William Walsham How was born in Shrewsbury, England, on December 13, 1823 to William Wybergh How.
He went to Wadham College, Oxford, intending to become a lawyer. He soon dropped mathematics, and had trouble with some other subjects, and continued his lifelong interest in botany. He at last settled on theology receiving a B.A. on October 25, 1845 and became ordained as a deacon on December 20, 1846.
He was appointed curate of St. George, Kindderminster, in 1846. In 1848 he became the curator of Holy Cross at Shrewsbury. He married in 1849 the eldest daughter of Canon Douglas of Durham and also wrote his first volume of Plain Words. He was the rector of Whittington in 1851; the rural dean of Oswestry in 1853; honorary canon of St. Asaph Cathedral in 1860; select preacher at Oxford in 1869; and chaplain of the English Church of Rome. He became bishop suffragan in East London under the title of Bishop of Bedford in 1879. His final position was as bishop of Wakefield in 1888.
He was offered the prestigious bishopric of Durham in 1890 after the death of Bishop Lightfoot. There were many things that would have attracted him: his residence there as a theology student and his degree from there, it was the home of his wife and her father, it was a position of great influence and dignity, and it came with more than twice his current salary. He refused staing he could not desert his half-finished work of organizing the new diocese.
He was a bishop for the Anglican Church in the eastern section of London, or what was the slum district. In this capacity he was seen as the poor man’s bishop, and he worked tirelessly to rid the problems of poverty. He refused to act as a typical bishop that lived in a palace and rode in his own private coach. Instead he used public transportation and lived and worked with the people in his area.
He was considered a leader of the liberal theology of the Anglican Church, who saw good in everyone, and so did not believe there was a need to evangelize, and require adherence to the Scriptures when it came to salvation. The sad thing is that he believed that God created the world through evolution. He did not consider it a fact that God wrote the Bible. His most famous “sermon” unfortunately for him was one on evolution that impressed Mr. Gladstone and Professor Huxley to the point that Huxley mentions it in one of his books of false teaching.
He wrote many books on theology, and a pastoral manual that had sales of more than 647,000 copies!
He wrote all of his 60 hymns while at the parish of Whittington (1858-1871). With a friend, Sir Arthur Sullivan, he was a joint editor of a popular Anglican hymnbook. He was a composer of sixty hymns; about twenty hymns are still used today.
When he answered the question of what makes a good hymn, he said: “A good hymn is something like a good prayer—simple, real, earnest, and reverent.”
Some of the songs he wrote were are:
He once wrote that a minister of the gospel should have the following characteristics:
Such a minister should be a man pure, holy, and spotless in his life; a man of much prayer; in character meek, lowly, and infinitely compassionate; of tenderest love to all; full of sympathy for every pain and sorrow, and devoting his days and nights to lightening the burdens of humanity; utterly patient with insult and enmity; utterly fearless in speaking the truth and rebuking sin; ever ready to answer every call, to go wherever bidden, in order to do good; wholly without thought of self; making himself the servant of all; patient, gentle, and untiring in dealing with the soul he would save; bearing with ignorance, willfulness, slowness, cowardice, in those of whom he expects most; sacrificing all, even life itself, if need be, to save some.
He died while on vacation in West Ireland after a brief illness on August 10, 1897 at the age of 73.
Faith Macomber wrote the original article when she was 13 and served as the starting point for this article which rewrote her work and expanded it on considerably
John Brownlie, The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church Hymnary (London: Henry Frowde, 1899), pp. 201-203.
Duncan Campbell, Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A. & C. Black, 1898), pp. 130, 131.
J.T. Fowler, Durham University, (London: F.E. Robinson & Co., 1904), pp. 168-171.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982), pp. 198, 220.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1985), p. 90, 91. Note: Osbeck incorrectly lists April 10 as the date of death.
Unknown possibly Presbyterian hymn story book, #327, pp. 231, 232; #526, p. 356.
William J. Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal. (Nashville, Tennessee, Broadman Press, 1976) page 449 & 341
Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, William Benton, Publisher, 1961) Vol. 25.