Sir Edward Denny's family tree can be traced to the birth of Geoffrey Denny of Middlesex in 1329. From relatively humble origins the family rose in prominence through five generations until Edmund Denny (1461-1520) gained a knighthood. His son Sir Anthony Denny of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, was appointed a Privy Councillor by King Henry VIII, and held the confidence of that somewhat capricious monarch in the closing period of his life. Sir Anthony, like many contemporaries, benefited materially from the dissolution of the monasteries, but he was a genuine supporter of the Reformation. He was appointed a guardian of the young King Edward VI, and it is thought that he named his own son Edward after the king. This Sir Edward Denny led the adventurous life typical of the Elizabethan age, including privateering with his famous cousins (on his mother's side), Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh. He took part in military expeditions to Ireland, and through this began the long connection of the family with Tralee Castle in County Kerry where they held a very large estate.
The Sir Edward Denny of particular interest to us was a descendent of his Elizabethan namesake. He was born in Dublin on 2nd October, 1796 and grew up with the privileges enjoyed by the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. He was educated at Eton and at Exeter College, Oxford. He served briefly as MP for Tralee in 1818-19, was High Sheriff of Kerry in 1827 and succeeded to the title and estate on his father's death in 1831. While a young man he was brought under deep conviction of sin through reading the book Father Clement, the story of two Irish families, one Protestant the other Roman Catholic, in which Scriptural truth wins the day. He was converted, and the course of his life was henceforth utterly different to what it otherwise would have been.
In the early 1830s, while resident in Somerset, he received a visit from Mr John G Bellett. As they sat around the fire Denny asked Bellett to give him an idea of the "brethren".¹ He was evidently in sympathy with Bellett's thoughts, for afterwards Sir Edward and his sister were in fellowship in the assembly at Bath. Living in England, Sir Edward, like many of the Anglo-Irish gentry, was an absentee landlord. Unlike many he did not exploit his tenants, and when he had opportunity to raise rents he did not do so. The result was that he was almost the only Irish landlord upon whom no rent reduction was enforced by the Land Commission established by the Government to address the abuses to which many Irish tenants had been subject. For many years he lived in London and was in fellowship in The Priory meeting room. Though possessing wealth and position he lived as those who "confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth".² For his own needs a little money went a long way but he was generous to the poor and to the Lord's work.
Of a quiet and studious disposition, he became greatly interested in prophecy and attended some of the Powerscourt House conferences. Later in life he was assisted by Mr John Jewell Penstone (1817–1902) in the preparation of charts illustrating dispensational teaching. Penstone was a gifted artist and engraver, a former Quaker who initially became connected with brethren through J E Howard of Tottenham. A Prophetical Stream of Time was the best known chart, but others were published including The Seventy Weeks of Daniel and The Feasts of the Lord.
Hymns and poems
Sir Edward's hymns and poems have proved to be his lasting legacy. He had a marked poetic gift, and ranks as one of the finest hymn writers among the early brethren. A number of his hymns reflect his interest in prophecy, and Hymns and Poems, originally published in 1848, and followed by editions in 1870 and 1889, contained a section headed Millennial Hymns. In a lengthy introduction he set out his dispensational views relating to Israel, the Church, and the Gentile Nations. Each hymn was given a suitable heading. The lovely hymn, To Calvary Lord, in Spirit now/Our weary souls repair, appeared as a Millennial Hymn with the title Calvary and the Kingdom, as did Hope of our hearts, O Lord appear/Thou glorious Star of day, entitled The Church waiting for the Son from Heaven.
The section Miscellaneous Hymns contained many other hymns still widely used and familiar to us. Among those relating to Christian experience, we find 'Tis finished all; our souls to win, given the title Our Friend in Heaven. This seems so appropriate considering the verses:
Past suffering now, the tender heart
Of Jesus, on His Father's throne,
Still in our sorrow bears a part,
And feels it as He felt His own.
Sweet thought! We have a friend above,
Our weary, faltering steps to guide,
Who follows with the eye of love
The little flock for which He died.
Another equally appropriate title, The Shadow of a Great Rock in a Weary Land, was given to the hymn:
Oh, what a lonely path were ours
Could we, O Father, see
No home or rest beyond it all,
No guide or help in Thee!
One theme, evidently very precious to Sir Edward, was the moral glory of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. His appreciation of that subject found exquisite expression in his well-known verses:
What grace, O Lord, and beauty shone
Around Thy steps below!
What patient love was seen in all
Thy life and death of woe!
For ever on Thy burdened heart
A weight of sorrow hung;
Yet no ungentle, murmuring word
Escaped Thy silent tongue.
The writer clearly desired that meditation on that perfect life and pathway would be reflected in our manner of life:
One with Thyself, may every eye,
In us, Thy brethren, see
That gentleness and grace which spring
From union, Lord, with Thee!
A number of Sir Edward's hymns are most suitable for singing when we gather to remember the Lord Jesus in the Breaking of Bread. Our hearts are still moved as we sing:
Sweet feast of love divine!
'Tis grace that makes us free
To feed upon this bread and wine,
In memory, Lord, of Thee.
While in sweet communion feeding
On this earthy bread and wine,
Saviour, may we see Thee bleeding
On the cross to make us Thine!
Oh, wondrous hour, when Jesus, Thou,
Co-equal with the eternal God,
Beneath our sin didst deign to bow,
And in our stead didst bear the rod!
gives deep insights into the nature of the Saviour's sufferings. These still stir hearts to adoration, to worship and to thanksgiving. The concluding verses celebrate the power and the triumph of His love while our infinite debt to Him is fully acknowledged.
In his preface to the 1870 edition of Hymns and Poems Sir Edward expressed a strongly held view regarding the practice of amending hymns. He wrote: I have been much grieved, I confess, to observe how this practice of needlessly altering some even of our well-known favourite hymns has lately prevailed, and could not help wishing that they had been left, still to cheer and to comfort the hearts of the people of God, notwithstanding, it may be, some imperfections, without any such attempts at improvement. It is surely not fair to treat another's compositions in this way, especially when he is not unsound as to doctrine. In writing a hymn or a poem the author knows his own meaning and object far better than another can possibly do. After further comments he continued: Such being my views with regard to the compositions of others, the reader will be prepared for the request which I am about to make with regard to my own; namely, that should any of these poems or hymns be deemed worthy of a place in any further collections that they be left as they are without alteration or abridgement. It was sage advice and it ought to have been heeded more.
Sir Edward Denny passed from this scene on 13th June, 1889 at the advanced age of 92 years. He had never married, and his sister Diana who lived with him survived him by only six months. They were buried in Paddington Cemetery in a grave beside that of G V Wigram. On their headstone was inscribed: In joyful assurance of rising to an endless day.
¹ Interesting Reminiscences of the Early History of "Brethren" by J G Bellett.
² Songs of Pilgrimage and Glory by E E Cornwall, 1932.