SARAH FLOWER ADAMS
Sarah Fuller Flower Adams (1805-48), author and poet, was born on 22 February 1805 in Great Harlow, Essex. She was the younger sister of the musician and composer, Eliza Flower (1803-46). Her mother, Eliza Gould Flower (1770-1810), was raised a Particular Baptist in Bampton, Devon, and worked as a governess and schoolmistress during the early 1790s in Devon, by which time she had become an Arian. Her father, Benjamin Flower (1755-1829), was a printer at Cambridge and editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer and later a printer/journalist at Harlow. He was an advocate of liberal political principles and a martyr in 1799 for the liberty of the press, in which he was imprisoned in Newgate for six months for libelling the Bishop of Llandoff. During his imprisonment he met Eliza Gould, a former correspondent of his from the mid-1790s. They married on January 1, 1800, shortly after his release and settled in Cambridge. After her death in 1810, Benjamin Flower raised his two daughters on his own, living at that time in Harlow. Around 1819, he and his daughters removed to Dalston, in the Hackney parish, on the edge of the City of London, living near several figures who later became important literary and Unitarian figures, such as William J. Fox, Harriet Martineau, and Robert Browning.
On 17 February 1829, Benjamin Flower died and was buried in the family vault in Harlow. After his death, his daughters came largely under the care of William Johnson Fox, Unitarian minister at South Place Chapel. Between the years 1832 and 1835, Sarah Flower contributed articles to the Monthly Repository, then edited by Fox. During this time she worked with other writers such as John Stuart Mill, Robert Browning, R. H. Horne, and Leigh Hunt, signing her articles “S. Y.” On 24 September 1834 she married William Bridges Adams, an engineer. She soon turned her attention to becoming an actress and a singer, making her first public appearance in 1837 at the little Richmond Theatre as Lady Macbeth with considerable success. She acquired an engagement with the Bath Theatre, but her health would not allow her to complete her contract. She turned to literature and in 1841 published what is considered her most important work, the dramatic poem “Vivia Perpetua,” followed by The Royal Progress (1845) and The Flock at the Fountain (1845), a children’s catechism set to poetry. Her greatest legacy, however, was her hymns, especially "Nearer, My God, to Thee," one of the most popular hymns of the nineteenth century. It first appeared in 1841 in a book of hymns prepared by her sister, Eliza, a musician at Fox’s South Place (Unitarian) Chapel, although Sarah may have returned to the Baptist faith of her early youth in her later years. She died on 14 August 1848 from tuberculosis, just two years after the death of her sister.
For more on Eliza and Sarah Flower, see H. W. Stephenson, The Author of Nearer, My God, to Thee (Sarah Flower Adams). London: Lindsey, 1922; Moncure D. Conway, Centenary History of the South Place Society (London: Williams and Norgate, 1894), 86-96; Becky W. Lewis, “Sarah Fuller Flower Adams 1805-1848,” Victorian Women Poets, vol. 2, ed. William B. Thesing (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999), 180-88; Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow, and Cath Sharrock, “Sarah Flower Adams,” in Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 266; Francis E. Mineka, The Dissidence of Dissent: The Monthly Repository, 1806-1838 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 190-98; Timothy Whelan, Politics, Religion, and Romance: The Letters of Benjamin Flower and Eliza Gould Flower, 1794-1808 (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 2008); Stephen Hulcoop, Memoirs of the Family of Benjamin Flower of Harlow (Harlow: S.H. Pub., 2003).
The earliest record of Sarah Flower is in some of the letters that passed between parents, Eliza Gould Flower and Benjamin Flower, available by opening the bullets below. For a set of their early letters available now on this website, click here; for the complete correspondence of the Flowers, see Timothy Whelan, ed., Politics, Religion, and Romance: The Letters of Benjamin Flower and Eliza Gould Flower, 1794-1808 (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 2008); for the text of Eliza Gould's only known published writing, now available on this website, click here.
Adams, Sarah Flower. Vivia Perpetua: A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts. London: W. J. Fox, 1841. Print.
Published in 1841, this was Adams’ principal work. The poem is told in five acts, also making it her longest hymn. She wrote the hymn after Reverend William Johnson Fox expressed his wish to find a song to conclude his sermon on Jacob and Esau. Eliza recommended her sister write the hymn, and thus “Vivia Perpetua” was born. It is written in the style of a play and is credited as being one of the most culturally significant pieces of its time. As a religious drama, it follows the conversation of martyrdom in Vivia, who is a noble lady in the estate of Carthage and both the public and private affairs of the estate.
Adams, Sarah Flower. Nearer, My God, to Thee.
Adams’ most iconic hymn appears to have been loosely based on Jacob’s dream from Genesis 28: 11-12. The lyrics display a desire to feel more deeply connected to one’s faith, likening faith in God to the feeling of being welcomed home. This closeness is valued above all other pleasures one can experience in life and seems to be regarded as the highest form of freedom and spiritual devotion. The hymn is iconic; it is known throughout the English speaking world. Its historical influence was enhanced after accounts surfaced that the hymn may have been the final piece of music played aboard the Titanic as the ship was sinking on April 14, 1912. It is probably the best known hymn ever written by a woman composer. Originally, the hymn consisted of only five stanzas, but a sixth was added by Edward Henry Bickersteth Jr.
This page assisted by Dontonio D. Thomas, Georgia Southern University