.” Thank you for this lovely post about a woman I consider kindred in my walk with Jesus.

    • oh WOW. Seriously, I got goose bumps just looking at that photo. Thank you so much for this. Those books are beautiful. I’m imagining them when they first got published – and it is all kinds of awesome.

  • Marie Gregg

    What a great post! I’ve never heard of this awesome woman before and will definitely dig more into her life!

    • Yay! It was my pleasure to introduce her to you!

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