Rev. Dr. Armitage of New York, in a lecture on
Our Female Hymn Writers, has recently brought to light the touching history of the hymn, beginning,
I want to be an angel.
It was written, he says,
by Mrs. Sydney P. Gill [sic], in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]. In the Sunday-school of Dr. Joel Parker’s [Clinton Street Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia], she taught the infant class.
She had been teaching a lesson on angels, when a little child said,
I want to be an angel. A few days after, the child died. The hymn was written for that Sunday-school to sing on her death, and it has struck a chord in every child’s heart since 1845.
It was composed April 19, 1845, on the day of the death of a little girl named Annie Louisa Farrand, the Sunday-school scholar to whom Dr. Armitage refers. The words
I want to be an angel had at this time been made familiar by the following incident, written by Dr. Irenseus Prime, April 5, 1845, which was being copied by nearly all religious and Sunday-school papers. [The incident appeared in the New York Observer, and was versified by Park Benjamin—Long, appendix pp. 36-37]:
A child sat in the door of a cottage at the close of a summer Sabbath. The twilight was fading, and as the shades of evening darkened, one after another of the stars stood in the sky and looked down on the child in his thoughtful mood. He was looking up at the stars and counting them as they came, till there were too many to be counted, and his eyes wandered all over the heavens, watching the bright worlds above.
They seemed just like
holes in the floor of heaven to let the glory through, but he knew better. Yet he loved to look up there, and was so absorbed, that his mother called to him and said:
My son, what are you thinking of?
He started as if suddenly aroused from sleep, and answered,
I was thinking.
Yes, said his mother,
I know you were thinking, but what were you thinking about?
Oh, said he, and his little eyes sparkled with the thought,
I want to be an angel.
And why, my son, would you be an angel?
Heaven is up there, is it not, mother? And there the angels live and love God, and are happy. I do wish I was good, and God would take me there, and let me wait on him for ever.
The mother called him to her knee, and he leaned on her bosom and wept. She wept too, and smoothed the soft hair of his head as he stood there, and kissed his forehead, and then told him that if he would give his heart to God, now while he was young, the Savior would forgive all his sins and take him up to heaven when he died, and he would then be with God for ever.
His young heart was comforted. He knelt at his mother’s side and said:
Jesus, Savior, Son of God,
Wash me in thy precious blood ;
I thy little lamb would be,
Help me, Lord, to look to thee.
The mother took the young child to his chamber. Soon he was asleep, dreaming perhaps of angels and heaven. A few months afterwards sickness was on him, and the light of that cottage, the joy of that mother’s heart, went out. He breathed his last in her arms, and as he took her parting kiss, he whispered in her ear:
I am going to be an angel.
Butterworth, pp. 150–52