Sir John Bowring Provides Hymns and Controversy

This is the day Sir John Bowring was born into a Unitarian family at Exeter in 1792.

Educated in a Unitarian school, his early ambition was to become a Unitarian minister. It was not to be … “but he lived to become the most faithful and most honoured among Unitarian laymen” (Memorable Unitarians, page 290).

This particular ‘church’ denies the deity of the Lord Jesus … His atoning sacrifice … His bodily resurrection … His miracles.

He was destined by his family for a commercial career. He left school in 1805 to work with his father, a cloth merchant. In 1810 he began work in a London office where he was encouraged to develop his natural linguistic talents. His company sent him to represent them in Spain from 1813-16. On his return he set up his own business and married Mary Lewin, from a Unitarian family in Hackney. He was an active member of the Unitarian church at Hackney. Later he joined the circle around William J. Fox, who ministered in Finsbury. Bowring travelled extensively on business; then, as his commercial activities failed, he concentrated on writing.

Sir John was a man of amazing energy and a polymath, linguist, political economist, reformer, hymn writer, author and editor, Member of Parliament, and the most controversial Governor of Hong Kong. He was arguably the world’s greatest linguist of his day. He was appointed Governor of Hong Kong in 1854.

“His high-handed policy and his insolence in dealing with the Chinese people brought on the second Opium War” (The Gospel in Hymns, by Bailey, page 172).

Attempts were made upon his life and the arsenic placed in his bread resulted in his wife’s death. “He was the most-hated governor Hong Kong ever had.”

But his hymn is found in most hymn books:
In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o’er the wrecks of time …

An apocryphal story tells of his visiting Macao and, seeing the cross still standing in a ruined church, he was inspired to pen his famous hymn.

But Bowring wrote the hymn in 1825 – and did not visit Macao for another 32 years.

Nor was it written from an evangelical viewpoint.

For much of his life Bowring was caught in controversy and was disliked for his determined attitudes. One who knew him described him as ‘a supreme charlatan and worse—a cheat, a liar, and, at least once, a swindler.’ Others saw him as ostentatious, self seeking, and obsequious. Nobody denied his talent, however, and many testified to his personal integrity in matters of conscience.

A year after the death of his first wife he married again, to a much younger woman, Deborah Castle, an active Unitarian from Bristol. She spurred him to renewed engagement in Unitarian work and social reform issues. She was herself a strong speaker and one of the earliest women members of the Council of the British & Foreign Unitarian Association (BFUA).

He continued in Unitarian activity, as arguably the most prominent Unitarian layman of his time.

On 23 November, 1872 Sir John Bowring died at his home, Claremont, Exeter, only a short distance from the house where he was born. None of his children followed his Unitarian faith.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.