Helen Howarth Lemmel was born in Wardle, England to a Wesleyan Methodist pastor and his wife on November 14, 1863.
Twelve years later the family migrated to America. Helen lived briefly in Mississippi before settling in Wisconsin. Helen’s singing ability soon became evident, gaining her a reputation as a brilliant singer, even studying private voice in Germany for four years. She traveled widely throughout the midwest during the early 1900’s, giving concerts in many churches.
In time, she married a wealthy European and taught voice at the Moody Bible Institute and then at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. When she became blind her husband abandoned her, which was just one of the many heartaches Helen struggled with during midlife.
A brilliant singer and musician, Mrs. Lemmel’s remarkable literary abilities were also widely recognized. She composed more than 500 hymns and poems and also authored a very successful book for children, ‘Story of the Bible’, and composed many musical pieces for children. She continued her musical and literary pursuits until her death just 13 days before her ninety-eighth birthday.
One day, in 1918, when Helen was aged 55, a missionary friend gave her a tract entitled “Focused.” It contained a statement that had a profound impact on her. “So then, turn your eyes upon Him, look full into His face and you will find that the things of earth will acquire a strange new dimness.”
“I stood still, ” Helen recalled, “and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus, with not one conscious moment of putting word to word to make rhyme, or note to note to make melody. The verses were written the same week, after the usual manner of composition, but nonetheless dictated by the Holy Spirit.”
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in his wonderful face,
and the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of His glory and grace.
Helen’s new hymn was published in London, England in 1918, in the form of a pamphlet. Four years later, it was included in a collection of sixty-seven of Helen’s songs, titled Glad Songs. This year at the Keswick Bible Conference in northern England the hymn was introduced and became immediately a popular favourite. It has since been included in most evangelical hymnals and been translated into many languages.
Those who knew Helen in her later years tell of her joy and enthusiasm. Though living on government welfare in a sparse bedroom, whenever asked how she was doing, she would reply, ‘I’m doing well in the things that count.’ Helen was always composing hymns but she had no way of writing them down so she would call friends at all hours and get them to record her lyrics before she forgot them.
Helen had a small plastic keyboard by her bed. There she would play, sing and cry. “One day God is going to bless me with a great heavenly keyboard,” she’d say. “I can hardly wait!”
Helen died on November 1, 1961, in Seattle, Washington, almost 98 years of age.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.
Tags: helen howarth lemmel, hymnal, keswick bible conference, moody bible institute, singing, turn you eyes upon jesus, wesleyan methodist, writer
Jim Lokkesmoe says
Was she ever in the San Francisco Bay Area in in a hospital in the late 1940’s early 1950’s ? My mom may have met her
Chris Field says
My information came much from the late Donald Prout, in Australia, who was a great reader of Biographies and at one time had a huge library of old books. So go ahead and use my article as your reference, and trust that someone can cite original sources for you.
Alfred Corduan says
Thank you very much for this information about a godly woman. Her suffering makes the hymn blaze with added light and meaning. I am gathering information for a short biography which I intend to add to an electronic version of a hymnbook we are working on. I can include the blog in the references unless there is a better citation I should use. Thank you.
I love the song.
But the story behind is so good to know.
She is such a blessing.
I thank and praise God.
I will one day meet all His saints in Heaven.
Love from India.
In Christ alone.
Patti Stanford says
What a beautiful encouraging story. Helen Lemmel is now on my bucket list of people to talk to when I get to heaven. This song has always been one of my favorites. It has new meaning now. Our heart are the “eyes” that should always be turned to Jesus. Thank you so much for sharing.
Ce Poole says
I knew Helen Lemmel in the late 1950’s in Seattle. She lived in the lovely, new three bedroom, one story home with lovely gardens that my English grandmother built for the express purpose of creating a home for elders. Helen was completely blind, she kept horehound drops in a candy dish on her dressing table, in her very tidy room. I do remember the keyboard in her room, as well as the horehound drops, that sooth a singers throat and substitute for candy in reward for a long visit of evangelizing, as well as stories about her travels to Hawaii, on the same ship as Robert Louis Stevenson. She loved others, and was always happy to see children and engage them in stories of her life.
What a delight to see this site that a brought back so many sweet memories.
I woke up with this song in my head this morning and tho I knew the first few words I could only recall the tune. So I googled to find out more. Various versions were on YouTube and I now have written it in the back of my diary. But I also wanted to know who wrote it and its history. That’s when I came upon this site and read about Helen and some of her life.
I am going thru a particularly challenging season in my life . At 70yr of age God is taking me out of my comfort zone & moving me into a smaller domain and away from my familiar friends and lifestyle. It’s scary & challenging but there’s a sense of adventure that God still has plans for me. Reading about Helen made me realise that age has nothing to do with God’s plan in your life= as long as we stay focused & keep our eyes on Jesus, the best is always ahead.
Thank you for inspirational women like Helen .
Gail Showalter says
I love the song and the story. I am making reference to it in a book I’ve written. I do wonder, however, did someone read the tract to her or was she able to read? Wasn’t she totally blind?
I’d appreciate you answer. I’ve not found an answer elsewhere.
Gena Lemmel Kaufman says
I was privileged to have met Helen Howarth Lemmel in 1954 upon marrying her grandson, David James Lemmel. We were moving to Spokane and we stopped to visit Helen in Seattle. She prayed with us and blessed our marriage.
Betsy Borchardt says
This is a valuable piece you’ve posted. Mrs. Lemmel was an extraordinary woman. I loved hearing her story. I am a writer and enjoy singing hymns at church. Thank you for your post.
firstname.lastname@example.org aka D. Lemmel says
Helen Howarth Lemmel who wrote and composed “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, among 500 other Christian Hymns, was my Great Grandmother .
Any detailed, or specific questions about her life I would be happy to answer, ( to seriously interested persons). I have Many,one of a kind , hand Written originals that were pened by my Great Grandmother. Email me at email@example.com .( Doug). She was an amazing Lady. P.S. Of course I would never sell any of her personal belongings or writings!