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Torchbearers of the Truth: Thomas Haweis (1734-1820)

J Brown, Peterhead

A journey from Aberdeen to Cornwall would still be considered tedious by many modern travellers whether driving on motorways or using cross country trains. Nowadays, problems or delays of even a few hours usually result in howls of protest which simply demonstrate how cosseted and mollycoddled many people have become.

Such a journey about three hundred years ago really was a serious and lengthy undertaking, and not without its dangers, but our forefathers were hardy souls, and sometime, probably during the 1720s, a Scotsman named George Conan journeyed from Aberdeen to Truro to take up the position of Master in the Grammar School there. Conan, described as a "scholar and a saint", was instrumental in the conversion of Samuel Walker, curate to an absentee vicar of St Mary’s Church in Truro, and thus he became a link in the chain of events leading to the salvation of Thomas Haweis, one of the unsung heroes of the Revival.

Haweis was born in Redruth on 1st January, 1734 where his father practised as a solicitor. He was of good Cornish stock, his father Thomas hailing from Penzance and his mother from Falmouth. He became a scholar at Truro Grammar School during Conan’s mastership where he benefited not only from a good classical education but, more importantly, from the sound evangelical influence of both Conan and Walker, which led directly to his conversion. His surname was pronounced "Haws", Thomas in later life rhyming it in a comic verse with "paws". His family did not at the time have the financial resources to send him to university, so after leaving school he was apprenticed to an apothecary. It was not until 1748 that he was sponsored to enter Christ’s College, Oxford where he gathered other students together in a prayer group viewed by many as a second "Holy Club". After graduation he was ordained for the ministry of the Church of England to serve as curate at St Mary Magdalene in Oxford. An incident that took place in this phase of his life reveals Haweis’ capacity as a spiritual guide. During a visit to London he formed a close acquaintance with Henry Venn who would become a noted evangelical preacher. In the course of a discussion focussed on the issue of Calvinism as opposed to Arminianism, Haweis discoursed upon God’s sovereign control in the affairs of men. Venn exclaimed, "Allow me, my dear Haweis, to be something more than a stone". Gradually, however, Venn began to understand the truths being explained to him, and Haweis later commented, "He very shortly after learned that it was of stones that God raised up children unto Abraham and that it is His grace alone which takes away the heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh". During Haweis’ time at St Mary Magdalene opposition to plain gospel preaching in Oxford was growing, and in 1762 Haweis was dismissed from his curacy for no other offence than that his fearless and uncompromising preaching was attracting ever increasing congregations. Serious opposition to evangelical influence in the University also arose at that time, and became manifest in 1768 when seven students, after a formal trial (described as a travesty of justice) before the Vice-Chancellor of the university, were expelled from St Edmund Hall. They were described as "enthusiasts who talked of regeneration, inspiration and drawing nigh unto God".

After leaving Oxford, Haweis went to London to assist Martin Madan in his work as Chaplain at the Lock Hospital, situated in the present day Grosvenor Square near to Hyde Park. The hospital, where doctors gave their service gratis, had been founded in 1746 to be a refuge for fallen and destitute women where moral and spiritual, as well as medical help could be provided. In 1764 George Whitefield, evidently impressed by Haweis’ abilities, encouraged him to go to America to take up an incumbency in Philadelphia. However, he declined that opportunity, deciding instead to become Rector of All Saints, Aldwinkle, in Northamptonshire which position he retained until his death. Around this time Haweis became known to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. He soon gained her confidence and was regularly asked to preach in many of her chapels. She clearly had a very high regard for him as he was appointed one of her private chaplains in 1774, and when the commodious Spa Fields Chapel at Clerkenwell in North London was re-opened in March, 1779 after being leased by the Countess, Haweis preached on the first day. He set the tone for the future ministry at Spa Fields by his address on "We preach Christ crucified".

Haweis again found himself in difficulties, falling foul of the ecclesiastical laws of the Established Church, when the obduracy of the local curate to the gospel led him to commence legal proceedings challenging the right of Haweis and others to preach in his parish. The verdict of the Consistory Court, in spite of a petition from many local residents, was against Haweis and his colleagues. It was the precedent set by that verdict that forced the Countess to protect all her chapels under the 1689 Toleration Act by registering them as Dissenting Meeting Rooms and led to the formation of the Huntingdon Connexion.

In spite of all this Haweis continued his strong attachment to the Established Church, its ordinances and its liturgy. He firmly believed that the mission of the Church was to preach the gospel; unfortunately many of the hierarchy had no more sense of that mission then, than their successors do now. We can be certain, notwithstanding their ecclesiastical views, that Haweis and his contemporary evangelists would have scant sympathy with the pathetic efforts of modern, left-leaning clerics to "identify" with social and economic misfits, or with their dull platitudes relating to protest camps that in reality are noisome nuisances in public places!

For some time Haweis felt unable to preach for the Countess in her chapels because of their Dissenting status. However, later his association with her outreach work resumed and he preached at Bath and in other chapels, balancing an itinerant ministry with his parish responsibilities at Aldwinkle. Following the death of Lady Huntingdon in 1791 Haweis was surprised to discover that she had left the Trusteeship of the Connexion to him, his second wife Jenetta Orton, and two others. He thereafter undertook responsibility to organise supply for the many pulpits and preaching points throughout the country, although in doing so he attempted to ensure that the Connexion kept as close to the Church of England as was possible.

Haweis also became active in the promotion of overseas missions with a particular interest in the South Seas, as the islands of the South Pacific were then known. Penal colonies had been recently established in Australia and more voyages were being made across the vast Pacific Ocean as trade was developed with various island groups. Often contacts between Europeans and native populations had unhappy consequences, but Haweis and others longed to bring the gospel to dispel the darkness of heathendom and ameliorate the ravages of disease and alcohol among the natives. He was present at meetings held in September, 1795 for the inauguration of the London Missionary Society, when he preached on Mark 16.15 - "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature", and perhaps due to his influence Tahiti became the first field of labour to which missionaries were sent by the Society.

Thomas Haweis wrote a good number of hymns some of which were of considerable merit. Lord Jesus to tell of Thy love / Our souls would for ever delight is still sung and enjoyed to this day.1 Another hymn, Behold the Lamb! ’Tis He who bore / Sin’s burden on the tree, is included in Hymns of Light and Love. He also wrote a number of works of prose including his Impartial and Succinct History of the Church of Christ which includes a chapter giving a brief account of Lady Huntingdon’s life work with many interesting details of her early life, and The Evangelical Expositor; or a Commentary on the Holy Bible. His Evangelical Principles and Practice was a collection of fourteen of his sermons and formed part of the training material for students preparing for the ministry in the Countess of Huntingdon Connexion.

Unlike John Berridge, the subject of the previous article, Thomas Haweis evidently valued the support of a good wife. He married firstly Judith Townsend in 1771, then Jenetta Orton in 1787, and finally Elizabeth McDowall in 1802. He passed from the scene of his labours at the advanced age of 86 years on 11th February, 1820 and was buried at Bath Abbey.

To be continued.

1The Index in Hymns of Light and Love credits the hymn to C Wesley.


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