Coming to God – “Just As I Am”
In the hushed atmosphere following the speaker’s message, and the invitation to come forward to begin a new faith in Jesus Christ, the choir sang softly. The familiar words of Just As I Am echoed through the venue, as those responding filed down the aisles, to converse with the waiting counselors about their decision.
This is a familiar scene for all of us—either in person or in the media. However, what is interesting is that while the words of the hymn indicated a new life for those responding, it was the same case for the invalid lady hymn writer. For the 1822 hymn by Charlotte Elliott that became a classic was part of the writer’s spiritual journey.
Born in March, 1789 in Brighton, England, Charlotte Elliott was from a family composed of numerous clergymen—two brothers among them. With such a religious heritage it was probably natural that she grow up in an atmosphere of piety and refinement. Also with a sense of being unworthy to attain salvation.
For the first part of her life, Charlotte was known as a vibrant and cheerful portrait artist and poetess, yet by 1821 she was struggling with chronic fatigue, from an unrevealed illness. This meant that for a large part of her life Charlotte was confined to her sickroom.
Yet while this limited her activity it also began to affect—and maybe aggravate—her ongoing sense of spiritual unworthiness despite her sincere desire for a relationship with God. In fact, her inactivity caused such a depression, that she constantly thought about what she could have been if not for the illness. She lived with her clergyman brother whose colleagues visited and prayed for her.
Then in 1822 celebrated Swiss evangelist Dr. Caesar Malan came to England on a speaking tour and dropped by to see Charlotte at her brother’s invitation.
Sitting in Charlotte’s sickroom, Dr. Malan listened as Charlotte described her problems, and then when there was a pause Dr. Malan had a question. “Why do you think you were struck down?”
“Because of something I’ve done,” Charlotte answered, “I must have sinned in some way.”
When the visitor suggested that God could help her if she prayed, she would have none of it. “I’m not worthy for God’s help.”
“What have I got to offer Christ?” She asked.
“You have nothing,” Dr. Malan replied, “no one does but God doesn’t need anything from us. He will accept you – just as you are.”
Then after much thought, Charlotte made her decision to accept God’s offer of salvation, though nothing really changed—on the outside. In fact, she always remembered that day in May, 1822 as her spiritual birthday.
“God knows me well,” Charlotte related to her brother and went on to describe how God knew how her constant fatigue could well have tempted her to depression and instability. However, she was determined to not let that happen. She claimed Jesus’ promise: ”If a man will come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). Then she said, “God sees, God guards, and God guides me. His grace surrounds me, and His voice continually bids me to be happy and holy in His service, just as I am.”
With this idea, Charlotte wrote the first three verses of the hymn and she permitted her brother to use the words in his services, and soon the hymn was published in a hymnal. As it was sung more and more by 1850 Just As I Am had crossed the Atlantic and sung by American churches.
And in other venues—sometimes stadiums and auditoriums. American evangelist Billy Sunday used it in his meetings, then his evangelistic successor Billy Graham followed suit. Dr. Graham’s “crusades” swept around the world, taking the hymn with it. In fact, as writer Ace Collins put it: “Thus there can be little doubt that Graham’s incredible revival meetings paved the way for an invalid English woman’s testimony to become known as an American institution and a beacon of Christian faith.”
For the rest of her life, Charlotte was confined to her bed, though there were times of remission when she could travel. She used her sickroom as an office of sorts as she continued to manage to publish her hymns and edit other Christian publications. One book was The Invalid’s Hymnbook where Just As I Am. appeared along with many others hymns she wrote.
Her illness also prevented her from attending church services, but that did not hamper a fulfilling spiritual life. “She wrote: “My Bible is my church. It is always open and there is my High Priest ever waiting to receive me. There I have my confessional, my thanksgiving, my psalm of praise, and a congregation of whom the world is not worthy—prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and confessors; in short all I can want I find there.”
As the years passed she issued books of more poems but once in the 1860s she rarely left home. She died in Brighton in September, 1871.
Yet from her sickbed and despite her limitations, Charlotte Elliott has continued to touch lives even after her death, with Just As I Am one of the most popular hymns. As one writer put it: “She sang for those in sickness and sorrow as very few others have ever done.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.
Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Hymns That Inspire America; Songs That Unite Our Nation, Zondervan, 2003