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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 VIII. Appointment to the Bishopric of Grahamstown.

The years 1852-3 pressed heavily on Mr. Armstrong. His accumulated and unremitting toil was evidently overtasking his strength. The services and other plans for the good of his parish had been gradually increased. The House at Bussage was still in its infancy, and entailed much correspondence as well as anxious thought. The Church Penitentiary Association was being formed. In 1852 the Chapel-of-ease at Tutshill, a hamlet of Tidenham, bordering on Chepstow, was commenced, and to raise the money, overlook all the proceedings, &c., involved of necessity much care and anxiety. In 1853 an unexpected increase of parochial work came upon him. The district of Beachley, situated within the parish of Tidenham, had been made a separate cure; but the patronage was not as yet transferred, as was intended, to the Bishop. The [248/249] clergyman who had hitherto served it was at this time obliged to leave, and until the new appointment could be made, the care of the district, with its two Sunday services and schools, fell on Mr. Armstrong and his curates. Moreover, he still continued to write for the press. A series of articles on the Penitentiary cause, which appeared in the "Morning Chronicle," were written at this time. He also published some single sermons; one preached on Lord Somers' death, at Eastnor, Oct. 1852, another in Gloucester Cathedral, for the parochial schools, in June, 1853. During this period also he was preparing materials for the "National Miscellany." The "Parochial Tracts" and "Sermons for the Christian Seasons" wore not completed till Advent, 1853.

In August, 1853, Tutshill Chapel was consecrated. It was an event that occasioned intense thankfulness, the consummation of ardent, long-cherished hopes; but from that very day the decline of his health began to appear. No sooner was the excitement of the consecration over, than he shewed signs of being greatly worn, and a cough from which he had been long suffering became worse. As soon as he could leave home, he went for a few days' rest to his aunt's house at Clifton, where he had [249/250] the pleasure of meeting his friend the Bishop of Lincoln. They were sitting at tea, when the Bishop enquired whether he had heard from the Bishop of Capetown. On Mr. Armstrong replying that he had not heard, the Bishop said that it had been decided to offer him the new Bishopric of Grahamstown. The tidings came as a shock to his weakened nerves, and the fortnight's suspense that followed was in his exhausted state trying to him. On the 8th of September the Bishop of Capetown's letter arrived, asking whether he would allow himself to be nominated for the See then intended to be created.

Mr. Armstrong at once felt that the invitation was a call from God; but conscious of his inability to judge of his own fitness, he wrote to six of those whom he regarded as his most thoughtful and religious friends, for their counsel. The following is one of the letters written on this occasion:--

"Tidenham, Sept. 10. 1853.

"My dear

"As I have now reached the most momentous crisis of my life, I apply at once to you as one of my warmest and most candid friends for your help and counsel. The truth is, that I have just been [250/251] offered the new Bishopric of Grahamstown, at the Cape; and the tidings have so startled me, that I am wanting all the aid I can get from others to help me to decide. Will you then freely tell me what you think I ought to do; as a matter of duty to my Heavenly Master and to His Church. While the offer seems, as is the case of all colonial bishoprics especially, a Providential one, if I may venture so to speak, do you see any other reasons which should make me shrink from so interpreting the offer in my own case? I will not write at any greater length, as I can but ask the same tiling--help to decide. I know, at such a time of trial, I shall have your prayers: ask your wife also for hers.

"Believe me,

"Yours most affectionately,


Some days of anxious deliberation passed, during which the question of his appointment was pending. The result was communicated to the same friend in the following note:--

"Tidenham, October 5, 1853.

"My Dear---------,

"I thank you from my heart for your affectionate letter and your counsel. The matter now may be considered finally settled, though the formal assent of the Archbishop has not come. The Bishop of [251/252] London has just sent to congratulate me. Your advice took the same direction as that of all the friends I consulted. I myself felt it a direct call. I need not say what a trial it is to go, but I hope and trust I shall go with a good heart; and it will cheer me to think of the warm friendship of my affectionate friends in England, among whom I have to reckon with thankfulness yourself and your wife.

"Believe me,

"Your affectionate friend,


To another friend about the same time he writes as follows:--

"After consultation with a few of the friends I could most readily ask, (as I was pressed for a prompt decision,) I have agreed to accept the office. It came in so Church-like a way, was so utterly unsought for, and instead of being riches, will be so decidedly poverty, that I myself felt it as a direct call, though I wished my friends candidly to tell me whether there was anything in my particular case which would modify that view. The answers were all of one kind, telling me I ought to go."

The formal appointment came at length from the Duke of Newcastle, then Colonial Secretary, in a letter which alludes in a kind manner [252/253] to the great work in which he had been engaged:--

"October 25, 1853.

"Dear Mr. Armstrong,

"Having, with the assent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of the Lord Bishop of Gloucester, had the honour of submitting your name to her Majesty as that of the first Bishop of the newly-created See of Grahamstown, in South Africa, it has now become my agreeable duty to inform you that her Majesty has been pleased to signify her gracious approval of my recommendation.

"In becoming the means of inviting you in the first instance to occupy so important and responsible a position in the Colonial Church, I was alone-influenced by a desire to aid the best interests of that Church, and the steady increase of true religion in a valued and interesting portion of her Majesty's dominions. And when humbly representing to her Majesty your qualifications to be so placed, I had much satisfaction in referring to your early labours in the cause of the Church, and in reclaiming those who had erred from its precepts.

"I trust you will have found in the experiences derived from these labours, and from those ministrations of the Church in which you have been so long and faithfully engaged, a fitting preparation for that [253/254] rule, and for those labours and trials, which you are now about to enter upon.

"It only remains for me to express an earnest hope that a more extended usefulness being thus open to you, will be supplied by your energies and watchfulness; and that you will at an early period enter upon that good work and solemn charge which I am entrusted to place under your keeping and guidance.

"Believe me, dear Mr. Armstrong,

"Yours very faithfully,


It was shortly before the arrival of this letter, that, being very unwell, and his cough assuming an alarming character, he was persuaded to consult Dr. Symonds of Bristol. Then for the first time he learnt that he had a slight affection of the lungs. The announcement was the more serious, as his father had died of consumption. He resolved at once to see Dr. Watson of London, and referred it entirely to his decision, whether he might reasonably hope to be able to fulfil the arduous work of a colonial bishop. Dr. Watson decided in favour of his going to Africa, believing that the climate would be beneficial to his health; but advised him to abstain from preaching, as far as possible, for one year. The [254/255] disease was in so early a stage, that hopes were entertained of its being removed by rest, the influence of the voyage and change of climate. This opinion proved in a great measure to be correct. The disease in the lungs, though never entirely removed, lessened considerably, and there is reason to believe, that even at the time of his death it had not advanced beyond the stage which it had reached when Dr. Symonds first saw him.

The following letter was written to a dear friend after seeing Dr. Watson:--

"Dear Miss------,

"Dr. Watson, thank God for His mercy, tells me I need not think of abandoning Grahamstown; that the flaw is at present slight; that I must rest, and that the change of climate when I do go out in the spring may be of great service. I need not say, after feeling almost hopeless, what light this is to me."

His letters after this time speak continually of improvement:--

"The air is foggy, but still I am wonderfully well, though my chest is a little weak with the talking. I go up-stairs capitally, which I regard as the surest test.

"It is only three weeks yesterday since I saw [255/256] Dr. Symonds. How deeply thankful we ought to be for God's great mercy."

A week later he says,--

"I feel really well as regards my chest, and as I have still three weeks before consecration for perfect rest, I expect, by God's blessing, to be quite myself again. It is only four weeks to-day since I reached London, and the change is immense."

Early in November he planned a visit to Bussage, and on the 7th writes to Mrs. Poole:--

"Would you kindly send your carriage for me, as I am not able to walk up your hill? It was a very great pleasure to me to hear of your kind intentions concerning a set of robes, as it certainly will often carry back my memory to Bussage, and I trust stir up my spirit, when in remote South African stations I robe myself in vestments made in a place which is endeared to me so much, and which is always connected in my mind with a great spiritual work. I often think, at the present time, of our dear friend S, now parted from us, and of the warmth with which he would have prayed for me, and given me a God-speed. However, we know not what is in his power now."

The robes mentioned, he always carried with [256/257] him on his visitations, and in the rochet made by the Bussage Penitents he was buried.

One Sunday night, Nov. 13, while at Mitchel-dean, whither he had gone to stand godfather to a friend's child, he thus expressed in a letter to Mrs. Armstrong the thoughts which were at his heart:--

"I have been feeling very deeply the altered position we are all about to occupy, and the awful spiritual responsibilities which will rest upon our whole house. I feel that we must give up ourselves afresh to God, and seek really to devote our lives to Him, I must not, however, write more on this point, otherwise I should be up till midnight."

From Oxford, Nov. 15, he writes home:--

"All safe here;--enjoyed Bussage very much, Dined with Tweed, Dr. Jacobson, (Regius Professor.) Marriott. Eaton, &c, &c. You will be delighted beyond measure to hear that Harriott and others are raising a fund to place at my disposal. Other Oxford people are going to present me with a pastoral staff. Dr. Jacobson, in his speech with which he presented me, made very touching remarks, very emphatically delivered, about my Penitentiary labours. Altogether, these acts have quite overcome me, as they took me by surprise."

About this time he engaged himself to spend Christmas with his relatives at Tidenham, when [257/258] he discovered that it was expected he should preach a farewell sermon. He at once writes:--

"Will you please beseech the curates to tell the people the Christmas visit will not be the last, and that it will not be a farewell sermon. It quite makes me tremble to think of it. I am not up to it in nerve."

He never was able to bid his parishioners farewell in person, and when he found he could not bear it, he wrote a letter which was printed, and a copy signed with his own hand was left at every house in the parish.

On the 28th of November, Mrs. Armstrong, with the elder children, joined him in London. "He came to the train to meet us," writes Mrs. Armstrong, "and was happy and cheerful; but notwithstanding all the improvement in health, I was startled by the extreme transparency and delicacy of his appearance."

On St. Andrew's Day he was consecrated Bishop of Grahamstown, at Lambeth Church. The friends who had worked with him in the Penitentiary cause gathered in numbers. No one who was present can readily forget the crowded church, the concourse of clergy, the impressive sermon of the Bishop of Oxford on the burden of a bishop's heart and the power which sustains him, and the first [258/259] three English bishops of South Africa ministering the blessed Sacrament. Many were struck with the peculiarly earnest and impressive tone in which he made the promises in the Consecration Service. His voice was heard distinctly at the farther end of the crowded church.

After his consecration, he made frequent journeys, being compelled by means of personal appeals to obtain aid for his future work. After attending meetings at Oxford, Southampton, and Bridport, he went to Exeter, and thus records his visit to a friend:--

"We have had a delightful, but of course, in some sense, a melancholy visit at Exeter, and as I had to speak and preach over-much, I am somewhat overdone at present, and feel I have used my lungs too much. However, I have a week's rest before me at Tidenham, though it is somewhat trying to see all our old friends again, and our dismantled home."

The weather at this time was extremely severe, but it seemed to have no ill effect upon him: damp, not cold, did him harm.

From Tidenham he went to Clifton, where he was constrained to give himself entire rest. At Bath he received a very kindly reception, and found great interest shewn in his work by [259/260] many of the clergy who held views very different from his own. It was a peculiar joy to him, for he was always most anxious to seize upon points of agreement, and hold Christian fellowship, wherever it could be had without conceding principle, with men of discordant opinions.

He attended meetings also at Durham and Sunderland, the scene of his father's earlier life:--

"A very warm reception," he writes from Sunderland: "church crammed in the evening, and collection much larger than usual. Old friends of my father's came into the vestry, and I was somewhat overcome by all that was said."

On his return, he attended at Norwich a meeting in aid of the proposed House of Mercy tit Shipmeadow. On the 13th of March he writes from Oxford:--

"Though very much tired, I am very fresh today. Yesterday was a long day: service from 9 to half-past 11, then St. Mary's at 2, with sermon."

It was the Bishop of Oxford's ordination, at which he preached the sermon which was afterwards published in the volume of "Parochial Sermons," on the text, "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you:"--

[260/261] "Then service at St. Mary's, at half-past 6; then a very large and pleasant party at Merton common-room; then a wind-up at Archdeacon Clerke's, meet the Bishop."

During this journey he attended a meeting at Gloucester, at which he spoke with the warmth and earnestness which so characterized him. A clergyman who was present said at the time to a friend, observing how ill the Bishop looked, "There is a fire burning in that frail body which must before long consume the vessel which contains it." He preached also at Yatton-Keynell, and on March 16 writes thus from Eastnor:--

"A service and meeting to-day here, Lord Somers presiding. A splendid congregation at Yatton-Keynell.....I was very glad I went to Gloucester. The Bishop himself suggested a special fund. A meeting to-morrow at Ledbury; then on Saturday to Cheltenham. I still keep wonderfully fresh, though I am really going through hard work."

Again from Eastnor, March 17:--

"All went off beautifully here: a large congregation, then a crowded meeting. Lord and Lady Somers very kind: they are going to give me plate for Holy Communion. It was rather hard work, preaching first, and almost immediately afterwards [261/262] speaking in the schoolroom; but I am fresh and well to-day, quite up to the Ledbury meeting."

On the 21st of March his youngest child was born, and from London, which was at this time his head-quarters, he writes to a friend to ask him to be one of the godfathers:--

"We purpose calling her Ruth: we think the name rather fits one whose lot it is to be taken from her own land."

The unconscious Ruth could not say, "Where thou diest I will die, and there will I be buried;" but so it was ordained. She now "sleeps" by her father's side in the cemetery of Grahamstown. She is not the only one of his children, who is with him in "the land which is very far away." Little Frank, but eighteen days old at his death, was the first of the "store" that grows for him in Paradise. His body rests in a peaceful corner of the churchyard at Tidenham, literally "within the church's shade."

On Good Friday (April 14), he writes from Micheldean:--

"I arrived here safely last night, after a very nice visit at Culham, (the Oxford Diocesan Training-School for Schoolmasters). They are training a pupil for Grahamstown, and intend always doing [262/263] so,--a nice link with us; and I was very glad I went. I am feeling particularly well."

On Easter-day he writes from Eastnor:--

"I preached twice, as I found it was thoroughly expected of me. After the afternoon service the whole parish adjourned to the schoolroom, where I was somewhat overpowered by the exhibition of fooling on the part of all the people when the holy vessels were offered. It really is very refreshing to have such a gift from such a place."

From Kemerton he writes on Easter Monday:--

"It is late, and I am tired. Chalice veils came as a present this morning, so the Communion service is complete. Had a good meeting at Malvern, and a tremendous congregation here of poor folks."

After attending meetings at Bussage and Thornbury, and services at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, Wantage, and Dursloy, he returned to London, greatly worn and exhausted. On the evening of his return he attended a parochial missionary meeting at Christ Church, Regent's-park.

He was engaged to preach on Thursday, the 27th of April, the second anniversary of the Church Penitentiary Association, and on the previous evening, though very much [263/264] over-worked and tired, had no doubt of being able to keep his engagement; but while dressing the next morning he was taken, as it was feared, seriously ill. The sermon was never preached, but was published in the volume of "Parochial Sermons," already alluded to. After this lie was constrained to give up preaching' and travelling during the rest of his stay in England. His stay was unavoidably prolonged. He intended to have sailed at the end of April or the beginning of May, but was detained till July 22, in consequence of not finding any suitable vessel sailing on an earlier day.

On July 19, three days before he sailed, he attended the great meeting of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, held at the Mansion-house, in the City. He was unable to speak at any length, but the following extract from his speech gives some idea of the work which was before him, and of the vision which rested on his heart when leaving his native land:--

"I go forth in a few days with the very first missionaries of the Church of England for that Kafir race with whom we have been in intercourse for the last fifty years. If the Kafirs abound in the diocese of Grahamstown by thousands, the Church of England has yet done nothing for them. She has not yet [264/265] spent one farthing: she has not sent one missionary; she has not formed one mission-station. Look at the religious state of these Kafirs. It is not an ordinary state. We cannot go among them as the apostle of the Gentiles in olden days, and point to the altar to the Unknown God, and beginning with natural religion, already confessed among them, unfold to them from that the blessed mysteries of Christ. They are without a God, true or false. They have no worship whatever. They have no word in their language which represents any idea, however imperfect or however mistaken, of any Supreme Being, that has love and goodness as His attributes. And therefore is there not given to us the glorious privilege of teaching them that there is not only a God in heaven, but One too Who, in the fulness of His unspeakable love, has sent forth His only-begotten Son, that dark souls may look up to Him for light, and life, and immortality, and resurrection, from the dead? This is the condition of the Kafirs, and it is from this fearful, unnatural, and godless condition, that it is our privilege to raise them, if we will only do our work in time.

"And then, can any thoughtful mind for a moment look at the edge of South Africa, where God has placed the English, and think that our mission is to be fulfilled simply by keeping, as it were, a fringe of gold to that dark and benighted land? Do you think I go forth thinking the diocese of Grahamstown is to be the bound and the limit of Christian enterprise? [265/266] God forbid. Africa is given to us, if we will first do our part. It is sowing the small seed, that shall by God's blessing be a mighty tree. Africa lies before us as a great field for spiritual enterprise, and the day I trust will come when native ministers, taught by us, will again teach the tribes beyond them, and so go on widening and widening the blessed empire of our Lord and Saviour, till the light reaches from north to south, and from east to west."

Note.--Before his leaving England, the following address was presented to Bishop Armstrong by the Council and other Associates of the Church Penitentiary Association:--"Right Reverend Father in God;

"We, the Council, and other undersigned Members of the Church Penitentiary Association, looking forward to your approaching separation from us, cannot suffer you to depart without expressing to you our feelings of mingled regret and thankfulness--regret at the loss which we are about to sustain, thankfulness at seeing you raised up to exemplify and uphold as a bishop those great principles of Christ's holy Catholic Church to which, in your humbler sphere of parochial labour, you have been so earnestly and so consistently devoted.

"We tender you the offering of our heart-felt respect and affection, which you have so well earned; for, when it pleased God to stir us up to new zeal and charity in seeking to gather in the lost sheep of His fold, that they might be saved through the mercy of Christ for ever, you were foremost in doing the work of the Lord, awakening in the hearts of your brethren the love which burnt so ardently in your own.

"To us it will be a cause of joy if, in the toil and care, or, it may be, the peril and distress, which now await you, the [266/267] assurance of the warm sympathies of many hearts, and of their earnest interest in your future course, impart to you that consolation of which they only know the power who believe in the Communion of Saints. We ask of you in return that you will remember us in your prayers, that thus, though separated in the flesh, we may still work together in the fellowship of the same Spirit.

"We shall follow you to your distant home with our best wishes, and with our fervent prayers that He Who has called you forth to this arduous enterprise of building up and extending His Church in Southern Africa, may Himself make you sufficient for these things; that He may strengthen, direct, and comfort you, and so bless your labours; that, in the gathering of all nations before the Throne of God, you, together with the rest of our fathers and brethren who, moved by the love of Christ, have left behind them all that was dear to them in their native land, and gone forth to do His will, may 'shine as the stars for ever and ever.'"

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