Home History of Hymns: "More Love to Thee, O Christ"

History of Hymns: "More Love to Thee, O Christ"

"More Love to Thee, O Christ"
Elizabeth Prentiss
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 453

Elizabeth Prentiss

More love to thee, O Christ,
more love to thee!
Hear thou the prayer I make
on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea:
More love, O Christ, to thee.

Loss and sorrow often give birth to hymns. Such is the case of "More Love to Thee" by Elizabeth Payton Prentiss (1818-1878).
A native of Maine, Prentiss was described as a "bright-eyed, little woman, with a keen sense of humor, who cared more to shine in her own happy household than in a wide circle of society."

During the 19th century, middleclass women lived very separate lives from men, even their husbands. Prentiss' husband, Dr. George L. Prentiss, was a Presbyterian minister who later served as professor of homiletics and polity at Union Theological Seminary in New York. His wife, having demonstrated a gift for both prose and poetry from a young age, wrote books, one of which - Stepping Heavenward - sold over 200,000 copies in the U.S. alone.

Prentiss also had an important, yet difficult, domestic role. For much of her life she lived the life of a near invalid, her body often wracked with pain. It was during these times that she had to refocus her understanding of her own value and worth from doing to being: "I see now that to live for God, whether one is allowed ability to be actively useful or not, is a great thing, and that it is a wonderful mercy to be allowed even to suffer, if thereby one can glorify Him."

"More Love to Thee" emerged out of a time of personal tragedy. During the 1850s, the Prentisses lost a child and shortly thereafter a second. Through her grief she confided in her diary, "Empty hands, a worn-out, exhausted body, and unutterable longings to flee from a world that has so many sharp experiences."

Inspired by Sarah Adams' hymn, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," Prentiss began to write her own hymn in an almost identical metrical pattern. She had been reflecting on Jacob's struggles in Genesis 28:10-22 and found Adams' hymn on this same theme to be of comfort. In the Genesis narrative of Jacob's experience at Bethel, Jacob was a traveler who, finding a stone for a pillow one night, had a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Following his dream he builds an altar at Beth-El (God's house) out of the stone on which he had slept and anointed it with oil.

Prentiss completed the four stanzas of her hymn in a single evening, but never showed it to anyone for 13 years. Finally, in 1869 the poem appeared in leaflet form and in 1870 was published for the first time in a hymnal, Songs of Devotion for Christian Associations.
Stanza three reflects most clearly the autobiographical context out of which the hymn comes:

Let sorrow do its work,
come grief or pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers,
sweet their refrain,
When they can sing with me:
More love, O Christ, to Thee!

William Doane (1832-1915), composer of over 2,000 gospel songs including many for Fanny Crosby, provided the music associated with this text. The simple step-wise movement of the melody, slower tempo, and straightforward harmonies provide a prayerful vehicle for the central petition, "More love to thee."

Just as Sarah Adams repeated "Nearer to thee" 16 times in her hymn, Elizabeth Prentiss repeats "More love to thee" 13 times. This repetition provides the singer with that sense of intimacy with Christ for which this era of hymnody is so known.

On one occasion, Prentiss wrote, "To love Christ more is the deepest need, the constant cry of the soul . . . out in the woods, and on my bed, and out driving, when I am happy and busy, and when I am sad and idle, the whisper keeps going up for more love, more love, more love!"

Dr. Hawn is director of the sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology.