Review of Margaret Ford, ed., An Evangelical Family Revealed: The Bickersteth & Monier-Williams Letters & Diaries 1880-1918

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2011

Review of Margaret Ford, ed., An Evangelical Family Revealed: The Bickersteth & Monier-Williams Letters & Diaries 1880-1918 (York: Ford Publishing, 2010), ISBN 9780956721808.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Ecclesiastical biographies are no longer in fashion. Especially not of Victorian worthies, already entombed in two or three volumes, replete with piety and patriotism. So Margaret Ford has some hurdles to overcome in her retelling the story of the lives of the Bickersteth and Monier-Williams families, who were staunchly evangelical Protestants, many of whose male members were ordained clergymen, and who all believed that God had granted Great Britain the responsibility of ruling over her world-wide Empire and if possible of missionizing it.

Ford brings to this task an enormous and obvious sympathy for the lives and careers of a very large, if like-minded, cast of characters from the late Victorian upper middle class. She was fortunate to find in the Bodleian a huge treasure trove of Bickersteth papers, and assiduously tracked down an equally fascinating collection of Monier-Williams records still in private hands. From these rich sources she has produced a splendidly revealing portrait of the professional and private lives of these two intertwined families which carries conviction, just because they were so representative of their class and generation.

She focuses particularly on the careers of the Reverend Sam Bickersteth, his wife Ella, nee Monier-Williams, and their six sons, all of whom were young men caught up in the excitement and catastrophe of the Great War. The climax of her account lies in the experiences, spiritual crises and subsequent adjustments they underwent between 1914 and 1918, vividly drawn from the numerous letters and records their mother Ella compiled and pasted into a War Diary, which eventually extended to nine bulky volumes.

But first Ford gives a valuable picture of the evangelical background during the earlier nineteenth century. God-fearing, earnest, enthusiastic for service to the Church and the Empire, the Bickersteths were notable in being more broad-minded than most evangelicals, always placing strong emphasis on the sacraments in their Church of England worship, and being more tolerant in their relations with members of other Christian denominations.

Sam’s father had risen to be Bishop of Exeter, and was a redoubtable father figure with sixteen children, very dedicated to propagating the evangelical witness to Christian ethics, and as yet untroubled by the kind of doubts raised by Biblical criticism or Darwinian science. These were the qualities Sam inherited as a hard-working parish priest, with no special intellectual gifts but a strong devotion to the pastoral care of his flock. His ambition to become a bishop like his father was never realised, but for twelve years he was called to serve as Vicar of Leeds, the largest parish in that city, with a huge proto-cathedral of a church, and a staff of no fewer than fourteen curates. His wife Ella was the daughter of the Oxford Professor of Sanskrit, many of whose relatives had served with distinction in India in both the civil and military services. Ella brought to her marriage a single-minded determination to ensure her boys were brought up in the Christian faith of their forebears, which she shared without reservation. Both she and Sam hoped for his preferment and were not free from the kind of social snobbery which was extremely deferential to their superiors in the aristocracy, but cut them off from associating with anyone not considered a gentleman. Such were the values they instilled in their sons.

Though not wealthy, Sam and Ella were determined, as were many others of their class, to send their sons to the best boarding schools, which were already known as the training grounds for Britain’s leading elites. So from the age of eight, these boys were sent away from home, but expected to write to their parents every Sunday. They continued this habit throughout their undergraduate days when, one after another, the boys all went up to Oxford and took over the same rooms in its most prestigious college, Christ Church. These letters were carefully preserved, and as carefully replied to, often with advice as to how the boys should behave. Private prayer should not be neglected. The Sabbath should be strictly observed. Bible reading, and personal dedication to witnessing for the faith with a concentration on each individual’s search for spiritual perfection were constant themes, in the tradition set by previous generations. Ford is clearly conscious how desperately dated such admonitions to adult undergraduates must appear today. She is critical of such values, but at no point censorious. She sees Oxford as the final stage in the casting of the mould which would be tested in the crucible of the Great War.

By 1914 the eldest son Monier had already taken holy orders and served his first curacy. The second brother Geoffrey was studying to take up an academic career. Julian had gone out to Australia as chaplain to the Church of England Grammar School in Melbourne. Similarly Burgon had responded to the call for missionary volunteers and was serving in western Canada amongst the tough work gangs building railways in distant Alberta. But when war was declared all six sons responded with patriotic fervour. Julian and Burgon returned to England as soon as possible, and were soon posted to France. Their younger brothers Morris and Ralph were also recruited as infantry officers in the trenches. Tragically, in July 1916, Morris was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It took all the family’s Christian fortitude to accept his loss, or to believe his sacrifice had not been in vain. But his death only led to a greater resolve to carry on with their evangelical mission as his legacy to them all.

In 1917 Sam moved to the easier post of being a Residentiary Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, where he ministered for another twenty years. Shortly after the war’s end, Julian was called to go back to Australia to become headmaster of a leading boys’ school, and Burgon returned to his beloved Canada. He eventually became a highly popular director of Hart House, the men’s student union of the University of Toronto, where he organized programmes to enhance the intellectual and artistic life of the students along the best Oxford lines. Both men eventually retired to Canterbury and looked after their mother who survived until she was nearly ninety-six, still secure in her fervent evangelical faith.

Several decades later, following in good Bickersteth footsteps, Sam’s grandson John became Bishop of Bath and Wells. In 1987 he organized, as his great grandfather had done, a family reunion in the Palace grounds, attended by a hundred and eighty-seven family members. No fewer than eighteen of these were ordained to the Church of England ministry. All of them, and presumably their descendants too, will now be most grateful to Margaret Ford for her captivating account of their family’s intimate hopes and fears in their daily lives during the late Victorian/early Edwardian period. Her portrait is lovingly based on extensive research into a not untypical vicarage household during those turbulent and troubled years of a century ago. And the picture she reveals of the joys and anxieties they encountered on their spiritual pilgrimage illustrates a tradition of evangelical witness and service which still has its appeal today.