Poet of Pain

by Bernard R. DeRemer

Poet of Pain

For more than 40 years, Annie Johnson Flint experienced hardly a day free from pain. Indeed, throughout 37 years she become increasingly helpless. But in spite of (or perhaps because of) handicaps, she produced poetry which has blessed multitudes and continues to be greatly used.

Annie Johnson was born in 1866 at Vineland, N.J. When she was 3, her mother died, plunging the family into its first real crisis. Her father took Annie and her sister to board with a Civil War comrade's widow. But with this woman's own children's demands, the needy newcomers were not welcome. A kindly neighbor known as Aunt Susie (no relation) stepped in. This school teacher, who boarded in the Flint home, became so attached to the Johnson children that she persuaded the Flints to adopt them. Annie's terminally ill father died soon after, so the new arrangement was providential.

Thus, Annie grew up in a godly home where love reigned. At an early age, she was saved during a revival meeting, though she would not join a church until years later.

Fond of reading, she made extensive use of her adopted father's library, and was thrilled to discover that she could express herself in verse.

When the family moved to Camden, N.J., schooling continued and larger opportunities opened. She and a friend formed a "literary society of two"; every Saturday afternoon they met to read favorite poets and attempt their own verses.

After high school, Annie attended, then taught at, a normal school. But alas, in her second year, arthritis began to develop. This condition worsened, a harbinger of much worse to follow.

The death of her adoptive parents left Annie and her sister alone again, with few resources, and facing a real "Red Sea" experience. Faithful Aunt Susie again came to the rescue, arranging for Annie's treatment at a sanitarium. Rental of the house she was vacating provided an income.

Finally came a crushing disappointment: doctors told her that "henceforth she would be a helpless invalid." But she bravely learned to say with Paul, "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:9).

Her biographer gives this poignant account:

"With a pen pushed through bent fingers and held by swollen joints she wrote first without any thought [of ministry or monetary return]. Her verses provided a solace for her in the long hours of suffering. Then she began making hand-lettered cards and gift books, and decorated some of her own verses."

Her "Christmas Carols" became popular; two publishers printed them, giving her at last some means of support as well as a widening ministry to others.

Then the Christian Endeavour World, Sunday School Times, and Evangelical Christian, leading periodicals of the day, began publishing her poems, bringing further readers and revenue.

Here is one of her gems written in response to the visit of a "tired, discouraged deaconess" who shared her own difficult trials with Annie:

God hath not promised skies always blue,

Flower-strewn pathways all our lives thro';

God hath not promised sun without rain,

Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.

But God hath promised strength for the day,

Rest for the labor, light for the way;

Grace for the trials, help from above,

Unfailing sympathy, undying love.

Annie lived largely from hand to mouth, but she pointed out, "The mouth was hers, the hand was God's, and it was never empty." Sometimes sales fell off while extra needs pressed severely. Thus she was driven to trust such promises as Phil. 4:19 all the more.

Annie's last years brought no relief from her affliction, no lessening of pain and suffering. Yet in them "she really exemplified more than ever some of the sweetness of her earlier verses." Finally, in September, 1932, her earthly suffering ended and she was ushered into the presence of the Lord and last reached the land of "... [no] more pain ..." (Rev. 21:4).

Many of her poems appeared in the "Heart to Heart Talk" monthly devotionals published by Charles E. Fuller's Old Fashioned Revival Hour. Throughout the dark difficult days of World War II and beyond, they brought incalculable blessing to multitudes, including myself.

The Evangelical Christian issued seven booklets of Annie's poems. When Best Loved Poems appeared in 1962 (Zondervan), a reviewer called them "some of the best religious verse to be written in our time."

Today "A Very Present Help, " and a few other poems are available in leaflets of the Tract League, Grand Rapids, Mich. The "poet of pain" continues to live on in her work.