Born in 1783 into an aristocratic family in the village of Malpas in Cheshire, where his father was rector, Reginald Heber was educated at Brasenose College, Oxford. While there he won the University prize for Latin verse three years running. He was elected in 1805 to a Fellowship at All Souls College, and in 1807, after an extensive grand tour of Europe, he was ordained and at once became vicar of Hodnet in Shropshire.
Heber spent sixteen years as a parish priest, and it was during this period that he wrote a hymn for nearly every Sunday and for each solemn day and feast day in the Calendar of the Church of England, earning him the designation of the greatest writer of English hymns after Charles Wesley. Heber was determined to demonstrate that hymn-singing was not a prerogative of just the Evangelical wing of the Church of England, and in time he produced some fifty-seven hymns, including “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty”, “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning”, “God, that madest earth and heaven”, “By cool Siloam’s shady rill”, “From Greenland’s icy mountains”, and “The Son of God goes forth to war”. In 1812 he was made prebendary of St Asaph, and in 1815 he delivered the Bampton Lectures at Oxford on “The Personality and Office of the Holy Comforter”.
In 1823 Heber accepted appointment as the second missionary bishop of Calcutta, and was consecrated to the episcopate on Sunday, June 1st, in the chapel of Lambeth Palace. During his three year episcopate in India, he labored hard for the spread of the Gospel in his large diocese, which covered the whole of British India. On the afternoon of April 3, 1826, after becoming overheated while preaching on the evils of the caste system before a large congregation at Trichinopoly, he cooled off in the bathing pool adjoining the house where he was staying. He was later found drowned in the pool, having suffered a stroke. He was buried at the Anglican Church in Trichinopoly, on the north side of the Holy Table, where less than two days prior he had blessed the large congregation. The route of his funeral procession was thronged not only with the British and with Indian Christians, but also with Hindus and Muslims who held the bishop in high regard. Commenting on his short episcopate, the twentieth century missionary and Anglican bishop Stephen Neill wrote, “perhaps no missionary has ever left on his surroundings so deep an impress of his personality in so short a time”.
In The Book of Hymns, Ian Bradley notes that Heber was fastidious in his approach to hymn-writing, having once remarked that “I avoid all fulsome, indecorous or erotic language to HIM whom no unclean lips dare approach.”
prepared from various sources
Lord God Almighty, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: you raised up Reginald Heber to be a bishop and missionary in your Church and to give voice to the Church’s praises. Give abundantly to all bishops and pastors the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that they may minister in your household as true servants of Christ, stewards of your divine mysteries, and heralds of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta, is commemorated on this day in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Canada.