I’ve written about married couples who wrote hymns, and recently, the mother/daughter duo of Phoebe Palmer and Phoebe Knapp. Now here’s a sister duo. Alice Cary (b. 1820), and sister Phoebe (born 1824), were raised on a farm near Cincinnati, Ohio, along with seven other siblings. Their parents were converts to Universalism, theologically liberal and reformist, with a strong sense of social justice. The girls had little time for school, and were mainly self-educated. The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine was the only periodical they read, but it had a poet’s corner they loved. This inspired them to write their own poems and Alice in particular wrote prolifically, compulsively. She published without pay, mainly in Universalist and Cincinnati publications. In 1835, their mother died, and two years later, their father married a widow who thought their poetry and education was a waste of time. When they were deprived of candles for night study, they were compelled to study and write under the light of a saucer of lard with a bit of rag for a wick. Alice’s first major poem, “The Child of Sorrow” was published in 1838 and praised by Edgar Allan Poe and Horace Greeley. As their fame and reputation grew, editor Rufus Griswold encouraged the publication of a collection of their poetry. In 1849, a Philadelphia publisher did that with the Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary. That anthology made them well known, earned them $100, and in 1850, they moved to New York City to start a literary salon. They hosted Sunday receptions that included guests such at P.T.Barnum, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Greenleaf Whittier, Horace Greeley, and other notables of the time. Alice wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, and other literary periodicals. And she wrote novels and poems independent of periodicals. Phoebe, less prolific, edited Hymns for All Christians in 1869 and published two books of poetry. Some of her lyrics appeared in church hymnals. They needed to publish regularly in order to make a living and a psychological need to write constantly. Both had a passion for justice and especially disliked the wrongs done to women. Alice showed this to some extent in her writings. Phoebe, however, was more assertive in supporting women’s rights. Her writings mocked gender roles. She was briefly assistant editor of The Revolution, a newspaper published by Susan B. Anthony. Alice died of tuberculosis 1871. Her funeral was packed with mourners. Pallbearers included Barnum and Greeley. When Alice died, Phoebe became depressed, unable to eat or work. This combined with the exhaustion of caring for Alice during the two years before Alice’s death, and combined with malaria and hepatitis, led to Phoebe’s death five months later. They are buried side by side in Brooklyn, New York.
Alice was the most well-known during their lifetimes, but Phoebe’s reputation grew later, and today, her hymn texts are more commonly included in hymnals. The most famous of their hymns was Phoebe’s “One Sweetly Solemn Thought”, also known as “Nearer My Home”, written in 1852. It was popularized in the Moody-Sankey evangelistic campaigns. Sankey praised it for helping to reform and save men as far away as China. It was written in her little back third story bedroom, on a Sabbath morning after returning from church and hearing a sermon on immortality. It was performed at both their funerals. The hymn rejoices that our home in heaven is nearer with each passing day.
In a like theme, Alice wrote “O’er the Hills the Sun is Setting” And like her younger sister’s hymns, it has a similar chorus: “Nearer home, nearer home. . . .Oh, ‘tis always sweet to know at even, we are one day nearer home.” (Alice). Compare this with “Nearer my home, nearer my home, nearer my home today, today, than I have been before.” (Phoebe). This mutual thought no doubt arose in part from the losses of siblings and their mother when they were children and in part from the common sensibilities of 19th century culture. Many of their hymn texts centered on death. Like the apostle Paul, they had conflicting emotions about their own departure from this earth.