Lament in the Dark: Sin, Doubt, and Suffering in the Hymnody of Anne Dutton and Anne Steele
While both the theology and doxology of the church direct the Christian’s gaze toward the heavenly Kingdom, the limitations of an earthly context significantly impact the clarity and purity of these offerings. For now, these high and noble pursuits must occur within the fallen confines of the human condition—a condition that is continually marred by sin, doubt, and suffering.
Historically, one way that evangelicals addressed the human condition was through an expressed belief that for the Christian, spiritual or circumstantial darkness was not merely a condition to be passively endured but in reality could be a means through which believers offer doxology to God. For example, eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) observed in Religious Affections (1746) that Christians give glory to God “by trusting him in the dark.”1 British Particular Baptist hymnwriters Anne Dutton (1692–1765) and Anne Steele (1717–1778) also addressed the darkness that accompanies the human condition in their hymns, poetically professing that those who trust in God will know his goodness and live securely to his glory. Dutton proclaims in her autobiography that she wrote hymns “in the joy of faith, trusting the Lord in the dark.”2 Similarly, in her hymn “Hope in Darkness,” Steele professes that in the midst of humanity’s “gloomy darkness,” her hope in God shall be a “taper,” a “sacred light” that is “kindled” by his Word.3
Such confident statements of faith provide wisdom for believers on their earthly sojourn, and the research presented in this paper serves to highlight it. Through numerous hymn examples and comparisons to themes found in the book of Psalms, this paper will illustrate that the hymns of Dutton and Steele properly lament the human conditions of sin, doubt, and suffering before God and become doxological because of their biblically-grounded trust in his goodness.
To sustain this thesis, I will compare hymns of Dutton and Steele that address the human conditions of sin, doubt, and suffering and will highlight three observations: First, hymns that firmly confront sin bring glory to God by expressing confident trust that the spiritual darkness of human sin is eternally resolved through faithful acceptance of the perfect atonement provided by Christ. Second, hymns that honestly express or address the darkness of doubt bring glory to God by displaying unwavering trust in his sovereignty, his nature, and his salvation. Finally, hymns that articulate human suffering bring glory to God by expressing confident trust in his goodness. As will be shown, both Dutton and Steele professed a faith that proclaims with Job in the darkness, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15a, KJV).
1 Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, revised edition, ed. John E. Smith, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), vol. 2:175.
2 Anne Dutton, in Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton, ed. JoAnn Ford Watson (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006), vol. 3:88.
3 Anne Steele, Hymn 69, in Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional, 2nd ed. Vol. 1 (London: Printed by W. Pine, 1780), 126.