Robert Hawker

Robert Hawker (1753 - 1827) was a Devonian vicar of the Anglican Church and the most prominent of the vicars of Charles Church, Plymouth, Devon. His Grandson was Cornish poet Robert Stephen Hawker.

Of all the ministers of Charles Church this man is the most famous. The “Star of the West”, due to his superlative preaching that drew thousands to Charles to hear him speak for over an hour at a time. He was a bold Evangelical, caring father, active in education and compassionate for the poor and needy of the parish, a scholar and author of many books and deeply beloved of his parishioners. Described as “one of Almighties almoners/Entrusted with supernatural wealth” in the rather sycophantic poem by W. Cann.

Hawker was born in Exeter in 1753 to John Hawker, a surgeon and Mayor of Exeter. He was an unlikely candidate for the ministry. A fun loving teenager he lacked a serious outlook on life - he once threw a squib into a somewhat staid congregation and ran off hooting merrily. He married aged nineteen to Anna Reins, who was only eighteen herself. They had eight children altogether.

Hawker went in for medicine and studied in Plymouth under Samual White of Bretonside (a stones throw from Charles Church). Finding this not his vocation he joined the Marines as assistant surgeon. However the savage discipline and brutalities of war led him out of the service and to fulfil a long time ambition to enter the ministry. He entered Magdalen College, Oxford in 1778. He was a few months at Looe as a curate and then appointed as assistant curate to Charles Church (still in 1778) under John Bedford. He was ordained in 1779. He succeeded Bedford on his death in 1784 and held the living until his own death in 1827.

He was a man of great frame, burly, strong and with blue eyes that sparkled and a fresh complexion. His humour was deep and razor sharp and his wit popular although he had a solemn exterior and in conversation would resort to silence while contemplating a difficult retort. He played the violin well and was an excellent scholar. Almost as soon as he arrived as curate he started writing and poured out over the year a long list of books, volumes of sermons, a theological treatise, a popular commentary, a guide to communion and also books of lessons in reading and writing for the schools. For a work of his on the divinity of Christ (combating the rise of Unitarianism) the University of Edinburgh conferred upon him a degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1792. He also produced the “Poor Man’s Morning and Evening Portions” that were used long after his death.

It was in the pulpit that “the Doctor” was best known and loved. Thousands flocked to hear the “Star of the West” preach when he was in London. An Evangelical he preached the Bible and proclaimed the love of God. He was said to have great Biblical knowledge and could preach a good sermon on any passage at a moments notice. If his grandson Robert Steven can be trusted his preaching won the admiration of King George III who used to hand him a text just before he went to the pulpit. His preaching was with power, passion, animation, scholarship and yet with a human touch. He was an extempore preacher who began, despite clergy or the Bishop’s protest, with an extempore prayer. He held vast audiences for 70 or 80 minutes (the north and south galleries built to add capacity during his time). On a spring or autumn evening he would be lost in the evening shadow before finishing, his voice and the majesty of the theme holding people to the end.

He stood alone almost in welcoming John Wesley and extending fellowship to the man whose visits were punctuated by riots and near revival. He had such a high regard for Wesley that one of his colleagues described him as “little better than a Wesleyan himself”, a strong insult. Hawker invited Wesley to his home for a meal despite the uproar this caused. He was reported to the Bishop but remained indifferent to the response. Like Wesley, he longed that all men might hear the Gospel and this brought them together.

He was not a man simply of books and sermons. “The Doctor” took his responsibilities seriously. He regularly visited his parishioners and was diligent in his responsibilities to the poor. When food was scarce after the long wars with France in 1817 he started a scheme of selling sixpenny loaves for three pence supported by donations from his congregation and distributed 1,000 loaves. He was a little eccentric and one day marched onto a baker’s shop and after buying an eight pound loaf he placed it under his arm. The baker offered to send it to his home but Hawker said “No I am going to take it to a starving family nearby, a man and his eight children. But if you give me another loaf I will carry that as well”. The baker complied without a word.He started the Misericordia Fund in 1794 to provide for the relief of destitute strangers. A refuge for prostitutes followed after. In 1809 as troops returned from Spain several ships put in to Plymouth and he helped bring ashore hundreds of men suffering diverse fevers. They were housed in a nearby barn and hundreds of them died in the next week. Over 300 townspeople also fell victim to the fevers. Hawker and his wife visited the sick each week and scorned their personal risk. In 1813 Dr Hawker began the Corpus Christi Society to search out and seek the distressed members of Christ’s body. It was not limited by parish boundaries or denomination but the needs of Christians were met where they were found.

One of his earliest passions, whilst still a curate, was to start a Sunday school. The Sunday School movement may have been started when in 1780 Robert Raikes in Gloucester opened the first Sunday School. Children at that time had to work six days a week, leaving little time to study after work in the week. To counter the effects of ignorance and illiteracy the Sunday school movement started. Literacy was taught from the Bible. On 21 January 1787 the “Household of Faith” Sunday school was opened in Plymouth with twenty poor children gathered from the streets. Before long the popularity of the school together with the addition of a weekday “School of Industry” required moving to larger premises. In 1798 with numbers at 341 a permanent building was built. It is likely this was the second Sunday school started in the country and one of the first to have a permanent building. The funds for this building were not easily forthcoming but the trustees went ahead anyway thus bestowing its name.

Of his eight children, his eldest, John Hawker is worthy of mention. He became curate of the ancient local church of Stoke Dameral. A passionate Evangelical like his father he drew criticism from the Bishop and he was removed from the living. The uproar was great and his parishioners went with him and built him an Episcopal church, St Peter’s. Hawker’s grandson was known as Robert Stephen Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow, Cornwall. He gained fame as an eccentric Cornish poet. Born in the vicarage of Charles Church and brought up by the Doctor he was remarked on by Tennyson as “beaten at my own game”.

At his death in 1827 Hawker had been curate for six years and forty-three years its minister. It is said that the whole town mourned for him.

Not every region of our heaven-blessed isleHas so illuminated been by the bright beamsOf Gospel-light and glory, as the townOf Plymouth. And with all the storied pompDistinguishing the destiny of thisFair daughter of the gently flowing Plym, Not one of the proud honours that have beenBy Providence so prodigally heapedUpon her, has surpassed in solid worthAnd excellence, the presence in her midst,and faithful ministry in holy things,—Through the long space of half a century,—Of the renowned and venerated Hawker.It well becomes, then, her enlightened sonsTo look back and to ponder well and oft,The moral radiance shed upon the nameOf Plymouth, by the sacred servicesOf this illustrious champion of the cross… [p1, The Vicar of Charles, A Poem..., W. Cann]

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