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A Memoir of John Armstrong, D.D.
Late Lord Bishop of Grahamstown

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

Oxford and London: John Henry and James Parker, 1857.

Chapter I. Early Life and Education. 1813-1836.

THE personal histories of the children of God are among the choicest treasures of a Christian's inheritance. They are manifestations of divine grace; lessons scattered along our wayside path, to be reverently gathered up; lights going before us, pointing out the lines along which the Spirit of God moves, revealing the end of a course of faithfulness, and tending to encourage and gladden a too often failing faith. Especially in days of controversy and strife, like our own, it is restful and refreshing to trace the progress of those who, their struggles over, have passed, as we believe, into the blessedness of the vision of God, and therein rest,--"whose works do follow them." While dwelling on their memories, the stillness and brightness of their blessed state steal through the veil, and fall like the dew on our troubled lives.

[2] Such an influence hangs around the memory of the subject of this Memoir; for all who knew him felt the power of the love which burnt within him, and the peculiar absence of all contentiousness of spirit,--a grace seldom combined with so much earnestness, activity, and conscientious firmness to distinctive principles. This fervent, loving disposition was accompanied with a high intelligence, and a bright, buoyant hopefulness that made his presence ever welcome to those who sought him as their counsellor or leader in carrying out their labours of love. And these graces, which made his friendship so much valued, were felt to be instinct with a single-mindedness, and devotedness of purpose, which could not fail to impress those who were brought near to him with a consciousness, not only of superior qualities of mind and heart, but of a "life hid with Christ in God."

The fact of having been in some measure associated with him, in one of his works of deepest interest, and having thus had the opportunity and the blessing of sharing his ardent sympathies, and watching the grace of God that was in him, led to the expression of a wish, that the task of gathering together these details of his life should be undertaken by the writer. Though acquainted with him but a [2/3] short time, his heart was drawn to his friend, as to few others; and to the eventful period of their intercourse he looks back with no ordinary feelings of reverence and affection. A large circle of friends can testify to what is here feebly expressed; for his was a life of active service in the world, and his generous, earnest nature quickly drew hearts towards him. But far wider than the circle of his friends has been the influence of his character and works; for his great aims, unwearied labours, and steady perseverance have made for him a name familiar throughout the Church of England. To him it was given to originate a new line of action in the Church, in one of its deepest and most vital functions; and this he was enabled to effect--a singular felicity in our days--without stirring controversy, or awakening opposition. Ordinarily, they who seek to introduce new principles, or found institutions at variance with popular experience, are doomed to toil through a life of suspicion and painful antagonism, bequeathing to their successors the joy of reaping the fruit of their labours. It was his rare destiny not only to infuse largely into the mind of the Church of England new and great principles, but also, though his life was short, to witness with his own eyes the [3/4] rapid progress of the movement which, under God, he had originated.

The last two years of his life were passed in a more romantic and distinguished, though hardly a more eventful sphere of duty, than that to which allusion has been just made. It was not without misgivings that some of his friends heard of his being called to rule one of the episcopal Sees of the missionary Church of Southern Africa. It was so novel a field of labour, and one requiring such great endowments, that those who had known him so richly gifted for the great work effected in England, doubted whether he possessed power sufficient for so weighty and momentous a charge in so unwonted a sphere. But the event justified the choice, only leaving the regret that he was so soon taken away. During those two last years, which were passed in laying the foundations of one of our most important colonial Dioceses, though under the constant pressure of bodily weakness and suffering, he exhibited a wisdom, a love and an energy, which called forth the most marked expressions of attachment and respect in that distant region. It is a singular lot to have befallen him, that he should have a twofold history; to have done so much and exerted [4/5] so momentous an influence in England, and then to have been transplanted to Africa, to win fresh honour and affection, and take so prominent a place in the progress of the kingdom of God in another quarter of the world.

It may be felt as a deficiency in the Memoir of his life that there are so few letters, opening to us his inner mind and thoughts. It was, however, but rarely that he wrote letters, except from some immediate call bearing on the work which he had in hand; for his whole life was given up to constant action, ever carrying out some purpose, in which for the while he was absorbed. His writings were chiefly of a public kind; but they were the pouring forth of the earnest thoughts which stirred within him, and thus in a great measure supply what might otherwise have been gathered from letters. In all his published writings there is an unusual transparency; his inner mind shines out so fully and so clearly in them, that we need no other written index of his character, and of the prevailing tendency of his thoughts. Some few letters, however, are introduced which shew the tenor of his private intercourse; and the inner details of his Penitentiary work, and also of his work in Africa, are to be gathered mainly from his own letters.


John Armstrong was born at Bishop-Wear-mouth, August 22, 1813. he was the second child and eldest son of Dr. Armstrong, a physician of eminence. The name is familiar as one of the ancient border clans of Scotland, and from this once distinguished source the family takes its origin, though the parents of Dr. Armstrong had raised themselves from humble circumstances. He was a man of considerable talents, and though dying at the early age of forty-six, had already attained the highest ranks in his profession. Many points of character which distinguished his son may be traced in Dr. Armstrong. His love for the poor, his zeal and devotion to his work, his unremitting labour, continued even when death had visibly laid its hand upon him; the eloquence displayed in his lectures, which are still remembered with admiration by his many pupils; the combination of the practical and imaginative elements in his mind,--are points [6/7] of character which connect the parent and the child, coming forth in the latter in devotedness to the more direct service of God.

Mrs. Armstrong, the mother, the daughter of Charles Spearman, Esq., of Thornley, in the county of Durham, is described, by an intimate friend of her husband, as a person of very amiable disposition; placid in temper, simple in her habits and desires, and devoted to her children. Those who also knew her son in afterlife, might have recognised the resemblance to his mother in personal simplicity; in his sanguine, cheerful temper, and the love of his children which was so strong a feature in his character. Dr. Armstrong settled in London about the year 1818. His son John, at eight years old, was sent to a preparatory school at Hanwell, under the care of Dr. Bond. Of the teaching which he there received he spoke in after-life in the highest praise, and especially felt the value of the pains, unusual at that day, taken with his English reading. He suffered much during this time from rheumatism, and delicacy of health, and his studies were often interrupted.

In the year 1827, when now fourteen years of age, he was sent to the Charterhouse; but the loss of country air seems to have affected [7/8] him, or the locality was in some way unfavourable to his constitution, for he used to say that he felt depressed there, and did little in the way of study. This cause, added to an habitual shyness and reserve, which in later years was confined to a shrinking from the expression of his religious feelings, combined to render his schoolboy days less happy than might have been expected from his buoyant, cheerful temper.

To his school-fellows he did not seem to give any promise of those powers which he manifested afterwards. A friend of his father's remembers him at that time, as "a gentle, good-tempered boy, not quick or bright, nor giving promise of the energy and devotion which he displayed in his ministry." His eldest sister, however, seeing him in the freedom and unreserve of home, gives a different account. "I do not believe," she writes, "that my father and mother (both very much occupied) ever noticed his great talent, as a young boy, for composition. He wrote a play when not more than twelve, and two novels between fourteen and seventeen. The scone of the last was laid at Durham, and there were in it some striking sketches of character. From my earliest recollection of him, he was always occupied, either [8/9] drawing, reciting poetry, singing, or composing. All his boyish leisure time was employed in this manner."

One of his school-fellows also speaks of him in a similar way:--"Dear John Armstrong was one of my first school-cronies, for whom I had always a sincere regard. As a boy he was a great Whig, and we used to have great battles in politics. He was always very kind to me, and was my superior in point of talent. I remember his doing my holiday task on one occasion--a set of English verses."

The following interesting letter from Archdeacon Churton, then a master at the Charterhouse, while it gives us a very graphic picture of the schoolboy, tells as much for the pastoral heart of the tutor, as for the amiable, thoughtful character of his pupil. The letter was addressed to Mrs. Armstrong, after her husband's death:--

"Crayke, near York.

"Nov. 13, 1856.

"Dear Madam,

"I have read your letter with much interest. Your good husband, the late Bishop of Grahamstown, was my pupil at the Charterhouse about thirty years ago; and though I had at that time from sixty to eighty boys in the forms which I taught daily, I have a distinct recollection of his figure and features, [9/10] and the expression of his countenance, as he appeared from day to day before me. His character as a boy, I should say, was that of a good-tempered one, patient and persevering as a student, with a meditative turn of mind. His modest, fair face and quiet attention to his book were such as could not but make a favourable first impression on any equitable teacher; and in the course of further acquaintance there was nothing to weaken, but much to confirm, that first impression. In many respects his character resembled that of his school-fellow, also my pupil, the present Bishop of Newcastle, in Australia. I do not think that with either I had ever any occasion to exact the appointed task of the day by compulsion, or any sort of boyish punishment. The sense of duty was enough. Perhaps of the two, I should say that Bishop Tyrrell conversed the most freely with me; there was a modest reserve in Bishop Armstrong's boyish manner, which required a little more invitation or encouragement to draw it out.

"Once only since those early days I had the pleasure of meeting your late husband, at Elford, in Staffordshire, four or five years ago. I should have recognised him by my remembrance of his boyish features, which were expanded, but not otherwise altered, in him as a man. I had an interesting conversation with him on some works of mercy and pity which then occupied his earnest thoughts. It was impossible not to be struck with the prudence, [10/11] as well as the loving spirit, which had guided him through a most difficult course of labour, from which a less devoted heart than his would have shrunk, as from something dangerous and impracticable. But he was doubtless upheld in this, as in the last noble undertaking of his life, by his own affectionate compassion, and humble confidence in that strength which is supplied to God's true servants according to their need.

"I believe I left the Charterhouse while he was yet at school, so that I cannot speak to the last days of his sojourn there. But you may be assured, and I hope the particulars I have mentioned will be sufficient to evince to you, that I have a very lively and grateful recollection of his boyhood; and as in his case, at least, 'the boy was father of the man,' I am thankful to have known him, and in any degree to have assisted in the early tuition of such a mind and character.

"Believe me, dear Madam,

"Very sincerely yours,


When he was sixteen, his father died, and he was left one of a large family, dependent, humanly speaking, for his future success in life on his own exertions. At this time his deep love for his widowed mother was strikingly manifested. His sister says, "It was quite peculiar: his manner towards her had an [11/12] indescribable tenderness, mixed with playfulness, as though to hide the depth of his affection."

He went in the year 1832, when nearly nineteen years of age, to a private tutor, the Rev. Jas. Tweed, of Harlow, Essex, with the view of fitting himself to become a candidate for Lord Crowe's Exhibition at Lincoln College, Oxford. About this time the resolution was formed to devote himself to the ministry. He studied hard at this period. A son of Mr. Tweed says, "He read more than any of the others; read by himself, in addition to the necessary work. Occasionally he wrote English verses. I remember seeing some that he had written for a prize at Charterhouse, though they were not sent in his own name. The verses shewed considerable facility of composition. I did not hear, however, that they obtained the prize. If I recollect right, he was also fond of drawing. That which most distinguished him in my father's mind from almost all his other pupils was, that he could associate with him on such pleasant terms, and had in his pupil so agreeable a companion, though this might partly be accounted for by his being a year older than the rest of the pupils." Mr. Tweed himself describes the tone of their intercourse with some characteristic touches, the truth of [12/13] which will be readily recognised by the friends of his later years:--"My pride, as a tutor, was gratified by the talents he displayed, and the progress which he made in the short time he was with me--scarcely three-quarters of a year. Any particular traits of character I have forgotten, except that he was apparently of a thoughtful turn, occasionally relaxing into a quiet humour, in which, with a grave face, he would say something very droll; for his seriousness was mingled with a quick sense of the ludicrous. He was shy, and did not often break through that conventional reserve which pupils keep up in the presence of their tutor; so that, though it was easy to see there was 'something in him,' I was hardly aware of the higher qualities and powers which he afterward practically exhibited, though his scholarship and his compositions especially, both in prose and verse, were much above par." He always spoke gratefully of the benefits he received from Mr. Tweed. He obtained the scholarship at Lincoln College, and then went there to reside.

Of his college life there is little to record. He did not read hard; but he had been, and was then, imperceptibly laying the foundations of that cultivated taste, that quick [13/14] discrimination and chastened expression of thought, which afterwards served so high a purpose in his preaching and writing, whether for the educated or uneducated. His tastes, during leisure hours, lay chiefly in music and poetry; his chief exercise was boating. His college friends retain a grateful remembrance of his warm-hearted, affectionate disposition, and have felt that during the time spent at Oxford a deepened sense of religion was growing within him.

It is always interesting to compare the earlier and later manifestations of character, and trace, if it may be, the natural features of boyhood and youth, matured and exalted, through the indwelling Spirit of God, into the virtues of manhood; thus marking the unity of the soul's growth, and the connection between nature and grace. One interesting notice exhibiting this resemblance of the matured image of the man to the growing features of the boy, has been quoted from Archdeacon Churton; another slighter observation of the same kind may be here added:--"My intimacy with him," writes a friend of his early days, "was one of those close, earnest, yet transient acquaintances, often experienced under the circumstances of college life. We were staying up to read during the [14/15] Christmas vacation of 1834-5. Till then we had been unknown to each other; a mutual friend made us acquainted. But during the month we met daily, and spent our evenings together. He, my senior, took his degree and departed; and, except through some relatives at Durham, I saw no more of him till we sat next each other at the opening of Eastnor Church in 1852. The same hearty zeal and genial feeling marked the ripe man which had been shewn in the social academic, and which found a very fit opportunity for its utterance when, at a meeting held after the service, he proposed a vote of thanks to the rector's fellow-labourer. 'Two and two together,' was the theme of his remarks, and the spark to his feelings. When I remember how very intimate for a brief while we were, yet how little I garnered from it,--how, in fact, it passed quite away with its ephemeral enjoyment,--I seem to have lost an opportunity, from the proof afforded by the future, of what, deeper than its sociability, lay in that warm, earnest mood."

He took a third-class degree in classics in Michaelmas term, 1836. In the following spring he lost his mother, a trial of which, even after the lapse of years, he could hardly bear to speak to those nearest and dearest to [15/16] him; though he would often talk of her in terms of deepest affection and admiration. He was wont especially to dwell on her cheerfulness with her children after the death of her husband, whilst yet he believed her to be a broken-hearted woman.

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