This hymn was written by Elizabeth Payson Prentiss. Elizabeth suffered from poor health most of her life, but showed promise as a writer even as a young girl. She began submitting prose and verse at age 16 to a popular national magazine for young people, and the magazine published several of her submissions. During her lifetime, she wrote five books, one of which became a best-seller.
Elizabeth was the daughter of a clergyman, and she married a Presbyterian clergyman, Dr. George L. Prentiss, pastor of the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church in New York City—and later homiletics professor at Union Theological Seminary.
In 1856, tragedy struck—two of the Prentiss children died of illness. Elizabeth was devastated as she tried to come to grips with her loss—and also her sense of the unfairness that God would allow her children to die. She and her husband talked about it at length, and his encouragement gave her some help—but her grief was profound.
Then one day she felt inspired to write some verse inspired by something that her husband had said in a sermon: “Love can keep the soul from going blind.” She thought that if love could do that, she needed more love. And so she began to write.
She quickly dashed off three verses and part of a fourth verse, and then she stopped. She didn’t do anything with her poem at that time, perhaps feeling that the solace that she received from writing it was enough.
But thirteen years later, she showed her poem to her husband, and he encouraged her to have it printed in leaflet form, which she did—after completing the fourth verse. Even then she distributed the leaflets only to a few of their friends.
But one of the leaflets somehow made its way to William H. Doane, a Cincinnati businessman who wrote gospel songs as an avocation, and also collaborated with Fanny Crosby on a number of songs— Crosby writing the verse and Doane writing the music.
Doane wrote a tune to go with Elizabeth’s verse and included the song in a book of Christian music that he published in 1870. The timing was fortuitous, because the Great Awakening was sweeping across the land, creating quite an interest in Christian music.
Of all the things that Elizabeth wrote, this song is the one that has blessed the most people.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan