Women in SBC Hymnody

by Leah Boyd May 5, 2021

Whether they know it or not, Southern Baptists grow up hearing the voices of women in corporate worship on Sunday Mornings. These women speak not from the pulpit, but through their penned words of lyrical poetry in hymnals, and the songs they wrote have uttered truth and faith to the gathered communities of Baptist believers for hundreds of years. Jesus Paid It All; Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus; To God Be the Glory; Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine; Nearer, My God to Thee; Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus; I Need Thee Every Hour; the text to hymns such as these are forever echoed in the hearts and on the tongues of millions of Southern Baptists of all ages. We sing them to confess our love for Jesus, to be comforted in times of strife, to convey the joy and praise in our hearts, and, ultimately, because they help us to express our faith deeply and meaningfully. The extensive influence of women hymn writers on the spiritual identity of Southern Baptists is exemplified in the most famous Southern Baptist of all, Billy Graham; Charlotte Elliot’s hymn “Just as I Am” became the representative anthem of his life and crusades after it was sung by the congregation while he walked to the alter and converted to Christianity.

The first “officially” adopted hymnal of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was A Baptist Psalmody, published in 1850.[1] Of its 226 contributing poets, 29 were women. When The Sunday School Board of the SBC (known today as LifeWay) was established in 1891 as the convention’s publishing arm, they soon published a new hymnal – The Baptist Hymn and Praise Book (1904). Over 100 women were represented among its hymnodists. Since 1904, LifeWay has published five books of hymns and songs for use within the SBC and its affiliated churches: The Broadman Hymnal (1940), and four beloved iterations of The Baptist Hymnal (1956, 1975, 1991, and 2008). There are hymns and gospel songs written by hundreds of Christian women to be found between their pages, and a fourth of the hymns republished in four or all five of these hymnals were written by a woman.[2]

The hymnodist with the greatest number of songs included in all five of the Southern Baptist hymnals published after 1904 is a woman: Fanny Crosby (1820-1915).[3] As the “Queen of Gospel Song Writers,” Fanny Crosby is well-known by Southern Baptists as a prolific hymnodist and as the composer of many Baptist favorites (To God Be the Glory; Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine; All the Way, My Savior Leads Me; Tell Me the Story of Jesus; Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross; Praise Him! Praise Him!; Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, among others). Though she lost her sight at six weeks old, her lifelong mission work and output of over 8,000 hymns are a powerful witness to her commitment towards living a faithful Christian life unhindered by any circumstance. The lives of many other Christian women who contributed to the repertoire of beloved songs in Baptist Hymnody are not as well-known as Crosby’s, but one will find that they are just as rich and full of Christian faith as the hymns they penned.

Some women hymn writers, like Adelaide A. Pollard (“Have Thine Own Way, Lord”), were Christian missionaries to foreign countries and continents. Hymnodist Anna Letitia Waring (“In Heavenly Love Abiding”) dedicated her life to serving in prison ministry. Many women hymnodists, like Annie S. Hawks (“I Need Thee Every Hour”) were wives to Christian pastors and ministers; the enthusiastic encouragement and support from church leaders provided opportunities for women to incorporate their hymns into worship services and publish their work in hymnals. Not every woman hymnodist had a pleasant life, however; Fanny Crosby was only one of many who wrote and published hymns despite facing difficult physical disabilities. When Baptist vocalist Helen H. Lemmel was diagnosed with an illness that caused her to lose her sight, her husband abandoned her, leaving her financially destitute. Nevertheless, there among the other 500 hymns she composed stands her moving admonishment to “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” Civilla D. Martin (“God Will Take Care of You,” “His Eye is On the Sparrow”) actively traveled and served in missions with her husband, a Baptist evangelist, until her poor health confined her to her home. Jennie Evelyn Hussey (“Lead Me To Calvary”) suffered from severe deformative arthritis, and Sarah Flower Adams (“Nearer, My God to Thee”) departed her successful career as an actress rather involuntarily because of frail health. Anne Steele, described as “by far the most gifted Baptist hymn writer” of her day, was rendered physically disabled as a teenager after a fall from a horse. In gaining more familiarity with the personal lives of the women who have written so many of the songs we sing in our worship, their lyrics take on an even deeper meaning to our communities; we may understand with greater awareness how they powerfully and beautifully articulate the realities of professing and practicing Christian faith within the turbulent array of life’s circumstances.[4]

This large number and influence of women hymn writers historically present within Southern Baptist hymnody creates a glaring doctrinal problem for some inerrantists, as scripture teaches us that song lyrics are a method of teaching:

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Col. 3: 16)

Indeed, this is not a new debate for Baptists. Baptist minister Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) was the first minister to make congregational hymn singing a regular worship practice in English churches.[5] Isaac Marlow, a layman in his congregation, published a pamphlet in 1690 titled A Brief Discourse Concerning Singing, in which he condemned congregational singing as unbiblical in part because it would allow women to sing:

“I therefore greatly marvel that any Man should assert and admit of such a Practice as Women’s Singing; and that any Woman should presume to sing vocally in the Church of Christ, when he positively and plainly forbids them in his Word: for Singing is Teaching, Coloss. 3. 16. and Speaking, Ephes 5.19, both of which are plainly forbidden to Women in the Church.”[6]

Keach, an attendee of the 1689 General Assembly and subscriber to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, firmly disagreed with him on its grounds that singing in worship is “a holy Ordinance of Christ.”[7]

In the book “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism,” staunch complementarians John Piper and Wayne Grudem attempt to reconcile the issue of women teaching men through song, maintaining, “…men and women should “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16)… It is arbitrary to think that Paul had every form of teaching in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12. Teaching and learning are such broad terms that it is impossible that women not teach men and men not learn from women in some sense.”[8] In directly addressing the question “Why is it acceptable to sing hymns written by women?” they write,

“When Paul says, “…be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” (Ephesians 5:18-19), we imagine women in the congregation reciting or singing for the church what God had given them (perhaps, in some cases, as a kind of “prophecy” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11:5). Moreover, we rejoice in the inevitable fact that the men as well as the women will learn and be built up and encouraged by this poetic ministry. Nor would we say that what a woman writes in books and articles cannot be spoken audibly. The issue for us is whether she should function as part of the primary teaching leadership (=eldership) in a fellowship of women and men.”[9]

Though some strongly disagree with the exegetical strategies employed by Piper and Grudem in this book, I still find their words on this topic to be highly encouraging for complementarian women inside the SBC who earnestly seek more ways to serve the church while also remaining faithful to inerrant scripture.

Over two decades have passed since the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) affirmed the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and its controversial Article VI (“While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture”). However, dialogue and uncertainty around the role of SBC women as ministers, leaders, and teachers – outside of the pulpit, but inside the denomination – continues with much ferocity. When I look down at my hymnal and see the name of a woman as the author of the hymn being sung, it is a comforting reminder to me that women are welcomed to use their artistic, poetic, and musical giftings in service to the Lord within Southern Baptist churches. Indeed, as a young woman in the SBC, I look to the songs of women in Scripture (Miriam (Exodus 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 4), Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and Mary’s “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55)) and to the many faithful Christian women after them who have written a “new song to the Lord” (Psalm 96:1) to see how women’s voices are empowered by the Holy Spirit to edify the body of Christian believers.

[1] See David W. Music and Paul A. Richardson, “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”: a History of Baptist Hymnody in North America (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2011).

[2] See Fields, Warren. “Hymns and Gospel Songs in the Core Repertory of Southern Baptist Congregations As Reflected in Five Hymnals Published from 1940 to 2008.” Colloquium on Baptist Church Music, September 24, 2009.

[3] Warren Fields, “Colloquium on Baptist Church Music,” Colloquium on Baptist Church Music (September 24, 2009).

[4] For more stories about women hymnodists see Jane Stuart Smith and Betty Carlson, Favorite Women Hymn Writers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), and Robert Morgan, Then Sings My Soul (Book 1 and 2). Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2011.

[5] Music and Richardson, “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”: a History of Baptist Hymnody in North America (2011).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wayne Grudem and John Piper, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood – Reponse to Evangelical Feminism (Inter-varsity Press, 1992), 64.

[9] Ibid., 77.

Hymns by women that appear in four or all five Baptist Hymnals since 1904:

Jesus Paid It All (Elvina M. Hall)
Tell Me the Story of Jesus (Fanny J. Crosby)
To God Be the Glory (Fanny J. Crosby)
Blessed Assurance (Fanny J. Crosby)
Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross (Fanny J. Crosby)
Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior (Fanny J. Crosby)
I Am Thine, O Lord (Fanny J. Crosby)
Praise Him! Praise Him! (Fanny J. Crosby)
Jesus Is Tenderly Calling (Fanny J. Crosby)
Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It! (Fanny J. Crosby)
Rescue the Perishing (Fanny J. Crosby)
He Hideth My Soul (Fanny J. Crosby)
Close to Thee (Fanny J. Crosby)
Jesus Loves Me (Anna B. Warner)
When We All Get to Heaven (Eliza E. Hewitt)
Blessed Redeemer (Avis B. Christiansen)
Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us (Dorothy A. Thrupp)
The Way of The Cross Leads Home (Jessie B. Pounds)
A Child of The King (Harriet E. Buell)
We’ve A Story to Tell to The Nations (H. Ernest Nichol)
We Praise You, O God, Our Redeemer (Julia C. Cory)
Tis So Sweet to Trust In Jesus (Louisa M. R. Stead)
Trust, Try And Prove Me (Lida S. Leech)
More About Jesus (Eliza E. Hewitt)
Sunshine In My Soul (Eliza E. Hewitt)
Wonderful, Wonderful Jesus (Anna B. Russell)
I Need Thee Every Hour (Annie S. Hawks)
I Know My Redeemer Liveth (Jessie B. Pounds)
Nearer, My God To Thee (Sarah Flower Adams)
More Love To Thee, O Christ (Elizabeth Prentiss)
Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne (Elizabeth S. Elliot)
Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated (Frances Ridley Havergal)
Beneath the Cross of Jesus (Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane)
Have Thine Own Way, Lord (Adelaide A. Pollard)
Just as I Am (Charlotte Elliott)
Let Jesus Come into Your Heart (Lelia N. Morris)
America The Beautiful (Katharine Lee Bates)
The Master Hath Come (Sarah Doudney)
Open My Eyes, That I May See (Clara H. Scott)
Like A River Glorious (Frances R. Havergal)
Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory (Julia Ward Howe)
Face To Face With Christ, My Savior (Carrie Ellis Breck)
A Child Of The King (Hattie E. Buell)
Here At Thy Table, Lord, This Sacred Hour (May P. Hoyt)
I Love To Tell The Story (Kate Hankey) – Missionary
Take The Name Of Jesus With You (Lydia Baxter)
We Have Heard The Joyful Sound (Priscilla J. Owens)
O Zion, Haste (Mary A. Thomson)
Break Thou The Bread Of Life (Mary A. Lathbury)
I Gave My Life for Thee (Frances R. Havergal)
We’ll Work till Jesus Comes (Elizabeth Mills)
Trust, Try and Prove Me (Lida Shivers Leech)
Footsteps of Jesus (Mary B. C. Slade)
Purer in Heart, O God (Fannie E. Davison)
Onward, Christian Soldiers (Sabine Baring-Gould)
God Will Take Care of You (Civilla D. Martin)
His Eye is on the Sparrow (Civilla D. Martin)
What If It Were Today (C. H. Morris)

Selected beloved hymns written by women that appear in various editions of The Baptist Hymnal:

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus (Helen H. Lemmel)
All the Way My Savior Leads Me (Fanny J. Crosby)
My Savior First of All (Fanny J. Crosby)
Lord Here Am I (Fanny J. Crosby)
Be Strong in The Lord (Linda Lee Johnson)
My Lord Is Near Me All the Time (Barbara Fowler Gaultney)
Dear Lord, Lead Me Day by Day (Francisca Asuncion)
Savior Teach Me Day by Day (Jane E. Leeson)
Jesus Is the Sweetest Name I Know (Lela B. Long)
At the Name Of Jesus (Caroline Maria Noel)
I Love You, Lord (Laurie Klein)
Come, Holy Spirit (Dorothy A. Thrupp)
Glorify Thy Name (Donna Adkins)
Love Came Down at Christmas (Christina Rossetti)
Hosanna, Loud Hosanna (Jennette Threlfall)
Let All Things Now Living (Katherine Davis)
Jesus Hands Were Kind Hands (Margaret Cropper)
Seek Ye First (Karen Lafferty)
Jesus Was A Loving Teacher (Wilhelmina D’Arcy Stephens)
My Singing Is A Prayer (Novella Preston Jordan)
Come All Christians Be Committed (Eva Brown Lloyd)
Because I Have Been Given Much (Grace Noll Crowell)
God Who Touches the Earth With Beauty (Mary Susanne Edgar)
O Perfect Love (Dorothy F. Gurney)
I Have Come from The Darkness (Marian Wood Chaplin)
Praise to The Lord, The Almighty, The King Of Creation! (Trans. Catherine Winkworth)
Be Thou My Vision (Trans. Mary E. Byrne)
God Who Stretched The Spangled Heavens (Catherine Cameron)
Morning Has Broken (Eleanor Farjeon)
Creator God Creating Still (Jane Parker Huber)
In Heavenly Love Abiding (Anna Letitia Waring)
We Worship Round This Table (Helen Smaw)
Because He Lives (Gloria Gainer)
My Faith Has Found A Resting Place (Eliza E. Hewitt)
To the Work! (Fanny J. Crosby)
I’d Rather Have Jesus (Rhea F. Miller)
So Send I You (Margaret Clarkson)
Lord Speak to Me That I May Speak (Frances R. Havergal)
Sweet Sweet Spirit (Doris Akers)
Satisfied (Clara Teare Williams)
Lead Me to Calvary (Jennie Evelyn Hussey)
What Can I Give Him (Christina Georgina Rossetti)

How does God's Word impact our prayers?

God invites His children to talk with Him, yet our prayers often become repetitive and stale. How do we have a real conversation with God? How do we come to know Him so that we may pray for His will as our own?

In the Bible, God speaks to us as His children and gives us words for prayer—to praise Him, confess our sins, and request His help in our lives.

We’re giving away a free eBook copy of Praying the Bible, where Donald S. Whitney offers practical insight to help Christians talk to God with the words of Scripture.