Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shirley, Walter (1725-1786)

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SHIRLEY, WALTER (1725–1786), hymn-writer, fourth son of the Hon. Laurence Shirley and Anne, daughter of Sir Walter Clarges, bart., was born at Staunton Harrold, Leicestershire, on 23 Sept. 1725. His father was youngest son of Robert Shirley, first Earl Ferrers. Laurence Shirley, fourth earl [q. v.], was his elder brother, and Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon [q. v.], was his first cousin. In 1742 Walter matriculated from New College, Oxford, graduating B.A. in 1746, and the same year became rector of Loughrea, co. Galway. His family connection with the Countess of Huntingdon brought him into intimate touch with the revivalist movements of the time. He became friendly with the Wesleys and Whitefield, and from about 1758 was one of the most loyal friends they had within the pale of the church, to which he adhered to the end. The practice of the day permitted him to be frequently absent from Loughrea, and he was a familiar speaker at English and Irish revivalist meetings. Southey remarks that his intentions in his advocacy of Wesley were better than his judgment, for he belonged to the narrowest and most dogmatic section of the movement. His work as a revivalist preacher brought him repeatedly into conflict with his bishop and fellow clergy. The bishop of Clonfert censured him in June 1778 and advised him to drop his methodism, while some clergymen petitioned the archbishop to reprimand him for preaching in Plunkett Street Chapel, Dublin.

In the famous methodist controversy on justification by faith provoked by Wesley's Arminianism and the proceedings at the conference of 1770, Shirley took an active part on the Calvinist side with his cousin, the Countess of Huntingdon, as whose chaplain he acted for a time, and Augustus Toplady. A circular issued by him inviting the clergy and laity to oppose Wesley drew from John William Fletcher [q. v.] of Madeley the well-known ‘Checks to Antinomianism,’ and Shirley's influence was rather to embitter the dispute than to settle it. William Romaine [q. v.], Henry Venn [q. v.], and John Berridge [q. v.] were among his closest associates. In his later years he suffered from dropsy, and of this he died on 7 April 1786; he was buried in St. Mary's Church, Dublin. He married, on 27 Aug. 1766, Henrietta Maria, eldest daughter of John Phillips of Dublin, and by her had two sons and three daughters. His elder son, Walter, was father of Walter Augustus Shirley [q. v.] His portrait hangs in the library of Cheshunt College, in the foundation of which he took an interest.

His published works are: 1. ‘Gospel Repentance,’ 1760, Dublin. 2. ‘Twelve Sermons,’ with an ‘Ode on the Judgment Day,’ 1761, Dublin; reprinted with additional odes to ‘Truth’ and ‘Liberty,’ 1764, London. But his best known contributions to religious literature are his hymns. In 1774 he assisted the Countess of Huntingdon in revising the hymns used in her chapels, and the collection included some of his own work. He is author of the missionary hymn, ‘Go, destined vessel, heavenly freighted, go!’ written on the departure of some missionaries for America in 1772; of ‘Flow fast, my tears, the cause is great;’ ‘Source of light and power divine,’ and others still in common use.

[Stemmata Shirleiana, pp. 156, &c.; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886; Southey's Life of Wesley, ii. 371, &c.; Life of the Countess of Huntingdon, ii. 291, &c.; Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology, p. 1055.]

J. R. M.