Plus the Story Behind the First American Missionary to Japan…
One of the women I want to meet in heaven is Phoebe Hinsdale Brown, who has a small vignette of a story in American history that is deeply meaningful to lovers of hymns. Hymnologists call her the first notable American woman hymnwriter. Her unlikely story is part of her legacy.
Phoebe was born in 1783 in Canaan, New York. Her father died when she was an infant and her mother died a year later, leaving her an orphan. Her grandparents took her in, and she lived with them for seven years before they died. Then she was orphaned again. Her next home was with an older sister, whose husband was a harsh man and the keeper of the local jailhouse. She was treated almost like a slave, and she wasn’t able to go to school until she was eighteen, and then had but three months of training. That’s all the formal education she received, but during those months she learned to read and from there she educated herself.
At about the same time, she committed her life to Christ and joined the church. At age 22, she married a house-painter and carpenter named Timothy Brown. They nearly starved to death and lived in terrible poverty. To make ends meet, Phoebe began writing poetry and short stories, which were published by local papers.
By 1818, four children lived under the Brown roof, on the edge of the village in a very small unfinished house. Phoebe’s sick sister also lived with them, and they suffered greatly from their inadequate house and funds. But one thing kept Phoebe going. She met with the Lord every day and maintained her daily devotions. For her, the best time of day was twilight, after the bulk of her day’s work was done.
A wealthy family lived down the road in a large house with extensive gardens and grounds. Phoebe found a little grove at the end of the estate where she could meditate on Scripture and pray. She later wrote that each night at twilight, she “used to steal away from all within doors, and, going out of our gate, stroll along under the elms that were planted for shade on each side of the road. And as there was seldom anyone passing that way after dark, I felt quite retired and alone with God. I often walked quite up that beautiful garden—and felt that I could have the privilege of those few moments of uninterrupted communion with God without encroaching upon anyone.”
But one August evening, she was visiting with friends when she bumped into the wealthy lady who owned the land. The woman confronted her and asked, “Mrs. Brown, why do you come up at evening so near our house?” There was something unfriendly about the woman’s tone, and it terribly upset Phoebe. She went home grieved and, after the older children were in bed and as she was holding her baby girl, she sat down in her kitchen and burst into tears.
Taking pen and paper, she wrote a letter to the woman and put her thoughts in the form of a poem, which she called “My Apology for my Twilight Rambles, Addressed to a Lady.” She sent the letter but never received a response.
Phoebe found somewhere else to pray; and, in any event, the family soon moved to Monson, Massachusetts, where Phoebe began teaching young children in Sunday School. But she kept a copy of her poem hidden among her private papers, and one day she showed it to an editor who liked her poems. He was delighted with it, had it set to music, and it became one of the most popular hymns of the 1800s. It’s been published in 595 hymnbooks (though not in recent years). You can hear several renditions of it on youtube. Phoebe Brown is known today as the “first female American hymnist whose work endured.”
Here is a portion of her poem, which became known as the “Twilight Hymn.”
I love to steal awhile away
From every cumbering care,
And spend the hours of setting day
In gratitude and prayer.
I love in solitude to shed
The penitential tear,
And all God’s promises to plead
Where none can see and hear.
I love to think on mercies past,
And future ones implore
And all my cares and sorrows cast
On Him whom I adore.
I love this silent twilight hour
Far better than the rest;
It is, of all the twenty-four,
The happiest and the best.
Phoebe labored for the Lord all her life. She also wrote two novels and an autobiography. Two of their daughters became preachers’ wives, and the third daughter and her husband served the Lord in their local church as lay workers. Her son, Dr. Samuel Robbins Brown, sailed off as a pioneer mission to Asia and became the first American missionary to enter Japan, laboring with great success in Yokohama on behalf of the Reformed Dutch Church.
Dr. Brown later said of his mother: “Her record is on high and she is with the Lord whom she loved and served as faithfully as any person I ever knew; nay, more than any other. To her I owe all I am; and if I have done any good in the world, to her, under God, it is due. She seems even now to have me in her hands, holding me up for work for Christ and His cause with a grasp I can feel.” (The Sunday School Times, July 15, 1889, 373).
Interestingly, Dr. Brown wrote the hymn tune, MONSON, to which his mother’s hymn was sung for many years. When she grew old and was widowed, she moved into her daughter, Hannah’s, home in Henry, Illinois, and continued writing hymns right up until her death age age 79 in 1861.
When grief and anguish press me down,
And hope and comfort flee,
I cling, O Father, to Thy Throne,
And stay my heart on Thee.
–Phoebe Hinsdale Brown
- The Sunday School Times, July 15, 1889, 373.
- Rev. Augustine Jones, “The Story of a Famous Hymn and How the Friend Preserved It,” in The Friend, Volume 91; November 1924, page 267-268.
- Edward S. Ninde, The Story of the American Hymn (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1921), 177-184.
- Naomi Lucretia Brong, “Some Famous Women in Hymnology,” a Master of Arts dissertation for Boston University Graduate School, 1929.