Sabine Baring-Gould was born in Exeter, on January 28, 1834.
His father had been injured as an employee of the East India Company and enjoyed escaping England with frequent trips to Europe. Sabine’s formal education was thus disrupted by these family travels, but his own perspective was expanded at the same time. An average student he did manage to graduate from Cambridge, despite his dislike for Mathematics.
He held unconventional views and was perpetually critical of the established church.
By 1864 we find him a Church of England clergyman … and thus he continued for sixty years until his death on 2 January, 1924.
In 1867 he rescued a mill-girl named Grace Taylor from drowning. He fell in love with her, paid for her education, and married her in 1868.
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In 1872 he inherited his father’s estate, some 3000 acres of land in Devonshire. And here it was he became squire of Lewtrenchard in West Devon, lord of the manor, justice of the peace … “and appointed himself rector of the parish” (Gospel in Hymns, by A. Bailey, page 372).
He wrote “160 volumes” on such subjects as music, history, folk-lore, biography, novels, theology, and travel. His 15 volume Lives of the Saints was his ‘magnum opus’- and was banned by the Roman Catholic Church!
His book The Evangelical Revival, attacks basic doctrines held dear by Bible-believing Christians. “Evangelicalism,” he writes, “is a feeder of Rome … and the occasion of infidelity!” (pages 297, 300).
Yet this High Church Anglican was responsible for some of our best-loved hymns … He tells us Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war… was written in less than 15 minutes, for Whitsunday, 1865, when a procession of Sunday-School children marched through the streets at Horbury Bridge, Yorkshire. (The tune, incidentally, was composed by Arthur S. Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.)
Sabine Baring-Gould also wrote, Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh… in 1867.
William Kelynack writes: “In his early ministry he was intolerant; his treatment of nonconformity evoked strong resentment. But … in his later years he endeavoured to make amends, more especially to the local Methodists…” (Companion to Methodist School Hymnbook, page 16).
Baring-Gould lived for 90 years, living in the one village, which became his base for his broader travels and abundant writing. He did much to capture the folk songs of the countryside, taking over 12 years to compile his collection, by visiting the various singers personally and having an assistant note down the music while he edited the lyrics. He changed the frequently bawdy language to words which were much more acceptable to a broader and more cultivated audience.
Toward the end of his life Baring-Gould rated his collection of folk songs, published as “Songs of the West”, as his greatest achievement. It was, as he subtitled the work, “A collection made from the mouths of the people”.
Baring-Gould’s eccentricity is widely acknowledged, with such evidences as his teaching at Hurstpierpoint with his pet bat on his shoulder.
Baring-Gould died in 1924 at Lew (as Lewtrenchard was often referred to) and was buried in his own churchyard just across the road from his house.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com