Elizabeth Prentiss lived in a different century, but the challenges she faced, and the way she responded to those challenges, speak powerfully to us today.
Early in their married life, Elizabeth and her husband, George suffered the loss of two of their six children. Eddie died aged five and Bessie died when just a few weeks old. In addition, Elizabeth experienced ongoing ill-health and insomnia through much of her life. In 1857, George temporarily resigned his pastorate of a large New York church due to a health breakdown brought on by overwork. Shortly after he and Elizabeth resumed their pastoral duties in 1860, the Civil War commenced (1862-5) with all the accompanying heartbreak and suffering.
Elizabeth was a prolific writer of letters, stories, poems, hymns, novels and children’s books, but the impulse behind all of her writing was pastoral. She believed that there are resources in Christ to meet every challenge and comfort every grief. She discovered in her own experience that the deeper the heartbreak, the deeper one can be drawn into experience of the love of God. The greater the challenge, the more one can grow in confidence in the still greater goodness of God. She wanted to point others to those never-failing resources of grace.
She could testify that it is when we surrender to the will of God, and trust his sovereign wisdom in every circumstance, that the worst trials can be transformed into the richest times of fellowship with God. She wrote:
God never places us in any position in which we can not grow. We may fancy that He does. We may fear we are so impeded by fretting, petty cares that we are gaining nothing; but when we are not sending any branches upward, we may be sending roots downward. Perhaps in the time of our humiliation, when everything seems a failure, we are making the best kind of progress.
As a busy mother and pastor’s wife, Elizabeth found that the busyness and interruptions and difficulties of everyday life are the ‘school of Christ’, where we learn to react with patience and good humour. At times she felt as if her family life was falling to pieces as she didn’t have the physical resources or energy she longed for to make a peaceful and well organised home. But in the midst of all of it she was well known for her warm welcome, her generous hospitality, her sense of humour and her artistic gifts.
I have been inspired by Elizabeth Prentiss as one of the most ‘real’ role models of practical holiness I have ever come across. She discovered that the harsh realities of everyday life, far from hindering our growth in grace, can be the means by which we grow. I wrote this biography in the hope that others could be encouraged by getting to know her as well.
The theme of her life is summed up in these words:
To love Christ more – this is the deepest need, the constant cry of my soul. Down in the bowling ally, and 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!