I first read Elizabeth Prentiss’ most famous work, Stepping Heavenward, about 10 years ago during the fall semester of my junior year of college. The main character, Katy, exemplifies a woman of noble character who cares for her family, loves Jesus, and is passionate in her pursuit to be more holy. Not only did this book completely change the way I view womanhood, it has become one of my favorite books over the years as I have married and entered motherhood. Quite eager to learn more about Mrs. Prentiss and the circumstances life afforded her to write such a moving story, I ordered Sharon James’ Elizabeth Prentiss ‘More Love to Thee’ without a moment’s hesitation. Using Elizabeth’s personal letters and other writings, James develops a faithful, detailed picture of Elizabeth Prentiss’ life and faith.
Sharon James begins Elizabeth’s story at the most logical place: her birth. Born October 26, 1818 in Portland, Maine, Elizabeth was a much desired and cherished daughter of Pastor Edward Payson and his wife Louisa. Through the writings of friends and family members, James paints an endearing picture of ‘Lizzy,’ as those closest to her were fond of calling her. James details many interesting facets of Elizabeth, her five siblings, and their happy, Christian home. But Elizabeth’s life drastically changed with the long illness and subsequent death of her father just days before her ninth birthday. Even in just nine years, her father made a profound impact on Elizabeth’s life. From Life of the Rev. Edward Payson, D.D., Edward Payson writes, “O what a blessed thing it is to lose one’s will.” This attitude coming from his heart no doubt greatly influenced Elizabeth in the way she sought to live her life joyfully surrendered to God, and further finds a place in Katy’s life in Stepping Heavenward.
At the age of twelve, Elizabeth and her family moved to New York for a very short time. It is during their time in New York that Elizabeth professes her faith in Christ and joins Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church. Here, James sheds light on another very interesting aspect of Elizabeth’s personality. “She did nothing by halves.” James treats her readers to insights into Elizabeth’s closest friendships, favorite authors and books, leisure and entertainments, interesting visitors to her mother’s boarding house, those who influenced her growth in faith, and her passion for Jesus and teaching others about Him.
From 1840 to 1843, Elizabeth accepted a teaching position at a girls’ school in Richmond, Virginia. Far from home, Elizabeth wrote and received many letters during these years, which James shares. Included in this portion of the biography are Elizabeth’s thoughts on the best ways to educate young people, on the importance of loving one’s students, even the (seemingly) worst ones, and on her own path to living a more holy, dedicated life. Of the latter, James lets us in on some new teaching, called ‘Christian perfection’, Elizabeth learned from her sister, Louisa. At this point, James begins to unfold Elizabeth’s struggle to discern true doctrine from false, an important element of her life that James revisits throughout the book as Elizabeth reads more about ‘Christian perfection’ and the writings of Madam Guyon.
James explains that Elizabeth had a determined mind regarding the kind of man she would be willing to marry, and she would not budge. Set on a man with a passion for Christ that could match her own and a keen intellect, “On 11 September 1843, Elizabeth accepted a proposal of marriage from George Prentiss,” writes James. This portion of the book, Elizabeth’s courtship and marriage to Mr. Prentiss, is one of the most enjoyable and instructive. “Apart from anything else, she was clear-sighted enough to see that a wife needed ‘oceans of self-sacrificing love’ and only a union with a real ‘soul mate’ would make that sacrifice worthwhile” (p. 41). From this point to the end of Elizabeth’s life, James details married life, motherhood, and everything that goes with them. James guides the reader through Elizabeth’s life through letters and journals to reveal her very passionate and pure love for Mr. Prentiss (a rare sight these days), her love for her children, her intense grief over the deaths of two infants, her struggles with her health, her desire to comfort those who mourned, her love for her church family, and her fervent desire to be with her Savior. In all of these things, James shows the preeminent place Christ held in Elizabeth’s heart. James writes, “Elizabeth firmly believed that a Christian could know ‘peace’ whatever the circumstances through submitting to the will of God” (p.165). It is this conviction, and faith that said, “God never makes mistakes,” that helped Elizabeth through the hardest trials of her life.
A prolific writer, Elizabeth found time to write around the needs of her family. James brings all of Elizabeth’s experiences (from rubbing elbows with the great theologians of her day to European travel to the Civil War) together to illustrate what she believes most likely influenced each of Elizabeth’s books and her most famous hymn, “More Love to Thee.” In the conclusion, James compiles Elizabeth’s personal writings to illustrate what Elizabeth thought of herself as a Christian, a wife and mother, and her thoughts on the ‘cult of true womanhood’. Finally, James offers her opinion of whether or not Elizabeth Prentiss contributed to the feminization of American culture and the “move to a more sentimental approach to religion” through her writings (p. 215). The “Suggestions for Further Reading” lists Elizabeth’s books that are currently in print and where to find them.
Sharon James has written a widely accessible, enlightening, and inspiring biography of Elizabeth Prentiss. Young Christian women today are in desperate need of solid, God-glorifying older women to watch and imitate. Though Elizabeth has been living with Jesus for the last 129 years, Sharon James has put her into our hands. I am eager and joyful to recommend this book to all women!