She wrote about 1500 hymns in all, over a 37 year period. In her lifetime her songs were translated and sung in Africa, India, China, and Korea. Her best known songs, ‘Nearer, Still Nearer,’ and ‘Let Jesus Come Into Your Heart’ (both penned 1898), and another, ‘Sweet Will of God,’ (1900) can still be found in hymnals today.
Born in Pennsville, OH on April 15, 1862, Leila Naylor Morris grew up in Malta and McConnelsville, OH. She was quite young when her father died, so her mother started a millinery shop to support the five children. There young Leila learned to knit, sew, crochet and darn. When she started piano lessons she practiced at a neighbor’s house because the family could not afford an instrument.
“When I was ten years old I was led to give my heart to God. It was not a form of giving my heart to God. I knew then that I needed a Savior. Three different years I went forward to the altar and prayed and prayed, until a man came and laid his hand on my head and said ‘Why, little girl, God is here and ready to forgive your sins’.” Leila began playing the organ for prayer meetings when she was just 12 years old.
In 1881, Leila married Charles H. Morris. She transferred her membership to her husband’s church, the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Morrises actively supported their congregation. Leila served as a choir member and a leader in the Sunday school, the Epworth League, and the missionary society.
Until she was thirty Leila thought she’d be spending the rest of her life sitting behind a sewing machine making dresses for women in McConnellsville. But ten years after she got married she became interested in writing gospel songs. Her husband said that she always kept a pad of paper handy so that if she got the inspiration for another hymn she could write it down. She composed her work in the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, where she’d learned to play the organ. This congregation was formally established in McConnelsville in 1826 and is that town’s oldest denomination.
Many well known hymns, including “Sweeter As the Years Go By,” “Nearer, Still Nearer,” and “Let Jesus Come Into Your Heart,” were composed in Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church by its organist, Mrs. Leila Morris.
Evangelists quickly began using Leila’s songs. Many would visit in her home when they were in Ohio. If Leila was attending a camp meeting or revival service, she often would be invited to sit on the platform. Leila relished the opportunity to be in these services because she frequently was inspired to write songs after returning home from the meetings.
In 1913, Leila’s eyesight began to fail. For awhile she used a twenty-eight foot black board that had the music staff lines on it that her son made for her. Within a year she was completely blind. Despite her lost sight she continued to write gospel songs with the help of devoted friends. She would simply remember the songs until her daughter Fanny came for an annual visit. Leila would dictate dozens of songs as her daughter wrote them down, both words and music.
Leila’s daughter Mary and her husband were missionaries to China. “A great many persons have said [Mary] should be at home with her blind mother. . . . I have been so happy to receive her letters in which she tells of being able to give a message for the first time to those darkened minds and hearts. I think you will agree with me that this is the best thing I have ever done.”
Leila Naylor Morris died on July 23, 1929.
The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories about 600 Hymns and Praise, by William J. Petersen, Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.