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John Walmsley, Ninth Bishop of Sierra Leone

A Memoir for His Friends

Arranged by E.G. Walmsley, M.A.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923.

Chapter III. Normanton and Nottingham

THE story of John Walmsley's work at Normanton will be best told in the words of the Rev. R. St. Clair Page, Vicar of Seighford, Staffordshire, who was his curate for two years:

"The parish of St. Giles, Old Normanton, or Normanton-by-Derby, was until 1870 part of the parish of St. Peter, Derby. A new church was built at this time, with stumpy spire, nave to seat about one hundred, and small chancel. Some years later an addition was made on the south side to accommodate the soldiers from the depot of the Notts and Derby Regiment, which lies in the parish. The patronage has changed hands several times; at the time of the appointment of Mr. Walmsley it was in the hands of five trustees. Consequently there have been extremes of ritual, and it is remembered that the first preacher in the new church was Mr. Benson, of the Cowley Fathers. The parish in Mr. Walmsley's time fell into two distinct parts, separated by fields: the old village with farmhouses dotted about the slope running down to the Midland Railway, and several streets of houses on the outskirts of the town. The vicarage and the church lay in the village, the former being a pleasant, small, two-storied house, facing south and west and having a garden round it.

"Here it was that Mr. Walmsley brought his recently widowed mother and two sisters. The elder of the two married and went away, soon after he settled in the parish. The family circle was very unlike that found in many vicarages. Mrs. Walmsley and her daughter brought with them the atmosphere of a simple, deeply religious family, interested fully in the parish, but never allowing the parish to dominate the home. Under their roof was never heard any tittle-tattle or veiled scandal; there was always a brisk conversation, plenty of fun, boundless good work, but it was never professional and never oppressive.

"In giving an account of John Walmsley's time at Normanton, it would be incomplete unless some notice were taken of his weaknesses, as in them he really found his strength. He did a great work in the parish. Outwardly this may be seen in the handsome church, which incorporates only the south wall, the chancel, and the tower of the former building. He has left a name, fragrant with love, which will not pass away in our generation; many lives have been brought near to the Master by his means, and countless others have been raised intellectually and morally by contact with him. His work was for Christ first and always, and it was real work--time, energy, strength, given unstintingly and completely. But he entirely lacked method, and he relied upon himself. And, because he was so capable, this was his strength. He never failed; he was on the spot when he was really wanted, and he saw his wishes carried out to the letter. One or two incidents will illustrate this. A deacon came to work with him; on his first Sunday he was told to take the service to the third collect and to be prepared to preach during the Communion Service. The service went on and no vicar appeared. The last verse of the hymn was sung, and still the deacon was alone. He went within the sanctuary, and drew in a breath to begin the Lord's Prayer, and lo! beside him stood the Vicar. The Curate learned afterwards that the Vicar had been to the Union; and, on saying to a member of the congregation that he hoped they had not been as nervous as he was, the reply came: 'Oh, we are never agitated by anything. A fortnight ago the Vicar borrowed a curate from the town for half an hour, and he had to go, and we sat for ten minutes without a clergyman; but we didn't mind, we knew he would turn up.'

"That was the secret of it all. People knew he would not fail them; and he never did, though one morning, as he was fond of telling, his hat blew off and he left it for ever. Another narrow escape he used to tell with glee. Coming down Littleover Hill he had run over a child, and jumped off his cycle to set the little one on his feet, then speeded on in time for his part of the service. Afterwards he went back to see if harm had been done, and found the child's home. The mother greeted him with smiles, 'You shouldn't have bothered. I've always told him to keep out of your way when you fly down, andsnow perhaps he's learnt sense.'

"When the church, was finally closed for rebuilding, absolutely no provision was made for services, except that for the present they would be held in the open air. Unfortunately the following Sunday was wet. A dreary congregation assembled on the Vicarage lawn, and Mrs. Walmsley was heard to declare that it would be ruined.' But he came up with a smile, and presently we crowded into a small room which did duty for odd meetings. It was weeks before a temporary iron room was built, but the Vicar managed by duplicating services, and the worshippers were satisfied.

|" His sermons were wonders of eloquence, full of deep thought and real scriptural teaching. The hearers felt that the message came from his heart and was for each individual soul. So vivid was the feeling that on one occasion he was asked, 'Have I been the offender?' His text had been, 'It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith,' the subject being the evil of half-truths. But the Curate in his stall thought something on his part must have hurt the Vicar, and he was only relieved the next day when old Captain Reid came up to ask what he had said to make the Vicar look so grieved.

"His earnest delivery drove the sermon home; the tall, slim figure, leaning slightly forward, the curious little twist of the neck, the clear grey eyes, unusuaUy far apart, searching now this face and now that in the congregation; the shapely hands, using little gesture, but always in evidence. It is possible that the sermons needed his personality to make them effective; none of them have been printed, and when in March 1903 he was laid aside with measles (his third attack) and wrote a sermon to be read by the Curate, it certainly fell very flat on the congregation. It needed his magnetic self to convey the message he was so wishful to give.

"His attraction in church lay in another and most important direction, the reading of the prayers. For those who were privileged to join in worship with Mr. Walmsley, the stately prayers were for ever given a new and deeper meaning; the realisation of the Almighty seemed to leap into his voice; there was no trace of affectation, no mouthing of the words; every syllable was distinctly heard by the people, and the throne of God was reached.

"When Mr. Walmsley had been two years at Normanton, he found that he must have the help of a curate if he was to fulfil the many engagements which crowded upon him. Feeling that the parish was well within the reach of one man, and not wishing to call upon his parishioners to provide for an additional clergyman, he undertook the chaplaincy of Derby Union, lying three miles away. The duty there involved five days of visiting, one weeknight service, and two services on Sunday, alternately morning and afternoon. There was also the official chaplaincy to the troops at the barracks, with its quarters and hospital--a charge which proved very heavy during the South African War, when all the young boys of the regiment were collected at Normanton. This entailed religious instruction during the week, as well as the parade-service on Sunday.

"While the church was closed for rebuilding, the number of services on Sunday would have alarmed a weaker man. There were no fewer than seven full services, with six sermons, two Bible-classes, besides the two Sunday schools and monthly children's services. All these services were crowded, people coming from the town, and the memory of the temporary iron room, designed for a Coronation feast, low of roof, is one of heat and suffocation. But the discomfort only seemed to increase the numbers, and all went happily and well. The church was reopened on October 7th, 1903, and henceforth it was well filled in the morning and crowded in the evening. In spite of the numbers the vicar was quick to notice a new face; and the stranger walking away through the churchyard would find Mr. Walmsley at his side, and, after a few tactful questions on the part of the Vicar, he would be delighted to find that Mr. Walmsley had known his father in Penge or his aunt in Hereford. This wonderful personal touch on his congregation gave a family feeling rarely experienced.

"The same wide knowledge of people was manifested in his visiting. He knew the name of every child in the parish, and all the concerns of the elders. When he entered a house it might be thought that this family was his sole concern; each member had a word, and he knew all about their daily lives. And surely there never was visiting at such unusual hours: he would drop in as the mother was bathing her baby at nine in the morning, and he would leave home at eight in the evening and visit half a dozen families before returning at eleven. Whenever he might call there was a delighted welcome and the family knew that here was a friend indeed. If any sickness or sorrow came, the Vicar's immediate knowledge of it was uncanny. He was there at once, with the most perfect sympathy and deep spiritual consolation. He would go to the greatest pains to help, and with the greatest tact. Only real interest could have given such a knowledge of his people. As an old parishioner wrote at the news of his death,' I don't think I had more than six conversations with Mr. Walmsley during the whole time he was here, but I feel that I have lost one of my nearest friends.' "

During the period of his work at Normanton, John Walmsley's energy made itself felt far beyond the limits of his own parish. He spoke frequently at the great breakfast-hour services in the Midland Railway Works at Derby. He became a leader in the movement for promoting sacred study among the clergy of the diocese; and he was frequently in request as a special preacher. Thus he became widely known in different parts of the diocese of Southwell; and no surprise was felt when, in 1904, he was asked to succeed the Rev. Cyril Bardsley as Vicar of St. Ann's, Nottingham, the largest and one of the most exacting parishes in that city.

Thus Walmsley entered upon the last stage of his preparation for the great work to which he was afterwards to be called in Africa. Little need be said of the parish itself. It resembles many others in our Midland and Northern towns, with a population numbering some twenty thousand, almost entirely artisan in character. The Vicar acted also as Chaplain to two Mental Hospitals. There was a second church to be served at the Mapperley end of the parish; and the usual organisations that are found in a vigorously worked parish had to be maintained. It was thoroughly to Walmsley's taste. He enjoyed taking his share in the throbbing life of one of the most progressive of our large provincial towns; and his zeal for personal contact, with that capacity for remembering individuals, and for treating them as such, which had been so marked a feature of his work at Normanton, found still more ample scope in the monotonous streets of St. Ann's. There were usually four curates at work in the parish; and the necessity of directing a large staff of helpers threw upon him a new responsibility. All who know the inner life of a large parish are aware that the relation of vicar and curate demands on both sides the fullest exercise of Christian tact and unselfishness. It is a relation in which a sense of strain may very easily arise, with disastrous results to the work on which both are engaged. On the other hand, it may be doubted whether any other relation within the Christian fellowship presents the same opportunity for a deep, mutual affection and trust. It is a rare tribute to the beauty and strength of John Walmsley's character that he won in such a marked degree the confidence and love of those who worked with him at Nottingham. At the risk of repetition, the testimony of some of his devoted curates may be cited here.

The Rev. Alfred Jackson, now Vicar of Holy Trinity, Clifton, writes:

"My recollections of Bishop Walmsley at St. Ann's, Nottingham, and of his mother and sister, are of the happiest. The atmosphere of the Vicarage home was as perfect as it could be. It was a beehive of industry. No one was ever idle within it; the door-bell was going unceasingly from morning to night--requests for hospital letters; charitable relief; curates coming on business; visitors of all kinds--and yet there was never any sign of flurry or ill-humour. The writer was a frequent visitor at all hours of the day, and like everyone else never felt he had come where or when he was not welcome.

"The weekly Staff meetings were happy gatherings; for 'John,' as he was privately referred to amongst us, was not one whom his curates feared, but a brother whom they dearly loved. We sat round the study, well lined with books and relics of his Oxford days, and conversation flowed freely; sometimes too freely for the settlement of parish matters--but then business was not one of the late Bishop's strongest points.

"He would often wander off into reminiscences or spend time detailing some amusing parochial incident of the week, for there was no restraint about the meetings.

"There were two things, however, that he never let slip--the sick-list for the week, and the few minutes together on our knees whilst each one in turn brought some aspect of the work before God in prayer. The greatest difficulty we had was to get him to fix up the rota of duties--sermons, occasional offices, and what not. Just when we thought we had got him to the point he would exclaim, 'I say, it's eleven o'clock, and I'm reading the paper this morning at the Sacred Study meeting!' and the last we would see of him that morning would be his disappearing figure on his cycle, going at terrific speed down the steep incline towards the city, when he would arrive just in the nick of time for his engagement.

"His capacity for work was tremendous. He was always active. One wondered how ever he found time to prepare the many sermons that were required of him. He bore the brunt of the preaching, never taking less than four sermons in the week, and most of them reached a high level of intellectual and spiritual merit; but then he burned the midnight oil; he would busy himself about the parish or city all day and settle down with a stack of books at his elbow when everyone else had gone to bed. Sermons and papers seemed to worry him not at all. He appeared to have a mind which easily and rapidly assimilated a work or a subject."

The Rev. W. M. Browne, now Vicar of Attenborough-with-Bramcote, Nottinghamshire, who went to St. Ann's as a deacon in 1909, writes particularly on the scholarly influence exercised by his former chief:

"The golden rule by which he tested all opinions, whether old or new, was that of their moral truth. He had a horror of any insincerity, any make-believe or acting a part for the sake of circumstances. I can well remember how again and again his judgment of men or opinions turned on this point. In one of my last talks with him about a certain book setting forth the extreme teaching of Modernism, he went back behind the views expressed to the moral worth of those who were responsible for the book. It seemed to him that they treated the problems too much as merely intellectual puzzles. His complaint was that there was a certain flippancy of view and a lack of moral earnestness.

"No one who came, into contact with the Bishop or heard him speak could doubt that moral truth was the foundation of his teaching; and it was just this that gave unity to all his thought and enabled him to combine in perfect loyalty new teaching with the old.

"He was a scholar all his days and had a wonderful gift for reading the best books, and getting the best out of them. He had great sympathy with those who were engaged in Higher Criticism, and used the knowledge he gained from reading the works of such men as Driver and Sanday to very great effect, chiefly by laying stress on the positive side of their teaching. Undoubtedly he had assimilated all the modern views of the Old Testament Scriptures and utilised the historical view of Old Testament literature to the full; but how far he went in the application of the same methods to the New Testament it is more difficult to say, and naturally so, because the work of New Testament criticism is still very incomplete.

"On certain points the Bishop was content to postpone any final judgment, but what really was always for him supreme was the moral value of our Lord's character. He was always able to distinguish between theological opinions and religious truth; and though undoubtedly by what he did not say, rather than by what he did say, one realised that his opinions did change, his religious convictions as to the truth of God's revelation in Christ Jesus never wavered. He must have endorsed fully the truly striking words of the Lambeth Conference, words that carry with them a fundamental acceptance of liberal teaching of the Bible, namely, that the Holy Scriptures are to be accepted, not as the revelation of God in themselves, but 'as the record of God's revelation of Himself to man.'

"Among the opportunities that the Bishop used to serve the Church outside his own parish were the claims made upon his time by the Society of Sacred Study and the Church Reading Society. Of the former, he was Chairman of the Nottingham branch whilst at St. Ann's. In that office he did invaluable service as a leader of thought, dealing very gently with those whose studies were not very profound, and always fair to those who differed from him. He had a quiet way of correcting mis-statements without exposing ignorance, and his summing-up of the papers read and their discussion was always helpful. He was scholarly without being academic, and his love of moral truth in preference to the expression of theological opinions was a prominent feature of his leadership.

"There was always a devotional touch in his treatment of sacred subjects, and he never lost sight of the fact that purity of life was the way to truth in Theology. He lectured more than once for the Church Reading Society, and he was always a welcome lecturer, especially on the Old Testament, where he excelled in bringing out the positive value of Higher Criticism. For example, in speaking of the Book of Psalms as the hymn-book of the Jewish Church, collected through the ages, and compiled from many sources, he pointed out how inspiring this view of their growth was, compared with the unwarranted attempt to ascribe them all to David. He never took away any fragment of what might be the basis of an individual's faith without replacing it by something better."

One more testimony of a former colleague may be added, that of the Bishop of Newcastle, who, as the Rev. H. L. Wild, was Senior Curate of St. Ann's at the time when Walmsley went to Nottingham, and who remained for eight months until he was himself appointed Vicar of another parish in the city:

"I can never forget the happiness of the months spent under his leadership. He was most generous and considerate to his colleagues, setting at the same time a high standard of efficient work, and being always ready to help us with wise and shrewd counsel. He at once made his way to the hearts of the parishioners of that great parish, by whom he was greatly beloved. After eight months I moved to the neighbouring parish of Carrington, and there too I was able always to count upon Mr. Walmsley's advice and help. He quickly rose to a position of weight and influence in the Ruridecanal Chapter, and, though he did not speak often, his words always counted for much as being those of a man who was absolutely sincere. It was remarkable that, in spite of his diligence in parochial work, he never lost his interest hi learning or in the critical study of the Bible.

"He had a keen zest in life and delighted in his brief holidays, which were chiefly spent in a chaplaincy in Switzerland. He seemed to have two secrets of life. One was his simple piety and absolute devotion to the will of God as he saw it. This it was that sent him readily out to Sierra Leone and made him so devoted a leader of the Church there. Once he had chosen his course, he never looked back. I think that this faith even resulted sometimes in a kind of unreasoning recklessness, leading him to take too few precautions about the conservation of his health and energy. His other secret was his interest in individuals. He never thought of people as in the mass, but always treated them separately, each as 'the child of God.' In spite of their faults, failings, and weaknesses, he loved them one by one, taking note of all of these, with rich, kindly humour, and drawing them upwards towards the heavenly kingdom,"

During his (stay at Derby and Nottingham, Walmsley served under two Bishops of Southwell--Dr. Ridding and Dr. Hoskyns. His relations with both were singularly happy. Many of those with whom he corresponded on questions of faith will remember how often he quoted Bishop Ridding's famous Litany of Remembrance, with its petition to be saved "alike from stubborn rejection of new revelations, and from hasty assurance that we are wiser than our fathers." Bishop Hoskyns, in 1907, conferred on the Vicar of St. Ann's the Canonry of Repton in Southwell Cathedral. It was a notable tribute to the character and work of a priest who had spent less than ten years in the diocese. If one may hazard a conjecture as to the reason for the Bishop's choice, it is that Walmsley was proving himself a quiet but powerful influence for unity among clergy of different schools of thought.

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