Up to the time that I was six years old I have no remembrance of any religious ideas whatever. Even, when taken once to see the corpse of a little boy of my own age (four years), lying in a coffin strewn with flowers, in dear papa’s parish of Astley, I did not think about it as otherwise than a very sad and very curious thing that that little child should lie so still and cold. I do not think I could ever have said any of those “pretty things,” that little children often do, though there were sweet and beloved and holy ones round me who must have often tried to put good thoughts into my little mind. The beginning of it was a sermon preached one Sunday morning, at Hallow Church by Mr. Phillpotts. Of this I even now retain a distinct impression. It was to me a very terrible one, dwelling much on hell and judgment, and what a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God. No one ever knew it, but this sermon haunted me, and day and night it crossed me. I began to pray a good deal, though only night and morning, and a sort of fidget and impatience, almost angry at feeling so unhappy, and wanting and expecting a new heart, and have everything put straight and be made happy, all at once. . .
I think I had a far more vivid sense of the beauty of nature as a little child than I have even now; and its power over me was greater than any one would imagine. . .the golden quiet of a bright summer’s day used to enter into me and do me good. What only some great and rare musical enjoyment is to me now, the shade of a tree under a clear blue sky, with a sunbeam glancing through the boughs was to me then. But I did not feel happy in my very enjoyment; I wanted more. I do not think I was eight when I hit upon Cowper’s lines, ending
“My Father made them all!”
That was what I wanted to be able to say; and, after once seeing the words, I never saw a lovely scene again without being teased by them. One spring (I think 1845) I kept thinking of them, and a dozen times a day said to myself “Oh, if God would but make me a Christian before the summer comes!” because I longed so to enjoy His works as I felt they could be enjoyed. And I could not bear to think of another summer coming and going, and finding and leaving me still “not a Christian.”
July 1845-Spring 1850
We went to St. Nicholas’ Rectory in 1845, and it was in very great bitterness that I bade adieu to my pleasant country life, and became, as I remember dear papa calling me, “a caged lark.” This made a great difference to me, for I do think that the quiet everyday beauty of trees and sunshine was the chief external influence upon my early childhood. Waving boughs and golden light always touched and quieted me, and spoke to me, and told me about God. Being a “youngest” by so many years, and not knowing many children, I very rarely had a companion except my little Flora, [her pet dog] in that large Henwick garden, where I first learned to think; and that may have been the reason why trees and grass were so much to me. They were the first pleasant leaf in God’s great lesson book with me. . .
Soon after coming, a sermon by the curate on “Fear not, little flock,” etc., struck me very much and woke me up again from a longer than usual slumber to a more restless unhappiness than usual. I did so want to be happy and be “a Christian,” which term embraced everything I could possibly think of in the way of happiness. . .To come back to the sermon. I had never yet spoken a word to any mortal about religion; but now I was so uneasy that, after nearly a fortnight’s hesitation, taking the emboldening opportunity of being alone with the curate one evening when almost dark, I told him my trouble; saying especially that I thought I was getting worse, because since I had come to St. Nicholas, I had not cared at all for Sunday afternoon reading and prayer. His advice did not satisfy me. He said the excitement of moving and coming into new scenes was the cause most likely of my feeling worse and that would soon go off; then I was to try and be a good child, and pray, etc., etc. So, after that, my lips were utterly sealed to all but God for another five years or rather more.
Excerpts from MEMORIALS OF FRANCES RIDLEY HAVERGAL