Our first vicar: Revd James Haldane Stewart
Summary of an Inspired and Inspiring Life
by J.J. Vandenheede
James Haldane Stewart was born on 23rd December 1776 in Boston, Massachusetts, as the seventh child of Duncan Stewart and Ann Erving. After American independence, the family, of Scottish ancestry, returned to Britain in 1777. James would visit the USA himself as a young man in 1795, establishing contacts that would last all through his life and would influence and strengthen his own religious expression.
In 1802, James underwent a 'conversion experience', an event that would stimulate and sustain his belief in the need for the direct workings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. It is this ‘pneumatic faith’ that would energise his tireless ministry and inspire his lecture series, publications and vast correspondence.
In order to be ordained and fulfil what he thought to be his calling, James, a former Etonian, first needed to obtain a university degree. He therefore enrolled in Law studies at Oxford, graduating with a BA in 1806. Later, in 1810, he would add to this a MA degree from the same university. Ordination followed on 20th December 1806 and soon after James was sent to minister to his first parish in Ashampstead-Basildon (Berkshire). He would remain there until 1812, when he transferred to Percy Chapel (Saint Pancras’ parish) in London. Important placements like these were not easily obtained by clergy of James’s ‘conversion piety’, who were not all that favoured by the old-school hierarchy of the Church of England. Luckily, James had very good connections with the missionary societies - another lifelong passion - and a wealthy Maecenas in the persons of the Marquis of Bute and the Earl of Dumfries, the latter’s son. Throughout his life Stewart would be well-connected and foster very good relations with bishops and others in the Church’s upper ranks.
At Percy Chapel, he introduced a hymn-book which he himself had compiled, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns. Hymn-singing was not all that common then as it is now, and the hymnal symbolises the personal worship and renewal by the Spirit indicative of the Revival Movement. A year later, Reverend Stewart was also voted in as Chaplain to the Middlesex Hospital nearby, and in 1815 he became a member of the Eclectic Society, a social and spiritual group for clergymen. A year later, Reverend Stewart was also voted in as Chaplain to the Middlesex Hospital nearby, and in 1815 he became a member of the Eclectic Society, a social and spiritual group for clergymen.
On 20th August 1816, he married Mary Dale, but unfortunately ill health meant that James was unable to fulfil his pastoral duties in London. He travelled to France, Italy and Switzerland to convalesce, organising local British English-speaking congregations en route, notably in Nice. His time away from London, gave him the opportunity to discuss his beliefs and theology with others and lecture in places like Bath, Bristol, Glasgow and Dublin. In 1821 James Stewart published his most influential work, Hints for a General Union of Christians for Prayer for the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This strong conviction for the need of the 'office of the Third Person in the Blessed Trinity' also ran through his private prayers and family devotions. These personal prayers would connect confession and supplications for the gifts of the Spirit; James would always advise other clergy to follow that same pattern.
After returning to Percy Chapel full-time in 1823, he was involved in various conferences on the topic of the Spirit and prophecy, like the Albury Meeting. James seems to have held pre-millenarian beliefs, though he seldom preached on the subject, and would help establish The Society for the Investigation of Prophecy many years later (1841). He also co-founded The Society for Promoting the Religious Principles of the Reformation and opposed the admission of Roman Catholics to Parliament, though he was averse to the open and vitriolic denominational confrontations of the time. Meanwhile he kept travelling all over the country on behalf of the Church Missionary Society and the Jewish Society, and attending their AGMs, health permitting.
When Percy Chapel was closed in 1828, James started work on his ‘pet-project’, a parish-church of his own in Liverpool, and on 2nd January 1831 Saint Bride’s Church opened its doors, having been consecrated the previous Sunday. The building was designed by Samuel Rowland in a neo-Classical style and situated in a rich middle-class Georgian neighbourhood. Our charismatic vicar even managed to convince the gentry owners of the surrounding houses to name the street in front of the church ‘Percy Street’, after his former chapel. Reverend Stewart stuck to the same routine as he had in London, founding a local Missionary Association, using the same hymnal, and putting a lot of time and energy in his Confirmation classes. These classes had always been, and would always remain, very close to his heart, not surprising seeing as Confirmation is a celebration of the marking of an adult believer with the sign of the Holy Spirit. Then followed a few years of national and personal tragedy and illness, during which associate ministers took over his work. By 1836 however, Stewart seems to have been back on his feet, helping with the Liverpool Church of England Schools and the new school near Saint Bride’s.
Pastoral and practical thinking ran through his theology and preaching, and he was a hands-on President of The Liverpool Charitable Society for Visiting and Relieving the Sick and Distressed Poor at their Habitations. His letters too were a means to encourage and help people in need, and he avidly wrote to members of his congregation and even MPs and Royalty. The church had become a favourite for weddings and through his correspondence James would keep in close touch with engaged couples and newly-weds. On 2nd of January 1837 James Stewart also put his energy in publicising Invitation to United Prayer for the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It was to become an annual event, very much in tandem with the Revival Meetings across the USA. At the same time, he kept busy supporting the Protestant cause, with lectures on ‘Romanism’, the Unitarian Controversy –(which uncharacteristically seems to have really angered our docile pastor), the auxiliary branch of The Society for Promoting the better Observance of the Lord’s Day, and the establishment of the Protestant Bishopric in Jerusalem, whose first bishop was a Jewish convert and a personal friend. In 1845 Stewart also joined the Evangelical Alliance, though he would cancel his membership in later years.
A new chapter in James’s life began in 1846 when he became Rector at Limpsfield. Though he had left Liverpool, he maintained the same routine of missionary building and practical ministry in his new post. James Haldane Stewart died at Limpsfield on 22nd October 1854. A remembrance plaque in his honour can be found at Saint Bride’s Church in Liverpool. His son, The Reverend David D. Stewart, first published a glowing bibliography of his father in 1857. In it we encounter a man with a great love for God and people, full of energy though plagued by times of sickness, and a archetype of the 19th century British Evangelical in passion, missionary drive and optimism. His son, The Reverend David D. Stewart, first published a glowing bibliography of his father in 1857. In it we encounter a man with a great love for God and people, full of energy though plagued by times of sickness, and a archetype of the 19th century British Evangelical in passion, missionary drive and optimism. Thanks to the copious amount of letters written by Stewart himself, and documents collected by his family and supplied by his many friends his son was able to paint a picture of a very spiritual yet practical man typified by one of his own expressions: “Slow to promise – quick to perform”.
Saint Bride’s Church itself, now a Grade II* listed building, is still a place where the Spirit inspires and renews people.