Thursday, May 31, 2018

Before The Throne of God Above - the 'sympathy marriage' of Charitie Smith / Charitie Lee Bancroft De Cheney

It’s become one of the most popular hymns of recent years. Before The Throne of God Above was originally written by a teenage girl from County Fermanagh around 1860 which she then published in a collection of poems in 1867. It lay pretty much in obscurity until it was recovered around 1997 by American songwriter Vikki Cook of Sovereign Grace Music, who composed a new tune. It has since become a worldwide favourite.

The quality and simplicity of the words have brought wide acclaim from seasoned theologians, an excellent summary of the basics of the Reformed faith. It is remarkable that a teenager had such understanding and expressive skills.

• Charitie Smith
The writer was Charitie Smith (1841-1923; Wikipedia here). She was born in Dublin, the daughter of a Scottish-born Church of Ireland rector called Sidney Smith who ministered at Colebrooke and later Drumragh near Omagh. So Charitie’s childhood and early life was spent in the rural west of Ulster within the communities of these two churches. There is a memorial stained glass window to Sidney in one of them. She married former Royal Navy man Arthur E. Bancroft from Liverpool on 21 October 1869 at St Thomas Episcopal Church in Corstorphine, Edinburgh. His father was Peter Bancroft (1809–97), a prominent merchant. However, Arthur Bancroft died some time in the 1880s.

A dig around reveals more detail...

• Prison Philanthropy
Charitie went to America, possibly with her doctor brother Thomas. In newspaper records from California she was described as ‘a woman of considerable means’ who became involved in philanthropic prison reform work in the famed penitentiaries of San Quentin and Folsom. She didn’t only invest her time and goodwill there -  ‘a large part of her personal fortune was spent in the reformation of former inmates’. 

• Marriage
She married Frank Lees De Cheney. He was 27 years younger than her, a ‘mining man and rancher’. Some accounts date the marriage at 1891 when she would have been 50 and he 23. Other accounts say 1901, when she would have been 60 and he 33. It was definitely 1901 when the marriage broke down.

• Divorce
On April 17 1915, aged 75, Charitie, described as ‘a familiar figure in the exclusive set’, was served with divorce papers. They were pushed through an open window by Sheriff Michael Sheehan while she was asleep on the front porch of her summer home at Moss Beach in San Francisco.

The divorce was on the grounds of ‘desertion - the claimant is from San Francisco, and claims that his wife refused to live in San Francisco but preferred southern California’.

The divorce was granted in infamous Reno, Nevada (where the song famously says ‘romances bloom and fade') on 29 May 1915; newspaper reports reveal some context – 'there was a touch of religious difference between the two. Mrs De Cheney is a devout woman while he is a professed agnostic. Her nephew testified along this line saying that he did not think Mrs De Cheney had ever been in a theater in her life.' The wedding was described as ‘a sympathy affair; he had just emerged from a long illness at the time and she had been exceeding kind to him. After the wedding she thought that he would be better away from the temptations of a large city, but he did not agree to that. De Cheney went to Nevada shortly after they parted in 1901’.

She died on 20 January 1923, aged 82, and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.
Her brother Thomas Orde Smith also died in Oakland, California in 1931.



Before the throne of God above 
I have a strong and perfect plea 
A great High Priest whose name is love 
Who ever lives and pleads for me 
My name is graven on His hands 
My name is written on His heart 
I know that while in heav’n He stands 
No tongue can bid me thence depart 
No tongue can bid me thence depart 

When Satan tempts me to despair 
And tells me of the guilt within 
Upward I look and see Him there 
Who made an end of all my sin 
Because the sinless Savior died 
My sinful soul is counted free 
For God the Just is satisfied 
To look on Him and pardon me 
To look on Him and pardon me 

Behold Him there, the risen Lamb 
My perfect, spotless Righteousness 
The great unchangeable I AM 
The King of glory and of grace 
One with Himself, I cannot die 
My soul is purchased by His blood 
My life is hid with Christ on high 
With Christ my Savior and my God 
With Christ my Savior and my God