Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beneath the Cross of Jesus -- Elizabeth Clephane

She must have suspected that her life was going to be short. That might be a compact conclusion you could surmise about Elizabeth Clephane if you look at some words she recorded in 1868. Perhaps others wondered about this too when the words to “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” were published in 1872, a few years after her death in 1869. One year removed from her thoughts, she was gone forever, a sobering thought for any us who would choose to write something before ‘forever’ begins. What could one say, particularly if you were known as an upbeat personality? Read on, if you want to see how Elizabeth handled this challenge.

She was called ‘Sunbeam’, despite a life that might have left her jaded. Elizabeth Clephane was a native of Scotland, who might have been known only as a sheriff’s daughter if she hadn’t also been engaged in so many charitable activities. Her chronic poor health stood in contrast to how she lived her brief life of helping the poor and disabled. Perhaps it was her own subpar physical condition that compelled her to take care of other’s needs. Medicine being what it was in the mid-19th Century may have also helped Elizabeth realize her time terrestrially might be cut short. That might also explain why she is known to have written only eight hymns, including just two that have survived in contemporary collections. She was engaged in living and acting out the Christian life, not necessarily in recording inspiring words for posterity. Yet, her own mortality’s certainty must have occupied some mental energy, as suggested in one verse of “Beneath the Cross…” that is less well-known than the other four stanzas normally appearing in hymnals today. She refers to the ‘gap’-ing and ‘awful grave’ in this verse, a hint that she, like any of us, dreaded what lay ahead. The words she uses elsewhere in the hymn are in fact not her own, showing she knew from where to draw courage for what was approaching the following year. The Bible – that’s what she leaned upon. Several phrases from her study of scripture call out from her hymn’s first verse. They were, for those who never heard her words while she was still living, almost certainly a posthumous encouragement to friends and neighbors who mourned her early departure. Our fear of the grave is normal, but let our biblical ancestors’ words engulf that emotion, she seems to say. My demise need not torment me.  

Is that why God gave us the bible? Is that why one might observe so many elderly people clutching the Holy Book? She might have been only 39 years old (38 when she wrote this hymn), but Elizabeth Clephane orchestrated something with her words that belies her age. Wisdom – where’s its origin? Elizabeth’s example answers that it comes not from aged human thoughts, adorned with wrinkled skin and white hair. No, the aged thoughts she used are much older and wiser. They confound some people with talk of a bloody Cross that saves, and Elizabeth’s words might elicit the same reaction. But, what’s your alternative, as you near the finish line?

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

See the following website for the hymn’s five original verses:

This site lists the handful of hymns credited to the composer:

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