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History of Hymns: "Lord, Speak to Me"

"Lord, Speak to Me"
Frances R. Havergal
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 463

Frances R. Havergal

Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
in living echoes of thy tone;
as thou hast sought, so let me seek
thine erring children lost and lone.


Frances Ridely Havergal (1836-1878) was one of several women hymn writers who came into prominence in England during the last half of the 18th century. Before this time women’s voices were rarer in the English-speaking hymnological world.

Along with Havergal, the most well-known women were contemporaries Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), the premier translator of German hymns into English, and Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), the wife of an Anglican minister known for her work with children.

Winkworth and Alexander have multiple entries in The United Methodist Hymnal. A host of other English women hymn writers also may be found in current hymnals, but their legacy usually rests on a single hymn today.

Havergal’s father was an Anglican clergyman. After a carriage accident, he devoted himself to the improvement of church music in England, and according to hymnologist Albert Bailey, “revived the use of the solid tunes of early English composers and so did much to improve the quality of congregational singing.”

Havergal was obviously inspired by her father’s efforts. She possessed a natural musicianship, as well as a love for walking, swimming and mountain climbing. By the age of 7, she displayed a talent for writing verse.

Her hymns appeared originally in leaflets and were eventually collected into volumes, including Ministry of Song (1869), Under the Surface (1874) and Loyal Responses (1878). “Lord, Speak to Me” first appeared in Under the Surface with the heading, “A Worker’s Prayer. None of us liveth unto himself, Romans 14:7.”

We have here a personal prayer of petition. The UM Hymnal contains five of the original seven stanzas. Each stanza is in the first-person singular. The focus is essentially evangelical.

Stanza one petitions the Lord to help her “seek thine erring children lost and lone.” She asks for strength in stanza two to reach out a “loving hand to wrestlers with the troubled sea.” The third stanza asks the Lord to teach her the words to “reach the hidden depths of many a heart.” The fourth stanza asks the Lord to be filled with “fullness” that overflows so that she will “love to tell, thy praise to show.”

As in so many hymns of this era, the final stanza reflects the ultimate prize—reaching heaven. The author asks the Lord to “use” her “as thou wilt, and when, and where” so that “that blessed face I see.” She longs to find “rest” and “joy,” and share God’s “glory.”

Hymnologist Bailey points out that the focus of this hymn is not an ecclesiological argument on the nature of the church, a theological discussion of the Trinity, a reflection on the sacraments or a liturgical statement on the Christian year. Havergal is not concerned like some others on “poverty, want, unemployment [or] the slum.” Her concern is the conversion of lost souls.

More recently, English hymnologist J.R. Watson suggests that this hymn and her other well-known prayer hymn, “Take my life and let it be consecrated” (UM Hymnal No. 399) reflect her “long[ing] to make use of her many talents in the service of the Lord. It is as one sought by Christ that she wishes to seek for the lost; it is as one sure of her way, and well nourished in the spirit, that she longs to lead other and feed them.”

Mr. Watson perceptively observes that this hymn “is a prayer in two directions: for a full and energetic life, and for the surrender of that life in worship and service.”

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.