Prentiss, Elizabeth Payson

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PRENTISS, Elizabeth Payson

Born 26 October 1818, Portland, Maine; died 13 August 1878, Dorset, Vermont

Daughter of Edward and Ann Shipman Payson; married George L.Prentiss, 1845; children: six

Elizabeth Payson Prentiss was the fifth of eight children of a Congregational minister; both her theology and piety were deeply influenced by her father. Sickly and intense even as a child, Prentiss professed her faith in 1831 and joined the Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church in New York City. That same year her family returned to Portland, and Prentiss opened a school there in 1838. From 1840 to 1843, Prentiss taught in Richmond, Virginia. She married a recently ordained Congregational minister, and they moved first to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they had two children, and later to New York City, where four more children were born.

Prentiss began her writing career with the publication of children's books. In Little Susy's Six Birthdays (1853), Little Susy's Six Teachers (1856), and Little Susy's Little Servants (1856), Prentiss teaches children by example and allegory. Her use of realistic accounts of children's high jinks and trials set a new trend in juvenile literature, and the Suzy books were printed in numerous domestic and foreign editions for the remainder of the century.

The Flower of the Family (1853) was written to show girls that "trivial home duty," when performed in the fear of God and love for Christ, leads "onward and upward through present self-denial, to the highest usefulness, peace and joy." Similar themes mark Prentiss' adult fiction, including Stepping Heavenward (1869). In this semiautobiographical spiritual manual, the protagonist is Katherine Mortimer, who marries Dr. Ernest Elliott and has six children. Katy is spurred to spiritual growth by such misfortunes as the insensitivity of her husband, the death of a child, the neverending drudgery of housewifery, and, finally, her own terminal seven-year illness.

For Prentiss, the path to Christian perfection—a very popular quest of the day—was through suffering endured and sorrow accepted. In all her novels the protagonists finally reach Christian maturity after their faith has been deepened, their spirituality refined by broken engagements, children's sickness and death, social alienation, unjust accusations, or the nearly fatal illness of a spouse. As her husband and biographer writes, "she came to regard suffering, when sanctified by the word of God and by prayer, as the King's highway to Christian perfection."

Although Prentiss' books did not gain literary acclaim, they were a significant contribution to the "higher life" movement of the day. Prentiss' most enduring contribution was her poem "More Love to Thee, O Christ," still found in most hymnals.

Other Works:

Henry and Bessie (1855). Peterchen and Gretchen, Tales of Early Childhood (translated by Prentiss, 1860). The Little Preacher (1867). Fred, and Maria, and Me (1868). Little Threads (1868). Aunt Jane's Hero (1871). Religious Poems; or, Golden Hours (1873-1874). Urbane and His Friends (1874). The Home at Greylock (1876). Pemaquid (1877). Avis Benson (1879).


Douglas, A., The Feminization of American Culture (1977). Prentiss, G. L., The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss (1882).

Reference works:

AA. DAB. NAW (1971). NCAB.