Binney, Thomas


b Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1798, d Upper Clapton, Hackney, Middx (NE London) 1874. Raised in a Presbyterian home, he was educated locally before serving a 7-year bookselling apprenticeship which required work for 12–15 hrs a day. He studied and loved English literature (Milton, Johnson, Tennyson—‘my great work was English’) and with help from a Presbyterian minister, Lat and Gk. He trained for the Congregational ministry at Coward Coll at Wymondley, Herts, and pastored the ‘New Meeting’ in Bedford for a year. He moved to the Congregational Ch at Newport, Isle of Wight; and in 1829, almost unknown, was appointed to the King’s Weigh House Chapel at Eastcheap in the City of London. This had a distinguished history of dissent; in 1834 it moved to a new and much larger home in Fish St Hill. From then on Binney discarded his ministerial gown; a move he later regretted, comparing an ungowned preacher to ‘an auctioneer going up into his box!’. His preaching included much argument, appealing to reason in lengthy sentences, but it made its mark in delivery as being homely rather than academic, appealing especially to the crowds of young men who came to hear him. Like Spurgeon he had the doubtful honour of having his sermons shamelessly preached by others. He did not rant; but he was noted for his eccentric asides and an extraordinarily riveting ‘pulpit whisper’. Observers noted his imposing presence, majestic brow, and nervous fingers running through his hair or tapping the pulpit as if dealing with the type in his old printing office. In doctrine he was Calvinistic, championing Scripture, orthodoxy and propitiation but growing impatient with the cruder explanations of substitution; along with atheism, he ridiculed fashionable liberalism. He also moved towards a more liturgical form of service, loving the Psalms, heartfelt in prayer, urging the need for better music in the church and ‘to introduce poetry and order and beauty into Congregational [cap.C] worship’ (Routley). Proud of his Northumbrian roots, he could be surprisingly irritable, embarrassingly rude, and also immensely kind. While no great traveller compared with some, he did reach both N America and Australia; the latter visit in 1857 promoted the founding of the Colonial Missionary Soc, and his stand for the needs and rights of aboriginal Australians through the Aborigines’ Protection Society. He supported not merely assistance, but (in advance of many) ‘The Duty of the Mother Country to the Aborigines’. He received an Hon LL.D from the Univ of Aberdeen.

As well as a handful of hymns, he wrote other verse (being fond of sonnets, serious or not), a great many pamphlets (‘tracts’) and over 50 books including biographies, works on education and Christian ministry, an influential biblical and practical study The Service of Song in the House of the Lord (1849), a volume called Money (1864), and his most successful Is it possible to make the best of both worlds? (1853). He was impatient with and often scornful of the established church which was ‘a great national evil’ and ‘damned more souls than it saved’—assertions which were often used against him. Also much quoted was his 1834 sermon on ‘Dissent, not Schism’. But he said ‘I am a Dissenter because I am a Catholic…I oppose Establishments because I am not a Sectarian’; on these grounds he was the object of some highly personal printed attacks which he returned in kind. He was latterly dubbed ‘the great Dissenting Bishop’, ‘Archbishop of Congregationalism’ or ‘Patriarch of modern Nonconformity’. In 1845 he chaired the Congregational Union, and retired in 1869. The liberal Dean Stanley of Westminster shared in his funeral service; in 1874 the Free Ch hymnwriter E Paxton Hood (qv) wrote a hard-hitting, stylish and snappilytitled biography, Thomas Binney: his Mind, Life and Opinions, Doctrinal, Denominational, Devotional and Practical. Interspersed with Anecdotes, Descriptions, and Criticisms; and headed with 1 Cor 15:10–11. Binney had the rare privilege of reading his own obituary, printed in error a month before he died, and was buried in N London’s Abney Park Cemetery. Hood called him ‘one of the few men made immortal by a single hymn’ (though several such writers appear in our list); the hymn resembles his preaching, which the same writer compared to ‘a path of light…the sun struggling through clouds’. No.243.

Hymns and songs by Binney, Thomas

Number Hymn Name
243 Eternal light! Eternal light!