ASHTON OXENDEN AND HIS CIRCLE
A biographical note
Appreciation of the series of Letters to an elderly person, the last of which appears in this issue, has prompted from numerous quarters, the enquiry: But who was Ashton Oxenden?The editor of Sunday at Home, a widely-read Christian periodical of the nineteenth century, wrote, in December 1872 (issue 971, pp.774-8):-
“There are few religious writings of the present day better known than those of the Rev. Ashton Oxenden, a clergyman who, having passed many years as rector of a country parish in Kent, has become, comparatively recently, the Bishop of Montreal and Metropolitan of Canada. These writings now amount to a considerable number and their circulation has been enormous. Some of them are mere leaflets, and none of them are more than slight single volumes. Their character throughout is uniform – it is practical and experimental….
“Oxenden has never taken any conspicuous part in public life, is identified with no religious party, and his writings have never appeared in any great popular periodical. Yet his is one of the most familiar names in religious literature, having regard to the masses of readers who have been brought within the range of his truthful influence. The prevailing characteristic of all these publications is their extreme and direct simplicity. The secret of their success lies in their utility, in their deep drinking in of the spirit of the gospel which was designed to satisfy all human needs . . . People look for substance, not elegance in their provisions, and do not care for style in a doctor’s prescription if they can but discover the remedies they seek. There is directness, plain speaking, and earnestness in all his writings. The most unlettered and ignorant person will be at no loss to understand them, and the most acute and intelligent will find here the plain unvarnished teaching of the gospel. The aims of these writings lie altogether in a different sphere than mere literary aims -even the conversion of the sinner and the edification of the Christian.”
Ashton Oxenden was born at Canterbury in 1808, educated at Harrow, and University College, Oxford, graduating M.A. In 1833 he became curate of Barham, Kent, where he commenced weekly cottage meetings. From 1848 to 1869 he was rector of Pluckley, Kent, where he began extemporaneous preaching, and wrote the
‘Barham Tracts’ and most of the more than forty-five distinct publications that bear his name. The son of a baronet, and possessed of an advanced education, he adapted himself completely to the rustic ignorance and poverty of the great majority of his hearers and readers. He presented high doctrine in homely terms, deep experience in monosyllables, and practical outworkings in homespun. By the time of his departure for Montreal his publishers reckoned that at least a million copies of his various publications had been printed. It is passing strange to find the author of John Ploughman’s Talk strangely misreading his Kentish contemporary when (in Commenting and Commentaries) he dismisses three of Oxenden’s small expositions – which were intended for ploughmen – as not fit for ministerial students! But Oxenden, like Spurgeon, has his niche in the Dictionary of National Biography, while the General Catalogue of the British Library lists almost all his publications. Ill-health caused his return from Montreal in 1878, and for the remainder of his active life he was in charge of a small church near Canterbury, dying in 1892.
In the middle years of the nineteenth century East Kent was favoured with the service of a number of Anglican ministers whose common denominator and bond was their love of the distinguishing doctrines of free and sovereign grace, and the proclamation of the same, each in his own sphere and manner. Ashton Oxenden was one of this number; his Calvinism was implicit rather than explicit, applied rather than expounded. A few miles west of Pluckley in the eighteen-fifties laboured Richard Shutte. Formerly a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, he was forced out of his London living by opposition to his God-centred gospel. Seeking refuge in the country at High Halden, Shutte was only to be despised and derided if not openly persecuted because he would allow sinners no refuge whatsoever outside of Christ. Across the Romney Marsh at Winchelsea from 1840 to 1871 ministered James John West, forsaken by his own parishioners on the Sabbath but thronged by gospel-hungry Nonconformists on weekdays. West’s sermons preached at London city church lunch-hour services appeared regularly in the Penny Pulpit, and were avidly read by discerning Christians of all denominations and none. At Denton there was Legh Richmond, a son of the celebrated author of The Dairyman’s Daughter. At Snargate and Snave Edward Wilkinson was noted for his God-honouring ministry, and there wrote the biography of Charles Roife of Shadoxhurst. Roife was a warrior-type free grace evangelist of the same order as his contemporaries William Parks and Alfred Hewlett in Lancashire. He was, we are told by his (now fast decaying) tombstone, for near forty years “a servant of God and a minister of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect, and
a faithful preacher of the doctrines of grace”, which are defined as:-
1. Conceived in sin, Dead in sins.
2. Chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, and Predestinated to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.
3. Redeemed with an Eternal Redemption, & delivered from the wrath to come.
4. Born of the Spirit. A new creature in Christ.
5. Kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
Within such a circle belonged Ashton Oxendon.
K. W. H. Howard