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 Issues | Church History | W. H. Griffith Thomas


Great Churchmen (No. 25)

W. H. Griffith Thomas (1861-1924)

by M. Guthrie Clark

Minister, Scholar, Teacher

Published by Church Book Room Press



The way was now clear for Ordination, the final preparation alone remaining. This can be told in a couple of sentences. A “First” in the Cambridge Prelims, which was hurriedly prepared for, was followed by the Bishop of London’s examination for Deacon’s Orders. In the latter, Griffith Thomas headed the list and this distinction meant, as usual, that he was chosen as Gospeller at the Trinity Ordination in 1885.

In this connexion a document drawn up three years later and annually renewed will be of great interest. The last entry was Trinity Sunday, 1923; the next anniversary, in 1924, he was with Christ, which is far better. “On this the Third Anniversary of my Ordination,” the solemn statement runs, “I desire to renew my vows to God and reconsecrate myself to His service. May He fill me entirely with His Spirit. May I be holy in character, and earnest in work. May He continually keep me, ‘All for Jesus,’ W. H. G. Thomas.” Those who knew him best all through the 40 years of his ministry will realize how well he paid his vows.

He served a curacy with his old Vicar, the Rev. B. Oswald Sharp, and worked strenuously in this Parish for three and a half years. His first sermon was on the text, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”

Even in those early days he showed remarkable power in the pulpit. Next to preaching, his favourite work was among the very old and the very young.

In 1888, at the suggestion of his old friend Canon Howell, he wrote to Canon Christopher to inquire if there was a vacancy on the Staff at St. Aldate’s, Oxford, explaining at the same time his desire to read for a degree at the University. Following an interview which Canon Christopher never forgot, Griffith Thomas was appointed Senior Curate, and began his work in February, 1889. Thus commenced a direct connexion with Oxford which lasted for over 20 years, apart from the period in London, until he left for Canada in 1910.

For seven years he worked as colleague with the inimitable and saintly Canon Christopher. They were years of great importance in his life and ministry; the foundations already laid were strengthened and wisely built upon. When he left St. Aldate’s to go to Portman Chapel (as it was then called) he was well equipped for the work to which God called him in the Metropolis. He felt in after years he never could adequately appreciate his indebtedness to his Rector, the sweetness and power of whose life were never forgotten.

I. His intellectual work. As stated earlier, one of his main reasons for going to Oxford was to get his degree. The way was hard at first, but after 18 months a tutor was obtained and he started to prepare for entrance to Christ Church as a non-collegiate student. Once this initial difficulty was overcome through the kindness of Dean, afterwards Bishop, Paget, he went right ahead. He worked prodigiously hard, as was the case all through his life, four mornings a week being taken up with careful preparation for his examinations. There was a corner at the Bodleian Library which was known only to the Rector, where he did most of his work. His powers of concentration were very
great, and it was jokingly said he never forgot anything he read even to the number of the page!

At last the time came for “Schools” in the Trinity Term of 1895 and then it was that faithful work joined with prayer were so signally rewarded. In his speech from the chair at the Farewell Meeting in the following year, Canon Christopher said that “there was only one other man in his year who was worthy to be placed with him in the First Class.” This was a great triumph, especially in view of the difficulty of combining parochial work with study for his degree. From this time forward he was a marked man, and this was clearly shown by his being chosen to read a paper at the Islington Clerical Conference a year later.

The previous year, 1894, he was awarded the Hall-Houghton Junior Septuagint Prize and subsequently was proxime accesit for the Ellerton Theological Essay. He wrote on the Synoptic problem with special reference to St. Mark.

2. His pastoral work. Griffith Thomas attached very great importance to this side of his ministerial life and he gave himself whole-heartedly to it in the hours when he was not studying for his degree. He was a great favourite with young and old alike. His cheerful approach, combined with a desire to care for the spiritual welfare of all he met, gave him a flying start.

The record of his achievements is amazing, especially having regard to his limited time. It must not be forgotten that during the seven years at St. Aldate’s the Rector was in falling health, and this, together with his deafness, meant that a great deal of work fell to the lot of the Senior Curate. Besides frequent preaching on Sundays there was a round of parochial meetings, such as the weekly Prayer Meeting, Band of Hope gatherings, and a mid-week service. He did much to revive the Sunday school in the parish, a regular feature of his work being the teachers’ preparation class on Tuesday nights.

3. His wider work. From time to time Griffith Thomas was invited to preach and speak elsewhere in the interests of various societies and causes, but his greatest opportunity came in 1896 when he was invited by the Vicar of Islington, Dr. Barlow, to read a paper at the Islington Clerical Conference. It has been said that this is the only time that a curate has been honoured in this way.

The address was carefully arranged under the following headings:

(1) The Foundation of the Church; (2) The Functions of the Church;

(3) The Form of the Church. The closing paragraph is well worth quoting: “Exalt Christ and the Church finds her right place, but Church history more than once shows that together with what are called ‘High’ views of the Church visible, have usually been found low views of the Church spiritual and of Christ the Head of the Church. Where the Church tends to precede, there Christ tends to recede. Bring forward the Church as the depository of grace and you tend to push back Christ as the Source of grace. But exalt Christ in the Godhead of His Person, the completeness of His Sacrifice, the power of His resurrection, the perfection of His righteousness, the uniqueness of His Priesthood; exalt the Holy Ghost as the direct Revealer of Christ to the Soul, as the immediate and not mediated Source of grace to all believers, as the divine Illuminator of the Word to each disciple—and then you will obtain, maintain, and retain in its true position the primitive and positive truth of the Church as that body of which Christ is the head; in which the Spirit dwells as the present continuous and permanent life; to which all the promises of God are made; outside which no one can ever be saved; from which no believer can ever be excommunicated and against which the gates of Hades shall never prevail.”


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