This “Hymn Story” highlights the life and works of Anne Steele (1717-1778). Anne was one of the first significant female hymn writers and she wrote 144 of them. One my favorites is When I Survey Life’s Varied Scene and I’ve included it below.
Enduring much hardship in her life, Anne’s hymns are most known for laments that encourage us to trust God through difficulties. This particular hymn offers hope and brings powerful praise by focusing on His grace in the midst of struggle.
There is controversy surrounding her story, but shouldn’t every good story have a little controversy? Hymnary.org is one source that provides the following details of her life:
“Anne Steele was born at Broughton, Hampshire, in 1717. Her father was a timber merchant, and at the same time officiated as the lay pastor of the Baptist Society at Broughton (England). Her mother died when she was 3. At the age of 19 she became an invalid after injuring her hip. At the age of 21 she was engaged to be married but her fiancé drowned the day of the wedding. On the occasion of his death she wrote the hymn “When I survey life’s varied scene.” After the death of her fiancé she assisted her father with his ministry and remained single.
Despite her sufferings she maintained a cheerful attitude. She published a book of poetry “Poems on subjects chiefly devotional” in 1760 under the pseudonym “Theodosia.” The remaining works were published after her death, they include 144 hymns, 34 metrical psalms, and about 50 poems on metrical subjects.” (Source Link)
However, Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace cites several sources that counter the above in producing this work for an Anne Steele Hymns Seminar:
“She was thrown from a horse and injured when she was 19, but makes no mention of this later in her diary and it is not true (as some have reported) that she was an invalid for life from this injury. It has been widely reported that when she was 21, she was engaged to Robert Elcomb, but that the day before the wedding he was drowned while bathing in a river! However, while he may have been courting her, they were not a day from their wedding when this tragedy occurred. In fact, she had numerous wedding proposals after this (including one from Baptist pastor and
hymnwriter Benjamin Beddome) but she chose a life of singleness.
Her stepsister had a difficult marriage and this may have influenced Anne’s decision, but she also felt that singleness provided her the opportunity to serve the Lord in other ways. Had she chosen to become a busy pastor’s wife she may not have been able to write so many poems and hymns. So, she lived with her father and stepmother, who cared for her health problems, and who fixed her an elegant room with a fireplace to write her poems. She assisted her father in his pastoral labors, although for the last 9 years of her life, she was never able to leave her bed.”
Even if this hymn is not a direct result of her brokenness over her fiance’s death, it still reveals a wounded heart seeking comfort and healing from the Great Physician. It also provides a great reminder for us to “give thanks in all circumstances.”
When I Survey Life’s Varied Scene
When I survey life’s varied scene,
Amid the darkest hours,
Sweet rays of comfort shine between,
And thorns are mixed with flowers.
Lord, teach me to adore Thy hand,
From whence my comforts flow,
And let me in this desert land,
A glimpse of Canaan know.
Is health and ease my happy share?
Oh may I bless my God;
Thy kindness let my songs declare,
And spread Thy praise abroad.
While such delightful gifts as these,
Are kindly dealt to me,
Be all my hours of health and ease,
Devoted Lord to Thee.
In griefs and pains Thy sacred Word,
(Dear solace of my soul!)
Celestial comforts can afford,
And all their power control.
When present sufferings pain my heart,
Or future terrors rise,
And light and hope almost depart,
From these dejected eyes.
Thy powerful Word supports my hope,
Sweet cordial of the mind,
And bears my fainting spirit up,
And bids me wait resigned.
And oh whate’er of earthly bliss,
Thy sovereign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise:
“Give me a calm, a thankful heart,
From every murmur free,
The blessings of Thy grace impart,
And let me live to Thee.
Let the sweet hope that Thou art mine,
My path of life attend,
Thy presence through my journey shine,
And bless its happy end.”
If you’re interested in more hymns by Anne Steele you can find some of her works remade by Indelible Grace, Jars of Clay, Sojourn, and others.
Here’s a few I highly recommend. The first is Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul by Indelible Grace (featuring Sandra McCracken – lyrics included) .
Jars of Clay’s version of Jesus, I lift My Eyes
And Sojourn’s version of My Maker and My King.