THIS week’s choice, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, has involved me in a little detective work into a widely repeated legend. It’s been tricky as details are scarce and contradictory, but I believe I have got as near the truth as possible.

Both the words and the tune were written by Helen Howarth Lemmel, who was born 1863 in Wardle, near Rochdale. She was the daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister who took his family to America when she was nine. From here on the story is unclear. As far as I can tell, the family settled in Wisconsin, and Helen became known as a gifted soprano. She travelled widely throughout the Midwest during the early 1900s, giving concerts in churches. She moved to Seattle in 1904 (by which time she would have been 41), and was music critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for three years. The story goes that while interviewing the German singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Helen was persuaded to go to Germany to study music, and this she did for four years.

At some point she is said to have married a man named Lemmel. More on this later.

Details about her life after her return from Germany are sparse. She taught singing at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and subsequently at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.

In 1918 (by now aged 55) she was given a tract written by Lilias Trotter (1853-1928), a wealthy Englishwoman and talented artist. After struggling in prayer for two years, Trotter came to the conclusion that she must lay down her love of art in order to fix her eyes solely on Jesus, and on His calling to the mission field. She subsequently served for nearly 40 years as a missionary to Muslims of Algeria. In her tract named Focused she wrote: ‘Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen harmless worlds at once – art, music, social science, games, motoring, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them we run the risk of drifting about, the good hiding the best. It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Dare to have it out with God, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His Glory. Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.’

The last sentence made a deep impression on Lemmel, who recalled:

‘Suddenly, as if commanded to stop and listen, I stood still, and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus [Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus], 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 none the less dictated by the Holy Spirit.’

The hymn, which was originally entitled The Heavenly Vision, was published as a pamphlet in 1918, and four years later, it was included in a collection titled Glad Songs, a book containing 67 works by Mrs Lemmel.

She wrote a total of more than 500 hymns and poems as well as a successful book for children called Story of the Bible. In her later years she returned to Seattle where she lived in a small apartment.

There she was befriended by Paul and Kathryn Goins, and their son Doug, who later became a pastor.

The story that dominates internet sites, almost all in very nearly the same words, is that Helen married a wealthy European, possibly an aristocrat, while she was studying in Germany and that when ten years later she went blind he abandoned her. This would give extra poignancy to the words

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.

The only direct source I can find for this narrative is the Goins family. Much later Kathryn Goins, then 82, said: ‘She was always composing hymns. She had no way of writing them down, so she would call my husband at all hours and he’d rush down and record them before she forgot the words.’ She said Mrs Lemmel had a small plastic keyboard by her bed, where she would play, sing and weep. ‘“One day, God is going to bless me with a great heavenly keyboard,” she’d say. “I can hardly wait!”’

Pastor Doug Goins recalled: ‘I’ve told the story before of a woman I met when I was in junior high school. She lived about four doors down the street from us in Seattle, Washington. Her name was Helen Hayworth [sic] Lemmel. She was in her nineties. She had been born and raised in wealth in England, and was well-known as a songwriter. As a matter of fact, Mrs Lemmel probably wrote seventy or eighty Christian hymns and gospel songs that were popular in the 1920s through the early 1950s. Mrs Lemmel had married into nobility; her husband was a lord. But she was stricken with blindness as a very young woman, and her husband divorced her because he didn’t want to be married to a blind woman. I don’t know all the circumstances, but somehow she ended up destitute in Seattle, Washington, a ward of King County, living in a tiny room in a home where the rent was paid by the county.

‘Every time we would visit her or she would come to our home, we would ask her how she was doing, and she would always say, “I am fine in the things that count”.’

I am not casting aspersions on a man of the cloth, but I think the story has become embroidered in the telling. Pastor Goins was a young teenager when he knew Mrs Lemmel and may have misunderstood her background. She was not born into wealth, he spells her name wrong and he greatly underestimates her literary output. Given all that, he may have incorrectly thought she had been blind for longer than she really had. It seems to me that in her own detailed account of writing Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus she would have mentioned it if she were blind, especially in view of the subject matter. Instead she writes: ‘The verses were written the same week, after the usual manner of composition, but none the less dictated by the Holy Spirit.’ (my italics).

Her death notice in the Seattle Daily Times said: ‘She was blind in recent years.’ It noted that she left a son, Laurance H Lemmel of Apache Junction, Arizona, five grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

This is the only mention of a son that I have found. It would no doubt have been her son who placed the notice and he would have been the best position to know the facts about her blindness. I wonder if, with a son and so many other descendants, she really was destitute – it may be that she chose to live an ascetic life.

She went to Germany to study music when she was 44. It would not have been impossible to do this if she were blind, but you would expect it to have been mentioned. There are no mentions in her teaching connections about blindness.

So all in all I think we can conclude that Mrs Lemmel became blind in her old age. However it leaves many questions unanswered – who was Mr Lemmel, when did she marry him, when was their son born, what happened to Mr Lemmel? If the legend is correct, she met and married Mr Lemmel in Germany, and had a son, between the ages of 44 and 48 – again not impossible but unusual. Although if this were the case, the son would not have been old enough to have children and grandchildren of his own by the time of Mrs Lemmel’s death in 1961.

I did find one clue: a genealogy website lists a Laurance Howarth Lemmel who was born in Wisconsin in 1887, the son of William Lemmel, when Helen would have been 24. The odds are strongly on this being Mrs Lemmel’s son – the unusual spelling of his first name, the fact that his second name is the same as Mrs Lemmel’s maiden name, and the birthplace is where she was living. This date of birth would fit the timescale of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I am sure the answers must be somewhere.

It was hard to find a straightforward version of Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, but eventually I discovered this one by the Billy Graham Crusade Choirs, though it is only the chorus.

Here is Rodney Jantzi on the Berlin Reed Organ.

This is a lush version from Indonesia.

This is by the Aramis String Quartet.

And this will not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it is powerful.

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