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 Issues | Church History | James Hannington


Great Churchmen No. 22

James Hannington (1847-1885)

by F. E. Hansford, F. R. S. A.

First Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa

Published by Church Book Room Press


Ordination, Conversion & Early Ministry

In the autumn of 1868 Hannington entered St. Mary Hall, Oxford, where, by his geniality, marked individuality, and force of character, rather than by industry or scholarship, he speedily won the regard of his fellow-students, both freshmen and seniors. In his undergraduate days his influence over his companions was undoubtedly sound and healthy, and his own social instincts, his natural generosity and his exuberant-indeed, sometimes tempestuous—high spirits made university life a round of joy to the tall, well-knit young man. He became Captain of the St. Mary Hall boat and President of the Red Club, and in both of these capacities his fine leadership was always inspiring. Though at first he would seem to have lacked purpose and direction, it is apparent from his diary that he was meticulous in the matter of Sunday observance. He was one of the group of young men who, after evening service in St. Mary’s, regularly repaired to Dean Burgon’s rooms at Oriel, where that kindly Fellow held a Greek Testament class.

On March 1st, 1874, Hannington was ordained in Exeter Cathedral. His first curacy was that of Martinhoe with Trentishoe, twin parishes on the wild and rocky coast of North Devon. These small, out-of-the-way villages and their inhabitants were not unknown to him, for, four years earlier, he had come hither to read for examinations with the Rev. C. Scriven, the then Rector, as his tutor. His diary now abounds with interesting and picturesque entries concerning the lowly sons of the soil among whom he laboured and to whom he was at once parson, physician, lawyer and family friend. He was beloved by young and old alike, but, although the rugged scenery and rough mode of life—of which his shaggy Exmoor pony, his shooting jacket, his Bedford cord knee-breeches of unclerical yellow, his brass-buttoned Sussex gaiters and heavy hob-nailed boots were the outward and visible signs—entirely suited his nature, he was not entirely happy. Nothing yet had appeared in his daily life and labours that was prophetic of his future, and certainly nothing that would seem to foreshadow the great missionary. Indeed, certain of his comments would seem to point to a contrary direction. On July 30th, 1874, for instance, he went to a missionary meeting at Parracombe, where he occasionally took a service. On this occasion, he tells us, “I was made to speak, much against my will, as I know nothing about the subject, and take little interest in it.”

Conscientious though he was in the discharge of the multifarious duties that a minister in a scattered and isolated parish is called upon to perform, he was still, in his meditative moments, troubled at heart. Self-examination, which in his case was always scrupulously honest, showed him that he was “not right with God”. As E. C. Dawson has so well put it: “He could and did sometimes preach vehement sermons against prevalent vices, such as immorality and excessive drinking . . . but he could not preach the ‘Word of Life’. How could he, when he did not himself possess the secret of that Life? The burden of his great responsibility weighed upon him more heavily every day. God’s ordained messenger with no message to deliver!—that was his position. A position, to his transparently-honest soul, altogether insupportable. He began to be in great distress.”

The story of his true conversion is a most interesting one. It dates from the time when he read Dr. Mackay’s Grace and Truth, which had been sent to him by an old college friend, a curate in Surrey. Even before Hannington’s ordination—and all unknown to him—this friend had prayed earnestly for “gay, impetuous, fun-loving Jim”. The book, after a too-hasty perusal, had been cast impatiently, almost contemptuously, aside, until, one fortunate day, Hannington thought that he might as well read it in order to satisfy his friend. “So once more,” he tells us, “I took the ‘old thing’, and read straight on for three chapters or so, until at last I came to that called ‘Do you feel your sins forgiven?’ By means of this my eyes were opened.”

My eyes were opened.” Simple words enough! But we can see what a depth of meaning lay in them from a passage he wrote in 1884 as he recalled this momentous spiritual experience: “I was in bed at the time reading. I sprang out of bed and leaped about the room rejoicing and praising God that Jesus died for me. From that day to this I have lived under the shadow of His wings in the assurance of faith that I am His and He is mine.”

When, early in 1875, he again visited Parracombe, in connection with a parochial mission that was being held there, he was able to preach as one who, in St. Paul’s words, had found “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. That, indeed, was the text he chose, and doubtless his discourse was a triumphant declaration of his new-found joy.

In the early summer of 1875 Mr. Charles Smith Hannington proposed to his son that he should return to Hurstpierpoint and become Curate-in-charge of St. George’s, and after a great deal of prayer and heart-searching Hannington decided to do so. He did not, however, return immediately to his native place, but, in order to gain wider experience in a parish where conditions and people were different from those at Martinhoe and Trentishoe, he went for a time to Darley Abbey, a suburb of Derby, where the population consisted mainly of factory workers. Here the worthy family who owned both the mills and the dwelling-houses did everything in their power to promote the educational and spiritual well-being of their employees, and, working under the Vicar among this happy, contented and intelligent community, Hannington added greatly to his knowledge of parish organization and the conduct of missions.

November 3rd, 1875, found Hannington again in Oxford, this time to receive his M.A. degree. Four days later he preached his first sermon as Curate-in-charge of St. George’s, Hurstpierpoint—the scene of his labours during the next seven years. Here, as in Devonshire and Derbyshire, he “sought for broken hearts, contrite spirits, and souls willing to be saved through faith in the Redeemer”. He was not only most assiduous in visiting his sick parishioners but he brought them medicines and the necessary foods: even virulent cases of smallpox did not go unvisited. He was, moreover, quite willing to occupy any pulpit from which he could preach “a Gospel sermon”, for his outlook, after his conversion, was distinctly Evangelical.

It would be quite impossible within the compass of a mere booklet to deal adequately with the many-sided activities of Hannington during the years he spent as Curate-in-charge “without emolument” at Hurst. He who, at the outset of his ministry, had taken little interest in missions, now converted his stable and coach-house into a very serviceable mission hall—and thenceforward traversed his parish on foot. He who had “wined” with his companions at Oxford (though, be it said, never to excess) was now a temperance man—a champion of total abstinence who, as secretary of the Hurstpierpoint Temperance Association, “never went about without a pledge-book”. He who had once, with deep distress of soul, questioned his own fitness for the ministry, had now attained peace with God through vital and personal union with Jesus Christ—and henceforth his heart was wholly given to serve the Master.

Hannington was admitted to Priest’s Orders at Chichester in September, 1876, and the same month witnessed the commencement of a Mothers’ Meeting, Women’s Bible Class, Men’s Bible Class and Saturday Night Prayer Meeting—all innovations at Hurst. “May the Lord bless these efforts!” he wrote in his diary: nor can we doubt that they were abundantly blessed, for the winning of souls for Christ was, as Dawson once said, “not merely the work of his life, but the delight of it.” His services were increasingly sought by organizers of Home Missions, and his eloquent, heart- searching appeals during the Birmingham Mission of 1878 and the Blackheath Mission of 1881 bore abundant fruit and were long remembered. Though at the beginning of his ministry Hannington knew little about overseas missions, his expanding interests and closer contacts with an ever-enlarging circle of clerical friends made him increasingly aware of the vast importance of the work done at the foreign mission stations. But what turned his thoughts particularly towards the work of the Central African Mission were the heroic deaths of Lieutenant George Shergold Smith and Mr. T. O’Neill on the island of Ukerewé, news of which reached him early in 1878. Their devoted labours and their tragic end made him more acutely aware of “dark, perishing millions in the regions beyond”.

Thoughts such as these must have actuated Hannington when, in February, 1882, following a letter from the Rev. F. E. Wigram, Honorary Secretary of the C.M.S., offering to afford him the opportunity of working in the overseas mission-field, he volunteered, after much fervent prayer, for service in Uganda. With characteristic humility Hannington had written in his diary just a little earlier: “I am not worthy of the honour,” and it was not without much honest heart-searching that he embraced the opportunity he had long desired.

He had now passed exactly five years of most happy married life, and when preliminary interviews and the medical examination were over Hannington recorded in his diary: “I returned home, and broke the news to my wife. She was more than brave about it, and gave me to the Lord.” Most affecting were the scenes that followed the announcement to his parishioners of his impending departure, and few were the eyes undimmed by tears. Before an overflowing congregation, on the evening of May 16th, he preached an inspired farewell sermon from 1 Samuel, xxx. 24: “As his share is that goeth down to the battle, so shall his share be that tarrieth by the stuff: they shall share alike”—a sermon which was, in no small degree, a verbal autobiography. His final words of entreaty—that his friends should not deem his life as wasted if it were laid down in distant Africa—were sublime and prophetic.

At noon on the following day Hannington boarded the S.S. Quetta as leader of a party of six men whose faces were bravely set towards Rubaga, by way of Zanzibar, Mamboia, Uyui and Msalala. His co-workers were the Revs. R.P. Ashe, W. J. Edmonds, J. Blackburn, E. C. Gordon and Mr. C. Wise.




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Related Links
James Hannington
BulletHansford - introduction
BulletHansford - Ordination & Conversion
BulletHansford - Uganda
BulletHansford - Consecration as Bishop
BulletHansford - Last Journey


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