AMERICA’S FIRST WOMAN HYMNIST (Phoebe H. Brown)
Less than twenty years after Timothy Dwight’s hymns were published, a very poor and unpretentious American woman began to write lyrics that have been treasured by the Church until this present day, nor will they soon be forgotten. Her name was Phoebe Hinsdale Brown, and the story of her life is the most pathetic in the annals of American hymnody.
“As to my history,” she wrote near the end of her life, “it is soon told; a sinner saved by grace and sanctified by trials.”
She was born at Canaan, N. Y., May 1, 1783. Both parents died before she was two years old and the greater part of her childhood was spent in the home of an older sister who was married to a keeper of a county jail. The cruelties and privations suffered by the orphaned child during these years were such that her son in later years declared that it broke his heart to read of them in his mother’s diary. She was not permitted to attend school, and could neither read nor write. She was eighteen years old before she escaped from this bondage and found opportunity to attend school for three months. This was the extent of her education within school walls.
In 1805, at the age of twenty-two, she married Timothy H. Brown, a house painter. He was a good man, but extremely poor. Moving to Ellington, Mass., they lived in a small, unfinished frame house at the edge of the village. Four little children and a sick sister who occupied the only finished room in the house added to the domestic burdens of 354Mrs. Brown. In the summer of 1818 a pathetic incident occurred that led to the writing of her most famous hymn.
There being no place in her crowded home where she might find opportunity for a few moments of quiet prayer and meditation, she would steal away at twilight to the edge of a neighboring estate, where there was a magnificent home surrounded by a beautiful garden.
“As there was seldom any one passing that way after dark,” she afterwards wrote, “I felt quite retired and alone with God. I often walked quite up to that beautiful garden … and felt that I could have the privilege of those few moments of uninterrupted communion with God without encroaching upon any one.”
But her movements had been watched, and one day the lady of the mansion turned on her in the presence of others and rudely demanded: “Mrs. Brown, why do you come up at evening so near our house, and then go back without coming in? If you want anything, why don’t you come in and ask for it?”
Mrs. Brown tells how she went home, crushed in spirit. “After my children were all in bed, except my baby,” she continues, “I sat down in the kitchen, with my child in my arms, when the grief of my heart burst forth in a flood of tears. I took pen and paper, and gave vent to my oppressed heart in what I called ‘My Apology for my Twilight Rambles, addressed to a Lady.’” The “Apology,” which was sent to the woman who had so cruelly wounded her began with the lines:
Yes, when the toilsome day is gone,
And night, with banners gray,
Steals silently the glade along
In twilight’s soft array.
Then continued the beautiful verses of her now famous “Twilight Hymn:”
I love to steal awhile away
From little ones and care,
And spend the hours of setting day
In gratitude and prayer.
Seven years later, when Dr. Nettleton was preparing his volume of “Village Hymns,” he was told that Mrs. Brown had written some verses. At his request she brought forth her “Twilight Hymn” and three other lyrics, and they were promptly given a place in the collection. Only a few slight changes were made in the lines of the “Twilight Hymn,” including the second line, which was made to read “From every cumbering care,” and the fourth line, which was changed to “In humble, grateful prayer.” Four stanzas were omitted, otherwise the hymn remains almost exactly in the form of the “Apology.”
One of the omitted stanzas reveals a beautiful Christian attitude toward death. Mrs. Brown wrote:
I love to meditate on death!
When shall his message come
With friendly smiles to steal my breath
And take an exile home?
One of the other hymns by Mrs. Brown included in “Village Hymns” is a missionary lyric, “Go, messenger of love, and bear.” This was written a year earlier than her “Twilight Hymn.” Her little son Samuel was seven years old at the time, and the pious mother’s prayer was that he might be used of the Lord in His service. It was the period when the English-speaking world was experiencing a tremendous revival of interest in foreign missions, and in her 356heart she cherished the fond hope that her own boy might become a messenger of the gospel. Then came the inspiration for the hymn:
Go, messenger of love, and bear
Upon thy gentle wing
The song which seraphs love to hear,
The angels joy to sing.
Go to the heart with sin oppressed,
And dry the sorrowing tear;
Extract the thorn that wounds the breast,
The drooping spirit cheer.
Go, say to Zion, “Jesus reigns”—
By His resistless power
He binds His enemies with chains;
They fall to rise no more.
Tell how the Holy Spirit flies,
As He from heaven descends;
Arrests His proudest enemies,
And changes them to friends.
Her prayer was answered. The son, Samuel R. Brown in 1838 sailed as a missionary to China, and eleven years later, when Japan was opened to foreigners, he was transferred to that field. He was the first American missionary to the Japanese.
Mrs. Brown died at Henry, Illinois, October 10, 1861. She was buried at Monson, Mass., where some thirty years of her life had been spent. Her son, the missionary, has written this beautiful tribute to her memory:
“Her record is on high, and she is with the Lord, whom she loved and served as faithfully as any person I ever knew; 357nay, more than any other. To her I owe all I am; and if I have done any good in the world, to her, under God, it is due. She seems even now to have me in her hands, holding me up to work for Christ and His cause with a grasp that I can feel. I ought to have been and to be a far better man than I am, having had such a mother.”
From the book ‘Story of Our Hymns‘