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Herford, Brooke (1830-1903)

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Brooke Herford

Brooke Herford. Courtesy of Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.

Brooke Herford was unique in the following that he won, and the service that he rendered both in England and in the United States. Born in 1830 in the town of Altrincham, England, he filled seventy-three years with a zest for living, blessed many people with his spiritual insight and practical common sense, lent his organizing genius to many worthy causes, secular and religious, and left behind him countless admirers who remembered him as a beloved friend and a heartening preacher.

Brooke was the eighth child and youngest son of John and Sarah Herford. His mother died when he was only about two years old. She had already exercised a wide influence as a teacher and endowed her children with many fine qualities and talents. She was the daughter of Edward Smith of Birmingham, who was a member of the Unitarian church where Dr. Joseph Priestley ministered, and from which he was driven by a riotous mob in 1791. The father, John Herford, was a merchant, vigorous and enterprising. Brooke received his earliest education in Manchester at the school of an eminent scholar and Unitarian minister, the Rev. John Relly Beard. At fourteen he left school and went into his father’s countinghouse, where he remained for four years. He always claimed that this experience in business did more to make a man of him, “a man as the foundation of a minister, than all the special training of the Divinity course at College.” Soon he was busy in the Sunday School, and also at Mosley Street Mission School, and his first profoundly influential friendship had been formed, that with Philip Carpenter, then minister at Warrington. Carpenter discussed everything with him and got him to thinking about becoming a minister. His father gave him no encouragement at first, and rather ridiculed the whole idea. He did not make the break right away, but continuing in the countinghouse, spent his spare hours diligently trying to prepare himself for college. Presently he met two more people, destined to influence his life very greatly. The first was Travers Madge, who had come to assume general direction of the Mosley Street School and who shared his most intimate thoughts with young Herford. Madge’s piety and unselfishness made a deep impression upon Brooke and confirmed his desire to enter the ministry.

At eighteen he entered Manchester New College, now at Oxford but then at Manchester, where he found a truly liberal spirit. He lived a frugal life, and perseveringly prepared himself for preaching and the parish ministry, feeling particularly blessed by the presence of such men as James Martineau and Francis William Newman. At twenty–one he started preaching regularly at Todmorden in Yorkshire and, as the college authorities could not sanction this arrangement, he decided to withdraw from the college and become the settled minister of the church. He came into close contact with the working people, and befriended their interests, but he was also courageous and quick to rebuke the labor organizers when they resorted to violence.

The second person who, after Travers Madge, influenced Brooke Herford’s life profoundly was Hannah Hankinson. They were married in 1852—after he had been six months at Todmorden—and she became his true helpmate, sharing with him both his struggles and his triumphs. They were both strong personalities, but they enjoyed a perfectly harmonious relationship with each other, and provided a happy home for nine children. Sometimes when he could not give as much help financially as he wished to chapels and societies that were soliciting aid, he would say, “I have contributed nine little Unitarians to the cause, and I can’t afford much more.” As it turned out, that was a very substantial contribution.

Together Mr. and Mrs. Herford wrought at Todmorden for five years, with a salary probably equivalent to about a thousand dollars a year. Their next charge was at the Upper Chapel, in the busy manufacturing city of Sheffield, a parish deservedly proud of its history, and of its social standing in the community. Here Mr. Herford developed into the powerful personality for which he was later known, and here he preached as good sermons, it is said, as were ever put out in his maturer years. He became active in denominational as well as community affairs, but never neglected his very careful pulpit preparation. While in Sheffield he carried on missionary work extensively in the nearby Yorkshire villages, and organized a band of lay preachers to help him. Some of these laymen later became ministers themselves; they were but the first of many young men whom he started, steered, or quickened in this direction.

After a pastorate of nine years—he held the conviction that no minister ought to remain in any parish more than ten years—he resigned a pastorate in which he had been eminently successful and moved to a parish where he would receive a smaller salary than he had been getting at Sheffield, though probably a larger field of service. The new parish was the Strangeways Free Church in Manchester. There he spent eleven fruitful years. He was engrossed in his immediate tasks, but also was tutor at the Home Missionary College, a champion of social justice in the community, and editor by conscription of a history of Lancashire, while the frugal little home continued to overflow with hospitality. Toward the end of these eleven years his health began to break. Then it was upon the advice of a Yorkshireman, Robert Collyer, then minister of Unity Church in Chicago, that the congregation of the Church of the Messiah asked Brooke Herford to come across the sea. It was a painful and somewhat hazardous move but Brooke Herford soon took delight in the vigor and vitality of Chicago and in the enterprise and breezy frankness of the people. He enjoyed his ministry there and was vastly successful in the task of presenting the truths and principles of religion to a mixed and migratory congregation bent largely upon worldly success. He had been there almost seven years when he received a call from the Arlington Street Church in Boston. It offered him a somewhat more comfortable life, which he did not want but which would do him no harm, and to enter into the tradition of Channing and Gannett was an invitation he could not refuse. The settlement was fortunate for Boston also. Two blocks from Arlington Street, Phillips Brooks was at the zenith of his power and fame at Trinity Church. Equally nearby was George A. Gordon at the new Old South Church. Brooke Herford was a worthy member of this trio, and they worked intimately and happily together.

Herford preached twice every Sunday with the large auditorium of the Church often so full that people were sitting on the pulpit stairs. Occasionally, to be sure, some of the people at the Vesper Service would get up to leave as the musical program ended, and just before the sermon began. Once, as this happened, Mr. Herford said from the pulpit, “Let us suspend our Service for a moment, until those children who cannot sit for an hour have left the Church.” He preached also upon innumerable special occasions, and was in wide demand. He was one of the original members of the Board of Preachers at Harvard University, and the university awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity. He served as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Unitarian Association, and as an officer of the old National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches, and he originated the exceedingly useful Church Building Loan Fund. He never disguised his Unitarianism, but he always stood in sympathetic relations with liberal orthodoxy. He was particularly concerned with bringing the right and left wings of Congregationalism closer together.

During his Boston pastorate he had long summer vacations. He and his family, when they did not go abroad, went out to Wayland where they had acquired a home. Here, “far from the madding crowd,” they were refreshed and reinvigorated. They began each day in the cozy breakfast room, with vines and flowers hanging outside the windows, by meeting together, parents and children in prayer, so devout and tender that a stranger could hardly listen to it without tears. But the days were filled with gayety as well as with reverence; the children had their charades—there were poets, actors, and philosophers among them—and their music and their merriment. One parishioner sent Dr. Herford a cow for the summer, and another a horse. He was proud of his garden and his orchard, and worked well with his hands on any practical project. Friends, in the city and in the country, were always pouring in and out.

His Boston pastorate was the longest that he held except for Manchester, though a few months short of ten years’ duration. In spite of the comforts that he enjoyed, the weight of the burdens began to tell on his health. It was evident that both he and Mrs. Herford were beginning to grow old. Perhaps it was time to go back to England. He had a call from Rosslyn-Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London. The question of going or staying was freely discussed. Ties in Boston with his own parishioners and with his brother ministers were very strong, as were ties now throughout the country, but a deep sense of duty made it obvious to his friends that he would return to England.

At Hampstead honors were heaped upon him. He was the same Brooke Herford that they had known before in England, only mellowed and deepened, and with the added prestige of his American ministry. He took up his duties with a fresh enthusiasm. He was elected president of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, and doubled the income of that organization. He was elected to the committee of Manchester New College. In 1897 he represented the Unitarians at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Once he returned to America for a brief visit, giving the famous Dudleian Lecture at Harvard and preaching at Arlington Street Church.

Dr. Herford retired from the active ministry after fifty years of strenuous and noble service. Shortly after, he had a stroke, and then, grateful for all that life had given him and confident of the future, he listened on Sunday evening, December 21, 1903, to the old familiar hymns sung by his dear ones, as they had been sung so often at the close of the Sabbath day, and then said good–bye. The funeral was held in Rosslyn–Hill Chapel, Hampstead, and was conducted by his ministerial friends. The ashes were buried beside those of his wife by the little chapel at Hale, Cheshire, where, fifty–one years before, they had pledged their marriage vows.

Herford was a great preacher, a great organizer, and a great friend. His books—A Protestant Poor Friar: The Life-Story of Travers Madge, The Story of Religion in England, Sermons of Courage and Cheer, The Small End of Great Problems, Anchors of the Soul—though carefully and systematically organized, were the natural fruit of his life, rather than the product of research. He knew humble folk, and loved them, and he knew people of affluence and loved them. With St. Paul he could say, “I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want.” But whether he was filled or hungry, his character remained the same. Herford was, in the best sense, a man of the world. He knew, that is, what human nature is like and what it is capable of. He knew life’s temptations and follies and also its raptures and heroisms. He was, as one friend remarked, “a preacher who was both a poet and a good man of business.” His enthusiasms were eminently contagious, his kindly humor was penetrating. He was open-handed and open-hearted, and all that he said and did was animated by a vital sincerity. Intercourse with him was always invigorating. “His devoutness,” according to his English colleague, Philip Wicksteed, “was never a plant that needed a sheltered atmosphere, and the protection of hallowed associations. It was a primal emotion, robust and rejoicing in the open air.” His religion was not otherworldly, but it raised this world to ever higher levels, and made it seem a more heavenly place.