But Who Was Heber?

Reginald Heber was born on April 21 st , 1783. His parents Mary and Reginald were Tories, High Churchmen, and allergic to any radical doctrine or challenge to Church authority. Heber Sr. was profoundly shocked by the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793. His father was the rector at Hodnet, a village and civil parish, a position to which the young Reginald eventually succeeded, and was a parish priest for 16 years.

Reginald was a child prodigy; at the age of five he could read fluently, and grew up with a phenomenal knowledge of the Biblical text. He was brought up in deep Christian piety by his devout parents. At the age of 16 he went to Oxford . He made many friends at the University, some of whom rose to eminent and powerful positions and were of great to help to him in his subsequent ecclesiastical career. He had a talent for poetic writing, and at Oxford won several prizes. Although Reginald did not take orders till 1804, the Hebers were an unusually missionary minded family. Our Lord's commission “ Go ye therefore, and teach all the nations …” was precious to them. After obtaining his MA degree, at the age of 24, he was ordained a priest by the Bishop of Oxford on May 24, 1807. Although he had serious misgivings about the Thirty –nine articles, and could not accept the implied cruelty of the doctrine of predestination, but his belief in God and in Christ Jesus was as steady as his heart beat. In April 1809 he married Amelia, daughter of Dean Shipley of St. Aspah's and settled down to a comfortable life of a rector at Hodnet.

Reginald Heber –A Priest

He was forthright in his preaching; one of his sermons ended with this exhortation. “ We are now about to have a collection., but before the plates are held at the door, we will sing a hymn, during which those who don't intend to give may sneak of.” He once said:” I think when I get to heaven; the first ten thousand years will be taken up in wonder and astonishment. ” A poor woman, to whom he gave three shillings, blessed him: ‘ May the Lord reward you four fold!” Heber commented afterwards:” How unreasonable are the expectations of men! This poor woman's wish for me, which sounds so noble, amounts to but twelve shillings, and we when we give a pittance expect heaven as our reward.” He preferred the Book of Common Prayer, and a structured service that creates an aura of worship. He did not like extempore praying, explaining that his lips were rather like that of Moses than Aaron. Unlike the Methodist who liked to sing jubilantly at their worship (Charles Wesley wrote 6000 hymns); the Church of England initially frowned on the singing of hymns in the Church. However Heber was of the opinion that any novelty that attracts more worshippers should be encouraged. He began writing hymns, and wrote for almost a decade. He designed these hymns to be sung between the creed and the sermon and unlike Wesleyan hymns he did not like the language of emotional hymns.

William Wilberforce – A Need For A Bishop In Calcutta

William Wilberforce, the British MP singularly responsible for the abolition of slavery had been campaigning for years to establish an episcopate in India, and also that missionary activity may be allowed by the East India Company in the Indian territory controlled by them. Eventually Wilberforce's brilliant oratory and persuasion won the day

In 1814 the first bishop of the new See of Calcutta was appointed – Dr. Thomas Fenshaw Middleton. He was a typical moderate High Churchman, limited mind, but a taste for scholarship and was a disappointment to the Evangelicals.

In July 1822 Bishop Middleton died, and the establishment gingerly approached Heber, asking if he would consider taking on the episcopate at Calcutta . He initially declined on grounds of family and health concerns, but later reconsidered his decision and accepted the Great Commission to go to India – his extensive diocese included not only India, but also Ceylon,(now called Sri Lanka) Australia and New Zealand.

Reginald Heber Accepts the Great Commission.

On June 01, 1823, Heber was consecrated the second Bishop of Calcutta by Archbishop Sutton, assisted by the Bishops of London , Llandaff and St. Asaph. He sailed to India , and on the long voyage used to lead the worship and read prayers to those passengers and crew who wished to attend, He visited the sick and preached some of the sermons that he had used at Hodnet. Heber confessed that ‘sea knees' were as necessary as sea legs, because sometimes as the vessel was leaning so much he had to kneel on a chair to be heard over the wind and waves.

Map of modern Kolkata

View of old Calcutta

Welcome to Calcutta

Kolkata is situated on the banks of the Hoogly River , a distributary of the Ganges . The Governor General Lord Amherst sent his yacht down the river to fetch the Hebers, arranged a splendid house for them, and attended his installation at St. Johns cathedral. It must have been a grand occasion, when Heber first preached in his own cathedral, full of pomp and ceremony, with dignitaries in attendance, Army top brass in dress uniforms, Justices in their colourful robes and wigs, senior bureaucrats, all anxious to get a glimpse of the new bishop. Weather-wise Heber's arrival was badly timed; the temperature, at that time hovering in 30 degree C and humidity, Calcutta being a sea port at 94%, putting the European in their western garb at a cruel disadvantage. Incidentally William Carey, the legendary Baptist missionary was a contemporary of Bishop Heber. He was based at Serampore, a Danish colony because East India Co. prohibited any missionary activity in their domain, lest it may interfere with their trading interest. Carey at that time was old and infirm, and could not meet the new Bishop.

Bishop Heber takes charge.

Absence of a bishop since the death of Bishop Middleton had created a vacuum in the administration, and the Arch deacons of Calcutta and Bombay had got used to running their own affairs. They therefore resented the directives of the new bishop. But Heber wasted no time and immediately set about putting the stamp of his personality on his diocese. He decided to tour his vast episcopate, starting from Calcutta to Bombay , a distance of about 2000 km.

Our Bishop, when on a visit to Mission , one of her outlying parishes, uses a car, well protected from the inclemency of weather, and also climate controlled for comfort. She drives on good roads with a GPS to guide her. But Bishop Heber in 1823 had no such benefits; no planes, trains, cars or roads.

Continued...next page