Saturday, April 30, 2016
Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus -- Louisa M.R. Stead
It may be the only song she ever wrote, and perhaps the circumstances of its conception made her feel that it was her last. Louisa Stead said “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” in 1880 as the result of a broken heart, but also from a faith that allowed her to survive a personal tragedy. What started as a family’s relaxing, recreational day at a Long Island beach (perhaps not too far from Montauk Point on Long Island, shown here) turned into perhaps the worst day of Stead’s life. She could not have known that the dark cloud that hovered over her at that place would somehow also have a silver lining, that out of her loss would spring something that the Providential Creator could use for good. Could it be that the bitter nature of the events at the beach pushed Louisa toward something sweet, something to salve the hurt she felt? What was it she found that evidently allowed her to go on in life?
As a 30-year-old wife and young mother, Louisa Stead’s life was at a pivotal point in 1880, in more ways than one. She’d emigrated to America from England at age 21, and had a strong urge to pursue mission work in China, which she had to postpone for health reasons. Instead, nine years later she had married and had a four-year-old daughter, a family life she was apparently enjoying as they picnicked at a beach on Long Island one day. The happiness ended abruptly when her husband reportedly drowned trying to save a small boy that day. Some accounts further suggest Louisa’s and her daughter Lily’s resulting poverty, and God’s answer to take care of their needs, helped spawn the poem she wrote in the wake of this trial. This episode would also initiate a series of events with other people in Louisa’s life that likely otherwise would not have occurred. Louisa took her youngster and set out for mission work in southern Africa following their loss, a tangible sign that Louisa did in fact still feel the pull of God’s purposes on her life, despite the calamitous event that had just taken place. She remarried Robert Wodehouse while in South Africa, and the two of them would return to America 15 years later due to her recurring health challenges, though they both would travel back to Rhodesia in Africa to resume mission work there several years later. During the interim in America, where Louisa received treatment and recovered, Wodehouse ministered at a local church. And, many years later, her daughter Lily would continue the missionary work in the same region in Africa, following Louisa’s retirement once again because of health. So, even though Louisa’s life had a moment of great misfortune, what happened in its aftermath directly altered the paths of at least two other people—Lily and her stepfather Robert—and many others indirectly on two continents. And, we still have the hymn that Louisa wrote over 136 years later, a blessing that another missionary in the Rhodesia region reported natives still sang in their own language in 1917.
Had Louisa forgotten the events on Long Island some 30 years later, in a faraway place? Someone might say she was trying to escape and forget, to forever put behind her, seeing her husband drown in the Atlantic Ocean. But, apparently a song just cannot be easily dismissed. Nor can its meaning, especially if it’s the only one I ever write – as is apparently true with Louisa Stead. Louisa must have shared with her African friends why she composed those words about sweetly trusting Jesus. They weren’t just syllables spilling from her lips, but a vow from deep within. Terrible things might happen in anyone’s life, but that doesn’t silence God. He still communicates, viscerally (inside my being) and relationally (with others). I just have to let Him be heard.
See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.