A Story & A Song*


Gathered up, focused lives, intent on one aim – Christ – these are the lives on which God can concentrate blessedness.  It is “all for all” by a law as unvarying as any law that governs the material universe.   Focussed:  A Story & A Song

Have you ever wondered how a song comes into being?  Which comes first?  The words or the music?  How is a song presented to the world?

The story of the song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” is about two women – Lilias Trotter, Helen Lemmel – each remarkable in her own right, and how their unique talents merged to create one of the most beloved spiritual songs of the 19th century, enduring to this day.

I have immersed myself in the life of Lilias Trotter for almost thirty years,  but I have known little about Helen Lemmel until recently.  While they never met each other, Helen, born  a decade later, in 1863, had much in common with Lilias. Like Lilias, she was born in England, however of modest means her father being a Wesleyan Methodist pastor.  She had a normal childhood which was changed enormously when in 1875, at the age of 12, her family emigrated to the United States eventually settling in Wisconsin. She, like Lilias, was artistically gifted.  A great musical talent was identified in young Helen, gaining her a reputation as a brilliant singer.  Music was her passion.  As a young woman she traveled widely throughout the Midwest giving concerts in many churches.

In 1904, at the age of 40, she moved to Seattle, Washington, where she was able to merge her remarkable literary abilities with her love of music becoming the music critic for the Seattle-Post Intelligencer.

She moved to Germany in 1907 where she spent the next four years continuing her study of voice with private lessons.  While in Germany, she met and married a wealthy European.

Upon the completion of her studies, she moved back to the Midwest (1911) where she entered an active period of concertizing throughout the United States.  She gave concerts in churches and traveled on the Chautauqua circuit, a popular performance venue of that era.  She was greatly in demand throughout the United States, performing her own patriotic compositions for soldiers in Military Camps as well as providing programs of her own stories and songs of a wide range of subjects.

Even as she experienced success in secular venues, her first love and loyalty was to her Christian faith.  She continued to give concerts in churches and eventually became the vocal music teacher at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois, even leading a woman’s choral group for Billy Sunday during the peak of his career. At the same time she continued her literary pursuits writing hymns as well as stories and poems for children.  Her book for children, Story of the Bible was met with wide acclaim.

Then a tragedy struck that would have a life-altering effect.  She was diagnosed with an affliction that would result in blindness.  Her husband, unable to cope with that reality, abandoned the marriage, leaving her to cope on her own.  What might have been a debilitating experience physically as well as emotionally, only turned her more completely to God and to her most compelling vocation:  the composing of hymns from the depths of her heart and life experience.  She authored around 500 hymns, lyrics and music, many in circulation to this day.

She moved back to Seattle, Washington upon retirement where, living in reduced circumstances, she continued to write out her soul in poems set to music.  Now totally blind, she would pick out the notes on a small keyboard and call upon friends to record them before she forgot them.  When asked “How are you?” her frequent reply was, “I am fine in the things that count.”  Like Lilias, she continued to write until the end of her life.  She died at 97 years of age.

How then did collaboration between Lilias Trotter and Helen Lemmel take place?  How did one song merge from two women who never met each other?  In a previous post,  Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus (October 26, 2012), I have detailed how Lilias wrote and Helen “discovered” the little leaflet, “Focussed,” almost 2 decades later.  It contained  a statement that had 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.”  The rest is told in Helen’s own words:  “I stood still and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus, with no one conscious moment of putting word to word to make rhyme or note to note to make melody.” A few years later, it was published in a book of 67 songs written by Helen, Glad Tidings, used as the songbook for the Keswick Convention – where it became their theme song, the summer of 1924, launching its popularity.

I marvel, in reflection, at the Divine collaboration through which God used people and so-called circumstances to further His Purposes.  How could Lilias know when she set off for a brief time alone with God (1901) that her reflection on a dandelion recorded in her diary – “The word of the Lord came to me this morning through a dandelion.” – would become the inspiration for a song that would withstand the test of time, speaking to one generation after another of the importance of “turning full face to Jesus.”   

Likewise, as I view the years between Lilias’s death and the present, I marvel how God has chosen to keep Lily’s legacy alive – first through the colleagues of Lilias who recorded her story and various writings in published works. . . the devoted missionary (Eva Longley) who remained in Algeria until she had seen the passage of Lilias’s archives – journals, diaries, papers, paintings  – to safety in Europe. . .  the generosity of the staff at the Arab World Ministries Headquarters in the UK who gave me full access to those archives for research  . . .  the individuals who underwrote the costs of publishing a biography and contributed to a compilation of her writings and watercolors. . . and the couple who came alongside with their vision of translating this story into the medium of film . . .

As we stand on the brink of the release of the film, Many Beautiful Things, I am in awe that God is now “resurrecting” her legacy through this visual medium – and the ways and means by which He “used” countless individuals to accomplish His ongoing purposes.  John Stott wrote, “God invites us to share in his work.  Indeed, our work becomes a privilege when we see it as a collaboration with God.”  (Through The Bible)

And that, for me, it the bigger story.  God is at work in our individual lives and in the family of faith, using our meager gifts and offerings in the ordinary course of daily living.  We may never know how and where and when a word, a touch, an action will be transmuted by God into something beyond our intentions.  Lilias didn’t.  But we carry on.  Who knows when our prose will become a song?!

Sketch:  cover for revised version of leaflet,  “Focussed:  A Story & Song”

*Since the publication of this post, a beautifully illustrated gift book about this story, Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus:  A Story and a Song, has been published.  Replete with the full text of “Focussed,” it is available for purchase on Amazon.  Click here to see and/or purchase.

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12 Responses to A Story & A Song*

  1. Pingback: The Passionate Work of Lilias Trotter and Margaret Sanger – Labor of Love

    • mhrockness says:

      This was a fascinating article and a poignant contrast between 2 remarkable women who had some similar aims – but which sprang from a different motive source. Surely all that is sown for eternity will be reaped eternally. Thank you for this insightful writing. Miriam Rockness

  2. Carol Romine says:

    I Love the song “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” In a troubled world The song gives me peace. Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The Life!

  3. bk says:

    hello. i just learned about helen h. lemmel today. her hymn “turn your eyes upon jesus” is beautifully inspirational. i can find nothing about her book “story of the bible” however, not at any libraries or online bookstores. do you know if it is still in print? thank you. bk

    • mhrockness says:

      Good question. I have done a bit of an on-line search myself – to no avail – so I’m guessing that it is out-of-print. But it is worth trying to see if one does show up through continued searches. “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” was one of my favorite songs even before I knew of the connection to Lilias. You might be interested in knowing that Oxvision will soon be releasing a lovely picture book (illustrator Tim Ladwig) with the story behind the hymn. It will include the text of Lilias’ leaflet, Focussed, that inspired the hymn along with copy of the cover (firwood and dandelion) of her final version.

  4. PJ says:

    I am constantly amazed at where the Lord leads me each day: from the reading of my daily devotional, in which Helen Lemmel’s authorship of one of my favorite hymns was mentioned, to this wonderful and informative article which reveals her faith and His hand in her life as well. What a blessing to start my day!

  5. Pingback: Vertigo on the Straight Gate and Narrow Way - Sharing Horizons

  6. Sandra Revelle says:

    Today I listened to “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” sung by Selah. It so touched me I decided to look up the writer. This led me to the story of Helen and Lilias. I was dumbfounded! I love the story of Lilias and have several books and the movie. As an artist and writer myself, her story means so much. The divine links were such a powerful example of God crossing time, and continents for His glory.

    • mhrockness says:

      Thank you, Sandra, for your note. I’m familiar with both Selah’s soulful version of “Turn Your Eyes” – and know 2 members of the original Selah, Todd and Nicol. Isn’t it amazing how God used the talents of 2 women – unknown to each other – to create this wonderful song beloved for many decades to present?! So glad that you “discovered” this story – and I can see how it would resonate with you, an artist and writer. Thank you, again, for reaching out. Best blessings, Miriam

  7. Erin Strouse says:

    Thank you so much for your post! I, too, marvel at what God is doing through you, as well as Lilias and Helen. I just stumbled across your article, intending just to search the year the song came out. I’ve been meditating on Lauren Daigle’s fresh remix of the hymn this holiday but knew nothing of the original song or the women behind it; even 100 years later, it offers such hope for weary souls in 2020. I wanted to post about this on Facebook to encourage friends … and in the process God encouraged me so much! I’m really looking forward to learning more about Lilias and Helen through your writings, the books and the movie. Your blog motivates me to continue to write and to study music. It helps me to carry on and stay “Focussed” in 2021 with a “full face” to Jesus. It inspires me as I start homeschooling my kids this week. Like Zec. 4:10 says, let us not “despise the small beginnings.” I love, too, how you put it – “Who knows when our prose will become a song?” 🙂 Erin

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