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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 II. First Three Years in the Ministry. 1837-40.

The interval between the close of a college career and Ordination is generally an uneventful period. It is a pause in the current of a man's life, passed ordinarily in the bosom of friends, and in repose from the previous course of study and discipline, during which are made such preparations as circumstances admit, or individual tendencies dictate, for the eventful crisis at hand. The want of opportunities for special training for the ministry has been the subject of keen regret to many. At the time of which we are speaking, there were no such colleges as Wells, Chichester, Cuddesdon, or Birkenhead, and the Universities could be used only by the few who were attached to some foundation, for such special study as might be compatible with the habits and pursuits of college life. The future Priest was, for the most part, left to his own individual exertions, or casual circumstances, to make him meet for the [17/18] most momentous change in the course of his earthly existence. Such was the case with the subject of this memoir, and of the progress of his mind and course of study at this period we have no record.

The same year that his mother died he was ordained Deacon, and commenced his ministry as Curate of Alford, in Somersetshire. His sisters lived with him, sorrowing together for the recent loss of their mother. They remained not more than four months at Alford, for the place was found to be unsuited to their health; and shortly afterwards he took the Curacy of Wotton-Fitzpaine, Dorsetshire, which again he was obliged to relinquish for the same reason. At this time a chaplaincy in the East India Company's service, of the value of £600 a-year, was offered to him, but it was declined; and he finally settled on undertaking the Curacy of Clifton, having been ordained Priest while yet at Wotton.

It has been remarked that "the two or three years after ordination usually give the whole complexion to a clergyman's after-life." [Mr. Isaac Williams' Memoir of Robert Suckling, p. 11] The remark was verified in the subject of this memoir. Though there is little to record during these few years, and the changes which occurred have nothing to distinguish them from [18/19] a young clergyman's ordinary course, yet it is evident that he was then passing through a transition state of the utmost moment, during which his character and future destinies were determined. Through the grace of God, he was borne safely through what must have been to him a very searching trial.

He had entered upon the work of the ministry with his characteristic ardour, but at the same time he joined with great zest in society. Gifted with more than ordinary social powers, he was naturally inclined to seek the opportunity of exercising them, and even, perhaps, to strain the rules of conscience to justify himself. One who knew and loved him well, says, "He always had considerable conversational power, and great warmth and energy in all matters, great or small, which interested him. He had, too, a friendly and affectionate spirit, and believed the best of all who shewed him kindness. He had a beautiful voice; he sang agreeably, though without musical knowledge. Society became a snare to him, especially at Clifton. His society was much sought there, and at the earlier time of his residence he seems to have mixed in it more than was healthy for him, though being at the same time most earnest in his parish work, and much loved by his flock.

[20] To those who saw him only in such scenes, his lively, cheerful manner, and genial flow of humour, may probably have little led them to suspect what was really passing within. There were, moreover, at the same time other snares besetting him. His preaching was much admired, and attracted a degree of notice which could not have been without serious hazard to his spiritual life. Still, even while these dangerous influences gained a temporary hold upon him, a very different aspect of his character was opened to those who knew him in his pastoral ministrations. They were conscious of the deeper convictions which were gradually asserting a predominance in his soul. A clergyman who knew him well at Clifton says,--"I had a great and sincere admiration for him as a parish priest. There was an evident determination to do his duty, and in any case of difficulty, there was a promptness of decision and an elasticity of spirit which carried him through difficulties that would have daunted many another man. At the time I speak of, the whole charge of the parish really devolved upon him, and therefore the qualities I have named were in constant requisition." [It may be mentioned as a characteristic trait, that when at Clifton, gifts of money were occasionally offered to him, which he declined, saying that he desired all such offerings to he made in common to the clergy ministering together at the church, and not to himself personally.]

While he was at Wotton there occurred an incident in his ministry opening more in detail this deeper view of his character, and bearing upon what afterwards became the distinguishing feature of his chief work in England. "He had strong ideas," (thus writes one of his sisters then living with him,) "of reforming those considered past hope. There was a wild, desolate part of the parish called Chapney Marsh, chiefly inhabited by a gang of thieves and desperate characters. He first heard of a man there just out of prison, dying of gaol fever. He took this place in hand with his usual energy, and effected a wonderful change even in the short time we were there (about eight months)."

On becoming Curate of Clifton, he made rules for himself as to visiting, which he carefully observed; only accepting invitations for a certain fixed number of days in the week, never going to balls or dancing, and always retiring early: but during the latter period of his life there his views became sensibly stricter. He began by abstaining from all parties in Lent, and the desire of a more retired and concentrated life grew within him. One [21/22] relation whose house he frequented more than any other, says, "I remember well telling him our house should be an exception to the rule, (that of abstaining from all society in Lent,) which I entirely approved; but he then told me he felt his own weakness, and to do any good he must give up going even to us." This same dear friend adds, that "from that time he always appeared to me to deepen in character and thought." It is the opinion of this relative, as well as of another to whom he was yet more intimately known afterwards, that the reading of the earlier "Tracts for the Times," and the studies to which they led, were the means which conduced to form, or deepen, that truer estimate of the religious life and his own responsibilities as a priest, as well as those definite views of doctrine, which afterwards characterized him. It would seem that the Church movement of that day, then in its vigorous infancy, was, under God, the means of giving a permanent direction to the powers and energies then expanding within him, and elevated to a higher sphere the thoughtful religious instincts, and amiable dispositions, which had marked his boyhood.

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