21 April 1783–3 April 1826
The poetic beauty of Bishop Heber’s hymns is universally conceded. A few of them occupy a high rank as sacred lyrics. His “Missionary Hymn” is found in all modern collections, and is sung all over the Christian world where the English language is used.
Reginald Heber bore his father’s name, and partook of his spirit and principles. [Reginald Sr.] was the son of Thomas Heber and Elizabeth Atherton, and inherited a handsome estate, including the patronage of the rectories of Marton in Yorkshire, and Hodnet in Shropshire. He resided in the parish of Malpas, Cheshire, of which he was co-rector with Dr. Townson. His first wife, Mary Baylie, was the mother of Richard Heber, who inherited, as the eldest son, the family estates, and was noted as a bibliomaniac, the sale of whose library of 150,000 volumes, in 1834, occupied 216 days. His second wife, Mary, the daughter of the Rev. Cuthbert Allanson, D.D., was the mother of Reginald, Thomas, and Mary. [Reginald Sr.] was a graduate of Brazenose College, Oxford, and the author of several poems. The son, Reginald, was born, April 21, 1783, in the Malpas Rectory.
Young Reginald had every advantage in securing the best possible education. His father was his first instructor. At seven years, he versified, in English, Phaedrus, the Latin fabulist. At eight, he was sent to Dr. Kent’s grammar school, in Whitchurch; and at thirteen, to the Rev. Mr. Bristow’s select school at Neasdon. Here he contracted a life-long friendship for his classmate, the philanthropical John Thornton. Four years (1800) later he entered Brazenose College, Oxford, his father’s Alma Mater, of which his brother, Richard, was at the time a Fellow.
His college course was highly honorable. In his first year, he gained the Chancellor’s prize for the best Latin verse, by his “Carmen Seculare.” He took (1803), also, a special prize for the best English verse, by his “Palestine,” which was received with great applause, and highly commended on its publication. At his graduation, he gained, also, by his “Sense of Honor,” the University Bachelor’s prize for the best English prose essay. He was chosen, at the same time, a Fellow of All Souls College.
In 1804, his father died, and the family removed to Hodnet. The next year, he accompanied his friend Thornton on a Continental tour, returning home in September, 1806. His brother, Richard, now presented him with the living of Hodnet, and he was ordained early in 1807. A busy and successful ministry followed. In April, 1809, he married Amelia, the youngest daughter of Dean William D. Shipley, and granddaughter of the Bishop of St. Asaph. The brothers Hare were cousins of Mrs. Heber; and Stoke, the parental home of Mrs. Augustus William Hare, is but two miles from Hodnet. In The Memorials of a Quiet Life, vol. 1, chap. 2, an interesting account is given of life at Hodnet Rectory.
In February, 1809, he published Europe: Lines on the Present War. The same month he wrote to his friend Thornton, “My Psalm-singing continues bad. Can you tell me where I can purchase Cowper’s Olney Hymns, with the music, and in a smaller size without the music to put in the seats? Some of them I admire much.” It was thus that Heber was led into the composition of hymns, and the preparation of a hymn-book, a design that was postponed by advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some of his hymns were contributed to The Christian Observer, in 1811 and 1812.
A new edition of his poems, with translations of Pindar and several occasional pieces, was issued in 1812. Two years later, he was appointed, by the Heads of Colleges at Oxford, to deliver the Course of Eight Divinity Lecture Sermons, on the Bampton Foundation. The Lectures were delivered, in the spring of 1815, at St. Mary’s, Oxford, and published (1816) with the title, “The Personality and Office of the Christian Comforter Asserted and Explained.” The book was somewhat severely criticised by The British Critic and The Christian Observer.
The death of his only child, at the age of six months, in December, 1818, gave occasion to the hymn beginning with “Thou art gone to the grave, but we will not deplore thee.”
A Royal Proclamation (February, 1819) called for contributions, in all the churches and chapels of the kingdom, for “The Society for Propagating the Gospel.” The Dean of St. Asaph (the father of Mrs. Heber) appointed the last Sunday in May (30th), WhitSunday, for a Collection at the parish church of Wrexham, of which he was the Vicar. Heber had, in 1817, been appointed a prebend of St. Asaph, and was to preach, on the evening of the same Sunday, the first of a course of Sunday evening Lectures in the church of Wrexham. The two divines were at table with a few friends, the evening previous, at the vicarage, when the Dean, well aware of the poetic abilities of his son-in-law, bade him write “something for them to sing in the morning,” in connection with the Dean’s missionary sermon. Heber obeyed, and, retiring to another part of the room, presently produced, and read to the company, a hymn of four stanzas, beginning with “From Greenland’s icy mountains.” The next morning it was sung for the first time to the old ballad tune, “Twas when the seas were roaring” (so says tradition), in the beautiful church of Wrexham. The collection amounted to £34. This one hymn has done more to immortalize the name of Heber than anything else from his pen.
In a letter, written a fortnight later, he says: “I have been for some time engaged in correcting, collecting, and arranging all my hymns, which, now that I have got them together, I begin to have some high church scruples against using in public.” Notwithstanding these scruples, he continued his compilation during the next three years, prevailing on his gifted friend, the Rev. Henry Hart Milman, to contribute to it several admirable hymns. He now presented a masterly, but ineffectual, plea to the Bishop of London for an ecclesiastical approval of his design. It was not, therefore, until after his decease that the book was published (1827), by his widow, with the title, Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Service of the Year.
In 1822, he edited The Whole Works of Jeremy Tayor, to which he prefixed “A Life of the Author.” For several previous years, he had been a contributor to the London Quarterly Review, and a writer of fugitive poems and songs. He obtained (April, 1822) the Preachership of Lincoln’s Inn, London, calling him to the city for about three months in the year, and adding about £600 to his annual income.
He was appointed (January, 1823) Bishop of Calcutta, a preferment urged upon him but declined the year before, on account of his wife and only child, but now accepted as a divine call to the missionary work. In February, he received the degree of D.D. from the University of Oxford; June 1, he was consecrated, by the Archbishop, at Lambeth, and, June 18, he sailed for India, arriving in October. His ministry, as a colonial bishop, was eminently successful, and won for him an honorable fame. On one of his extensive visitations, in the very midst of life and health, he died of apoplexy, occasioned by a cold bath, April 3, 1826, at Trichinopoly, having nearly completed the forty-third year of his age.
His Journey through India, in two large volumes, was published in 1828, and has frequently been republished. The Life of Reginald Heber, D.D., Lord Bishop of Calcutta, by his Widow, appeared in 1830; followed, in 1837, by his Parish Sermons, in three volumes.
An eminent physician of Calcutta, intimately acquainted with him, gave it as his opinion that, at the best, owing to organic disease, he could have lived but for a few years, and that “he was cut off by a sudden and merciful stroke … in the meridian of his reputation and Christian utility, leaving behind him no recollection but of his amiable manner, his sweetness of temper, his goodness of heart, his universal charity, his splendid and various talents, and all his deep devotion to the duties of his sacred calling.”
The three hymns, beginning with “Hosanna to the living Lord,” “The Lord will come, the earth shall quake,” “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,” were contributed, with five others, to The Christian Observer, and published in the October and November numbers for 1811, with a preliminary statement (signed “D. R.,” the finals of his name), in which he says of them, that they are part of a series “intended for the use of his own congregation; [that] no fulsome or indecorous language has been knowingly adopted; no erotic addresses to Him whom no unclean lip can approach; no allegory ill-understood, and worse applied.” Three other hymns were contributed to The Christian Observer in 1812. Fifty-nine hymns are ascribed to his authorship, a few only of which have become extensively popular.
by Edwin Hatfield
The Poets of the Church (1884)
Collections of Hymns:
A Selection of Psalms and Hymns of the Parish Church of Banbury (1826)
Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year (1827): PDF
see also The Evangelical Magazine and The Christian Observer
Hymns for the Christian Year, 2 vols., British Library, Add MS 25704: https://www.bl.uk/
see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for a list of additional MS holdings: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/12853
Reginald Heber, Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India, 1824-1825, etc. (1828), 3 vols: HathiTrust
Amelia Heber, The Life of Reginald Heber (London: John Murray, 1830)
Edwin Hatfield, “Reginald Heber,” Poets of the Church (NY, 1884), pp. 308-313: HathiTrust
H. Leigh Bennett & John Julian, “Reginald Heber,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (1892), pp. 503-504: Google Books
George Smith, Bishop Heber, Poet and Chief Missionary to the East (London: John Murray, 1895): PDF
Richard Hugh Cholmondeley, The Heber Letters, 1783-1832 (London: Batchworth Press, 1950): WorldCat
Derrick Hughes, Bishop Sahib: A Life of Reginald Heber (Worthing: Churchman, 1986): WorldCat
J.R. Watson, “Reginald Heber,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
Reginald Heber, Hymnary.org:
Michael Laird, “Reginald Heber,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: