Hymns & Songs

Singing in suffering

Jun 2016    

“Why should this happen to me, of all people, why me Lord, why?” This is a very natural response for someone who has met with a terrible tragedy and is experiencing a time of great sorrow.

This was the reaction of Elizabeth P. Prentiss when she and her husband, the Rev George L. Prentiss, lost their children one after another in a short span of time. For weeks Elizabeth was inconsolable. In her diary, she wrote that she had “empty hands, a worn-out, exhausted body, and unutterable longings to flee from a world that has so many sharp experiences.”1

Elizabeth was the youngest daughter of a devout clergyman Dr Edward Payson, and lived almost as an invalid who was tormented with constant pain throughout her life. But despite her physical misery, Elizabeth was known among her friends as “a very bright-eyed woman with a keen sense of humour.”2

After 11 years of their marriage, in 1856, tragedy struck and took away the precious ones from the family circle. Elizabeth confided in her husband, “What are we to do now? Just sit silently, passively by while our home is broken up, our lives wrecked, our hopes shattered, our dreams dissolved?”

Her husband replied, “It is in times like these that God loves us all the more, just as we love our own children more when they are sick or troubled or in distress.”Holding his wife in his arms, the Presbyterian pastor added, “The more we love God as we know Him in Jesus, the more His healing miracle takes place in our hearts. The less we love Him, the less chance there is that we will be able to stand the agony and pain of our loss.”3

So instead of wallowing in her sorrows, Elizabeth began to meditate on the life of Jacob and how God met him in a very special way during his moments of sorrow and deepest needs. After meditating on the Genesis narrative together with Sarah Adams’ hymn, ‘ Nearer, My God, to Thee’ , Elizabeth wrote all four stanzas of the hymn ‘ More Love to Thee, O Christ’ on that same evening. Elizabeth did not think highly of her work and did not show it to anyone, not even her husband, until 13 years later. The hymn was first printed in leaflet form in 1869, and in a hymnal the following year, 1870.

The words of this hymn provide us with a sense of intimacy with Christ by the 13 repetitions of the phrase: “More love to Thee.” Stanza 3 clearly depicts the painful experience from which this hymn was birthed.


Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Mich: Kregel Publications, 1990), 56

2 Ibid., 56.

Ernest K. Emurian, Living Stories of Famous Hymns (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1955), 87.

More Love to Thee, O Christ (The United Methodist Hymnal, #453)

More love to Thee, O Lord,
More love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make
On bended knee;
This is my earnest plea:
More love, O Lord, to Thee,
More love to Thee,
More love to Thee!

Once earthly joy I craved,
Sought peace and rest;
Now Thee alone I seek,
Give what is best;
This all my prayer shall be:
More love, O Lord, to Thee,
More love to Thee,
More love to Thee!

Let sorrow do its work,
Send grief and pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers,
Sweet their refrain,
When they can sing with me,
More love, O Lord, to Thee,
More love to Thee,
More love to Thee!

Then shall my latest breath
Whisper Thy praise;
This be the parting cry
My heart shall raise;
This still its prayer shall be:
More love, O Lord, to Thee,
More love to Thee,
More love to Thee!

Words: Elizabeth P. Prentiss, 1869
Music: William H. Doane, 1870

Picture by Nikki Zalewski/Bigstock.com

Dr Yeo Teck Beng –is Principal of the Methodist School of Music, and a member of Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.


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