Ellerton, John


b Clerkenwell, Middx (London) 1826, d Torquay, Devon 1893. In a broadly evangelical family originally from Yorkshire, this shy, sensitive boy moved with them to Ulverston (Lancs, now Cumbria) attending King William’s Coll, Isle of Man, and Trinity Coll Cambridge (1845–49, BA ‘aegrotat’ after smallpox, then MA). There he came to know Henry Bradshaw, F J A Hort and F D Maurice who impressed him greatly (cf notes on E H Plumptre). On one Lakeland vacation with his gifted mother, widowed in 1844, he spent whole days in a boat on Windermere absorbed in Wordsworth and Tennyson; in 1848 his poem The Death of Baldur was widely praised. By now more of a ‘central churchman’ than an evangelical, he was ordained in 1850, and a curate at Eastbourne and Brighton, where his first school prayers were printed and his first hymns written for children. In those days, however, central churchmen loved the Scriptures, preached the atonement, kept Sunday special, supported ‘temperance’, opposed Romanism and looked for our Lord’s glorious appearing; Ellerton certainly did!

He then (1860–72) became incumbent of Crewe Green, Ches, ministering to the social and spiritual needs of the many new workers at the London and NW Railway works, then very dirty and smoky; he joined its educational committee, acted as peacemaker in disputes, and ran evening classes. There too he printed his answer to the local Unitarians who hoped to escape ‘the Bondage of Creeds’ by omitting them from their meetings. After this he was for 5 years a village incumbent of Hinstock, Shrops (nr Market Drayton), where hymnwriting and hymn studies continued, and publications included Children’s Hymns and School Prayers, co-authored with W W How (qv), a forerunner of the Children’s Hymn Book. Next came the large suburban parish of Barnes, Middx (1876–86); where new buildings catered for expanding work, and where he began editing and writing seasonal tracts for SPCK; among the hymns from this period was one ‘for a bad harvest’ and others for specific local events. He continued a friendly correspondence with Edward Bickersteth over the Hymnal Companion and Godfrey Thring over his Church of England Hymn-Book; see notes to both these author-editors. The London Mission Hymn Book of 1884 which edited with help from How and Bickersteth, was a distant ‘churchy’ forerunner of Mission London Praise (compiled in the 1970s for a Luis Palau mission, and the basis of MP). Also in 1884 he nearly succumbed to a severe attack of pleurisy, but enjoyed the visit to Switzerland and Italy which speeded his partial recovery.

His final move was to White Roding, Essex, where he said: ‘I am rapidly discovering the pleasure of returning to my old vocation of a country parson’. Among his prose works here were a translation of The Imitation of Christ (see notes to Thos à Kempis) and the editing of the Manual of Parochial Work (1888) for which he wrote 6 of its 29 sections. Being critical of the new A&M of 1861 (he had wanted more texts from overseas and the communion hymns of Watts and Doddridge, less meditation and more praise), he edited with How the 1871 edn of SPCK’s Church Hymns (and 10 years on, his added Notes and Illustrations) which, however, never seriously rivalled the earlier book. Also in 1881, after much debate and preparation, he was the main editor of The Children’s Hymn Book; other compilations also bear his imprint. But he was also called to assist with the 1875 supplement and the 1889 ‘complete’ edn of A&M, and in 1892 formally invited to join the committee. However, like his St Albans canonry, this came too late to be more than a formality. Having already suffered with increasing paralysis, after the first of 3 strokes he withdrew to Torquay, resigning his living shortly before his death at the age of 66; 6 of his hymns were sung at the funeral. 76 of them including translations were published in 1888 as Hymns Original and Translated. He is regarded by many as the archetypal Anglican hymnwriter among Victorians, refusing to protect his texts by copyright; ‘hymns were his joy and delight’ (H Housman), and as the foremost hymnologist of his day he influenced almost every major English hymn-book over 3 decades. From one of the first of the multitude to write about ‘Favourite hymns and their Authors’, Ellerton’s parish magazine articles, popular rather than academic, were reprinted in the Church Monthly, and more were contributed to the Churchman’s Family Magazine and elsewhere. His addresses and papers on the use and history of hymns should (says a modern writer) be required reading for hymn-book committees before they begin their work; even by Free Church editors who can allow for his committed Anglican stance. He is highly quotable: ‘Nothing weakens a hymn so much as want of truthfulness; unreal emotion runs into inflated and overstrained language, or into tame and spiritless imitation’; ‘A hymn should be brief…whenever a hymn is framed on a definite plan, it must suffer [by] abridgement’; ‘I can scarcely imagine an editor…who has carefully investigated the original text of hymns, seriously desiring to print every hymn exactly as it was written. Many of our old friends it would be absolutely painful to recognise in their resuscitated dress’; ‘People say, Why not revert to the original text? I reply, Because you cannot…’; ‘There creep into churches now and then hymns which I venture to think ought to be formally prohibited’; ‘not only is the individual everything, but the consciousness of the individual is everything’; ‘Protestant theology in England at least is becoming more and more fluid, not to say gaseous’.

His own hymns aimed to be both ‘catholic and comprehensive’, not written for any one church ‘party’. Unlike J Wesley, he gladly accepted the right of others to suggest improvements, ‘to make [one’s] work less unworthy of its sacred purpose’. ‘Taken as a whole’, says Julian cautiously, ‘his verse is elevated in tone, devotional in spirit, and elegant in diction’. One of his first also became a favourite, as no.224 was written in 1866, abridged to 4 stzs for the 1868 A&M Appendix; in that year also came 230 and more translations. From 1870 (which produced 10 including 222) came Now the labourer’s task is o’er, a hymn which may have also had its day but enjoyed great popularity from its first outing, at the funeral of the chief manager of Crewe Railway Works. In that year too, remarkable for its time, ‘Thine is the loom, the forge, the mart,/ the wealth of land and sea;/ the worlds of science and of art,/ revealed and ruled by thee.’ Similarly, his 1871 text for ‘times of pestilence’ points to bad drains as well as divine judgement: ‘the foul neglect that brought/ thy chastening to our door.’ Ellerton also represents those earlier generations of Free Ch and Anglican writers who delighted in the Lord’s Day or ‘Christian Sabbath’, a rare theme in current hymns (but see under D Mowbray). In 1872 The 1910 Canadian Book of Common Praise features 23 of his hymns; in The Public School Hymn Book (1919) his total of 13 is second only to that of C Wesley. The 1950 A&M Revised has 14 and the 1965 Anglican Hymn Book 10. In 1896 Henry Housman published a major collection of his writings on hymns collected mainly by JE’s son Francis, together with a brief biography. Nos.222, 224, 230, 445, 475, 935.