Heber, Reginald


HEBER, Reginald, b Malpas Rectory, Cheshire 1783, d Trichinopoly, India 1826. Whitchurch Grammar Sch, Shrops, and private tuition at Neasden, Middlesex; Brasenose Coll Oxford; Newdigate Prize (1803) for his poem Palestine. John Ellerton, who became familiar with Heber’s native Cheshire 70 years later, says that he almost ‘took Oxford by storm…and he never lost a friend save by death’. In 1805 he became a Fellow of All Souls; after travels in Germany and Russia with John Thornton he was ordained to succeed his father (who held 2 livings several miles apart) as Rector of Hodnet in 1807, where he remained for 16 years. Rowland Hill (qv) was for a time a somewhat fiery and eccentric neighbour. Heber admired Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns and his own texts appeared in the firmly evangelical journal The Christian Observer from 1811; they were signed only ‘D.R.’, the final letters of his two names. Heber had begun to base new texts on the Sunday Epistle and Gospel, to be sung (daringly then!) after the sermon and creed, as part of an integrated approach within the service. His work was refused official authorisation, but he begged texts from poets such as Scott, Southey and Milman, and revived older material, for an influential collection published after his death (1827) including 57 of his own hymns written at Hodnet: Hymns written and adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year. 11 of these are found in EH, as also in the 1950 A&M Revised. Remarkably for his time, a national hymn includes, ‘From foes that would the land devour,/ from guilty pride and lust of power…’.

Heber was a reviewer, Bampton lecturer (1815), Lincoln’s Inn preacher (1822), biographer and editor of the complete works of Jeremy Taylor (1822), and for relaxation he loved sketching. From a distance he was attracted by India, but when offered the bishopric of Calcutta (with a diocese which then included Australia) he twice refused. In 1823, against his friends’ advice, he finally accepted, and began an energetic, gracious and prayerful ministry (as Calcutta’s 2nd bishop). He ordained the first Indian Anglican clergyman, Christian David, and founded the Bishop’s College, Calcutta. He was tireless in his travels, strongly opposed the Muslim treatment of women, but also respected local culture. But his health suffered, and after preaching in Tamil at a Confirmation service at Trichinopoly he suffered a stroke or brain haemorrhage and was found dead in his bath by a servant. His widow Amelia survived him.Julian assesses his writing as embodying purity, grace and reverence rather than scriptural strength or dogmatic force; one of the first was the archetypal From Greenland’s icy mountains (1819, with its famous lines about ‘Ceylon’s isle’), while Tennyson counted Holy, holy, holy as the greatest of all hymns. Some of his stirring missionary hymns are among those currently sung in Nigeria by ‘sending’ churches who have no doubt where the ‘heathen’ and the ‘benighted’ are now largely to be found. Nos.159, 387, 643, 865*.