Learning From a Godly Woman Long Gone, part 1

"One must either stop reading the Bible altogether, or else leave off spending one's whole time in just doing easy pleasant things one likes to do."

The challenge Elizabeth Prentiss gives us, in this fictional work based on parts of her own life, is to press on and press in to Christ, the Sanctifying One, Who knows us better than we know ourselves and truly, will
not give us more than we can bear (1 Cor. 10). The central woman in the story, Katherine (or Katy for short), had relatives living with her for the almost the whole of her married life, lost several of her children to death and disease, and fought to keep control of her tongue. An incredible model for us as a mother, wife, and child of God, her desire is to grow, be a blessing, and seek God above all for the entirety of her life.

I will share some thoughts, as they came to me throughout the reading of the b
ook. I'll have to do this in a two-part series because there is so much to share. Starting out, we find a young, married Katherine, learning and striving to give the best of herself and her home to others who are often less than deserving.
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When verbally reprimanded by her father in law, she feels the blood rise to her cheeks, and then shocked, writes,

"It is true he sees my faults; anybody can, who looks. But he does not see my prayers, or my tears of shame and sorrow; he does not know how many hasty words I repress; how earnestly I am aiming, all the day long, to do right in all the little
details of life. ... How could he know? The Christian life is a hidden life, known only by the eye that sees in secret."

And couldn't any of us attest to the same thing? Our failures, at times so obvious, ar
e what drive us to the Father. Her example, however, does remind us that we ought not whitewash our flaws or put on airs to make ourselves appear more "together" than the next guy. Those who lived with her could see both her struggles and her strengths, which caused them to praise God all the more as they saw her grow in godliness. We need not pretend to be perfect.

When talking with a friend about the extended family members who came to live in her home within months of when she got married, Katy wistfully says that she would prefer to live with good-natured people that can challenge her toward something higher, rather than living with a constant struggle. Mrs. Campbell gave this reply (which is so fitting for any of us who think we know our own needs better than God):

"But if God chooses quite another lot for you, you may be sure that He sees that you need something totally different from what you want. ...As soon as God sees [the desire to love Him more, despite the trials it may require] in you, is He not kind, is He not wise, in appointing such trials as He knows will lead to this very end?"

Ms. Campbell then goes on to say something that warms my heart,

"I think some of the best, most contrite, most useful of men and women, whose prayers prevail with God, and bring down blessings into the homes in which they dwell, often possess unlovly traits that
furnish them with their best discipline. The very fact that they are ashamed drives them to God."

What a blessing for such a godly woman to give such grace to others and recognize the humanity of even the most God-seeking Christian.

After going home and getting into a domestic dispute over poor-quality butter (!), Katy temporarily forgets the good advice she has received, writing, "I find it hard to believe that it can do me good to have people live with me who like rancid butter, and who disagree with me in everything else."
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On her delicate and sickly daughter's first birthday, she records these thoughts which should challenge each of us as to the tightness of the grip with which we "hold" our own children:

"Thank God for sparing her to us a year. If He should take her away I would still rejoice that this life was mingled with ours, and has influenced them. Yes, even an unconscious infant is an ever-felt influence in the household; what an amazing thought! I have given this precious little one away to her Savior and to mine; living or dying, she is His."

When Katherine asks Mrs. Campbell if family obligations are a hindrance in drawing nearer to Christ, she responded, "Oh no! God never gives us hindrances. On the contrary, He means, in making us wives and mothers, to put us into the very conditions of holy living." And it is true. The challenges of being a wife and mother- facing our own selfishness and humanity, and facing each family member's selfishness and humanity- teach us to treat them neither as an idol nor as an annoyance. All of these things shape us and sharpen us to be used skillfully by Christ.

Her husband Ernest, a physician, was often with people on their deathbeds. He shared these thoughts with her about the death of casual Christians: "There is but one real preparation for Christian dying, and that is Christian living." When Katy questioned if being on their deathbed may change a person's heart, Ernest replied,

"Not often. ...I do not now recall a single instance where a worldly Christian died a happy, joyful death, in all my practice. ... We must not forget that God is honored or dishonored by the way a Christian dies, as well as by the way in which he lives. ...It gives me personal pain to see heirs of the eternal kingdom, ...go shrinking and weeping to the full possession of their inheritance."

Others sometimes accused Katherine of trusting in God only because she had never suffered loss, but this simply was not the case. She trusted in God through the trials of her life. Two months after the unexpected death of her firstborn son, she writes,

"Yes, I have tasted the bitter cup of bereavement, and drunk it down to the dregs. I gave my darling to God, I gave him, I gave him! But oh, with what anguish I saw those round, dimpled limbs wither and waste away, the glad smile fade forever from that beautiful face! What a fearful thing it is to be a mother! But I have given my child to God. I would not recall him if I could. I am thankful He has counted me worthy to present Him so costly a gift. ...He has not left us to the bitterness of a grief that refuses and spurns to be comforted. We believe in Him, we love Him, and we worship Him as we never did before."

As others tried to comfort her, they did not employ the method discussed in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, but as often is the case, offered unhelpful, unkind consolation to one in tremendous grief. "I begin to think that a tender clasp of the hand is about all one can give to the afflicted." One encouraged her not to grieve, another said that he might have grown up to be a bad man, and yet another noted that her son likely died because she had loved him more than God.

Reflecting on these, she wrote, "But I find no consolation or support in these remarks. My comfort is in my perfect confidence in the goodness and love of my Father, my certainty that He had a reason in thus afflicting me that I would admire and adore if I knew what it was." It is one thing for someone to preach faith and constancy when they themselves have not been through the fire (while what they say may be true, it can be off-putting to those who are in a trial), but it is quite another thing for someone to speak so boldly of God's love and faithfulness while in the midst of struggle. Plainly put, this story delights and challenges me.
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Such an openly genuine account of a life not wasted has significantly challenged me. Reading of a woman who walked the road to Heaven, recognizing the war between her human weakness and her desire for honor and live for Christ, has been so encouraging to me. I hope it has given you some food for thought. I will share more soon, but can only do so in portions, as this is meaty stuff!

TO read PART TWO of this book review, CLICK HERE!


Serena said...

Thank you for sharing your readings of Stepping Heavenward. I've read it several times: before I was married, while I was engaged, after I was married. Now that I have a baby, I think I need to read it again. Each time I've read it, it's amazed me how my perspective has changed and how different parts of the story stand out to me. It is such a good book, and it's wonderful be reminded how God's truth is timeless.

Christina said...

You have written some really insightful thoughts on this book. However, since I know you value truth, I felt compelled to point out one small error. "Stepping Heavenward" is fiction! It is indeed based on Elizabeth Prentiss' life, but her maiden name was Payson and Prentiss was her married name. Her husband was a minister not a doctor in real life and his name was George. She is also known as the author of the hymn "More Love to Thee". I think you would really enjoy her biography written by Sharon James. A little about her life (including her name) is in my copy of S.H. in the preface. (I know, I am geek and always read every single word in a book!)

I too found "Stepping Heavenward" quite challenging. I even asked my husband if we needed to consider having his mother move in with us!

You and your family are in my prayers. I trust that God is using this time apart from your husband to deepen your dependence on Him and Him alone.

Jess said...

Wow, Christina- thank you so much for pointing that out to me. I had no idea that it was fictional. It's the first thing I've read of hers and so I just assumed that it was her actual journal. How interesting!

Well, sorry to those of you who I've misled; it certainly wasn't intentional! Thanks for setting me straight! I'll need to go back and revise a few portions of my reviews then! :)

Jess said...

Well that's what I get for skimming through the preface! :)

I'll be going back and changing a few names and details in these posts, but the thrust remains the same- there is much to learn from this excellent book!

Theresa said...

It has been awhile since I read Stepping Heavenward. However, I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts. Some of them were quite timely.

I found your blog through LAF. Thanks!

Sealjoy said...


I really have enjoyed reading your blog, and have found it very enlightening.

I admit I found it through contraskeptics, as I have been a little involved in his dilemma.

I was wanting another Christian woman's opinion on a situation with my own husband, and would like for your input if you will.

Please e-mail me, if you don't mind, as I really don't have a whole lot of Christian support or friends in my area.

My email is sprice at sealjoy dot com

Thank you in advance,

God Bless

Wendy WaterBirde said...

Hi Jessica, What a delight to find your blog today (via LAF). You really have made a lovely home here...Looking forward to reading more : )

Blessed Week : ) Wendy

Lilgoatlady said...

I've loved Stepping Heavenward since I first read it in college. To me, it's one of the best and most "real" Christian fictional books I've ever read. Katy isn't perfect (who is?) and she struggles with many of the same temptations we all face.

I find myself in her shoes as she, already exhausted, tries to sew one more tuck (a decoration probably, not necessary) in her child's dress. Like her, I struggle to simplify and concentrate on what's really important.

This is a wonderful book and I would recommend it to anyone. Thanks for putting it on your page!