Sometimes I appreciate the story behind a hymn more than the hymn itself. This is true for me of “JUST AS I AM WITHOUT ONE PLEA.” The inspiration for this personal salvation hymn dates from the day its author made a rude comment to a visiting minister.
“MANY A CONFLICT, MANY A DOUBT”
Charlotte Elliott (1789 -1871) grew up in a comfortable home in Clapham, now part of London. She was lighthearted, lively, and creative and spent her days drawing portraits and writing humorous verse.
As she grew older, however, she began to brood, fretting over her faults and failures … her sins.
It didn’t help that her pious family was teeming with ministers. Her grandfather was Rev. Henry Venn, a famous Evangelical preacher. Other men in the family had followed suit. When she asked them what she could do to improve her character, they told her to pray, ask forgiveness, try harder.
Things got worse when, shortly after her 30th birthday, she became seriously ill and never recovered. For the rest of her life, she was often in pain, weak, and exhausted — in Victorian terminology, an “invalid.” Riding a downward spiral, she became depressed, restless, frustrated, and bitter.
One day, Dr. Caesar Malan came to visit the family. He was a famous preacher from Geneva, Switzerland. That’s when Charlotte made her rude comment.
In her defense, Charlotte wasn’t feeling well. It can also be said that the esteemed visitor came off sounding a tad holier-than-thou when he asked her if she had truly accepted Jesus and suggested that, to know God’s peace, she must give herself completely to Christ.
Charlotte told the good pastor to bug off, or words to that effect.
Eventually, she regretted her rudeness, apologized, and admitted that, in truth, she felt herself too deeply flawed to call herself a Christian. The pastor accepted her apology. Then, seeing not only her physical pain but also her longing for wholeness and acceptance, he gently reassured her saying, “Charlotte, you are loved just as you are.”
The seed was planted. After that, Charlotte corresponded with Dr. Malan, whose tender guidance and reassurance helped her cope with the limitations of her life.
HOME ALONE, SHE WROTE A HYMN FOR THE MASSES
In 1834, Charlotte was 45. She lived in Brighton where her brother, a pastor, organized a bazaar to raise money to send the daughters of poor clergymen to school. Charlotte was passionate about the cause and eager to help, but, after weeks of preparation, she was too sick to attend.
Left behind, home alone, feeling weak, useless, and defeated, she sank into despair. Then, out of the blue, she remembered the pastor’s words. She picked up her pen and wrote the lyrics to “Just As I Am.”
Her creative energy revived, she eventually wrote close to 150 hymns; 112 of them were included in The Invalid’s Hymn Book (1836).
“Just As I Am” took on a life of its own, often paired with the words of Jesus, “Whoever comes to me, I will never turn away.” (John 6:37) Her hymn has been translated into many languages.
Billy Graham, the 20th century evangelist, claimed that he was converted while “Just As I Am” was being sung. He led crusades on every continent using this hymn for an “altar call.”
From the pen of a woman alone and in pain, a woman who struggled to use her gifts, came a hymn text reminding us that, even as we stumble, we are given innumerable fresh starts, the chance to be born again and again and again into an awareness of God’s love.
TO GO DEEPER:
Hymn lyrics, music, and story: Hymnary.org
Dramatization of Charlotte Elliot’s life (@3 mins.)
As sung by Mahalia Jackson
Piano meditation (in the style of Chopin) on the tune “Woodworth” played by John McClung
As sung to the tune “O Waly Waly” by the Covenant Christian High School Chamber Singers (Grand Rapids, MI)