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 Issues | Church History | F. J. Chavasse


Great Churchmen No. 24

F. J. Chavasse (1846-1928)

by H. Gresford Jones, D.D.

Second Bishop of Liverpool

Published by Church Book Room Press

The Witness of Character

“The only thing in the world,” said Dr. A. B. Davidson, “that has power to move others is reality, conviction, personal character; and all our efforts will bear little fruit unless this personal character be behind them.” Such words belong to the permanent truth of things: yet they seem to be the special experience of the age in which we live. So much that once magnified the pastoral office is gone. Reverence for authority, position, office, is gone. But reverence remains, and will always remain, for that rare blend of transparent goodness and charity which is called “saintly”. This it is that in every nation and in every age appeals to the deepest sense of truth in human nature. It is something at once perfectly real and irresistibly beautiful: and it is the touch of divineness in it that is everywhere the argument for the religion of Jesus Christ.

Such pre-eminently was the character of Frances James Chavasse. He had had that priceless heritage—a Christian home. His father, Thomas Chavasse, F.R.C.S., one of a noted medical family, practised at Wylde Green, near Birmingham. His mother, a remarkable woman of great character and saintliness, had from his early years engrafted in him the habit of daily Bible reading. And it was with sincere religious convictions that, at the age of nineteen, he came up to Oxford in 1865. Earlier in life it had been his hope to become a soldier: but a crippling malady, when he was about fourteen, so impaired his physique that he subsequently grew no more. And he entered the University firmly resolved to seek Holy Orders.

Oxford, for the seed thus planted, was fertile soil. With E. A. Knox and W. J. Lock as his special friends, with Canon Christopher at St. Aldate’s and Canon Linton at St. Peter’s, he eagerly absorbed the spiritual riches of his new environment. On successive Sundays in 1866, as his diary records, he listened to such masters as Dr. Pusey, Dean Goulburn, Canon Liddon, Archbishop Trench, and
J. C. Ryle. He took a Sunday class. He conducted evangelistic services. In this searching diary of his, he reveals a practice of stern self-discipline. He was already apprehended by that faith that can “remove mountains” and which all his life was to empower him.

Chavasse was God’s good gift to the Church in a period of anxious transition. He was in his own personal life a complete answer to the easy-going “colourless” religion of his day. By the close of the nineteenth century an array of religious difficulties, quite naturally aroused in Christian minds by the simultaneous “grand assault” of Darwinism, higher criticism, and modern psychology, called for a strong and scientific restatement of the Faith “once delivered to the saints”. Liberals, instead, sought to accommodate Christianity to the incoming tide and in a mood of light-hearted optimism substituted for revealed religion a “modernism” denuded alike of miracle and of warning. It was all so well-intentioned: it was all so deplorably destructive. For it bred a complacent sense of false security as to the hereafter, and a general impression that religion as such was largely optional. None, in fact, have suffered more from this ill-starred “liberal” experiment than the liberal clergy themselves. Their centre of authority once gone, their influence must needs become weakened and their message watered down.

To this “diluted Christianity” the Bishop offered in his own person a complete and uncompromising refutation. His whole temper was alien to controversy. So far as he could consistently avoid it he entered into no disputation.

“Always,” he used to say to us, “meet error by teaching the truth.” He preached the truth ceaselessly himself. Much more, he lived it. And all so silently and so humbly that it is only in retrospect that we can see the greatness of his contribution. To the lay world he restored respect for the pastoral office. To a generation of clergy disposed to assimilate themselves to contemporary standards he showed that asceticism when suffused with charity can be infectiously attractive. His supreme gift to the Church of his day was to present in himself a pattern of what a shepherd of souls could be, and to manifest its fascination and its power.

It was, I think, “all joy” to him. Canon Lancelot declares that, “the Bishop had no hobby.” There, for once, I must differ from his excellent biographer. Dean Inge has shrewdly remarked, “God help a man whose work is not his hobby by he’s forty.” And unquestionably the Bishop’s work was his hobby. Assured of the ever mounting affection of the warm-hearted Lancashire people, and radiating his own great love for them; talking to them endlessly in trams and trains, nursing their babies, enjoying their humour, he poured himself out for them, and, because this pastoral work of his was so entirely congenial to his whole being, why should he want anything better?

“Sacrifice alone is fruitful,” said Bishop Westcott. (l) “You cannot lift a basket,” said C. T. Studd, “so long as you sit in it.” To this homely illustration of “natural law in the spiritual world” Chavasse whole-heartedly subscribed. To a world reproachfully protesting that “religion made no difference,” that “those inside the Church are no better than those outside”: to a Church timidly deprecating the very thought of any differentiation as likely to cause offence, the Bishop with no single word of censoriousness, rather with wide charity to all, manifested a life of complete detachment from what a modern age counts dear, and proved to all posterity not merely its immense effectiveness but its unbounded popularity. The diocese gloried in its saintly bishop. People intuitively knew that it was for their sakes that he sanctified himself. Their parting tribute to him, in their thousands, as he was laid to rest under the shadow of his great cathedral, was eloquent of their homage.


>> Chapter 6: The Man and His Faith



1) The Victory of the Cross, p. 25.














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