An A-Z of Hymnwriters: John Ellerton
Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on 15th June 2011
Attending a recent ordination, I heard the preacher tell the candidate for the priesthood that he would be ministering in a declining church. It was hardly an encouraging line at a moment that the person will remember for the rest of his life—apart from that it is not true, the church is not declining, stand in a church in the middle of Africa and there is no angst about decline, rather there is a concern about how they will find the resources to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the hundreds of people who gather there Sunday by Sunday. The preacher would probably object that when he referred to the church he meant the Church of Ireland, but even then it is not a true statement: parts of the Church of Ireland are in decline, parts are holding their ground, parts are growing. Ultimately, the church cannot decline because it is God’s church and if we believe in God’s sovereignty, then he will not allow his church to fail.
Hopefully, John Ellerton, our hymnwriter this evening will cure us of the counsels of despair that seem too often to infect the clergy (and perhaps members of the laity from time to time).
John Ellerton was born in into a Yorkshire family living in Middlesex in 1826. Those early years were formative and, in his own words, Ellerton describes how important to him was the faith of his parents, words in which there are lessons for ourselves:
“I used to feel how happy my father and mother were, even more than how good they were; and yet I knew even then, and know still better now, that they had many sorrows and anxieties. They had no personal religious doubts or fears; their delight in prayer, in hymns, in the Bible, and occasionally in spiritual converse with one or two friends, was most true and deep and real; there was no mistake about it . . . and in their family and with intimate friends there was plenty of merriment and fun. My father especially overflowed with humour, with quaint sayings and stories, all perfectly good-humoured and kindly. Often do I laugh to myself, even now all alone, at some of his overflowings of mirth at which there are now none left to laugh.”
Ellerton was sent to the Isle of Man to School, to King William’s College before going to Trinity College at Cambridge University for his degree. He was ordained in 1850, at the age of 23, and spent the first ten years of his ministry in Sussex. In 1860, he moved north to become vicar of Crewe Green in Cheshire. Being just outside the town of Crewe, which was a major railway centre gave Ellerton the opportunity to use his great learning and his intellect for the good of the community. He became chairman of the education committee at the Mechanics Institute. The Institute was a place where working men could go for a library and for classes. Ellerton was an energetic enthusiast for the work of the Institute; drawing upon his studies, he taught Bible History (this was a time when most people attended a church, so would have inspired considerably more interest than it might do now); but he also taught English, at a time when formal education was very limited, Ellerton’s classes were a way for ordinary men to develop their literacy.
In 1872, Ellerton moved to the parish of Hinstock in Shopshire and then, four years later, he transferred to Barnes, a suburb of London. The large parish with its many demands destroyed his health and in 1884 he developed pleurisy and was forced to resign his position. He spent 1884 to 1885 as chaplain at Pegli in Italy, a seaside town with a mild climate. After returning, he became vicar of the small Essex parish of in White Roding in 1886. It was to be his last appointment; succumbing to illness, he died in 1893 at the age of 66.
John Ellerton’s deep faith and deep pastoral experience come through in his hymns. His awareness of the need to express faith in words understood by ordinary people was shown in his publication of a hymnbook for use at bible classes and at schools. The Victorian age is very much the age when children were recognized as being different, as being more than simply the junior versions of adults.
If we want to understand his faith, we see it expressed in the words of the great missionary hymn that was regularly voted as the most popular of hymns by viewers of the BBC’s Songs of Praise programme, ’The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’.
Ellerton was familiar with scientific thinking, including the work of Darwin for Fenton Hort, the Irish theologian wrote to him, ‘But the book which has most engaged me is Darwin. Whatever may be thought of it, it is a book that one is proud to be contemporary with . . . My feeling is strong that the theory is unanswerable. If so, it opens up a new period.’ Reading Ellerton’s words, ‘the day thou gavest, Lord is ended, the darkness falls at thy behest, there is a sense of a cosmic God; a God who is present throughout the universe. If God is God at all, he must be such a God, he cannot be God unless he is God in all times and all places. How much sense do we have of such a God in our daily lives? As the sun rises in the morning, do we have a sense that the day to come is in God’s hands? As the sun sets, do we give thanks for the day past?
Ellerton has confidence in God and he has confidence in the Church, because it is God’s Church, ‘we thank thee that thy Church unsleeping’. The Victorian age was the great age of exploration and mission. There was a great sense of the Gospel being carried around the world, a sense that Church had become something global. There was a confidence that seems to have all but evaporated since then. But only for us does it seem to have evaporated, those parts of Africa being reached by Europeans for the first time in the days of John Ellerton are places where the church is vibrant, and engaging with people’s spiritual and material needs, as John Ellerton did in his days in the Mechanics Institute.
Confidence in the Church for John Ellerton rests on a sense of the Church as a great spiritual communion, as a body tied together by its prayer and praise, by its faith in God. ‘The voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away’, he says, ‘And hour by hour fresh lips are making Thy wondrous doings heard on high’. Confidence in the Church today does not mean we have to have confidence in the institution, confidence in the bishops, confidence in the parish or the clergyman; confidence can come from a sense of belonging to something far, far greater than ourselves. When we think of the Church we need to shift our thoughts from the bad news stories that fill the media and think of the Good News stories around the world. There are wondrous doings, if we are prepared to see them; and, if we are not prepared to see them, then in what sort of God do we believe?
‘Thy throne shall never, Like earth’s proud empires, pass away’, writes John Ellerton, and if we really believe that, the Church can never be in decline. If God is the sovereign Lord of the universe, then a passing trend in a tiny branch of the small Anglican Communion does not cause us much concern. If we see God as he is, if we have a sense of God beyond our parish, beyond our diocese, beyond our nation, then everything looks different. John Ellerton had no doubt, ‘Thy Kingdom stands, and grows for ever,
Till all thy creatures own thy sway’.
We don’t have the gifts of John Ellerton but in his life there is an example of a Christian home, of a disciplined life, of a deep faith in God, and of a confidence in God’s Church: those options are there for each of us.
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