Women worth Emulating/Chapter 2
Miss Charlotte Elliott.
STRENGTH IN WEAKNESS.
"Here will I watch and wait, and 'wish for day.'
O Rock of Ages! at Thy foot I stay!
Let not the dashing waves unclasp my hold!
Let mercy's arms my trembling form enfold;
And place me where Thy 'hidden ones' repose,
Till the new earth and heaven their charms disclose."
he laws of health are now so much better understood than they formerly were, and all sensible women and girls attend so much more to physical training and open-air exercise, that extreme delicacy of constitution is no longer considered the inevitable inheritance of the female half of the human race. A complex and highly sensitive organization it is admitted, requires extra care both in understanding and obeying wholesome rules of diet, dress, occupation, and relaxation. The three cheap physicians—water, air, and exercise—are wisely held in high repute, and employed daily by all who wish to attain or preserve that best of all our heavenly Father's earthly blessings—"a sound mind in a sound body."
Still it is a sad fact that inherited maladies or constitutional defects do fall to the lot of very many of the female sex. The common phrase, which has passed into a motto—"The suffering sex"—may have been, and I think was, intended to apply to the sympathetic mind of woman quite as much as to the body; though it is more generally understood as applying to the latter. It still describes the physical circumstances of great numbers. Life on hard conditions is their lot; and as no chastening in immediate endurance is otherwise than grievous, these dear invalids have the tenderest claims on our ready help and affection. If they are precluded from all activity of either mind or body, the greater responsibility is laid on those around them who possess the blessing of health to cheer and lighten as much as possible the burden of their affliction. This is simply a Christian duty; but like all duties, the more diligently and cheerfully it is performed the sooner it becomes a delight, and brings into the pitying, loving heart of the helpers the blessing of Him who "bore our griefs and carried our sorrows."
It is however a remarkable and interesting fact, that from the chambers of sickness and the couch of suffering have come not only some of the most beautiful examples of cheerful resignation, but of active mental effort. Lessons have been taught so sweet, unselfish, and holy, that they have strengthened the healthy and braced the strong in their contest with the inevitable cares and trials of life.
It was while the poet. Miss Elizabeth Barrett (afterwards Mrs. Browning), was an invalid, carried from bed to sofa for eight years, that she wrote some of the most spiritual of her poems and sonnets. The experiences in the seclusion of her sick room aided the development of her mind and the strengthening of her religious principles. Not books merely, though she was a great scholar, but solitude, suffering, and self-communion matured that fine mind and sublimated that sweet spirit, until she might be said in her sick chamber to have dwelt with God.
A yet more memorable instance of a long life of suffering consecrated to the highest uses, was shown in the case of the sweetest of our modern hymn-writers, Miss Charlotte Elliott. Her life is a true poem in its harmony of thought and action, of example and precept. No startling incidents, no elaborate details, are presented in the very brief (too brief) memoir which a surviving sister gave of her life prefixed to a recent edition of her poems; but the account is all the more instructive, because God led His faithful servant along the quiet, shadowed path, unseen by the world—a path soon apparently to lead by painful footsteps into the dark valley. But the weary way was winding and very long, and the end was slowly gained, which was a blessing to many. The overshadowing wings that were spread as a shelter for the invalid mercifully concealed the lengthening road^ while soft whisperings of angel voices echoed through the sufferer's soul, and the peace that passeth understanding filled her heart.
Thus a life of more than eighty-two years was permitted to one who had from early youth such feeble healthy that death was often thought to be impending. Surely in that long sojourn in the outer vestibule of heaven, she must have caught a refrain of its songs and a rich foretaste of its joys.
Miss Charlotte Elliott was born March 18th, 1789, the third daughter of a family that were, at the end of the last century, the centre of a circle known and esteemed for evangelical principles and deep piety. Charles Elliott, Esq., of Clapham and Brighton, was her father; and Mrs. Elliott, her mother, was a daughter of the Rev. Henry Venn, the pious vicar of Huddersfield from 1760 to 1770. The Rev. John Venn, Rector of Clapham, was her uncle. Indeed, the members of the families of the Venns and Elliotts were well known throughout the kingdom as leaders of that evangelistic movement which sought, during the last thirty years of the past century, to revive and cherish pure, simple gospel truth in the teachings of the Church of England, and to commend religion to the people as a matter of the heart and conscience,—not of forms and ceremonies, but of inward conviction.
Born into such a circle, of course the education of the gifted child Charlotte was carefully attended to, especially in those matters which implant principles and form character. Her literary studies were subject to interruption from her ill health every winter. In the summer months, she rallied, and was able, as childhood merged into youth, to visit friends of the family; and the sweetness of her disposition, accompanied and embellished by the charm of a mind rich in natural gifts, made her very precious to all who knew her.
Early in life her conversation was greatly prized by the limited and select circle who were favoured to enjoy it. Fond of music and poetry, with fine taste, a good memory and active imagination, she must have been a most delightful companion, particularly as she had been surrounded from her earliest years by a home circle whose gifts and attainments made them sought and prized wherever great talents, consecrated by religion to the highest uses, commanded attention or won regard.
If health was denied, yet all the compensations that could be granted in loving companionship and intellectual pursuits were mercifully granted. Still, those only know, to whom the monotony of the sick room is often appointed, how heavy the burden is, and how it presses on those who have to bear it. Each must bear his own burden, is the earthly sentence on the sick and suffering. Happy those who can cast their care on the Saviour, and realize that He careth for them.
This sweet experience was not gained without an effort, even by so spiritual a nature as Charlotte Elliott. Let none of my young readers think that the careful training of pious parents, the possession of a gentle temper and kindly natural disposition, will be enough in themselves, to secure comfort during the tedious, wearing trials of oft-recurring or long-continued sickness. It needs the special grace of a lively faith in all being ordered by a heavenly Father^s love, before the blessing is fully realized that He is near to sustain and comfort, and that in the darkest hour His voice sounds in the depths of the spirit, "It is I; be not afraid." This triumph over bodily affliction is only gained if, and when, it has been earnestly sought; and so we read that there was a time in Charlotte Elliott's early youth when she was not in the full enjoyment of that hope through believing which alone brings peace.
Her opportunities of meeting highly-intellectual people in circles of fashionable life, though often restricted by delicacy of constitution, were yet frequent enough to exercise a great fascination over her mind, and might have led her to prize worldly amusements and intellectual triumphs as a chief good; in which case there must inevitably have followed a bitter sense of hardship and loss, when she was laid aside and deprived of such amusements and enjoyments. But she was mercifully led to a higher life. With pathetic truth does she say, " He knows, and He alone, what it is, day after day, hour after hour, to fight against bodily feelings of almost overpowering weakness and languor and exhaustion; to resolve, as He enables me to do, not to yield to the slothfulness, the self-indulgence, the depression, the irritability such a body inclines me to indulge; but to rise every morning determined on taking this for my motto: 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.'"
It was this spirit of patient endurance and hallowed resignation that aided her to give to all who are passing through deep waters, that perfect hymn,
"Thy will be done."
In the year 1821, during a season of great suffering, she became deeply conscious of sin—a great mental conflict distressed her. Ah, my dear young reader! we must know ourselves to be sinners, before we can turn with full purpose of heart to Christ as a Saviour. The sin-sick soul must know and feel that it is sick, before it hastens to seek the Great Physician. This part of Miss Elliott's experience is of great use to us far less advanced Christians. It was this deep need which developed in her mind those lovely, yearning, submissive thoughts which are expressed in her beautiful hymns.
Dr. Cæsar Malan, of Geneva, on the 9th of May, 1 822, came to her aid like a heavenly messenger; as, indeed, all are who bring light, truth, and peace to our souls. His conversation gave her new views of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. That day she kept as the birthday of her soul—a spiritual anniversary ever cherished, as also was the friendship and correspondence with Dr. Malan for a period of forty years.
In the year 1823, many sad bereavements came, especially the death of a beloved sister; and it was resolved by the family to accept an invitation to the Continent, and try an entire change of scene: doubtless with benefit to mind and spirit, but scarcely with any permanent improvement of health to the invalid.
After an interval of some years, in 1834, she formed an acquaintance with Miss Harriet Kieman, of Dublin, a lady of great mental and spiritual attainments, who came to England for medical advice; which, to the sincere regret of Miss Elliott, proved unavailing, for in less than a year she died of consumption. Intercourse with this like-minded Christian friend led to Miss Charlotte Elliott under-taking the editorship of a little annual volume, "The Christian Remembrancer," which for twenty-five years she carefully prepared and enriched with original contributions, and also with valuable selections.
The profits of this work, which attained a large circulation, and of her other writings, were employed in aiding the funds of Christian institutions,—such as the Bible Society, and kindred plans of spreading the gospel; while her private benevolence was always active to the utmost extent of, and, as some would think, beyond her means.
It was in 1835 that she wrote the exquisite hymn so justly dear to every humble believer:
"Just as I am, without one plea."
This first appeared, among several others, in a collection of poems intended chiefly for the sick room. With characteristic diffidence, the writer shrunk from being known; and it must have been a hallowed joy to her to find that she was the honoured instrument of impressing, arousing, and comforting many. Her hymn was copied out by several of her friends and correspondents, and sent to her by many who did not know that she was the author. It was speedily translated into French, Italian, German, and may certainly be considered a priceless gem in our rich treasury of devotional lyrics. It is scarcely necessary to say that Miss Elliott was a most constant and devout Bible student. Passages of Holy Writ form so often the refrain of her poems, that it is easy to see that her mind was constantly filled from the pure fount of Bible truth.
A little passage that she wrote in her own private Bible contains a valuable lesson to all:—
"Dig deep into this precious mine,
Toil and its richest ore is thine:
Search, and the Lord will lend His aid
To strew its wealth from its mystic shade:
Strive, and His Spirit will give the light
To work in the heavenly mine aright.
Pray without ceasing, and in Him confide,
Into all truth His light will guide."
When weakness prevented her attending public worship, she found a sanctuary in God^s word: "My Bible is my church," she said. " It is always open, and there is my High Priest, ever waiting to receive me. There I have my confessional, my thanksgiving, my psalms of praise, a field of promises, and a congregation of whom the world is not worthy—prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors; in short, all I can want I there find." What a blessing it is that this rich treasure, so full of blessing to her, is ours also, that the humblest mind may receive a ray from that Divine source of all light and life. Her sister says hers was, to a great extent, " a hidden life,"—hid with Christ in God, we may say. But as the unseen violet is known and tracked by its fragrance, so the breathings of her soul have come to us in her poems, and help to waft our thoughts heavenward. We feel that it was by prayer she lived and sang her sweet strains. We hardly need to be told that she had special seasons of spiritual communion with, and prayer for, absent friends; special times for commending works of faith and labours of love to Him who alone can send the prospering blessing, and who has revealed Himself as the hearer and answerer of prayer.
Thus passed what, to her surprise, as to that of her many friends, was permitted to be a long life. Many bereavements—that of her beloved brother, Rev. Henry Venn Elliott, and others—came to test, but never to shake her faith. Many furnace fires of suffering refined the pure ore of Christian principle from the dross of earthliness. Many changes to distant lands and to various parts of her own country were dutifully tried, in search of what was never long possessed—alleviation of bodily suffering; yet, amid all, her soul enjoyed a sweet serenity, and she was permitted to reach the ripe age of eighty-two years. On the 22nd of September, 1871, she said, in reply to one who quoted the words, "Let not your heart be troubled," a sweet smile beaming on her brow: "But my heart is not troubled"; and then she added, "My mind is full of the Bible." On the evening of that day, at ten o'clock, she sank to sleep so sweetly that those around could not tell the minute when the earthly repose ended and the heavenly rest was won.
"So He giveth His beloved sleep."