Posted by Bambi
After reading Stepping Heavenward several weeks ago, I have now officially become obsessed with Elizabeth Prentiss, adding all of her books to my 2013 booklist. (My list continues to grow at a faster pace than what I am reading at. So many books, so little time.) But I had to get more insight into this fascinating woman of God before I dove into the rest of her works, so I borrowed from our local library Sharon James’ biography of Elizabeth Prentiss.
Biographies are not typically my first choice of genre, but Sharon James is a terrific biographer. She also wrote the biography My Heart in His Hands about the life of Ann Judson, which I have also read and loved. I was a little familiar with James’ style already.
Understandably, the book begins with the birth of Elizabeth. The type of parents she had, as well as siblings and homelife, are described and lend understanding to the early circumstances that shaped such a woman.
Elizabeth’s father was a pastor. He had a great influence on her life, even though he died after suffering a long illness of tuberculosis when Elizabeth was only nine. Her father wrote, “O what a blessed thing it is to lose one’s will.” Undoubtedly this submission to God and the devoted heart of her father, made its mark on Elizabeth, and therefore into “Katy” of Stepping Heavenward…and therefore into me. I was struck by what an amazing influence and generational legacy a father can leave to his child, even in such a short time. The nine years of fatherhood that Edward Payson faithfully devoted to his daughter has inadvertently effected millions of people!
In a letter written to his sister Eliza just weeks before his death, his words here give us a glimpse of such a man as fathered Elizabeth Prentiss:
Were I to adopt the figurative language of Bunyan, I might date this letter from the land of Beulah, of which I have been for some weeks a happy inhabitant. The celestial city is full in my view. Its glories beam upon me, its breezes fan me, its odors are wafted to me, its sounds strike upon my ear, and its spirit is breathed into my heart. Nothing separates me from it but the river of death, which now appears but as an insignificant rill, that may be crossed at a single step, whenever God shall give permission. The Sun of Righteousness has been gradually drawing nearer and nearer, appearing larger and brighter as He approached, and now He fills the whole hemisphere, pouring forth a flood of glory, in which I seem to float like an insect in the beams of the sun, exulting yet almost trembling while I gaze on this excessive brightness, and wondering, with unutterable wonder, why God should deign thus to shine upon a sinful worm. A single heart and a single tongue seem altogether inadequate to my wants; I want a whole heart for every separate emotion, and a whole tongue to express that emotion. But why do I speak thus of myself and my feelings? why not speak only of our God and Redeemer? It is because I know not what to say—when I would speak of them my words are all swallowed up.
Can any of us even imagine being born into such a home as this?
Once Mr. Payson died, the family scraped to make ends meets. Louisa, the older sister, moved away to teach school and support the family. A few letters exist that Elizabeth wrote to her sister:
May 18, 1828.
My dear sister:—I thank you for writing to such a little girl as I am, when you have so little time. I was going to study a little catechism which Miss Martin has got, but she said I could not learn it. I want to learn it. I do not like to stay so long at school. We have to write composition by dictation, as Miss Martin calls it. She reads to us out of a book a sentence at a time. We write it and then we write it again on our slates, because we do not always get the whole; then we write it on a piece of paper.
(Incidentally, because the homeschool mom in me is always present, when I read things such as this it reaffirms to me that the best way to teach a child to write is this method of copy and dictation. What a marvelous writer this method made of Elizabeth Prentiss!)
As a young woman, Elizabeth was already known as having pious character and a public devotion to Christ. She had already been contributing stories and poems to The Youth’s Companion, a New England periodical, for several years. In 1838 she opened her own girl’s school.
Although the details of Prentiss’s life were fascinating, more so to me was her spiritual journey. Her profession of faith, her time of spiritual depression, her lessons learned through the suffering after losing two children within one month (one infant, one four-year-old)…all of these made the soul of Elizabeth Prentiss, and James does an outstanding job of giving readers a full picture of her.
These words were found written on a scrap piece of paper, indicating the grief Elizabeth felt, yet her trust in God:
MY NURSERY. 1852.
I thought that prattling boys and girls
Would fill this empty room;
That my rich heart would gather flowers
From childhood’s opening bloom.
One child and two green graves are mine,
This is God’s gift to me;
A bleeding, fainting, broken heart— This is my gift to Thee
To a friend, just a few months later, who was also recently bereft of two children she wrote:
Is it possible, is it possible that you are made childless? I feel distressed for you, my dear friend; I long to fly to you and weep with you; it seems as if I must say or do something to comfort you. But God only can help you now, and how thankful I am for a throne of grace and power where I can commend you, again and again, to Him who doeth all things well.
I never realise my own affliction in the loss of my children as I do when death enters the house of a friend. Then I feel that I can’t have it so. But why should I think I know better than my Divine Master what is good for me, or good for those I love! Dear Carrie! trust that in this hour of sorrow you have with you that Presence, before which alone sorrow and sighing flee away. God is left; Christ is left; sickness, accident, death can not touch you here. Is not this a blissful thought?… As I sit at my desk my eye is attracted by the row of books before me, and what a comment on life are their very titles: “Songs in the Night,” “Light on Little Graves,” “The Night of Weeping,” “The Death of Little Children,” “The Folded Lamb,” “The Broken Bud,” these have strayed one by one into my small enclosure, to speak peradventure a word in season unto my weariness. And yet, dear Carrie, this is not all of life. You and I have tasted some of its highest joys, as well as its deepest sorrows, and it has in reserve for us only just what is best for us. May sorrow bring us both nearer to Christ! I can almost fancy my little Eddy has taken your little Maymee by the hand and led her to the bosom of Jesus. How strange our children, our own little infants, have seen Him in His glory, whom we are only yet longing for and struggling towards!
Reading Elizabeth’s own words during her loss of her two children, gives much insight into the beautiful scenes of Stepping Heavenward as Katy loses her child. No wonder Prentiss could compose such a soul-stirring scene…she had lived it herself.
As the book encompasses the life of Elizabeth, there are details and beautiful accounts of her reaction and service during the Civil War, as well as political observations she made. Throughout Elizabeth Prentiss: More Love to Thee, details are also given each time one of her books were written, published, the public’s reaction to it, how Prentiss balanced her writing with caring for her family, and also unique–the input her husband had on characters of her stories. She recounts once to a friend that the character she loved most in one story, George did not, and so she changed it.
I now feel that I know Elizabeth Prentiss a bit better. Her love and devotion to God, her habits of selflessness and humble service to others, and her lifelong pursuit of holiness have made her one that I look forward to meeting in Heaven one day. Her story as a Christian, a pastor’s wife, a mother and a writer is a beautiful testimony of the work of God in the life of a woman who, while still sinful, was fully submitted to him. Sharon James’ biography gets five stars from me.