“Just As I Am” - The Story of Charlotte Elliott
You know this hymn by heart I’m sure... it is a song very familiar to most churchgoing folk as we stand firmly clutching the pew in front of us and often trying unsuccessfully to suppress our tears. We knew that “Just As I Am” was coming as the altar call when the song leader said, “Please stand and turn in your hymnals to page 240.” In a small country church, if things went as usual that Sunday morning, we would make it through two or perhaps three verses and the preacher would quietly signal the pianist to stop playing. A pastor who is in-sync with his congregation can read facial expressions well enough to know when more stanzas are futile. I do recall one Sunday morning long ago when a particularly long confessional at the altar took place. We sang through all five verses of “Just As I Am” three times before the song director’s voice gave out and he asked one of the deacons to pray.
“Just As I Am” is such a beloved and powerful hymn of salvation that evangelist Billy Graham used it at the closing invitation of every crusade. The ‘back-stories’ and deeper meanings behind the lovely lyrics of our hymns and their authors has always fascinated me. Some of the words and antique phraseology particularly of the very oldest hymns are difficult to truly understand until we know the circumstances behind their writing.
In his book “101 Hymn Stories” Kenneth W. Osbeck said that “Just As I Am” has “touched more hearts and influenced more people for Christ than any other song ever written. The text was born within the soul of an invalid woman who wrote these words out of intense feelings of uselessness and despair.”
Born in Clapham, England in 1789, the young Charlotte Elliott lived “a carefree life, gaining popularity as a portrait artist and writer of humorous verse.” Young Charlotte was a socialite running in well-to-do circles, and giving little thought to religion. At about age 30, her health started to rapidly decline and she soon became an invalid for the remaining years of her life. Most of her adulthood was spent in bed and there she became depressed and despondent, suffering from a non-specific medical diagnosis labeled as “a crippling fatigue.” (Possibly today her ailment would be termed as ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ or a post-viral neurasthenia.)
About a year after her illness struck, Charlotte’s family had as a guest in their home in Brighton, England, a famous minister from Geneva, Switzerland named Dr. Cesar Malan. Charlotte, of course, was introduced to Malan who immediately asked her about her personal relationship with the Lord. Charlotte, who was rather irritated by his inquiry, replied brusquely that she didn’t care to discuss the matter with him. Malan assured her that he would be praying for her salvation.
At some point in 1822, their paths crossed again and at this juncture over a dinner in the Elliott home, Charlotte lost her temper with Malan and had a violent outburst, blaming God for her condition. Her mortified family left the room, and Dr. Malan was left to counsel and console Charlotte.
“You are tired of yourself, aren’t you?” Malan asked. “You are holding to your hate and anger because you have nothing else in the world to cling to. Consequently, you have become sour, bitter, and resentful.”
Charlotte asked “What is your cure?”
“The faith you are trying to despise,” was Dr. Malan’s answer that day.
Then as they talked a while longer, Charlotte’s heart softened... “If I wanted to become a Christian and to share the peace and joy you possess, then what would I have to do?”
Malan’s answer became immortalized later in the words of her most famous song... “You would give yourself to God, just as you are now, with your fighting and fears, hates and loves, pride and shame.”
“I would come to God just as I am? Is that right?” an ailing and penitent Charlotte asked and her heart was indeed changed that day.
Two years later in 1835, her minister brother, Reverend Henry Elliott, was raising funds to build a school for the children of poor clergymen. Physically unable to aid in his effort, Charlotte penned the words that were printed and sold across England. The leaflet said: Sold for the Benefit of St. Margaret’s Hall, Brighton: Him That Cometh To Me I Will In No Wise Cast Out, and underneath was printed her poem which would later become the most famous invitational hymn in history, “Just As I Am.” Amazingly, this poem from the pen of invalid lady Miss Charlotte Elliott brought in more money for the school than all the other fund raising projects combined.
Charlotte Elliott’s words convey how Jesus called all his disciples to come and serve Him.... not because they were qualified, and not even because they were particularly willing and ready. They weren’t any of those things. He called them to serve simply “just as they were.”
Charlotte never regained her health, and often suffered long bouts of overpowering weakness and exhaustion, but she also never stopped writing.
She died in 1871 at age 82 having composed over 150 published hymns. As her family sorted through her papers after she died, they discovered over a thousand letters she had received and saved in which people expressed to her their deepest gratitude for the way that her most famous song had touched their hearts and souls.
It is more than amazing to contemplate how the powerful poetry of this nearly 200 year old song is still regularly sung in church services all over the world. Fingernail marks on pews and tear stains in songbooks are still being wrought by the words of a crippled young woman, Charlotte Elliott, way back in 1835.
My personal favorite verse of the hymn is the third one:
“Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt... fighting and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come!”
It resonates in the very marrow of my bones.