Prentiss, Elizabeth Payson (1818–1878)

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Prentiss, Elizabeth Payson (1818–1878)

American writer. Born on October 26, 1818, in Portland, Maine; died on August 13, 1878, in Dorset, Vermont; daughter of Edward Payson (a Congregational minister) and Ann Louisa (Shipman) Payson; educated in the public schools of Portland; married George Lewis Prentiss (a Presbyterian minister), on April 16, 1845; children: Anna Louise; Mary Williams; George Lewis; Henry Smith; two who died in infancy.

Selected writings:

Little Susy's Six Birthdays (1853); The Flower of the Family (1853); Only a Dandelion, and Other Stories (1854); Henry and Bessie; or, What They Did in the Country (1855); Little Susy's Six Teachers (1856); Little Susy's Little Servants (1856); Peterchen and Gretchen, Tales of Early Childhood (1860); The Little Preacher (1867); Fred, and Maria, and Me (1867); The Old Brown Pitcher (1868); Stepping Heavenward (1869); Nulworth (1869); The Percys (1870); The Story Lizzie Told (1870); Six Little Princesses (1871); Aunt Jane's Hero (1871); Golden Hours (1874); The Home at Greylock (1876); Pemaquid (1877); Gentleman Jim (1878); Avis Benson (1879).

Born in Portland, Maine, on October 26, 1818, Elizabeth Payson Prentiss was the fifth of six surviving children of Ann Shipman Payson , who was originally from New Haven, Connecticut, and Edward Payson, a native of Rindge, New Hampshire. Undoubtedly the most profound influence on Prentiss, her father was a Harvard graduate and a firebrand Congregational minister and revivalist. Although he died before she was ten, he impressed upon her at a very early age that the spiritual side of life was by far the most important. Prentiss was educated largely in local Portland schools, with the exception of a year she spent in New York City, where her older sister Louisa Payson had opened a school. At age 19, Elizabeth started a school for young children in her mother's house, but it lasted for only a short time. Never strong physically, Prentiss wrote while a young adult, "I never knew what it is to feel well." Throughout her life she was subject to severe headaches and fainting spells. A common thread running through most of her writings is that perfection of character can best be attained through suffering.

Prentiss had kept diaries and journals from a very early age, and also wrote stories and poetry. This interest in writing grew stronger as her sister Louisa found success writing articles and stories for magazines, and beginning in 1834 Prentiss published several works in Youth's Companion. In the early 1840s, she taught in a private girls' school in Richmond, Virginia, and married George Lewis Prentiss, a recently ordained minister, on April 16, 1845. They first moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he had been named pastor at a local Congregational church, and then lived for a brief time in Newark, New Jersey. Beginning in 1851 and for most of the rest of her life, Prentiss and her husband lived in New York, where he served as pastor for a number of Presbyterian churches. By all accounts, the Prentisses had a happy marriage, although they lost two of their six children in infancy. Prentiss relished her role, once writing: "You can't think how sweet it is to be a pastor's wife; to feel the right to sympathize with those who mourn, to fly to them at once, and join them in their prayers and tears. It would be pleasant to spend one's whole lifetime among sufferers, and to keep testifying to them what Christ can and will become to them, if they will only let Him."

The publication in 1853 of Little Susy's Six Birthdays marked Prentiss' first notable success as a writer of children's books. Also published that year was The Flower of the Family: A Book for Girls. Two years later came Henry and Bessie; or, What They Did in the Country. In 1856, trying to recapture the success of her first work, she published two more books in the Little Susy series, Little Susy's Six Teachers and Little Susy's Little Servants. Both were well received in the United States and England and were also translated into French. Central elements in the appeal of Prentiss' children's books were their realistic dialogue and the believability of their simple but clever story lines. In 1860, she published Peterchen and Gretchen, Tales of Early Childhood, a collection of German folk stories she had translated into English. Seven years later, Fred, and Maria, and Me appeared.

Prentiss' most popular book, Stepping Heavenward, was published in 1869, after being serialized in the Chicago Advance, and quickly became a bestseller. Although—or perhaps because—its appeal was more religious than literary, readers reacted strongly to this story of the triumphs and trials of a young girl growing up. Sales in the United States topped 100,000, and the book sold well in England, France, and Germany, although, perhaps because of its strong religious underpinnings, it was largely ignored by literary critics.

While she continued to write for the rest of her life, none of the numerous books Prentiss published achieved the popular success of Stepping Heavenward. She had a loyal audience for whom her autobiographical tales of Christian family life held great appeal, however, and these were the people who read her The Story Lizzie Told (1870), Aunt Jane's Hero (1871), The Home at Greylock (1876), Pemaquid (1877), and Gentleman Jim (1878), among others. Prentiss also wrote a number of religious poems and hymns, a musical form of worship that appealed strongly to her. (She once said that she had to pray for God's help to keep her from loving hymns more than the Bible.) One of her hymns, "More Love to Thee, O Christ," can still be found in many modern hymnals. Prentiss died at her family's summer home in Dorset, Vermont, on August 13, 1878, at the age of 59.


Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith. NY: Harper & Row, 1959.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania