Joni Eareckson Tada, herself no stranger to chronic pain, writes of Anne Steele, “Hers was a ministry of suffering.”5. She goes on to say, “Do you serve God in your suffering? We serve him when we imitate Jesus’s endurance in our suffering. Or his patience in the face of disappointment or his perseverance while shouldering our cross. . . . And when we choose contentment over complaining, we imitate his glad willingness to submit to the Father’s terrible yet wonderful will. All of it comprises a fragrant, sacrificial service to God.”6
When John Rippon published his influential hymnal A Selection of Hymns in 1787, 101 of the texts were by the short-lived but prolific Philip Doddridge (1702–1751). The second-most-represented author, with 47 texts in the hymnal, was Baptist poet Anne Steele. For many years, Steele’s poems figured prominently in evangelical hymnals, but by the early 20th century, her works nearly disappeared. By 1950, hymnologist Albert Bailey could write that “all but one of her 144 hymns are now forgotten.”1
However, Steele wrote hymns worth remembering and learning, hymns born out of a life of disappointment, grief, and suffering. When she was three years old, her mother died. A hip injury at age nineteen led to chronic physical pain for Anne. She also dealt with symptoms of malaria throughout her life. Many accounts of her life state that she was engaged to one Robert Elscourt, who drowned the day before or the day of their wedding. This may be a romanticized addition to her life, though she did remain unmarried her whole life.2 Her father remarried, but his second wife died when Anne was forty-three. A sister-in-law died two years later. Anne’s father developed poor health late in his life, and Anne cared for him until he died in 1769.
Despite the suffering and difficulty, Anne’s faith and hope were in God. Her father, a well-to-do merchant, also served as a deacon and eventually pastor of a Baptist church in Broughton, England. Anne joined the church at age 14 and from an early age exhibited a faith that expressed itself through poetry. She began to write primarily for her own devotional use, but her father saw the value of his daughter’s poetry and introduced these hymns to his church. Anne was initially reluctant to show her work to a wider audience, but through the encouragement of her father and step-mother, as well as a small group of pastors who championed her work,3 she submitted poetry for publication when she was in her early forties. The resulting book, Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional and published under the pen name Theodosia, introduced people to a significant new voice in hymnody. Baptist hymnologists Harry Eskew and Hugh McElrath state, “Miss Steele was the foremost of a group of Baptist hymnists . . . who, because their hymns possess a quality unsurpassed before or since, constitue a ‘Golden Age of Baptist Hymnody.’”4