Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Boreham on 'Just As I Am!'

I have a couple of very attractive young ladies on my hands; let me introduce them!

But, first, I must revisit the dreamy old churchyard at Grasmere, in Westmorland, the churchyard in which I spent a very memorable hour or two some years ago. Among the yews and sycamores of that quiet God's acre, the Wordsworths all slumber side by side. It struck me as very beautiful, that little group of graves. A photograph of the six tombstones lies upon my desk at this moment, helping me to recapture the atmosphere in which the lovely place enfolded me.

Within a few feet of that long row of graves the crystal waters of the Rothay pursue their peaceful way. A low but massive stone wall divides the churchyard from the stream. In the delicious hush of that June morning, with no sound in my ears but the soothing murmur of the Rothay and the blithe notes of the birds, I sat for half an hour on that low wall, sometimes gazing afresh upon that magnetic group of graves; sometimes contemplating the square, romantic tower of old St. Oswald's Church close by—the church in which Wordsworth loved to worship—and sometimes letting my eye wander to Allan Bank (one of the poet's homes) on the hillside in the distance, to the straggling little village around me, and to the parsonage (another of Wordsworth's homes) just across the way.

The central stone bears the names of Wordsworth and his wife. Next on the right is the resting-place of Dora, the poet's `one and matchless daughter'. She was, from the day of her birth, her father's darling; and when the health of poor Dorothy, his sister, who, through the years, had `lent him eyes and lent him ears', suddenly went to pieces, Dora took her aunt's place at her father's side and became his constant companion.

Dora died three years before her father. And when, in 1850, Wordsworth's own last moment came, a sudden light illumined his rugged countenance. `Is that you, Dora?' he asked, as if recognizing some dear, familiar face in the world unseen; and, not long after, he was gone.

I am attracted to Dora Wordsworth's grave today by something on the epitaph that deeply impressed me when my eye first fell upon it, and that has grown upon me with the years. It always seems to me the most conspicuous object in this photograph that lies before me. For at least a third of Dora's tombstone is occupied with a carving of a lamb—a lamb with a cross behind it. Why is that lamb the most prominent feature in that churchyard scene? It is to answer that question that I reach for my pen to-day.


And, to answer that question, I must forsake the company of Dora Wordsworth, and must seek the society of my second young lady, a contemporary of Dora's, who lived at the opposite end of the country. Like Dora Wordsworth, Charlotte Elliott was very frail; but there was this difference between them; Dora Wordsworth died in 1847 at the age of forty-three, whilst Charlotte Elliott lived to be an old lady of eighty-two. Before she died in 1871, therefore, Charlotte Elliott must have heard the story of Dora Wordsworth's tombstone at Grasmere: she may even have visited it: I do not know. If she did, the carving of the lamb must have filled her soul with an emotion far deeper than that with which ordinary onlookers behold it.

Charlotte Elliott provides us with an interesting psychological study. To begin with, she was the granddaughter of Henry Venn of Huddersfield, the bosom friend of the seraphic Charles Simeon, whose gracious influence on the life of his period was so widespread and indelible. Her brother, with whose ministry at Brighton she herself was so intimately associated, was named Henry Venn Elliott after him. Then, too, Charlotte was born and brought up at Clapham, in London, the stronghold of Evangelical Anglicanism, aggressive Nonconformity, and devout Quakerism. Everybody knows the story of the Clapham set. Thackeray is inclined to poke fun at its puritanical strictness; but, in his Life of Macaulay—and Macaulay was a contemporary of Charlotte's at Clapham—Sir George Otto Trevelyan retorts that there can have been nothing wrong with a system that produced the Wilberforces, the Stephens, the Grants, and the Macaulays. At Grove House, the home of the Elliotts, religion dominated everything. The spirit of the great revival that gave birth to the Clapham movement swept through the house like a bracing wind from the upland moors and all the details of life and conduct were governed by a robust and simple faith.

The attitude of Charlotte herself to this welter of sanctity was an attitude neither of active sympathy nor of decided antipathy, but of languid apathy. She admired the piety and devotion of those about her, but she did not share it. She attended the church; took part in family worship; enjoyed all sacred music; and recognized the beauty of character exhibited by her relatives and friends. But, so far as she herself was concerned, she felt herself to be an outsider. Her unworthiness oppressed her. She regarded herself as distinctly of the world. The only virtue with which she could credit herself was a certain indefinable and unutterable wistfulness. Above everything else she longed to possess the calm, unquestioning faith, the radiant and confident assurance, that she saw in her relatives.

The crisis broke upon her in May, 1822. Charlotte was thirty-three. An illustrious and honoured guest came to Grove House in the person of Dr. Caesar Malan of Geneva. Dr. Malan was strangely attracted by the shy and pensive girl who always seemed to be hovering on the fringe of things. In a way she was part and parcel of the spirit of the home; and yet, when those things were discussed that meant everything to him and to his host and hostess, she shrank into herself and dissociated herself from the conversation. Like Cowper's wounded deer, she left the herd. Dr. Malan determined to speak to her. In those days, and especially in Anglican circles, religious conversation of an intimate and personal kind was looked upon as almost improper—an outrage on delicacy. Perhaps Dr. Malan chose an unfortunate moment for his approach; perhaps he introduced the theme a trifle too brusquely; at any rate, the overture was scarcely a success. Drawing Charlotte aside, he begged her to take him into her confidence. Was she a Christian? The question, thus bluntly put, offended her. She bridled, blushed and hurried from his presence, asking him, in future, to be good enough to mind his own business. Dr. Malan stammered his regret at having wounded her, promised to pray for her happiness, and let the matter pass.

The memory of the incident troubled him, however, and, though he little suspected it, it troubled Charlotte even more. She realized that the good man had been actuated only by an intense desire for her well-being. Putting herself in his place, she recognized that, in speaking to her, he had set himself a particularly difficult task; and she felt that she had repaid kindness with cruelty. A week or two later, when they chanced to find themselves alone together in the garden, she told him that she was sorry that she had been so rude.

`I have been thinking a great deal of what you said,' she added. `I feel that I should very much like to come to Christ; but I don't know how!'

`My dear young lady,' Dr. Malan replied, laying his hands on her shoulders and looking earnestly into her eyes, `you need worry no more about that! Come to Him just as you are!'

And in those four words just as you are—Charlotte Elliott saw daylight through her poignant problem. And those four words, which haunted her ever afterwards, proved the germ of the hymn that she was to give to the world twelve years later.
`Come to Him just as you are!' said Dr. Malan.
`Just as 1 am!' replied Charlotte in surprise.

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come!

That never-to-be-forgotten talk with Dr. Caesar Malan represented both the birth of her soul and the birth of her song.


A year or two after this irradiating experience at Clapham, Charlotte went to live with her brother, the Rev. Henry Venn Elliott, at Brighton. In addition to his strictly ministerial work, her brother was devoting himself to an attempt to establish at Brighton a high-class school at which the daughters of clergymen might obtain at nominal cost an excellent education under attractive and congenial conditions. His venture met with such success that, to this day, the school is, I understand, regarded as one of the best of its kind.

But its inauguration meant ceaseless activity, not only on the part of Mr. Elliott himself, but on the part of every member of his household. From early morning until late at night, they all worked assiduously to put St. Mary's Hall on its feet. But this whirlwind of consecrated energy again drove poor Charlotte back into herself. She had not the physical vitality to participate in it. She could not keep the pace. Whilst everybody around her was hard at work, she could only lie still and look enviously on. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. Her compulsory idleness affected first her spirits, then her nerve, and, finally, her faith. Why was she alone excluded from this flutter of happy industry? Was it because she was so unworthy? Could God find no place for her in His great scheme of things? Had He rejected and discarded her? Was she a castaway?

The torture of this suspicion reached its climax on a certain evening in 1834. Charlotte was then forty-five. She was left alone in the pleasant boudoir set apart for her enjoyment in the lovely home at Westfield Lodge. Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, together with all the other members of the household, had gone to an important function in connection with the founding of the new school. The thoughts that had been such an agony to her during recent weeks swept back with redoubled force to attack her in her loneliness. She felt that these depressing suggestions must be met—and conquered! But how? She resolved to probe to the very root of the matter. It was not merely a question of participation or non-participation in the life of her brother's church or in the duties of his home. It went much deeper. It was a matter of the salvation of her very soul. The horror that had enfolded her from time to time was the horror of spiritual dereliction—the thought that God had spurned her. Was that true? Her mind swung back to that afternoon in the garden at Clapham.

`I feel that I should very much like to come to Christ; but I don't know how!' she had said to Dr. Caesar Malan.

'My dear young lady,' the good man had replied, `you need worry no more about that! Come to Him just as you are!'

`Just as I am!' she had repeated to herself. `Just as I am!' And those four words had seemed to open to her the gates of Paradise.

This memory of the Clapham garden in 1822 rushed back upon her troubled mind as she reclined in her lonely boudoir at Brighton in 1834. She would return to that starting-point of twelve years earlier. A wave of emotion engulfed her. An urge to express her thought in tuneful verse suddenly seized her. Reaching for her pen, she set down in black and white what she called `the formulae of her faith'. Her agonized soul took a fresh grip on the eternal certainties; and, out of the peace that overflowed her entire being, she wrote:

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down,
Now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am, of that free love,
The breath, length, depth and height to prove,
Here, for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Thus, twelve years after they were uttered, she had set Dr. Malan's emancipating words to music—Just as I am! Just as I am! When Mrs. Elliott and a few friends returned to the home a little later, Charlotte handed them the hymn. They felt instinctively that it was a genuine inspiration and begged for copies of it. A few months afterwards it was printed, anonymously, as a leaflet; and a friend, coming into possession of a copy, thought of Charlotte and posted it on to her! `I am sure that this will please you,' she wrote, never dreaming that she was sending the song back to its source.

So Charlotte Elliott's Just as I am sprang into being. No hymn has survived the crucial test of translation as successfully as this one. It is sung today in practically every known language. Mr. Moody used to say that, at his immense evangelistic meetings, it moved the hearts of his huge audience as no other hymn could do. And Charlotte's brother, at the end of his life, said to those who watched beside his bed that, whilst he rejoiced in the success that had attended his own ministry, he felt that infinitely more good had been done, the wide world over, by the deathless verses that his sister had penned.


And this brings us back to that little group of graves in Grasmere Churchyard.

When Charlotte Elliott's hymn was first sent out into the world as an anonymous leaflet, somebody, as we have seen, sent a copy to Charlotte herself. And somebody else, knowing that Dora Wordsworth, the poet's daughter, was seriously ill, sent a copy to her. At first Dora felt too far gone to take the slightest interest in it. Later, however, somebody read it aloud, very slowly and very softly, beside her bed:

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come!

The effect was startling. `Why,' the dying woman exclaimed, `that is the very thing for me!' And she begged that it might be read again and again and yet again. Sometimes she would ask for it as often as ten times a day. Occasionally, I like to think, her father, the laureate, read it to her.

`Now my hymn!' she would entreat, with a sad, tired smile; and, as the words were read, she would frame the syllables with her lips in a kind of ecstasy. All her thoughts were of the Lamb; all her faith was in the Lamb; all her hope rested on the Lamb! O Lamb of God, I come!

And so, when they laid her in that grassy spot in the beautiful lake country—the spot to which her father came three years later to lie down beside her—they carved the figure of the Lamb and the Cross boldly upon her tombstone, and, underneath, a text!

Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out! That is the text on Dora Wordsworth's tomb.

Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out! That is the text that Charlotte Elliott inscribed at the head of her original draft of the hymn.

And now that I have introduced my two young ladies, and now that they have blended their voices in so sublime a symphony, I may very well lay down my pen.

F W Boreham, ‘Just As I Am!’ A Late Lark Singing (London: The Epworth Press, 1945), 161-169.

Words of Just as I am and Tunes

Image: Charlotte Elliott