Transcription of: Stephenson, H. W. (1931), Unitarian Hymn-Writers, London: the Lindsey Press.

[Page 9]

[Chapter] I

JOHN JOHNS, born 17 March, 1801, settled, when he was barely twenty years of age, as minister of the Unitarian congregation at Crediton, Devon. Already, at Edinburgh University, he had distinguished himself by his classical attainments. Advantageous offers in other walks of life had been made to him, but thoughts of the work of the ministry had captivated his mind. That being so, Crediton may well have seemed to be, for him, an ideal place. He was at heart a poet, a man who dreamed dreams, one who might appear to others to be most fitted to live in realms of his own, a man not to be disturbed too much by harsh contact with the cruder and less pleasing aspects of human life.

Those who are familiar with the country round Crediton, with Exeter but seven miles away, and not far distant the impressive solitudes of the wilder parts of Dartmoor, will understand what


it may well have meant to this young man, tor whom the beauty of the earth was very heaven, and " every flower that starred the fresh green sod a word of God." No family cares were his; there were no home responsibilities to curtail or limit the vagaries of his eager spirit, and we can picture him wandering away over the hills, lingering by the rivers and the brooks, meandering through the woods, as though the amplitude of his time were eternity itself.

Poems by him began to appear in various papers and journals; after eight years he collected them together and published them in book form under the title Dews of Castalie (1828). In the following year there followed another volume -The Valley of the Nymphs, a dream of the Golden World (1829). Yet was he not neglectful of his pastoral duties; nor did he withhold his active participation in the fostering of such social agencies as promoted the general welfare of the people.

For thirteen years he lived his care-free bachelor life, and then in 1833 he married Caroline Reynell. In the spring of the following year events were transpiring which were, at no distant date, going to be big with meaning for both of them. James Martineau and John Hamilton Thom were two of the Unitarian ministers in Liverpool. In the early part of 1834 they were visited by Dr. Joseph Tuckerman, of Boston, U.S.A. Tuckerman was a saint and a hero. He was the central figure in the philanthropies undertaken by the American


Unitarians for the poor and degraded in tne city of Boston. Tuckerman was what was known as "the minister at large."

"It is," he wrote," the first object of the ministry at large never to be lost sight of, and to which no other is to be preferred, as far as shall be possible to extend its offices to the poor and the poorest, to the low and the lowest, to the most friendless and uncared for, the most miserable."

Martineau and Hamilton Thom had already felt that the claims of the poor and the suffering deserved a response beyond anything which the Liverpool Unitarians had then found possible. Tuckerman s visit fired them with the feeling that something must and could be done. And some-thing was done. The Liverpool Domestic Mission was founded in 1836, and the Rev. John Johns was invited to be" the minister at large."

At this time Johns was but thirty-six years of age. The whole of his manhood - some sixteen years - had been, as it were, one long pilgrimage of joy and peace and quiet helpfulness in the little Devon town. If ever a man seemed, by his former manner of life, to be unprepared for the work that lay before him, it was surely John Johns when he packed up bag and baggage and left Crediton for Liverpool. " Many," says Hamilton Thom, "would have thought it a violence to nature, a useless cruelty, to call him away for ever from the scenes of beauty in which his spirit felt its home and make him the daily companion of intem-


perance, coarseness, sensuality, and brutal vice." Nevertheless, for ten and a half years he fulfilled the role of Minister to the Poor in ways as heroic as they were unforgettable for those who watched him in his work.

The annual reports of this "minister at large" witness to the thoroughness and the rare humanity with which he carried out the work entrusted to him, his own contributions to Liverpool newspapers doing something towards calling a wider attention to the intolerable conditions of life under which many were still living. In an article, in 1841, on "Cellars," he wrote: "In the part of the country from which I come I have seen a great deal of occasional suffering, but it was suffering above ground. In the country a man's death always preceded his interment. It was in Liverpool that I first found graves inhabited by the living. In Liverpool I first found families immured in underground dwellings, which cut them off from sunshine and air, and only admitted light enough to show in what dismal abodes life could linger on."

In a similar communication on Courts,'' in which multitudes of the same class of people hid themselves, Mr. Johns wrote: "I have neither words nor will to describe the filth of some of these regions. It is unimaginable and unutterable." And we have to picture him entering "the small, close, and sunless dwellings, with their broken floors and stairs, and greasy walls, and shattered


casements." He mentioned, also, that "not unfrequently these courts have other courts within them, branching off on one or both sides; sometimes through doors, sometimes through passages between walls, which lead, if possible, to haunts yet more forlorn and repulsive."

And thus we gain an impression of the kind of environment in which much of the work of Mr. Johns was done. It might be thought that the poet in him would suffer eclipse, or that, at least, the old impulse to write would die away. Nevertheless, no less than nine of the monthly issues of the Christian Reformer for 1843 contain contributions in verse from him.

And then, some four years later, in the full prime of his manhood, he was cut off. "The Irish famine of 1846 led to an influx into Liverpool of miserable emigrants and other sufferers hoping to find there some means of support; and the following winter was a time of dreadful trial, both to the poor and to those who in personal service dared to be their friends. The inevitable malignant fever broke out, and among its many victims carried off ten priests of the Roman Catholic Church. With one of these, John Johns, who had relaxed none of his faithful efforts during those trying months, compassionately tended the body of a man who had just died, and whom no one else would touch." Both took the infection, and in both cases it proved fatal. John Johns died on 23 June, 1847.


In the early part of the previous year he published Georgics of Life: or, Scenes from the Town Life of the Poor. Being the first part of an intended Poem on that Subject. There were only twenty pages of it, and, alas! there were to be no more. By these Georgics he hoped that he might send forth: -

A voice not heard in vain, that yet may wake
A sympathy divine for human woe.

And so soon were his own mortal remains to be laid to rest. From the Rev. J. Hamilton Thom 's memorial address the following is taken: "A more awful solitude is now reigning in damp cellars, in wretched garrets, in the close recesses of noisome courts. His form will never darken again the low entrance. His step will never be heard again on the creaking, upright stair, listened for by lonely sufferers, to whom he brought the only gleam of heaven that sanctified the long day and longer night. He will be seen no more in those gloomy regions where for years he walked daily, with offers of sympathy and help to all who wanted a counsellor and friend."

Thus ended, all too soon, the earthly career of the Rev. John Johns, and when we think of him, it is not primarily as hymn-writer, but as one who lived by the vision splendid of the world made better by the sustained efforts of those whose faith in God and in man was no less real than his own.

Of the many hymns that he wrote, the one by


which he is best known, and which has been included in other than Unitarian hymnals, is:-

Come, kingdom of our God,
Sweet reign of light and love!
Shed peace and hope and joy abroad,
And wisdom from above.

It means something to us that we know these words to be very much more than the pious utterance of one who had always chosen or happened upon smooth and pleasant paths. Indeed, there are few hymns which do not become more precious to us, into which we do not read a greater fulness of meaning, from which we do not receive a greater inspiration, if we know something of those who wrote them.


Note: More on Rev. John Johns at Dr Williams' Library/ Fiona Turnbull:

Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful