Reginald Heber was born at Malpas, Cheshire, England, April 21, 1783 to a heritage of wealth and culture. By the age of five, he had read the Bible so thoroughly that he could give chapter and verse for chance quotations.
His childhood was:-
"distinguished by sweetness of disposition, obedience and that trust in God's providence which formed through life so prominent a feature in his character...He could read the Bible with fluency at five years old, and the avidity with which he studied it, and his wonderful remembrance of its contents, astonished his parents. Indeed, from the moment he could read, his passion for books became insatiable"
Heber was educated at Brasenose College, Oxford winning many prizes for both Latin and English poetry, including in 1803 Carmen Seculare (Oxford's Latin prize), The Sense of Honor (the best English essay, 1805), Palestine, "a prize poem recited in the Theatre, Oxford in the year MDCCCIII" (the English Prize, 1803), Europe; Line on the war (1809) and The passage of the Red Sea.
Palestine is one of the few prize poems that have lived on. Christopher North called it "a flight as upon an angel's wing over the Holy Land." Heber read it in his Oxford rooms to a young Walter Scott, who pointed out that Heber had omitted a striking circumstance in his account of the building of the temple: that no tools were used in its erection. Heber at once added the lines:
No hammer fell, no ponderous axes rung,
Like some tall palm the mystic fabric sprung,
In November 1804, he was elected as a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and after he was ordained in 1807, he became vicar of the family estate of Hodnet, Shropshire where he served for 16 years, and where he was greatly loved. He was "kneeling often at sickbeds at the risk of his life; where there was strife, the peacemaker; where there was want, the free-giver."
On April 14, 1809, he married Amelia Shipley at St. Mary's Parish Church, Rhuddlan, Denbighshire, North Wales. She was the daughter of Dr. William Davies Shipley, dean of St. Asaph Cathedral from 1774 to 1826; he had married the heiress of Bodrhyddan in Rhuddlan and resided there.
It was during those 16 years that he did all of his hymn writing. In addition, he frequently contributed works to the Quarterly Review and had several hymns published in the Christian Observer, and edited the works of Jeremy Taylor. In 1812 he published a small volume of poetry and began work on a dictionary of the Bible. A man of learning and piety, in 1815, he was appointed Brampton lecturer at Oxford. In 1817, Heber was made prebendary of St. Asaph and was named preacher of Lincoln's Inn in 1822.
One of the great missionary hymns, From Greenlands Icy Mountains, was written during this time and first performed on Whitsunday, 1819. It was composed at Wrexham at the request of Heber's father-in-law, Dr. Shipley, Dean of St. Asaph's. Heber was to give a lecture on the Sunday evening, but the Dean was to preach at the missionary service in the morning. On the Saturday, the Dean asked Heber to "write something for them to sing in the morning." Heber went to another part of the room and set to work. After a short time, the Dean inquired about his progress. Heber showed him the first three verses. "That will do," said the Dean. "No, no, the sense is not complete," replied Heber, who added the fourth verse, Wafe, waft ye winds:
Waft, waft, ye winds, His story,
And you, ye waters, roll
Till, like a sea of glory,
It spreads from pole to pole:
Till o'er our ransomed nature
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign.
Heber's hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty — set to a stately Scottish air — was considered by Tennyson to be one of the finest hymns ever written.
In 1823, after refusing twice, he reluctantly accepted an appointment as Bishop of Calcutta which at that time included the whole of India, Ceylon, and Australia, sailing on 16 June 1823. Prior to his departure for India, Heber was awarded the D. D. degree from Oxford.
"The parish of Hodnet grieved truly and deeply at losing their beloved pastor, and rich and poor subscribed to give him a parting gift, as a testimonial of their love and gratitude"
During his service, he demonstrated that he possessed great judgment and administrative capacity, as well as enthusiasm and boundless energy. He was gay and witty, yet of deep unaffected piety. After three years of ceaseless traveling and intense missionary work, Heber died suddenly while visiting Trichinopoly, India on April 3, 1826 at the age of 42 of a cerebral hemorrhage while in his bath. He is buried at St. John’s Church, Trichinopoly, Tamil Nadu, India (north side of the altar). It is said that on the day he died he baptized 42 people. By another account, he suffered a sun-stroke after preaching against the evils of their caste system to a large outdoor crowd.
During his time in India, he ordained the first native pastor of the Episcopal Church — Christian David. It was not until the year after his death that he leaped into fame through his hymns which were collected and published under the title Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year, 1827.
In 1828, two years after his death, an account of a journey to Madras and the southern provinces in 1826 and letters written in India, was published, titled Narrative of a Journey Through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay (1824-25).
Left: Death of Bishop Heber, from William Carey College
He tried in 1820 to secure from Archbishop Manners Sutton and the Bishop of London official episcopal authorization for the use of his manuscript hymns in the Church, but they declined to grant it. But the whole Christian world has done what the prelates of the Church would not do. His authorship of our most popular missionary hymn — From Greenland's Icy Mountains, first performed on Whitsunday, 1819 — and his early and pathetic death as Missionary Bishop of India have made his name "as ointment poured forth" in the annals of modern Christian missions.
The touching funeral hymn, He Is Gone To The Grave, was composed after the death of Heber's first child, a loss keenly felt. After Heber's death, one who loved him took up the same strain and wrote:
Thou art gone to the grave! and while nations bemoan thee
Who drank from thy lips the glad tidings of peace;
Yet grateful, they still in their heart shall enthrone thee,
And ne'er shall thy name from their memory cease.
Thou art gone to the grave, but thy work shall not perish,
That work which the spirit of wisdom hath blest;
His might shall support it, His mercy shall cherish,
His love make it prosper tho' thou art at rest
Bread of the World, in Mercy Broken
Forth from the Dark and Stormy Sky
God, That Madest Earth and Heaven
O Thou, Who Gav'st Thy Servant Grace
The Son of God Goes Forth to War
Rev. Duncan Campbell, Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A. & C. Black, Fourth Edition, 1908), quoted verbatim by Louis C. Elson, ed., Modern Music and Musicians, Part 2: Encyclopedia (New York: The University Society, 1912)
Go Britannia, the Seven Wonders concerning the Wrexham Steeple
Notes from the Hymnuts
Larry Marietta's Music Notes from Sunday Morning Services at FCCB, May 30, 1999, concerning Heber
Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody: A Manual of the Methodist Hymnal. Second Edition. New York: Abingdon Press, 1937.
Pitts Theology Library, Emory University, Atlanta, GA for a brief biography of Reginald Heber
St. Mary's Parish Church, Rhuddlan, Denbighshire, N. Wales, Vicar: The Reverend J Gareth Griffiths, for information concerning the marriage of Reginald and Amelia (Shipley) Heber
West Midlands Creative Literature Collection for a brief biography of Reginald Heber