An Early Christmas present!
Annie Johnson was born in Vineland, New Jersey USA on Christmas Eve 1866. Her parents, Eldon and Jean rejoiced in the gift of their early Christmas present daughter! Nearly three years later, all the joy of that Christmas disappeared in a flood of sorrow, as Annie’s Mum died at the age of 23, soon after giving birth to Annie’s sister. Her Father was not well and for two years the bereaved family of three lived with a widow friend of Eldon’s. She had children of her own and it became evident that Annie and her sister were not really welcome in the home, they were simply an added burden.
By a remarkable providence, a local school teacher, who the children came to know simply as “Auntie Susie”, saw the distressing situation and recommended a childless Christian couple in the town, Mr and Mrs Flint, as a possible solution. It would, of course, require Eldon to be willing to allow them to be adopted as their own. He was willing to do this on two counts, firstly his serious illness, which resulted in his own death not long afterwards and secondly the fact that they were Baptists! Annie’s Father had long hoped that the children would be brought up in a Baptist tradition!
The couple offered a loving and warm-hearted Christian home to the two girls and after the adoption, their surname was added to Annie’s. Through their childhood years the girls were taught the Christian gospel and the teaching of the Bible framed every aspect of life.
Saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
At the age of eight, two great changes took place in the young life of Annie. The Flints moved from their rural home in the countryside, into the small town nearby. Despite this, Annie always retained her love for the natural world around her and it coloured the rest of her life. In God’s providence, the move coincided with a number of evangelistic meetings taking place in the town. She was taken along by her adopted parents, and there, at the age of eight, she was brought to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In later life she testified of the reality of that experience and although she was so young, she was convinced that God had truly saved her that day.
Before she became a teenager, Annie began to develop a keen interest in reading and writing – particularly poetry. This was fuelled by Mr Flint’s extensive library. She and her friend from school formed a two-member literary society! Every Saturday afternoon they met together to read material by their favourite poets; and then to attempt to write poems themselves.
Her life was fairly frugal but it was in a loving home where she was encouraged to learn the virtues of good housekeeping, making her own clothes and general economy. Her character was naturally cheerful and optimistic which is remarkable, in view of the sadness and loss that she had known as a younger child.
Her powers of observation were particularly keen. One contemporary speaks of her comment much later in life that Annie had noticed that the robin outside her window had changed its song. “We are going to have rain today. My robin has just changed his note. He never sings in that tone unless the rain is coming” Sure enough, the rain came!
Sanctification – through life’s experiences
The Lord was working in her heart, sanctifying her through her life’s experiences. She did have troubles with a flaring temper at times but over the years learned the lessons of grace in overcoming this sinful tendency. She speaks of her impatience and her tendency to persist at something without waiting patiently for the outcome in the appointed time. The Lord would need to teach her much in this area of her character. Deeper trials were to come which would test both persistence and patience to the extreme.
An indication of those trials manifested itself quite soon into her working life. She began her first position as a school teacher in her home town, teaching at the school where she had once been a pupil. There, symptoms of arthritis began to appear. These grew steadily worse, causing her to have to give up her post, as she was almost unable to walk.
Then tragedy struck again when both of her adopted parents died within a few months of each other. Annie was left overwhelmed with sadness and loss. Her own health continued to deteriorate rapidly and it was not long before the Doctors sadly had to tell her that she would soon become a helpless invalid, crippled by the advancing arthritis running through her body. In her sadness, her illness and her desperate financial predicament, Annie was cast upon God.
A contemporary writer says, “Annie was in a condition where she was compelled to be dependent upon the care of others… In after-years she always stated that her poems were born of the need of others and not from her own need; but one knows full well that she never could have written as she did for the comfort and help of thousands of others if she had not had the background of facing those very crises in her own life”.
Those poems, notes and letters were wonderfully the means of her sustaining by the Lord. The very best of her God-given gifts of writing, poetry and prose were drawn out of her in her deep trial. She could not properly hold or use a pen, but her dogged determination forced her to somehow push her pen into her swollen and bent fingers and despite her wrists being in great pain she wrote of her deepest spiritual experiences. At first it was for her own solace but she began to make hand lettered cards, gift books, and cards with verses beautifully written on them.
A world-wide fellowship
Remarkably, two national Christian publishers began to publish and distribute her work in their magazines and periodicals. They became hugely popular; many letters of appreciation came in to the publishers from those who had been blessed by her work. A little book of her poems entitled, “By the Way – Travelogues of Cheer” was published. Through these ventures, two things happened, firstly her financial troubles were eased through their income, but secondly, she became connected with a world-wide fellowship of believers who were helped by her writings.
That wider fellowship brought her into contact with some who believed that Christians should not suffer illness and restrictions in this life. They impressed on her their convictions that the Lord would grant healing to her – if only her faith was strong enough! Annie did not immediately dismiss such things but searched the Scriptures thoroughly for herself to see what they said.
Having done so, she declared such an understanding of the Lord’s dealings with His children in this life to be in error. Again, we quote a contemporary writer, “…she reached the conclusion that, while God can and does heal in this way in some cases, in others He does not; that He has seen fit to leave some of the most triumphant saints deeply afflicted. She saw too that many of those who pressed their theory were themselves afflicted with infirmity, and while telling others that they ought to claim healing, bore in their own lives the failure of their theory!”
Strength made perfect in weakness
Annie became thoroughly convinced that God intended to glorify Himself through her – in her weak, earthen vessel. Like the Apostle Paul there came to her, with real assurance, the promise which said, “My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” She reached the place where she could also say with Paul, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me”. (2 Cor 12:9)
No one can tell what suffering she endured as the disease became worse with the passing of the years, but through it all her faith in the goodness and mercy of God never wavered. There were many times, no doubt, when her soul would be burdened with the mystery of it all and the “why?” of what she was called to endure. For more than forty years there was scarcely a day when she did not suffer pain and she became increasingly helpless. Her joints had become rigid, although she was still just able to turn her head. In great pain she could write a few lines on paper. The one picture of her that remains shows her at a relatively young age but confined to a rather primitive looking wheelchair.
On September 8th 1932, her last words before she died were to her doctor in front of a visiting couple who knew her well. He asked if there was anything she wished to say before he gave her a painkilling injection. “I have nothing to say, it’s all right” she said. In a few minutes, she had gone to be with the Saviour who she loved and served so well. In a life that seemed to have so much “all wrong”, she was given remarkable grace and strength to proclaim, in fact it was, “all right”.
He giveth more grace
Among her collection of poems that remain, “He giveth more grace” stands out as a wonderful statement of her Biblical theology of pain, trial and suffering and of the boundless store of grace that is found in the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Paul urges Timothy, his son in the faith, to “be strong” (2 Timothy 2v1), it is in this grace alone that he will be able to endure the hardships that he will face. It is no different for us as Christians today, Annie’s lovely hymn has a timeless message!
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labours increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
Fear not that your need shall exceed His provision,
Our God ever yearns His resources to share;
Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;
The Father, both you and your load will upbear.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.