Annotating Phoebe Hinsdale Brown's Account Of Writing The Hymn "I love to steal awhile away" In 1818
I was talking with a friend of mine the other day who has a podcast about mommy issues (I initially typed modcast, make of that what you will) and we fell to talking about the LDS sort-of doctrine about Heavenly Mother that you can mostly piece together from Eliza R. Snow’s hymns (“In the heav’ns are parents single? /No, the thought makes reason stare. /Truth is reason: truth eternal /tells me I've a mother there”) and writings from from the Anointed Quorum about conversations they’d had with Joseph Smith during his lifetime. There’s a wide variety reparative writing about the Christian maternal; I don’t mean feminist or womanist theologies, exactly, so much as digging up little tidbits about Heavenly Mother or the Shekinah or Asherah as the wife of God, or Marian co-redemption, and so on. Phoebe Hinsdale Brown, the first significant female hymnist in American history, is quoted at length about the origin of her best known-work, “I love to steal awhile away,” in Samuel Duffield’s English Hymns:
I had, while living in East Windsor, Connecticut, kept a kind of diary, and continued it in Ellington, Connecticut. I wrote several scraps of poetry in Ellington, which were published by my brother, Nathan Whiting, in the Religious Intelligencer, at New Haven, Connecticut. It was in Ellington that I wrote the 'Twilight Hymn.' My baby daughter was in my arms when I wrote it. I had been out on a visit at Dr. Hyde's, and several were present. After tea one of my neighbors, who I had ever felt was my superior in every way, came and sat down near me, chatting with another lady, without noticing me. Just as I was rising to go home, she turned suddenly upon me, and said: 'Mrs. Brown, why do you come up at evening so near our house, and then go back without coming in? If you want anything, why don't you come in and ask for it? I could not think who it was, and sent my girl down the garden to see; and she said it was you. That you came to the fence, but, seeing her, turned quickly away, muttering something to yourself.' There was something in her manner, more than her words, that grieved me. I went home, and that evening was left alone. After my children were all in bed, except my baby, I sat down in the kitchen, with my child in my arms, when the grief of my heart burst forth in a flood of tears. I took pen and paper, and gave vent to my oppressed heart in what I called "My Apology for my Twilight Rambles, addressed to a Lady." It will be found in its original form in an old manuscript among my papers. In preparing it (some years after) for Netileton's ' Village Hymns,' some three or four verses were suppressed and a few expressions altered. In the original the first stanza was: 'I love to steal awhile away From little ones and care.'
It may be that you have not stepped foot in a Christian church for a while, or the kind you frequented don’t feature modern worship music, but I’ll assume you’re broadly familiar with the absolutely soul-deadening repetition of contemporary North American-style hymns. One finds it difficult to imagine, for example, someone from Hillsong addressing a neighbor whose property they occasionally almost wander into before turning back from self-consciousness at the last second; the room for emotional scale within a modern hymn is roughly 1. ABSOLUTELY HOLLERIN’ ABOUT THE CROSS, and 2. File not found. No room for “maternal panic and social insecurity while a beautiful, forbidding neighbor ignores me at a garden party/oppression of the heart.”
This was strictly true. I had four little children; a small, unfinished house; a sick sister in the only finished room; and there was not a place, above or below, where I could retire for devotion, without a liability to be interrupted. There was no retired room, rock, or grove where I could go, as in former days; but there was no dwelling between our house and the one where that lady lived. Her garden extended down a good way below her house, which stood on a beautiful eminence. The garden was highly cultivated, with fruits and flowers. I loved to smell the fragrance of both (though I could not see them), when I could do so without neglecting duty ; and I 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 any one passing that way after dark, I felt quite retired and alone with God. I often walked quite up that beautiful garden, and snuffed the fragrance of the peach, the grape, and the ripening apple, if not the flowers. I never saw any one in the garden, and felt that I could have the privilege of that walk and those few moments of uninterrupted communion with God without encroaching upon any one ; but, after once knowing that my steps were watched and made the subject of remark and censure, I never could enjoy it as I had done. I have often thought Satan had tried his best to prevent me from prayer, by depriving me of a place to pray.
A full house, with construction-paper sectioning off the unfinished rooms, a sister sleeping upstairs, children lurking in the stairwells and cellar, a mother stealing away to smell fruit she cannot see. Now That’s What I Call (Worship) Music.