Introduction to the Hymns of

Mary Steele Wakeford

Included among Mary Steele Wakeford’s poems are eight hymns, all composed in quatrains, with five employing common meter, the most popular hymn meter of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These hymns, like those of her sister, are expressions of her Calvinist faith, sometimes deeply personal and at other times more communal and doctrinal. Using a pattern typical of much seventeenth-century Puritan poetry, Wakeford first bemoans her unworthiness, then rises from the despair of her depravity and sin to joy and hope through the sacrifice of Christ, and not her own efforts. In “My trembling drooping spirit faints,” the redeeming work of Christ thrills her burdened soul because it offers the hope that such atonement will be applied (made efficacious, in Calvinist terms) to her. In a state of ‘dismal gloom’ suffering from the ‘pain, disease, and sorrows’ of her fallen condition, she is ‘cheer’d’ ‘By Faith’ to ‘hope’ that the ‘Love,’ “Mercy,” and “Power” of God will “cheer” her heart “in death’s tremendous hour,” uplifting her “drooping spirit” into a state in which her “prospects rise.” In “My sovereign Lord, my gracious God,” she appears as a helpless sinner in need of unconditional election, pleading that God will

Illume these Sin beclouded Eyes,

Shine on my Soul with healing ray,

Renew my heart by Grace divine,

And drive each sinful fear away.

The verbs are active, but the understood subject is God, not the poet; in the strict Calvinism she shared with her sister, the individual’s will is passive, which makes her ‘hope’ of election conditional (salvation is solely dependent on God) and perpetual (assurance of salvation is sealed forever through the work of Christ but demands continual introspection on the part of the believer):

In Jesus, Prophet, Priest, and King,

May Hope abound and faith be strong;

Then shall I triumph in my God,

And boundless Mercy be my Song.

In her hymn on Isaiah 55.6-7, Wakeford addresses a general audience of “Sinners,” “wicked Men,” and “rebel worms,” of which she does not identify; instead, she assumes the role of the public prophet, like Isaiah, warning them of their impending doom. “They” had best “turn with heart sincere / To God by faith in Christ the Lord” so that “He will unbounded mercy shew” and grant them an “Abundant Pardon.” Her private voice and personal relationship with God (“my”) surfaces only in the final two lines:

Then O my Soul forsake thy sins

And seek betimes for saving grace.

The private voice and intense dynamic of the suppliant sinner/saint addressing the saviour appear even more strongly in “If love’s constraining pow’r can warm,” an excellent example of this kind of rhetorical stance in which “I,” “me,” and “mine” are directly addressed to “Thy,” “Thee,” and “Thine,” with no other pronouns present. Of her seven hymns, only “Jesus, and didst thou condescend” has appeared in print, initially in the Bristol Collection of 1769. It was apparently added at the last minute, given the date on her manuscript of September 8, 1769, possibly as a favor to the Steele family of which both editors were intimately connected. But it seems just as reasonable to believe it was accepted on its merits, for it is her best hymn and one deserving of publication and recognition. In this hymn, Wakeford constructs a series of rhetorical questions directed at the work of Christ during his time on earth in healing and eradicating a variety of human conditions, questions that lead in the final stanza to her own private rhetorical plea (“I/me”) for divine assistance (“Thou/Thy”). If Christ came to “heal the sick, the lame, the blind,” to “pity wretched worms,” to “make the leper whole,” to “regard the beggars cry,” to help “the Blind to see,” to “pity mortal woe,” then assuredly he can “save a trembling frame / When sinking in the wave.” The full effect of her rhetorical strategy culminates in the final two lines:

I perish Lord, O save my Soul,

For thou alone canst save.

“Jesus, and didst thou condescend” appeared as hymn no. 224 in the Bristol Collection. It was signed “Am – a” and probably sent to Evans just after its composition, possibly composed for the Collection at Evans’s request. Ash and Evans included more than sixty hymns by Anne Steele in their hymnal, so adding one by Wakeford would have seemed appropriate. Samuel Duffield, in English Hymns: The Authors and History (13th ed. 1886, p. 273), cited Wakeford’s hymn, but guessed the identity of the poet as “Mrs. Amelia Wakeford.” The hymn also appears in The Voice of Praise: A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the Methodist Church (1873), no. 169. Hymnary notes that “the hymn appeared in Charles Bradley's Psalms and Hymns selected and arranged for Public Worship published in 1828 but contends that Bradley is not the author. Hymnary adds that the hymn is taken from J. Curtis's "Union Collection" of 1887 where it is signed “Am---a” and guesses, like Duffield, that the name is “Amelia.” The most thorough account, however, is by John Julian in his Dictionary of Hymnology (1892), p. 595:

This hymn appeared in the Bristol Baptist Collection of Ash & Evans, 1769, No. 224, in 5 stanzas of 4 lines, headed, “Imploring Mercy,” and signed, “Am—a.” In The Union Collection of Hymns and Sacred Odes, &c, by J. Curtis, of Bristol, 1827, No. 56, it was repeated in 4 stanzas, and signed as in Ash & Evans. In this form it has passed into several collections, including the New Congregational Hymn Book, 1859; Laudes Domini, N. Y., 1884; and as “And didst Thou, Jesus, condescend?” in the American Baptist Hymn [and Tune] Book, 1871. As to the authorship, D. Sedgwick has given in his manuscript, “Amelia Curtis, 1827,” and on a fly-leaf of a copy of the 1827 edition of Ash and Evans, “Amelia Wakeford.” The New Congregational Hymn Book gives “Bradley,” and Laudes Domini “Mrs. Amelia Wakeford.” Possibly this last may be right, but we have no positive evidence either way (Sedgwick's contradiction of himself renders his evidence valueless), and must leave it as in Ash & Evans, “Am—a.”

Thus, more than a century later and a decade after Mary Steele Wakeford was identified as the author of the distinguished hymn, the hymn remains unidentified.