According to Michael Haykin, internationally recognized Christian historian, “Anne Steele was the most significant Baptist hymn writer and poetess of the ‘long’ eighteenth century.” And yet, though her hymns nurtured generations of earlier English-speaking Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic, I dare say the vast majority of 21st century Christians, including Baptists, have never heard her name.
Recent years have uncovered a renewed interest in Anne Steele. Among the significant new works, Michael Haykin, notes that the eight-volume Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, edited by Timothy Whelan and Julia Griffin (Pickering and Chatto, 2011, ISBN: 978-1851961443) includes an “erudite and critical edition of the entire Steele corpus” provided by Julia Griffin.
If an “erudite and critical” edition of Steele’s work sounds intimidating, there is good news. Priscilla Wong’s book is a perfect introduction to the work of a deserves-to-be-better-known evangelical hymnist.
Anne Steele (1717-1778) was the daughter of Baptist pastor William Steele. Though her poetry was originally intended for “personal devotional reflection,” her father introduced some of her hymns into the worship life at the Broughton (England) church where he was pastor. In God’s providence, her father’s recognition of his daughter’s lyrical giftedness led to her life of hymn-writing – a life that enriched generations of evangelical Baptist worshipers. Wong tells us that Steele went on to write “144 hymns, set thirty-four psalms to verse, and composed numerous poems and prose meditations.”
Wong’s book began life as a dissertation submitted to The Toronto Baptist Seminary in fulfillment of the requirements for a Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) degree. As such, it demonstrates the potential for such study to provide important theological and historical material in an accessible format for the reading public.
The opening chapter provides a brief introduction to Anne Steele, surveying the way in which Steele’s hymnody came to the worshiping public. Along the way, Wong reviews the more significant works that have been devoted to the life and work of Anne Steele. This is a great introduction to readers who may wish to pursue their own study of this gifted 18th Century hymnodist.
Anne Steele had the spiritual perception to see God’s hand at work in her circumstances. And she faced some difficult things in her life: her fiancé drowned a few hours before their wedding ceremony; being raised in a family of Dissenters, experiencing painful illnesses throughout her life, including periods of depression. Her writing reveals a woman in touch with the sustaining grace of a sovereign God.
Three major themes in Steele’s writing provide the body of Priscilla Wong’s study.
The Glory of God in Creation
Faith in the Face of Suffering
Hope in the Promised Glory
Devoting a chapter to each theme, Wong first explores the pertinent theology behind the theme, drawing from the theological writings of Steele’s contemporary, English Baptist pastor and theologian, John Gill (1697-1771). With that theological foundation, Wong explores the lyrics of Steele’s hymns, revealing how Anne Steele saw God in all aspects of life.
In the final chapter, Wong discusses how Steele’s hymns provide a window into the spiritual journey of the hymn writer. Through her hymns, Steele was transparently honest about her fears, doubts and discouragements, but always coming back to the sure foundation of a sovereign God who has everything in control, and very much loves his children.
Extensive footnoting and a helpful bibliography round out this introductory and thematic study of Anne Steele’s spiritual journey.
Readers wishing to pursue further study into the life and work of Anne Steele can visit the author’s site for a listing of books and resources (primary and secondary literature) devoted to Anne Steele. Included are links to musicians who are reintroducing the hymns of Anne Steele with updated music.
I heartily recommend this study in the hopes that it will rekindle an interest in the rich heritage of hymnody that is too rapidly disappearing, and provide a worthy antidote to the avalanche of generic worship music sweeping through the evangelical world.