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.