Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Armstrong, John (1813-1856)
ARMSTRONG, JOHN, junior (1813–1856), bishop of Grahamstown, was the son of Dr. John Armstrong, the physician [q. v.]. He was educated at a preparatory school at Hanwell, and at Charterhouse. In 1832 he was elected to a Crewe exhibition at Lincoln College, Oxford, and having graduated in classical honours (third class) in 1836, he received holy orders in 1837. He was curate for a very short time, first at Alford in Somersetshire, and then at Walton-Fitzpaine in Dorsetshire; but within a year of his ordination he took a curacy at Clifton, where he remained about three years. In 1841 he became a priest-vicar of the cathedral at Exeter, and in 1843 rector also of St. Paul's, Exeter. In the same year he married Miss Frances Whitmore. About this time his convictions became strengthened and his spirituality deepened, chiefly through the influence of the earlier 'Tracts for the Times;' and it is an instance of his peculiar attractiveness that views and practices then very unpopular made him no enemies and raised very little opposition. The 'surplice riots,' e.g., were raging at Exeter, but they were little felt at St. Paul's. In 1845 he exchanged posts with Mr. Burr, vicar of Tidenham, in Gloucestershire. He found Tidenham in a ferment, owing to the introduction of usages which are now all but universal; but Mr. Armstrong soon lived the opposition down, and carried his points with all but universal approbation. Both at Exeter and Tidenham he almost entirely gave up what is called society, and devoted himself exclusively to the labours of a hard-working parish priest. But he was thoroughly happy in his domestic life; he had a truly like-minded wife and children, whom he loved to have about him even in his busiest hours. 'There was, I believe,' writes an eye-witness to the present writer, 'no separate study in the vicarage, so that much of his work was done in the midst of his family. I found him one morning writing a sermon with three of his children climbing over and playing with him; and so far from rebuking them, from time to time the pen was laid aside, and he joined in their frolics, returning again to his graver thoughts and writing; and on my admiring that he could so work, he replied simply, "I would give but little for a man that could not."' Mr. Armstrong made his mark as a preacher far beyond the limits of his country parish. 'He was,' writes a clergyman still living, 'the best all round country congregation preacher I ever knew.' A volume of 'Sermons on the Festivals,' preached at Exeter Cathedral, was published in 1845; another volume of 'Parochial Sermons' in 1854; and the series of 'Sermons for the Christian Seasons,' from Advent 1852 to Advent 1853, were all of them edited, and several of them written, by him. In some interesting sketches of 'successful preachers,' one of 'Bishop John Armstrong' will be found in the 'Guardian' of 20 Dec. 1882. He was also a successful tract-writer. He wrote many of, and was the responsible editor of all, the 'Tracts for the Christian Seasons,' the first series of which came out monthly from Advent 1848 to Advent 1849, and the second from Advent 1849 to Advent 1850; and these were followed in 1852-8 by 'Tracts for Parochial Use.' Mr. Armstrong's strong common sense and genial humour are conspicuous in these tracts, and their popularity has been very great. Mr. Armstrong had always taken the deepest interest in what are called 'social questions.' He now threw himself with characteristic energy into a scheme of which he was unquestionably the chief originator. The scheme was, to establish a system of penitentiaries, in which the chief agents should be self-devoted and unpaid ladies, working on sound church principles and under the direct superintendence of clergymen. Mr. Armstrong advocated this scheme in articles on 'Female Penitentiaries' in the 'Quarterly Review' in the autumn of 1848; in the 'Christian Remem-brancer' in January 1849; in the 'English Review' in March 1849; and in a stirring tract, entitled 'Appeal for a Church Penitentiary,' also in 1849. The interest of the public was awakened. Mr. Armstrong was as indefatigable in his private correspondence on the subject as in his articles for the press. 'I have acres of his letters,' writes a friend to the present writer, 'all on one subject — a House of Mercy for Gloucestershire.' The first church penitentiary was founded in Mr. Carter's parish of Clewer; in the same year (1849) another house of mercy was founded at Wantage; and shortly afterwards another at Bussage, in Mr. Armstrong's own diocese. In 1852 the Church Penitentiary Association was formed, and Mr. Armstrong's daydream was in a fair way of being realised. Among the rest of Mr. Armstrong's writings may be noticed his 'Pastor in the Closet,' published in 1847; a singularly vigorous article in the 'Christian Remembrancer' on the 'History and Modern State of Freemasonry' from the christian point of view, which can hardly have been acceptable to freemasons; and articles in the 'National Miscellany,' a monthly religious periodical which he founded a little while before he left England.
In 1853 he was offered the new bishopric of Grahamstowvn, chiefly through the influence of Bishop Gray, of Capetown. His penitentiary scheme was well afloat, and after having consulted some tried friends he accepted the post, and was consecrated at Lambeth on St. Andrew's day; after a few months' delay, during which, in spite of bad health, he pleaded the cause of Africa in various parts of the country, he set sail for Grahamstown. One of the most interesting presents which he took with him was a set of episcopal robes worked by the Bussage penitents. He regarded his position as that of a missionary as well as a colonial bishop. 'Do you think,' he said at a public meeting, 'I go forth thinking the diocese of Grahamstown is to be the bound and limit of Christian enterprise? God forbid! Africa is given to us if we will first do our part,' The diocese of Grahamstown, however, was in itself no trifling charge; it was almost as large as England, and, owing to bad roads and other hindrances, twenty miles a day was the average of travelling. His first work was to make a visitation tour of his diocese. He won golden opinions wherever he went; and he found or made many able coadjutors. There is little doubt that if his life had been spared he would have been eminently successful; his buoyant temper, his attractiveness, his ardent piety, his definiteness of aim and conviction, his readiness to recognise good wherever he found it, these and other qualities found a larger sphere for development abroad than at home. No one can read Bishop Armstrong's letters home, or his 'Notes on Africa,' a journal published by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, without deep interest. In 1856 he began a second visitation tour; but it was too much for him. His health, which had decidedly improved after he left England, failed him; and he died somewhat suddenly in Whitsun week, in the presence of his faithful friend and chaplain, archdeacon Hardie. His last public utterance was an opening lecture on the 'Character and Poetry of Oliver Goldsmith' at the Literary Institute at Grahamstown, which, after some opposition, he had succeeded in establishing on a general basis, and not in connection with any one religious body. He regarded literature and the natural sciences as 'common ground on which churchmen, without resigning one iota of catholic truth, might meet dissenters as brethren and hold kindly intercourse with them.' And even in religion, uncompromising churchman as he was, he was ever ready to acknowledge good christian work done by other bodies. 'The exertions of the Wesleyan body have been very great,' 'The Wesleyan body have been the honoured instrument of converting him' — such like remarks are not infrequent in his letters. But none the less does he deeply regret, over and over again, that the church had: not been the first in the field; for he held that to be 'the more excellent way,' His desire to deal with social questions accompanied him to Africa, He set himself to combat the besetting sin of the colonists, drunkenness; but he was called to his rest before he could effect much in this direction. He was buried in the cemetery at Grahamstown in the rochet made for him by the Bussage penitents; and after the lapse of more than a quarter of a century his memory still remains fresh in the hearts of his many friends. Few men, in the course of a comparatively short life, have had more and truer. There is a striking heartiness and unanimity in the testimony which numerous correspondents have kindly given to the present writer, to what one of them calls his 'superlative worth;' and few men, without possessing any commanding genius or incurring any unpopularity, have done more thoroughly useful work for the church and for society at large.[Carter's Memoirs of Bishop Armstrong; information from Archdeacon Hardie, Mrs. Armstrong, H. Woodyer, Esq., Rev. T. Keble, Rev. Erskine Knollys; Bishop Armstrong's Works, passim.]