Steele, Anne


b Broughton, Hants 1717, d Broughton 1778. Growing up in a Particular (Calvinist) Baptist family with ministers on both her father’s and her mother’s side, she became a member of the Broughton church on her baptism, aged 14, in July 1732. Her father Henry was a Baptist pastor, as was her maternal grandfather, but her mother died when Anne was 3 and her brother was 6. Henry Steele remarried in 1723, and the children were brought up largely by their stepmother, another Anne, who soon began to show a concern for her health. Anne the hymnwriter-to-be was clearly consumptive, and permanently disabled by a fall from a horse when she was 18. Although the story of her engagement to James Elcombe (or Elscourt) and his tragic drowning on their wedding-eve is confidently told in many biographical sketches, this has recently been shown to be largely mythical: see J R Watson and Nancy Cho in HSB 241 (Oct 2004). This has farreaching implications, rescuing Anne Steele from being a prototype of ‘sad and saintly’ invalid single women, to that of a ‘gregarious, socially popular’ member of ‘an ambitious circle of literary women writing in the South of England’ (quotations from Watson and Cho). In 1742 she was courted by Benjamin Beddome, qv, but chose not to marry, actually writing some witty verse and (among some of her more humorous correspondence) at least one letter in praise of singleness. Among her many friends were Hannah More and others who could be seen as precursors of Christian feminism. When her father died in 1769, Anne joined her married brother at Broughton House; she was by now increasingly bedridden and cared for by a niece. Her hymns were all written before 1760, when her Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional was published, issued in two volumes over the name ‘Theodosia’, the 2nd book comprising Scripture paraphrases including Psalms, and verse on wider themes. Here she, with Doddridge, used the phrase ‘amazing grace’ some time before Newton, who like Cowper, Medley and other younger men paid her the compliment (?) of making other borrowings. 75 1st lines are listed in Julian.

Some hymns are substantial, 10 or more stzs being not uncommon and 100 lines not unknown, and one characteristic phrase anticipates a common theme of Erik Routley’s (qv): ‘With humble fear let love unite/ and mix devotion with delight’. Her writing is both disciplined and warmly gospelfocused, sometimes called ‘plaintive’ but often reminiscent of (and at its best, not unworthy to be compared with) that of Isaac Watts; e.g. his 486, 969 or 975. But her ‘When I survey…’ (some of whose later stzs appear in several books) continues with ‘…life’s varied scene’. She constantly dismisses this world’s amusements, baits, charms, trifles, glittering toys and deceitful vanities in favour of the better world and lasting joys to come. But her love of this earth’s countryside, stylised though it is, shows through her verse. As she draws on a wide range of Scriptures, it would be illuminating to see her texts arranged in Bible order, as (e.g.) in Doddridge or Newton; this includes her treatment of Hab 3:17–18, Should famine o’er the mourning field, parallel to Cowper’s Sometimes a light surprises. And did the Holy and the Just breathes the same spirit of wonder as Wesley’s 751 and 776. In meditating as a believer on life’s brevity and death’s inevitability, she anticipates by 2 centuries much of the thought of Christina Rossetti; in patriotically mourning the state of the nation, she provides a model for later and mostly lesser writers: ‘What numerous crimes increasing rise/ o’er all this wretched isle!/ What land so favour’d of the skies/ and yet what land so vile!’. Thus her hymns ‘On the [National] Fast’ in 1757 also plead, ‘and make our haughty neighbours own/ that heaven protects the British Throne’. Her appeal today, however, is hampered not so much by these sentiments (which can always be bypassed) as by her comparatively limited metres, formal vocabulary and smoothly classical style. In 1769, 62 of her texts featured in A Collection of Hymns Adapted to Public Worship compiled by John Ash and Caleb Evans. Her hymns were republished by Evans in 1780; Rippon’s 1787 Selection included 54 of these; Spurgeon included 19 in Our Own Hymn Book (1866), while Stevens’ Selection (posthumous edn, 1896) has 17. Eighty years later 9 are found in CH, 8 in GH. By far the best-known of these, one of her ‘Bible hymns’ as chosen here, is found in some 20 current books, mainly of the evangelical tradition. It appeared in 4 main edns of A&M before being dropped in 2000. A memoir by John Sheppard, with Anne’s ‘Hymns, Psalms and Poems’ was published in 1863 and went into further edns, and a similar but shorter volume with a brief historical background (Hymns by Anne Steele) appeared in 1967; while providing much valuable information, these both represent the traditional but limited and stereotyped view. The earlier book contained 146 hymns, 34 Psalm versions (some very full) and 48 poems which are also suggestive of Wm Cowper (qv) in both style and rural subjects. According to Julian, where W R Stevenson compares and contrasts her with Frances Havergal, ‘Among Baptist hymn writers Miss Steele stands at the head’. See also under B Beddome. No.545.

Hymns and songs by Steele, Anne

Number Hymn Name
545 Father of mercies, in your Word