Feast of John Bowring (October 17)   1 comment

John Bowring Portrait

Above:  Sir John Bowring, by John King

Image in the Public Domain



English Unitarian Hymn Writer, Social Reformer, and Philanthropist

An epitaph says much about a person.  There are funny ones, such as


And there are serious epitaphs, such as that of Sir John Bowring:


(the title of perhaps his most famous hymn).

Armin Haeussler, author of The Story of Our Hymns (1952), the companion volume to the 1941 Hymnal of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, opened his biography of Bowring this way on page 560:

Few People in human history have ever equalled or surpassed Sir John Bowring in versatility or endowment and immense achievement.  Historians consider him one of the most brilliant men of all time.  He was a statesman, political economist, linguist, historian, philanthropist, financier, biographer, naturalist, poet, publicist, in short, a veritable genius.

Bowring, born at Exeter, England, on October 17, 1792, grew up a Congregationalist and a son of a wool merchant.  Our saint learned the family business, which entailed commerce with Spain and China.  Bowring left school at age fourteen to help his father.  Unlike many dropouts, however, our saint excelled afterward.  At sixteen years of age he had become proficient in Dutch, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian.  During his adulthood Bowring become fluent in one hundred languages and studied twice as many.  His collected works, which filled thirty-six volumes, included English translations from twenty-two languages and dialects as well as a book in Spanish about the African slave trade.

Our saint was a political radical.  In his time and place this meant that he:

  1. supported Catholic Emancipation,
  2. favored the separation of church and state,
  3. called for the abolition of slavery,
  4. supported prison reform,
  5. opposed the death penalty,
  6. favored equal rights for women, and
  7. called for the repeal of the Corn Laws.

As Our Hymnody:  A Manual of The Methodist Hymnal, Second Editon (1937), said of Bowring on page 106:

It has been said that he was on the side of everything good and true.

Bowring, the Editor of the radical Westminster Review (starting in 1825), and a Member of Parliament (1835-1837 and 1841-1849), knew that the Corn Laws were economically unjust.  They forbade the importation of inexpensive food, thereby favoring landed elite interests and placing staples of the diet (such as bread) out of reach for poor people.  The Anti-Corn Law League formed to oppose the law and riots occurred.  Sometimes authorities killed protesters–men, women, and children–who sought affordable and good food.  Finally, in 1846, the British Parliament repealed the Corn Laws to prevent more starvation in Ireland during the potato famine.

Our saint’s friend and political partner was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), whose collected works he published in eleven volumes.  Bowring also edited Deontology: or, the Science of Morality:  in which the Harmony and Co-incidence of Duty and Self-Interest, Virtue and Felicity, Prudence and Benevolence, are Explained and Exemplified from the MSS. of Jeremy Bentham (1834) in two volumes:  I and II.

Bowring’s literary output spanned a wide range of topics and included these books:

  1. Specimens of the Russian Poets; with Preliminary Remarks and Biographical Notices (1822);
  2. Details of the Arrest, Imprisonment and Liberation of an Englishman by the Bourbon Government of France (1823);
  3. Matins and Vespers with Hymns  and Occasional Devotional Pieces(1823);
  4. Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain (1824)
  5. Some Account of the State of Prisons in Spain and Portugal (1824);
  6. Batavian Anthology: or, Specimens of the Dutch Poets; with Remarks on the Political Literature and Language of the Netherlands, to the End of the Seventeenth Century (1824);
  7. Hymns (1825);
  8. Specimens of the Polish Poets; with Notes and Observations on the Literature of Poland (1827);
  9. Servian Popular Poetry (1827);
  10. Sketch of the Language and Literature of Holland (1829);
  11. Poetry of the Magyars, Preceded by a Sketch of the Language and Literature of Hungary and Transylvania (1830);
  12. Cheskian Anthology:  Being a History of the Political Literature of Bohemia, with Translated Specimens (1832);
  13. Minor Morals for Young People Illustrated in Tales and Travels (1834)–Volumes I, II, and III;
  14. The Commercial Relations Between England and France (1836);
  15. The Decimal System in Numbers, Coins, and Accounts:  Especially with Reference to the Decimalisation of the Currency and Accountancy of the United Kingdom (1854);
  16. The Kingdom and People of Siam; with a Narrative of the Mission to That Country in 1855 (1857);
  17. A Visit to the Philippine Islands (1859); and
  18. The Flowery Scroll:  A Chinese Novel (1868).

There were also posthumous tributes and collections:

  1. A Memorial Volume of Sacred Poetry by the Late Sir John Bowring; to which is Prefaced a Memoir of the Author by Lady Bowring (1873); and
  2. Autobiographical Recollections of Sir John Bowring; with a Brief Memoir by Lewin B. Bowring (1877).

Bowring, married to Maria Lewin since 1816, entered the foreign service in 1849, becoming the British Consul at Canton.  Along the course of his diplomatic career Queen Victoria knighted him (in 1854) and he served as Plenipotentiary to China and as Governor of Hong Kong.  Maria died in China because someone had poisoned her with arsenic.  Thus ended a marriage of forty-two years.  Our saint remarried in 1860, becoming the husband of Deborah Castle.  His diplomatic career continued with appointments to places such as Siam and Italy.  He also negotiated many treaties around the world.  Bowring’s main occupation at the end of his life, however, was philanthropy.

The hymns, other than “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” of our saint included the following:

  1. Father and Friend!  Thy Light, Thy Love;”
  2. Watchman, Tell Us of the Night;”
  3. God is Love; His Mercy Brightens;”
  4. Upon the Gospel’s Sacred Page;” and
  5. How Sweetly Flowed the Gospel’s Sound.”

Bowring was a Unitarian who held that Christ is “all that we know of God.”  That love of God of which Bowring wrote became evident in his life.

He died at Exeter, England, on November 23, 1872.






Almighty God, whose prophets taught us righteousness in the care of your poor:

By the guidance of your Holy Spirit,

grant that we may do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your sight;

through Jesus Christ, our Judge and Redeemer,

who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 55:11-56:1

Psalm 2:1-2, 10-12

Acts 14:14-17, 21-23

Mark 4:21-29

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 736


One response to “Feast of John Bowring (October 17)

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  1. Pingback: John Bowring | GATHERED PRAYERS

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