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Literary squire and parson

20 December 2013

Adrian Leak considers the author of 'Onward, Christian soldiers'

Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) was born into a West Country family who had held the manor and patronage of Lew Trenchard in Devon for many generations. Known now chiefly as the author of the hymn "Onward, Christian soldiers", he was in his time a widely read author on church history, theology, folklore, archaeology, and hymns. His Lives of the Saints ran to 15 volumes, and he wrote 40 novels. Nevertheless, he regarded his principal work as that of priest and pastor, culminating in 43 years of service as Rector of Lew Trenchard. He died on 2 January 1924.

SOME people found Sabine Baring-Gould aloof. He carried his great height with a patrician's bearing. He avoided society, disliked clergy gatherings, and had a low opinion of bishops.

Of the troublesome Archbishop of York, William Thomson, he wrote: "He possessed an autocratic temper, such as was naturally bred in a man rapidly advanced from a breeches-maker's shop in a small provincial town." Confident of his heritage and vocation, Baring-Gould looked for no advancement beyond his rectory.

When serving as a curate in Horbury in Yorkshire, he was asked to establish a mission in the Brig, the roughest part of the parish. He found a cottage to rent, turning the ground floor into a weekday night school for adults, and the upstairs into a chapel.

On Sunday afternoons, there was catechism for the children, and choir practice. On Sunday evening, there was evensong, led by Baring-Gould, immensely tall in his black cassock and standing on the fender in the upper room, the mantelpiece behind him carrying cross and candles. It was for the children of this congregation that he wrote "Onward, Christian soldiers", to be sung at the Whit procession.

"You must tell us a story afore you go!" the children would plead, holding him back after the service. He had a great gift for storytelling. Before ordination, he had spent some years on the staff of Hurstpierpoint College in Sussex. Former pupils recalled his pony, Bottlethrush, which he had brought back from Iceland, and the tame bat that lodged in his room. But, above all, they recollected "those yarns he used to spin".

His parishioners in Horbury Brig were colliers, bargemen, miners, and mill-hands. He had them in mind when he wrote in his autobiographical novel Through Flood and Flame: "You have not far to look before you find souls so lovely . . . that you will be convinced it is not in the conservatories of the rich alone that God delights to grow his lilies."

He fell in love with a 16-year-old mill worker, Grace Taylor, whom he married two years later, against the wishes of both families. "A woman's love burns slowly, with great warmth and light, but steadily," he wrote in Through Flood and Flame. "A man's love rages hot and furious, and consumes fuel and furnace." When Grace died, 50 years later, he had engraved on her tomb "Dimidium animae meae" ("half my soul").

She bore him 15 children. Baring-Gould sometimes lost count. "And whose little girl are you, my dear?" he asked during a party, when the rectory was full of other people's children. "I'm yours, Daddy."

In Lew Trenchard, early in the morning, his coachman would bring round the trap, and the Rector would set off on his rounds, visiting the cottages, and in winter taking bowls of hyacinth bulbs with the promise to return when they were in bloom.

He fixed bells to the pony's harness when driving round his estate to give his men warning, as he did not wish to find them idling. "He thought it was best so," said his churchwarden, Charlie Davy. "Everybody loved him."

In a letter to this same churchwarden, Baring-Gould, aged 86, wrote: "When I came here as rector 40 years ago, I had two objects in view, to teach the people of Lew to love God, and to be true to His Catholic Church. I feel deeply how little I have effected through my own shortcomings. But I trust that at the Last Day . . . you and some others here will be able to speak a word for me. So, dear Charlie, you see I lean on you as my advocate at the last."

Few of his parishioners would have agreed with his low self-assessment.

The Revd Adrian Leak was, until his recent retirement, Priest-in-Charge of Withyham, in the diocese of Chichester.

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