Early Years

Parentage - Rev. Edward Bickersteth - Watton - Life at the Rectory - Education - Recreations - Visits - Early religious impressions - Cambridge - Recollections by Prof. J. E. B. Mayor - Remimiscences of the Bishop by the Rev. E. B. Birks - Degree - Prize poems - Ordination - Marriage

EDWARD HENRY BICKERSTETH Was born on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25, 1825. His father was the Rev. Edward Bickersteth, assistant secretary of the Church Missionary Society, and his mother Sarah, eldest daughter of Mr. Thomas Bignold of Norwich. They lived in Barnsbury Park, Islington, then bordered by fields which stretched away to the heights of Highgate and Hampstead.

And here the beaten track of biographers must be followed, since all who are intefested in a career are concerned to know such particulars as may be summed up under the hackneyed terms, heredity and environment. It is easier to exaggerate or disparage these factors than to assign to each its proper scope in the growth and development of a character. Let it be granted, indeed, that personality with its fundamental attributes comes in every case direct from the hand of God, that what ultimately decides a life is from within. But there are also unmistakable tokens of “the divinity which shapes our ends,” both in the traits and tendencies which are transmitted by a man’s forefathers, and in the circumstances which do so much to modify character, and to give it direction, even where they cannot determine it.

The branch of the Bickersteth family from which the Bishop was descended, settled at Kirkby Lonsdale in Westmoreland in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Its descent can be traced to Ralph Bickerstaff, high sheriff of Lancashire, who fought under Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field. Henry Bickersteth, the grandfather of the Bishop, a surgeon at Kirkby Lonsdale in Westmoreland, had a remarkable quartette of sons. One of these was John Bickersteth, widely known in his generation as a devoted clergyman, whose sons were Edward Bickersteth, Dean of Lichfield, and Robert Bickersteth, Bishop ofitipon. Another, Henry, was Senior Wrangler at Cambridge in 1808. He became a barrister, and rising to the Mastership of the Rolls, he was created Baron Langdale. He refused the Lord Chancellorship. Robert, the youngest son, became a surgeon of eminence in Liverpool, and Edward, the Rector of Watton, was father of the Bishop. It is impossible to dispose of such a career as that of Edward Bickersteth, of Watton, in a paragraph or two; for his zeal and devotion and what he made his home to become, had a powerful formative influence upon the training of his son. The soil in which a tree grows does not account for the tree itself, but it has much to do with its growth and with the flavour of its fruit.

Edward Bickersteth, the father of the Bishop, began his career in the post-office in London, early in the year 1800. Shortly afterwards he determined to become a solicitor, and gave himself to the duties of his profession with the utmost diligence until his call to the ministry in 1815. For some years previously he had carried on religious work with great earnestness and success as a layman. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Norwich, and within a week, priest by letters dimissory at Gloucester. He accepted the post of assistant secretary to the Church Missionary Society and was forthwith sent out by the committee to inspect their missions in West Africa. Those who selected him for such a work had judged rightly of his qualifications, for besides the glow and enthusiasm of missionary zeal, he had the knowledge of men and of the world which a professional training of many years had given him.

He admitted the first of the society’s converts to the. Holy Communion, and the experience which he gained of the trials and difficulties of a missionary life, as well as of the stifling atmosphere of a heathen environment, did much to equip him for the extraordinary services which he rendered to the cause of missions during the remainder of his fife.

He entered upon his duties as secretary, residing in Salisbury Square and superintending the training of missionaries. He also ministered regularly at Wheler Chapel in Spitalfields, and began work for the society as a deputation, in almost every part of England. The hearts of people opened everywhere to him in a wonderful degree; he seems to have combined the fiery zeal of a Paul with the sympathy and tenderness of a Barnabas.

In 1830 he was nominated to the parish of Watton, in Hertfordshire, by John Abel Smith, Esq., of Woodhall Park, whither he removed from Barnsbury Park in the autumn of that year, and where he spent the remaining twenty years of his life. Besides the diligent work of a country pastor, he supported a number of societies, amongst others the Bible Society, the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, the Pastoral Aid Society, and the Evangelical Alliance.

He also threw himself with great energy into literary work, and his books, such as the Treatises on Prayer and on the Lord’s Supper, and his hymnal, had a vast circulation.

Watton is a village of much quiet beauty, its houses straggling along the old high-road from London to the north through Stevenage and Hitchin. The picturesque thirteenth - century church nestles under the hill to the west, some quarter of a mile away, with its massive tower amidst trees which partly hide it from view. The beautiful avenue of elms which now leads to the church, was planted by the Bickersteths soon after they came to Watton.

The commodious old rectory stands a few yards above the churchyard to the south-west. Edward Henry Bickersteth was five years old when the family moved thither. His physique was vigorous, and his disposition remarkable for the buoyancy and joyousness which he retained throughout his life.

He was nurtured from the outset in an atmosphere which was deeply religious and thoroughly consistent. Precept and example were closely interwoven in the lives of those who watched over his opening years, and gave him his first impressions of eternal things. Truly in a sense transcending Wordsworth’s meaning of the words, “Heaven lay about him in his infancy.”

A glimpse of the home life at Watton Rectory is given in some recollections, which were committed to writing more than sixty years ago by his younger sister Emily (Mrs Durrant). Edward, then about fifteen, and another boy of his own age, the son of a friend, were reading together for the university with a tutor. The régime, though quiet, was one of great activity, the house being likened to a bee-hive, so busily were its inmates occupied. For them “life was real, life was earnest;“ there was no stagnation, every one seeming to realize that “still waters turn no mills.”

The little narrative somewhat quaintly says-

“At 5.30 every morning an alarum clock went off, and roused Edward, who tumbled half asleep into his shower-bath, and soon roused his sisters by vigorous knocks at their doors. In an hour’s time all were down stairs, the boys at work with their tutor, the other members of the family astir at their employments. The Rector himself spent part of this time in a retired walk above the garden, engaged in his devotions. At 7.50 he returned from his walk and gathered his children into his study where each one repeated passages from the Holy Scriptures of their own choosing, some of them in this way learning whole books of the Bible. “

The Bishop himself recollected learning the last twenty-eight chapters of Isaiah in his boyhood, and very likely he did it in this way.

“Then their father prayed for them in words which his daughter has recorded. The whole household assembled by 8 for breakfast, and there followed at 8.30 family prayers, with a hymn, a reading and exposition of Holy Scripture, the whole being concluded by 9 o’clock, when all dispersed to their several occupations.”

It was said that from the outset the members of that household were taught to get good and to do good, and one of them recalled a saying of her father one day, as she was going out into the village, and had asked, “Father, what can I do for you?” “Do all the good you can, my child.”

The Rector had wide interests, and the daily post, with tidings of movements, missionary, ecclesiastical, social, educational, from all quarters, together with the visits of many eminent and eminently good men, kept the family circle in touch with the outer world and gave a wider horizon to its outlook.

It must also be said that the views respecting amusements and social life generally, then prevalent among a great many religious persons in England, were strongly held at Watton.

The lines were drawn then where few would draw them now, and young people were warned against pastimes, now thought to be good or neutral in their character, as being hurtful to souls, inconsistent with higher spiritual growth and fruitful service in the Lord’s vineyard. At the same time the home life at Watton Rectory was bright and even merry; diversions and recreations of a loftier character were encouraged which afforded real refreshment in the intervals of busy lives. Most of us to-day do not see eye to eye with them in these things, but we may well believe that such an attitude upon the part of many earnest Christian people, however it might tend to provoke a reaction in the succeeding generation, did more to raise the standard of true religion in the world in after days than would have been possible, had they been more lenient with themselves and with others.

Young Edward Bickersteth was educated entirely at home until he went to Cambridge in 1843. His tutor was the Rev. T. R. Birks a young Fellow of Trinity of brilliant attainments, who acted as his father’s curate and subsequently married his elder sister. The Bishop wrote of him in after years, “I shall always esteem him as one of the most original and clear-sighted thinkers of the Church of England.” To Professor Birks [afterwards Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy] he owed his first love for Plato and Milton.

As a boy he was very fond of out-of-door pursuits, having a great love for animals, and especially for horses. His sister writes :

“Of sports, as they are now understood, Edward had but little in his boyhood, but of healthful play a great deal. A lady in his father’s congregation gave him a magnificent Newfoundland dog, which became one of the great treasures of the Rectory children, and Edward was seldom without him in recreation time. Boating on a small sheet of water in Mr. Smith’s beautiful grounds, where also he enjoyed skating in winter, was another favourite amusement. He loved to chase the deer, of which there was a fine herd, from those parts of the park into which they had trespassed from their own domain?’

He was passionately fond of cricket and a bowler in one of the Trinity Elevens. He retained his interest in the game to the end of his life, and could never pass a cricket-field without stopping to look on.

He frequently visited at the houses of his near relations at Norwich and Liverpool, at Sapcote and at Coppenhall. In 1841 the whole family went with their father to visit his parents at Kirkby Lonsdale, and whilst there young Edward came to know the exquisite scenery of the valley of the Lune and the lakes and the mountains of Cumberland and Westmoreland. They occupied a house known as Old Hall, which was placed at their disposal by Mr. William Cams Wilson of Casterton Hall, a man widely known and beloved for his Christian zeal and good works, and a lifelong friend of the Bickersteth family.

Some letters from his father during these years have been preserved, and they are full of the tenderest affection and the most outspoken counsels. He was urged “ to seek those things which are above, and to aspire after the friendship only of those who loved their Saviour?’ He was warned not to spend too much time at chess, as the recreations he ought to follow were those which would keep him in strong health.

It is only with the most reverent reserve that any may venture to draw aside the veil which hides the workings of the spiritual life even in the youngest child. Edward Bickersteth was the child of earnest prayers from his birth, and his youth had been carefully shielded from influences which might contaminate. His parents held strongly the truths which the Church teaches in her baptismal offices as to the Christian covenant, its blessings and its obligations; but they belonged to a school of religious thought which looked anxiously for tokens that the soul had yielded its response to the love of its Saviour. They longed and prayed for indications that their child had apprehended that for which all the baptized are apprehended of Christ Jesus. And hence we find his father writing to him in 1888, “Oh, my dear child, I do long to see you heartily and wholly decided to serve God, the only happy life for you, and I know that He will help you, if you really ask Him.” But before, in 1836, in a letter to his son’s godmother, Lady Lucy Whitmore, he wrote, “My dear boy gives me much comfort; I trust that we shall all receive (I include yourself) a rich revenue for all the seed of prayer sown for him.”

How those prayers were answered it may be permitted to tell from his own recollections. Between fifty and sixty years after, he told a small group of his chaplains at Exeter, as they conferred together at the close of one of the Ember days, the story of the supreme crisis in his own life. They listened with mingled awe and emotion, as the Bishop spoke of the struggles which found their climax in the conscious surrender of himself into his Saviour’s keeping, and of the peace which came to him thereupon. He had been reading a book which had greatly helped him, Krummacher’s “The Prophet Elijah.” It was on a Sunday afternoon when he was about fourteen. He told how he had sought his father the same evening, and made known the joyful tidings. Very soon afterwards he made choice of the ministry as his calling in life, to which no doubt his father had dedicated him long before.

It has been shown that he shared the tastes of other healthy boys of his own age, and it would appear, too, that he was inclined to be a little masterful. As a corrective to this tendency, the companionship of a boy of his own age seemed to be desirable. Mention should be made of his devotion to his mother, who bore meekly and bravely the affliction of serious deafness, whilst she did her part nobly as wife and mother in a large household.

The sick room of his sister, Frances, also taught him lessons of patient suffering and Christian submission to the will of God. His little book, “Water from the Well Spring,” consists of meditations upon passages of Holy Scripture, written for her. An account of her long illness and heroic endurance of pain is given in a very remarkable book, “Doing and Suffering,” by one of her sisters.

He entered Trinity, Cambridge, in the autumn of 1843. Some of his father’s letters have been preserved, but these give no direct information as to the life of the young undergraduate. He rejoices for his son in the friendship of William Cams, a Fellow of Trinity, the biographer of Charles Simeon, and Professor Scholefield, both leading Evangelicals in the university at that time.

Edward Bickersteth’s years at Cambridge were characterized by diligence in work and irreproachable fidelity to the religious principles in which he had been nurtured, and which had become his own by deliberate choice. No marvel if he were kept unspotted from the world, if amidst the temptations to young men in their college days “he held his heavenward course serene.”

His cousin, the Rev. J. E. B. Mayor, Professor of Latin in the University, who was his contemporary, has kindly contributed some reminiscences of their time at Cambridge. “E. H. B. as an undergraduate attended Professor Scholefield’s evening sermons at St. Michael’s, and sometimes the meetings held by William Carus, Dean of Trinity, in a room which he had built for the purpose, where some hundreds of undergraduates might be seen on Sunday evenings.

Edward Bickersteth was intimate with many of the best Trinity men of his time. At a party which he gave just before leaving Cambridge he expressed his grateful thanks to H. R. Luard (afterwards Registrary), who had saved his life whilst swimming in the Cam, at a spot nearer to Granchester than the present bathing-shed.

Many have been the changes in Cambridge since those days: the railway had not come, coals were brought up by barge from Lynn, and fires were lit with bundles of sedge bought from the bed-makers.

Although the round of studies was very narrow, a striking proof of the tone and scholarship of the Trinity men of 1847 appears in the wonderful copy of verses written in Galliambics by Evans and Vansittart for the tercentenary of Trinity College.

J. J. Blunt, W. H. Mill, and Corrie had influence in the pulpit there, and Melville was still occasionally heard.

Leslie Ellis, Senior Wrangler and editor of Bacon, though almost a fossil bodily, was a great spiritual force as he lay at Trumpington. Coleridge, Arnold, Julius Hare, Thirlwall, and S. R. Maitland, a strong Protestant and strongly opposed to Pusey and Newman, were largely read by thoughtful men, as was also F. D. Maurice. The chief men of science of the time, Stokes, Adams, Sedgwick, Cayley, were all earnest Christians.”

To these may be added a few recollections of Edward Bickersteth himself, which have been preserved by his nephew, the Rev. E. B. Birks, formerly Fellow of Trinity, and Rector of Kellington.

“Among his college friends, besides his future brother-in-law, Joseph Fenn, were his fellow students in classics, Brook Foss Westcott, Evans, Vansittart, and Scott. Fenn was in the year above him, graduating in 1846; Evans and Vansittart were the Seniors in his own year, Scott and Westcott in the year below him, and though he himself took a third class, he was the chosen associate of the highest classics of two successive years.

“Another of his friends was Rob Hoy Macgregor, the canoist and shoeblack’s friend, known at college by the name of a then noted religious book, Allen’s ‘Decided Christian.’ Macgregor was a Wrangler.

“Edward Bickersteth belonged to the Historical Debating Society, and on one occasion he proposed that ‘Macaulay in his Essay on Bacon shews that he understands neither Bacon nor Plato.’ The late Lord Derby carried the somewhat tame amendment ‘that Macaulay understood Bacon but not Plato.’ ”

Although a conscientious and industrious worker, he was disappointed in his class, being a Junior Optime and a third classman in classics, but his marked, and at that time unique, distinction lay in another direction. He obtained the Chancellor’s Prize Poem for three consecutive years, the subjects set being “ The Tower of London,” “Caubul,” and “ Czesar’s Invasion of Britain.” He writes of these in a preface to his earliest volume of poems in 1849, “they have been reprinted without alteration except the closing stanzas, which the kindly banterings of divers private critics have led me to peruse and slightly change.”

Many years later, in a sermon preached in Exeter Cathedral on the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, he recalled a scene of his Cambridge life.

“It was my privilege,” he said, “as an undergraduate of Trinity, Cambridge, to be one of those who laid down our gowns for her to tread on, as she walked with graceful mirth and words of thanks on her lips, the Prince Consort following in her steps from the Master’s Lodge to inspect our College Chapel in the autumn gloom. She was pleased to say that she had never received a heartier welcome, and oh, how proud we all were to have her under what we called ‘our roof’ for two nights.”

After taking his degree Edward Bickersteth began his special preparation for Holy Orders in the following year. And as with many whose ministry has been greatly blessed by God, when the time drew near the sense of responsibility pressed sorely upon him. Of no sphere of duty is the saying, “ that fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” more true than of the sacred ministry. That such was the case with him appears from a letter of rare tenderness and wise sympathy from his brother-inlaw, the Rev. T. R. Birks, to whom he had unbosomed his grief. He had preserved this letter with evident care for the rest of his life.

At length, on February 6, 1848, he was ordained deacon by Bishop Stanley of Norwich. On the fojlowing Sunday he preached his first sermon at Watton to a crowded congregation, from I Corinthians i. 30, “ Who of God is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.” A few weeks later his father wrote, “On Thursday the 24th, at Norwich, I married my dear and only son Edward to Rosa Bignold. I have great joy in hoping that the marriage will In full of blessing.” Edward Bickersteth’s wife was his cousin, the daughter of Mr., afterwards Sir Samuel, Bignold, at one time Mayor and subsequently M.P. for Norwich. They removed shortly afterwards to Banningham near Aylsham, in Norfolk, to the curacy and sole charge of which the young deacon had been licensed. The same year he was admitted to the priesthood.

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