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“Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul”: Mental Health, Physical Suffering, and the Hymns of Anne Steele

“Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul”: Mental Health, Physical Suffering, and the Hymns of Anne Steele

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June 14, 2024

Thanks to John Wiley, a 2024 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

“Thy word can bring a sweet relief for ev’ry pain I feel.”[1] Anne Steele desperately clung to beliefs like this throughout her life. For Steele, her pains went well beyond the lines of poetry, as this Baptist hymn writer from the eighteenth century suffered from chronic illness combined with what appeared to be volatile mental health as well. Still, when her soul was weary, coupled with the undeniable physical maladies that her frail body often faced, Steele found refuge in her relationship with God. While most historians would not likely be familiar with Steele, she was prolific during the same century that witnessed the hymn writing of Charles Wesley. Steele’s works, though deeply emotional and articulately theological, soon diminished in popularity and all but disappeared from hymn books in the twentieth century. However, there has been a noticeable uptick of interest among hymn writers and hymnology scholars in recent years regarding Anne Steele.[2]  Why? I would suggest that Anne Steele’s transparency makes her relatable to a post-COVID age of anxiety. Her hymns provide a balm to the soul for those in physical and mental distress, speaking almost as a prophetic voice to weary souls in the twenty-first century.  

Steele grew up and lived out her days in southern England, not far from her elder contemporary, Isaac Watts, the “Father of English hymnody.” Her father was a successful businessman, who also served as a lay pastor in the “Particular Baptist” denomination, a Calvinist sect.[3] Anne readily inherited her father’s theological heritage as shown in several of her hymns. Also found in Steele’s hymns was the theme of suffering. Her infirmities encompassed a long list, including chronic malaria, shortness of breath, gnawing headaches, and persistent gastrointestinal problems, which some have suggested were caused by Irritable Bowel Syndrome. With this onslaught of physical pains, it’s no wonder that Steele also suffered from a nervous disorder, undoubtedly with bouts of anxiety and depression. Despite these hurdles, Steele still managed to live a productive life as an accomplished hymn writer and poet. It seems that more than once a man proposed to her in marriage, but she chose the route to happily remain single all her life, committed to this ministry of hymnody. Indeed, Steele’s joy and happiness are frequently discovered in her writings, even though she could easily appeal to many debilitating strains. Songwriter Sandra McCracken says this about Steele: “Pain carved a space within her like an underground river, hollowing out smooth rock formations deep in her heart.”[4]

For Steele, there didn’t seem to be a split dichotomy between the secular and sacred or the physical and the spiritual. Her hymn, “The Great Physician,” represents this well:

Ye mourning sinners, here disclose/ Your deep complaints, your various woes;/Approach, ‘tis Jesus, he can heal/ The pains which mourning sinners feel.

In the later verses, Steele remarks:

That hand divine, which can assuage/ The burning fever’s restless rage/ That hand, omnipotent and kind,/ Can cool the fever of the mind.

As far as we know, Steele was never healed of her chronic ailments during her lifetime. But that doesn’t mean these words were merely wish-dreams. She remained confident in God’s goodness, despite her sufferings, declaring towards the end of the hymn, “Dear Lord, we wait thy healing hand.” For a chronically ill person (whether mentally, physically, or as in the case of Steele, both), this can be a very challenging “pill to swallow.” At the same time, this theology of suffering also set the foundation for another popular theme of her hymns: heaven.

From her hymn, “The Promised Land,” Steele rejoiced in these thoughts about a future place in heaven:

There pain and sickness never come,/ And grief no more complains;/ Health triumphs in immortal bloom,/ And endless pleasure reigns!

Steele seemed to find some sense of rest in her dual citizenship of both earth and heaven, though she was especially comforted by the latter. In “Death and Heaven,” Steele wrote:

Oft have I said, with inward sighs,/ I find no solid good below/ Earth’s fairest scenes but cheat my eyes,/ Her pleasure is but painted woe.

Then why, my soul, so loth to leave/ These seats of vanity and care/ Why do I thus to trifles cleave,/ And feed on chaff, and grasp the air?

There is a world all fair and bright;/ But clouds and darkness dwell between,/ The sable veil obstructs my sight,/ And hides the lovely, distant scene.

Heaven was often on her mind, but she was not so heavenly-minded that she became of no earthly good. Though not a mystic, Steele’s hymns speak of a woman who had a deeply personal relationship with God.

Her hymn, “Humble Reliance,” particularly displays the common themes of intense suffering overcome by the presence and power of God. The final four verses of that hymn speak these words:

If pain and sickness rend this frame,/ And life almost depart,/ Is not thy mercy still the same,/ To cheer my drooping heart?

If cares and sorrows me surround,/ Their pow’r why should I fear?/ My inward peace they cannot wound,/ If thou, my God, art near.

Thy sov’reign ways are all unknown/ To my weak, erring sight/ Yet let my soul, adoring, own/ That all thy ways are right.

My God, my Father, be thy name/ My solace and my stay;/ O wilt thou seal my humble claim,/ And drive my fears away.

Steele’s religious affections were stirred by her spiritual communion with God. She seemed to have these moving experiences, which likely took part in her hymn-writing process. However, the basis for Steele’s spiritual confidence came not from experiences alone but was rooted in an outside source, namely, the Bible.

Steele’s most famous hymn today is “God the Only Refuge of the Troubled Mind.”[5] Perhaps the most eloquent and vivid of her hymns, it begins this way:

Dear refuge of my weary soul,/ On thee, when sorrows rise;/ On thee, when waves of trouble roll,/ My fainting hope relies.

Like many of her hymns (and essentially of her life in general), Steele wades between a state of fear but also a recentering of her emotions:

To thee I tell each rising grief,/ For thou alone canst heal;/ Thy word can bring a sweet relief/ For ev’ry pain I feel.

But oh! when gloomy doubts prevail,/ I fear to call thee mine;/ The springs of comfort seem to fail,/ And all my hopes decline.

Yet, gracious God, where shall I flee?/ Thou art my only trust,/ And still my soul would cleave to thee,/ Though prostrate in the dust.

Hast thou not bid me seek thy face?/ And shall I seek in vain?/ And can the ear of sov’reign grace/ Be deaf when I complain?

No, still the ear of sov’reign grace/ Attends the mourner’s pray’r;/ O may I ever find access,/ To breathe my sorrows there.

Anne Steele would still feel physical pain and have a troubled spirit for the rest of her life. Yet, for her, those afflictions would not have the final word; God would. While her hymns have plenty of archaisms, Anne’s life probably looks more like many of ours than we might have expected from a largely forgotten eighteenth-century homebound hymn writer. As many today search for the true, the good, and the beautiful, the hymns from Anne Steele remind us that those things are obtainable, even for chronic sufferers.

[1] Anne Steel’s hymns and poems in this article are taken from The Works of Mrs. Anne Steele: Complete in Two Volumes (Boston: Munroe, Francis, and Parker, 1808).

[2] See Joseph V. Carmichael, “The Best Hymn Writer You’ve Never Head Of,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/best-hymn-writer-never-heard/ (accessed May 26, 2024).

[3] Unless otherwise noted, biographical information was derived from Joseph V. Carmichael, “The Hymns of Anne Steele in John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns: A Theological Analysis in the Context of the English Particular Baptist Revival” (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Ph.D Dissertation, 2012), 59-85.

[4] Sandra McCracken, Send Out Your Light: The Illuminating Power of Scripture and Song (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2021), 145.

[5] For Sandra McCracken’s rendition, see “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul,” February 24, 2015, 3:49, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZ-DrYW9eg4.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ mashe

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