The name of Henry Melvill Gwatkin (1844-1916) has long been a familiar one through his standard examination of Arianism, Studies of Arianism (1882), which remains a classical study of this ancient heresy and which I used extensively about twenty to twenty-two years ago while doing doctoral studies. How interesting to read this past weekend a “Memoir” of Gwatkin by T. R. Glover [The Sacrifice of Thankfulness (Edniburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1917), ix-xxiv], which I found in the Boyce Library at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Gwatkin was rendered deaf as a young boy by an attack of scarlet fever, but that does not seem to have curbed his intellectual development. He had a love for history from an early age and in time developed that requisite for good historical scholarship, accuracy, which, Glover recalls, was “always his passion.” This concern for accuracy gave him a wonderful knowledge of original sources. But he also had a concern for relating the past to the present—always a good quality in an historian, so preventing him or her from becoming a mere antiquarian.

His great goal in life to become a Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University was realized in 1891 when he was appointed in this capacity as a fellow at Emmanuel College—that one-time seedbed of Puritan preachers. Here he shone as a lecturer and tutor in church history. The notice of his life in the DNB recalled him as a “clear, witty, stimulating, and (when he chose) eloquent lecturer” [The Compact Edition of the Dictionary of National Biography. Volume II: Main DNB…Twentieth-Century DNB 1901-1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 2672, s.v.]. He also had the opportunity to provide spiritual counsel for many of the students that passed through Emmanuel’s halls. The last years of his life were spent during the terrible horrors of World War I, but he never lost a sense of the fact that “Eternal Love” in Christ “is sovereign,” as he put it in a letter he wrote in August 1916. That very month he was knocked down by a car that he had not heard because of his deafness. He died three months later.  

His Studies of Arianism is still a good study of the Arian controversy. How interesting to learn that he detested the burden of writing it. That “pestiferous book” he appears to have regularly called it. But how helpful it has proven to students of that heresy.

Next to this volume on the shelf was another by Gwatkin, The Eye for Spiritual Things And Other Sermons (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1906), a collection of sermons. In one of them he spoke on that famous text from Isaiah 6: “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord.” It was preached in Girton College on January 27, 1901, and is entitled “The Death of Queen Victoria”—Victoria had died five days before on January 22. What powerful reverberations her death sent out to the four corners of that Empire that once ruled the waves. Gwatkin well knew, as he said, that England stood “at the parting of the ways. The Victorian age is ended” (35). It is a fascinating sermon. It calls its hearers to rely upon the Lord but has a long section in which Gwatkin speaks in distinctly messianic tones of England’s vocation and that of her people.

“England,” he wrote, “is as much God’s people as ever Israel was, and London just as much his dwelling as Jerusalem. Our land is as holy as Judah; our streets are as near him as the mercy-seat of old. …As he chose Israel to do one great work for him, so has he chosen England now to do another. …It is he who has made us as the stars of heaven for number, and given us western lands and southern seas for our inheritance. It is he who made peace on our soil, hardly broken by the tread of enemies for the best part of a thousand years—he, who gave the pride of the Spaniard to the winds before us, and scattered the fleets of France in the clash at Trafalgar” (34).

Gwatkin does recognize that God’s love for England is not because of “England’s righteousness.” And it “was not our own right hand—our wooden walls and streak of silver sea—that wrought salvation for us, but the Lord himself has been a wall of fire about us. Our fathers cried to him, and he delivered them in many a day of trouble and rebuke—to set our rule in the sea, and our dominion at the world’s end” (34-35).

And the task for which God had given England safety and succour? “If greatness is to be measured by power to do his work, ours is without question and by far the greatest of the nations. God never gave Israel a nobler task than he has laid on England—to witness of truth and peace and mercy to every nation under heaven” (35).

So thought one Anglican clergyman at the height of the British Empire. Such a reading of history is not one that is unique to the English Christians of that day. Christians in the late Roman Empire, after the Edict of Milan, also spoke in similar sacral tones of the so-called Christian Roman Empire. That God did greatly use the English to spread the gospel to the four corners of the earth in the “Protestant century,” namely the nineteenth century, is undisputed fact. But as that century wore on, much of English mission became increasingly intermeshed with the conscious dissemination of English culture and the importance of maintaining English hegemony over other cultures.

Though I was born in England, my roots, from my mother, lie deep in Irish soil. I am married to a Scotswoman and so my children have Irish and Scottish blood coursing through their veins. The Queen who died in 1901 was as much Ireland’s and Scotland’s Queen as England’s, yet there is nary a mention in Gwatkin’s sermon of these other two peoples from the British archipelago. And the Empire the English built and ran was secured as much by Irish and Scots as the English. Yet, not a peep from the Cambridge historian about this vital fact.

Well, this Anglocentric read of history is now history itself. And though I am deeply thankful to God for my birth in England, I cannot say “amen” to most of this sermon on Isaiah 6. God, in his mercy did secure England from the Spanish Armada and the despotism of Napoleon, but to what end? That Britannia might rule the waves? Or that English voices might proclaim the reign of King Jesus to the nations? Surely the latter. Did Gwatkin and those like him see the way they confused the two empires, Britain’s and Christ’s? Most probably not. How clear historical hindsight can be. And yet how blind we can be to similar errors. May we learn from the past and not make the same mistake!