THE TRANSFORMATION OF A LIVERPOOL PARISH
Canon Richard Hobson
One of the books that I have most enjoyed reading in the last few years is one that was written over a hundred years ago entitled "What God has wrought," being the autobiography of Canon Richard Hobson who was the minister of St Nathaniel’s in Upper Parliament Street, Liverpool between the period 1867 – 1900. In 2003 The Banner of Truth Trust did a great service by reprinting this book under the title "Richard Hobson of Liverpool, a faithful pastor," and in my view it is one that should be read by every minister. It is a thrilling story of how he took over the parish of Windsor, which was then notorious for its immorality, drunkenness, poor housing and disease, with a congregation of only four or five people, but by the time of his retirement one that was completely transformed with a congregation of some 3,000 worshippers each Sunday.
Richard Hobson, later Canon Hobson, was born in County Wicklow, Ireland in 1831. He had a difficult childhood, experiencing great poverty and hardship, particularly during the Potato Famine of 1845-6. At the age of 21 years he served as an evangelist with the Irish Church Missions, and was with them for 11 years. At the age of 32 years he decided to enter the Anglican ministry and was trained at the former St Aiden’s College in Birkenhead, and later served as a curate to Dr R P Blakeney, vicar of Christ Church, Claughton, Birkenhead, and a prominent writer. After having been at Christ Church for 3 years he was then invited to become the minister of the newly formed parish of St Nathaniel’s in Windsor, a position he was to hold for 33 years. The new district of Windsor, sixteen acres in extent with a population of 4,500 was in the ecclesiastical parish of St Clements, Toxteth Park, but in the civil parish of West Derby. This is how he described the conditions when he arrived there-:
"It’s area was socially and morally the lowest in all the south-east portion of Liverpool. The houses were small and badly built, and narrow courts and inhabited cellars abounded, causing the place to be a hotbed of fever and other deadly diseases. One street was unfit, and even unsafe, for the passage of ladies. Another was given over to the social evil, and was known as ‘the little hell.’ The inhabitants were styled ‘the roughs of Windsor,’ and advertisements for labourers constantly bore the ominous warning, ‘Windsor men need not apply.’ Sixteen public houses and two beer shops pandered to the drinking propensities of the population."
The incumbent of St. Clements had come to the conclusion that the only way by which those sixteen acres of sin could be won for God was to plant a church in their midst, and to provide them with a clerical missionary. It was his wish to have a man of truly evangelical missionary spirit to be placed there. Though he had sixty-five candidates, including a DD, he considered Richard Hobson, from the recommendation he had received from Dr Blakeney to be the right man for the job.
His visitation programme
One of the most distinguished aspects of his ministry, which he soon established after his arrival there, was his house to house visitation programme. To this he gave six hours a day, Monday to Friday, and three hours on Saturdays. He systematically visited from house to house, attaching great value to this form of ministration, which he took good care to make something more than a simple how-do-you-do call. His visits were of a teaching character, in the sense of always utilising any opportunity - and there nearly always was one - for dropping appropriate words, which, like good seed, might germinate, and bring forth fruit. "There is ‘visiting and visiting’" he said. "It needs a prayerful heart, and a discerning mind, always to say the right word, at the right time, in the right way. Though it is not always possible to read the Word, or to have prayer, in the homes of the poor, it is always possible at least to leave on the peoples’ minds the impression that one is a heaven-sent messenger, seeking their good in every way. Such work taxes the energies, tries the patience, and tests the love of the visitor. It will be given up with many apparently justifying reasons, unless there be a daily supply of Divine grace, for nothing can make up for the absence of that. There is truth in the saying, ‘A house-going parson makes a church-going people.’" With regard to this last point, this was certainly his experience. In most cases his reception was most cordial, and it was soon found that even the ‘roughs’ of the place were beginning to attend the church services, and as a rule behaved themselves quite properly.
Winning hearts and souls
One of the first problems that he encountered was that of vandalism! In just 9 days a total of 76 panes of glass were broken, and he was advised to have the windows wired. When he replied that he did not think that this was needed, his advisor replied that "you do not know this place like I do." To Hobson, however, this would give the wrong impression to the people of his new parish. He determined that he would win the hearts and souls of the children, who were causing this damage. He resolved to try the power of love on these poor children who swarmed around the church. On seeing him approach they flocked around. He said that he was pleased to see them enjoying their play, but that he was sorry to hear of the church windows having been broken and he pointed to the building and asked them, "whose house is that?" They looked at each other as if they expected to be caught in some way, and there was no answer. He then told them that this building was God’s house, but that it was their house as well; and inquiring whether they would like to break the windows of their own houses, they all said ‘No.’ To his question as to whether they would like to break the windows of God’s house, there came the same answer. He then replied that he didn’t want them to break them, and wanted them to be his ‘little bobbies’ to take care of the church windows. They were quite delighted at the prospect of being ‘bobbies’ and they all cried out that they would. This little expedient of love was occasionally resorted to by him during the whole of his ministry, and he could testify many years later that they never needed to have the church wired. "Is there a greater power than loving kindness?" he asked.
With regard to the above question raised by him, this was very much put to the test during his second year in his parish. There was an outbreak of smallpox in Liverpool, which found a congenial soil in his parish, where it spread with rapidity. This was a testing time for him. Should he visit such cases, and risk infection, or should he not? He came to the conclusion that he ought to do so, reasoning that if medical men visited them, why not the messenger of the Lord? Also, wasn’t the soul of more importance than the body? He took what precautions he could and visited all such cases in his parish, most of them having been removed in due time to the hospital. Never, either before or since, was work so trying and so loathsome, as visiting these smallpox sufferers in their filthy homes. One case nearly took him off his feet. It was that of a sweet Christian girl, recently confirmed, and an only daughter. In the room where she lay he found father, mother, and five women! He saw the poor girl, stayed up in bed, with her arms outside the bedclothes, quite uncovered, and to use his words, "the virus running down to her hands". When she reached out her right hand, he thought for a moment whether he should take it, but then thought that if he refused it, what would the poor girl think. He took her hand and she squeezed his hand into hers, the virus oozing between his fingers, and held his hand tightly. Not knowing what to do or say, he said that they should pray, and they all knelt down with him to pray. The girl held his hand till he rose, when from sheer exhaustion she let it drop. The girl died shortly afterwards. Though all this was a trial to him, the people of the parish never forgot what he had done. During the thirty-three years of his ministry there, nothing won the confidence, and secured the goodwill of the people more than his ministrations during that terrible visitation.
Travailing for souls
Richard Hobson had a great burden for those who didn’t know Christ in his parish, and would often ‘travail for souls’ which he considered part of the true minister’s and evangelist’s work. He would seek to win souls by any means that became available to him, and would often ‘target’ the most difficult cases. One such case was an unskilled labourer who lived in his parish, a terrible fellow upon whom his eye had long rested. He was a person who drank heavily, swore shockingly, beat his wife brutally, and in fact was the vilest person in the district. One day as he was going home to dinner, he put himself in his way, asking him "how are you my friend?" He just frowned at him, and on another occasion he received the same response. However, he knew that God had laid him on his heart so he persisted, and committed him to prayer. Shortly afterwards, hearing that he was sick he immediately made his way to see him. When he came to the door he had an emaciated child in his arms and Hobson made the remark "My friend, what a nurse you make." He responded to the effect that his child was very sick, and in fact was dying. Though the child did die, whom Hobson buried, he now knew that he had the breakthrough he had wanted, and they became friends from that moment on. Eventually he came to Christ and became the wonder of the place. One of Hobson’s customs was to go out late on Saturday nights, for a stroll through the parish, to see how the land lay; and it was not at all unusual to meet from ten to thirty people, with whom he shook hands, and dropped a precious seed, that it might grow. He said that the difficulty of getting at men is so great; with many he knew that it was that or nothing, and he found that it did pay.
Hobson was a man of prayer, recognising that personal communion with God could only be experienced and enjoyed through constant and private prayer. In fact the first week of each year at St Nathaniel’s Church was devoted to prayer. Prayer was to him, he said, as natural as breathing and he could not go on without it.
A true shepherd
His care of new converts was exemplary. His ‘babes’ as he referred to them, required a spiritual nurse, to care for and to feed them; to build them up and to strengthen them. He said that too much was expected from and too little allowance was made for them in the early days of their conversion, when they not infrequently became disappointed, depressed and disheartened. They needed a loving tender heart to comfort, cheer, revive, and a loving hand held out to strengthen, sustain, and restore them. He said that in too many cases, if they do not come up to a certain expected standard, they are left in the cold shade of neglect, or it may be that they are regarded as hypocrites. "How many-sided is the work of a faithful minister of Christ," he said, "a real under-shepherd, not a mere ‘hireling, whose own the sheep are not.’ The true pastor must be like a nursing mother to his flock, and especially to the ‘lambs.’ They need to grow up ‘strong in the Lord’ they must have, an abundant supply of ‘the sincere milk of the Word,’ the ‘Water of Life’ the ‘Honey out of the Rock’ to be tended in the ‘green pastures’ and by the ‘still waters’ of God’s Love. A shepherd being once asked how it was that his sheep were so fine, replied at once ‘Because I take care of the lambs.’ I fear, so far as we are concerned, many a lamb is lost for want of this under-shepherding."
Much more could be said about this wonderful man of God, but space does not permit. I would like to conclude with a quotation of a report that Bishop Ryle gave about the ministry of Richard Hobson, at The Derby Church Congress in 1882, which was given after only fourteen years of him arriving at St Nathaniel’s Church. Bishop Ryle was a long time friend of Canon Hobson, and whenever he wasn’t preaching, St Nathaniel’s would be the church that he and his family would visit.
"I know at this moment a parish of 4,500 people, in Liverpool, with not a rich man in it, but only small shopkeepers, artisans, and poor. There are only 13 families in it who keep one servant, and not one that keeps two. There are 195 houses with more than one family in each. There are 133 families living in cellars. Many of these cellars are within a few yards of the church, and under its shadow. In short, that this is a thoroughly poor working-class parish, nobody will deny. Now what is the Church of England doing in this parish? Listen and I will tell you. In a plain brick church, holding 1,000 people, built thirteen years ago, there is a simple hearty service and an average attendance of 700 on a Sunday morning, 300 in the afternoon and 950 in the evening. In three Mission Rooms there is an average attendance of about 350 in the morning, and 450 in the evening. The total number of communicants is 800, almost all of them working classes, and nearly one half men. I myself helped to administer the consecrated elements to 395, and I saw the hands that received them, and I know by those hands that many of them were dock-labourers, and foundry men.
The worthy minister of that parish began his work alone, about fourteen years ago, with four people in a cellar. He has seen a church built; he has now with him one paid curate, one paid Scripture-reader, one paid Bible-woman, and a paid organist. But he has 82 voluntary Sunday-School teachers, 120 Church-workers, 17 Bible-classes with 600 adults on the register, and 1,700 Sunday scholars. The practical and moral results of the church work in the parish are patent and unmistakable. The congregation raises £800 a year for the causes of God. There are 1,100 pledged abstainers in the district. There is not a single house of ill fame and not a single known infidel, in the parish. These are facts, simple facts, which anyone who visits Liverpool may, if he likes, verify for himself. The incumbent of this parish is a quiet, unpretending man, but of one thing I am certain, he is a man who tries to preach Christ in the pulpit, and to visit his people in a Christlike, sympathising way as a pastor, at the rate of seventy-five families a week; and to these two things I attribute his success. Of course, men cannot command success, under any circumstances. ‘It is the spirit that quickeneth.’"
This fascinating life-story has been called ‘stranger than fiction’ by one contemporary newspaper. It is one that has certainly inspired me as indeed it has done also the pastor of my own church. As previously stated I think that it is certainly one that should be read by every minister and possibly every Christian worker.