by Rev. David T. Myers.
When this author was worshiping some time back at the Army War College Memorial Protestant Chapel, when the Army chaplain announced that we were going to sing “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” I couldn’t help but mention to the Army veteran sitting next to me in the pew that this gospel song was written by a Scottish Presbyterian lass! Its familiar words brought me back to the history of this hymn writer.
Elizabeth Cecelia Douglas Clephane was born on June 18, 1830, the third child of Andrew Clephane, a law enforcement official in Fife, Scotland. She went on to live most of her life in Melrose, Scotland, about 30 miles southeast of Edinburgh. Her parents died while she was young. She herself was a sickly and frail child, but known in the community as a young woman full of good works, giving what extra money she earned to give to those of lesser blessings in life. For that reason, she was known as “the Sunbeam” in the Scottish community.Elizabeth also wrote poetry, and many of her poems were put to music. Not long after her early death, on February 19, 1869, eight of her poems were published in a Scottish Presbyterian magazine called “Family Treasury.” The editor of that magazine, a Rev. W. Arnot said of her work that “her hymns express experiences, hope, and the longings of a young Christian. Further, he said, they seem to be footprints printed on the sands of Time, where these sands touch the ocean of Eternity.”
Of her poems put to music, two continue to be sung today and are found in the New Trinity Hymnal. Number 187 is the five stanza hymn “There were Ninety and Nine that safely lay in the shelter of the fold.” This story poem is taken from the Luke 15:7 text in Scripture.
Its music is a story in itself. Ira Sankey was in charge of the music for evangelist Dwight Moody. On an evangelistic tour through the British Isles, Sankey had come across just the words of the poem by Elizabeth Clephane. Reading them aloud to Moody, he saw that the evangelist was busy reading a letter and not showing any interest in the words of the poem. The next night, Moody surprised Sankey by telling the latter to play the poem and sing it as well. Mind you, all Ira Sankey had was the words of the poem, no musical notes at all. So sitting down at the piano or organ, Sankey put his hands on the keys, and began to play and sing! And that, as they say, is the rest of the story.
The second hymn by Elizabeth Clephane in our Trinity Hymnal appears on page 251, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” Thinking of the author as a weak and frail Christian woman, in poor health all of her short life, we can appreciate her words more fully where she wrote, in the third verse, “content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss; my sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.”
Words to Live By:
How many times have we sung these two hymns and never even thought of the author or bothered to know anything of her circumstances? But with a knowledge of her now, let us sing them again with full appreciation of their thoughts and words. Like Elizabeth Clephane, we can sing of “two wonders I confess, the wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.”