Last September, I made the trek on a rainy day from Salisbury, England, to the nearby village of Broughton, Hampshire, a village situated roughly midway between Salisbury and Winchester, where I spent time looking for a house, a chapel, and a grave. All were associated with Anne Steele (1717–78), the daughter of William Steele, the pastor of the Calvinistic Baptist chapel in Broughton, whose hymns were once well-known by lovers of the gospel worldwide. Converted in 1732 and baptized the same year, she grew to be a woman of deep piety, genuine cheerfulness, and a mind hungry for knowledge. Her piety was wrought in the furnace of affliction. She wrestled most of her adult life, it appears, with ongoing bouts of tertian malaria and terrible stomach pain.
Anne made a conscious choice to remain single, although she received two proposals of marriage—one from the Baptist pastor and hymnwriter Benjamin Beddome (1717–95). In a letter she wrote to her stepsister after refusing one of these proposals, she said that the suitor had offered his hand to help over the stile, that is, get married. But when she looked over into the meadow of marriage, she said, “I . . . saw no flowers, but observ’d a great many thorns, and I suppose there are more hid under the leaves, but as there is not verdure [green] enough to cover half of ‘em it must be near winter, as I think it generally happens when I look into the said Meadow.”
Anne’s singleness gave her time to devote herself to writing poetry and hymns, a gift with which the Lord had richly blessed her. About ten years before her death, sixty-two of her hymns were published in a Baptist hymnal—A Collection of Hymns Adapted to Public Worship (1769)—edited by John Ash and Caleb Evans. This hymnal gave her hymns a wide circulation in Baptist circles. In time, her hymns became as well known as those of Isaac Watts, John Newton, and William Cowper.
One of the very few hymns by Steele that is still sung today reveals the way in which this wide circulation of her hymns played a part in revitalizing areas of the Calvinistic Baptist cause throughout England. It was originally entitled “The Savior’s Invitation,” and it was based on Jesus’ words in John 7:37: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink” (KJV).
The Saviour calls—let every Ear
Attend the heavenly Sound;
Ye doubting Souls,
dismiss your Fear,
Hope smiles reviling round.
For every thirsty, longing Heart,
Here Streams of Bounty flow,
And Life, and Health,
and Bliss impart,
To banish mortal Woe.
Here, Springs of sacred Pleasure rise
To ease your every Pain, (Immortal Fountain! full Supplies!) Nor shall you thirst in vain.
Ye Sinners come, ‘tis Mercy’s Voice,
The gracious Call obey;
Mercy invites to heavenly Joys,—
And can you yet delay?
Dear Savior, draw reluctant Hearts,
To Thee let Sinners fly;
And take the Bliss Thy Love imparts,
And drink, and never die.
Based on Jesus’ open invitation to sinners to come to Him and drink, that is, find eternal life, Steele urges “every Ear” to “attend” to Christ’s heavenly invitation. He calls all who are “thirsty” and “longing” to come to Him, and find “Life, and Health, and Bliss . . . Springs of sacred Pleasure” that will ease every woe. Christ is an “Immortal Fountain” who will never run dry and who satisfies to the full every thirsty man, woman, or child. So, Christ calls all such “sinners” to come to Him. Anne echoes this call: she prays that the Lord might draw such sinners: “To Thee let Sinners fly.”
This invitation to come to Christ is a command—“the gracious Call obey”—and yet also a free offer—“can you yet delay?” But Steele is also aware that the “thirsty, longing Heart” is not sufficient in itself to come to Christ. In the final analysis, it is a “reluctant Heart,” filled with doubt and fear, and it is a heart in bondage to sin. Hence, she prays, “Dear Savior, draw reluctant hearts.” Here, she may well have in mind Jesus’ words in John 6:44: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.”
This is a prayer that can be prayed with confidence, for the Savior to whom she speaks is an “Immortal Fountain,” Mercy incarnate, who loves sinners and delights in bestowing on them “heavenly joys.” As Baptist men and women of England sang this hymn, God used it to wean the hearts of sinners from sin and draw them to His dear Son, the Friend of sinners.