“The question is not whether you ever gave yourself to God, but whether you are His now” ― Stepping Heavenward
Elizabeth Prentiss, née Elizabeth Payson, daughter of an American Congregational preacher, Edward Payson, well known for her hymn “More Love to Thee, O Christ” and the religious novel Stepping Heavenward was deeply impacted by the death of her father who suffered from from tuberculosis for over a year. She was eight at the time. During that time, her father’s faith never wavered. He wrote, “There can be no such thing as disappointment to me, for I have no desires but that God’s will be might be accomplished.” He died a few days before Elizabeth turned nine.
Elizabeth couldn’t calmly accept her father’s death as he had. She threw temper tantrums, resented those who offered to help and misbehaved, causing her grieving mother great stress. As she grew older, Elizabeth had conflicting emotions when it came to God. She longed to trust Him as her parents did. She was in between two extremes, one moment she believed that she loved God more than life itself and the next, she sank into deep despair about her standing with Him. In May of 1931, after the family moved to New York City, Elizabeth made a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ and joined the Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church.
In 1838, she opened a small girls’ school in her home and took up a Sabbath-school class as well. Two years later, she left for Richmond, Virginia, to be a department head at a girls’ boarding school. It was during her years of teaching and in her twenties, when Elizabeth was in agony because of her conviction of her sinfulness and lack of concern for the things of Christ. She believed herself to be a hypocrite although the evidence showed otherwise. She was deeply concerned for the salvation of her pupils, many of whom she led to Christ. When this crisis was over, she experienced a greater joy than she had before. “Sometimes my heart feels ready to break for the longing it has for a nearer approach to the Lord Jesus than I can obtain without the use of words, and there is not a corner of the house which I can have to myself.”
In 1845, she married George Lewis Prentiss, a brother of her close friend Anna Prentiss Stearns. The couple settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where George became pastor of South Trinitarian Church. For a while Elizabeth enjoyed her duties as a pastor’s wife and a housewife and then in 1852, when she was expecting their third child, their son Eddy got sick. He had “water on the brain”, which we know today as meningitis. Elizabeth prepared her son for death by telling him stories about what Heaven would be like and urging him to trust Jesus. Then, he died and at his funeral, the choir sang the hymn, Thy Will Be Done. Elizabeth wrote, “It was like cold water to thirsty souls. This was all we had to say or could say.”
Three months later, Eddy’s little sister, Bessie was born and appeared to be in good health but a month later, she got seriously ill and died the following day. So, within five months, the family had lost two children. “My faith has staggered under this new blow,” Elizabeth wrote, “and I blush to tell how hard I find it to say cheerfully ‘Thy will be done.’…Oh how I do wish, do long to feel an entire, unquestioning submission to Him who pities while He afflicts me.”
As a mother, I can relate to how devastating it is to lose a child. However, I can’t imagine losing two and at such young ages. It is said that when Eddy died, it was one of the darkest days in her life. The little boy had broken into a rash and fever. Elizabeth did the little that the doctors could suggest in a desperate attempt to save his life but to no avail. After Eddy died she recognized that going to Jesus was a great blessing for him in spite her own pain and she wrote lines, urging him to, “O, hasten hence! to His [Christ’s] embraces, hasten!”
Despite her struggles with chronic health problems, Elizabeth was able to to have three more healthy children. During that time, she wrote a poem which became a children’s classic and a book. In 1856, following the nearly fatal illness of her daughter Minnie, she wrote the hymn “More Love to Thee.”
Elizabeth, despite her frailty and battle with chronic insomnia, was described as a bright-eyed woman with a keen sense of humor. With her life wholly dedicated to Christ, she purposefully lived a life of joy. She said, “Much of my experience of life has cost me a great price and I wish to use it for strengthening and comforting other souls.”
In 1878, at the age of 59, Elizabeth died and her hymn “More Love to Thee” was sung at her funeral. After her death, her husband, George, published The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss (1882), using for the book’s preface, her words, “Much of my experience of life has cost me a great price and I wish to use it for strengthening and comforting other souls.” Elizabeth had six children, four of whom survived infancy. Elizabeth was the fifth of eight children. She was one of the six who survived infancy.
When her two children died within months of each other, Elizabeth, through her grief continued to trust God. She believed that there’s a purpose in suffering. She said to a friend whom she was counseling, “We can’t understand it, but I have been thinking that this [suffering] might be God’s way of preparing His children for very high degrees of service on earth or happiness in heaven.” She learned how to be deeply sympathetic with other grieving parents through her own losses by comforting them with the comfort she received. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
“…God notices the most trivial act, accepts the poorest, most threadbare little service, listens to the coldest, feeblest petition, and gathers up with parental fondness all our fragmentary desires and attempts at good works. Oh, if we could only begin to conceive how He loves us, what different creatures we should be!”
― Stepping Heavenward“What grieves me is that I am constantly forgetting to recognize God’s hand in the little, everyday trials of life, and instead of receiving them as from Him, find fault with the instruments by which He sends them.”
― Stepping Heavenward“…if God chooses quite another lot for you, you may be sure that He sees that you need something totally different from what you want.”
― Stepping Heavenward“I see that if I would be happy in God, I must give Him all. And there is a wicked reluctance to do that. I want Him–but I want to have my own way, too. I want to walk humbly and softly before Him and I want to go where I shall be admired and applauded. To whom shall I yield? To God? Or to myself?”
― Stepping Heavenward [with Biographical Introduction]
Sources: Wikipedia; Christianity.com; Good Reads; Encyclopædia Britannica; Bulletin Inserts;