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Robert Hawker (1753–1827) was an Anglican priest in Devon vicar of Charles Church, Plymouth. Called "Star of the West" for his popular preaching, he was known as an evangelical and author. The Cornish poet Robert Stephen Hawker was his grandson.
Ministry in Plymouth
Hawker was a few months at Looe as a curate and then appointed as assistant curate to Charles Church (still in 1778) under John Bedford. He was ordained in 1779. He succeeded Bedford on his death in 1784 and held the living until his own death in 1827.
He was a man of great frame, burly, strong and with blue eyes that sparkled and a fresh complexion. His humour was deep and razor sharp and his wit popular although he had a solemn exterior and in conversation would resort to silence while contemplating a difficult retort. He played the violin well and was an excellent scholar. Almost as soon as he arrived as curate he started writing and poured out over the year a long list of books, volumes of sermons, a theological treatise, a popular commentary, a guide to communion and also books of lessons in reading and writing for the schools. For a work of his on the divinity of Christ (combating the rise of Unitarianism) the University of Edinburgh conferred upon him a degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1792. He also produced the “Poor Man’s Morning and Evening Portions” that were used long after his death.
It was in the pulpit that “the Doctor” was best known and loved. Thousands flocked to hear the “Star of the West” preach when he was in London. An Evangelical he preached the Bible and proclaimed the love of God. He was said to have great Biblical knowledge and could preach a good sermon on any passage at a moments notice. If his grandson Robert Stephen can be trusted his preaching won the admiration of King George III who used to hand him a text just before he went to the pulpit. His preaching was with power, passion, animation, scholarship and yet with a human touch. He was an extempore preacher who began, despite clergy or the Bishop’s protest, with an extempore prayer. He held vast audiences for 70 or 80 minutes (the north and south galleries built to add capacity during his time). On a spring or autumn evening he would be lost in the evening shadow before finishing, his voice and the majesty of the theme holding people to the end.
He was not a man simply of books and sermons. “The Doctor” took his responsibilities seriously. He regularly visited his parishioners and was diligent in his responsibilities to the poor. When food was scarce after the long wars with France in 1817 he started a scheme of selling sixpenny loaves for three pence supported by donations from his congregation and distributed 1,000 loaves. He was a little eccentric and one day marched onto a baker’s shop and after buying an eight-pound loaf he placed it under his arm. The baker offered to send it to his home but Hawker said “No I am going to take it to a starving family nearby, a man and his eight children. But if you give me another loaf I will carry that as well”. The baker complied without a word.
He started the Misericordia Fund in 1794 to provide for the relief of destitute strangers. A refuge for prostitutes followed after. In 1809 as troops returned from Spain several ships put in at Plymouth and he helped bring ashore hundreds of men suffering diverse fevers. They were housed in a nearby barn and hundreds of them died in the next week. Over 300 townspeople also fell victim to the fevers. Hawker and his wife visited the sick each week and scorned their personal risk. In 1813 Dr Hawker began the Corpus Christi Society to search out and seek the distressed members of Christ’s body. It was not limited by parish boundaries or denomination but the needs of Christians were met where they were found.
One of his earliest passions, whilst still a curate, was to start a Sunday school. The Sunday School movement may have been started when in 1780 Robert Raikes in Gloucester opened the first Sunday School. Children at that time had to work six days a week, leaving little time to study after work in the week. To counter the effects of ignorance and illiteracy the Sunday school movement started. Literacy was taught from the Bible. On 21 January 1787 the “Household of Faith” Sunday school was opened in Plymouth with twenty poor children gathered from the streets. Before long the popularity of the school together with the addition of a weekday “School of Industry” required moving to larger premises. In 1798 with numbers at 341 a permanent building was built. It is likely this was the second Sunday school started in the country and one of the first to have a permanent building. The funds for this building were not easily forthcoming but the trustees went ahead anyway thus bestowing its name.
Of his eight children, his eldest, John Hawker became curate of the ancient local church of Stoke Damerel. A passionate Evangelical like his father, he drew criticism from the Bishop, and was removed from the living. His parishioners went with him and built him another church, St Peter's. One of Hawker's grandsons was Robert Stephen Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow, Cornwall, the son of Jacob Stephen Hawker. He gained fame as an eccentric Cornish poet.
At his death in 1827 Hawker had been curate for six years and forty-three years its minister. It is said that the whole town mourned for him.
Not every region of our heaven-blessed isle
Has so illuminated been by the bright beams
Of Gospel-light and glory, as the town
Of Plymouth. And with all the storied pomp
Distinguishing the destiny of this
Fair daughter of the gently flowing Plym,
Not one of the proud honours that have been
By Providence so prodigally heaped
Upon her, has surpassed in solid worth
And excellence, the presence in her midst,
and faithful ministry in holy things,—
Through the long space of half a century,—
Of the renowned and venerated Hawker.
It well becomes, then, her enlightened sons
To look back and to ponder well and oft,
The moral radiance shed upon the name
Of Plymouth, by the sacred services
Of this illustrious champion of the cross…
- The Vicar of Charles. A Poem in Commemoration of Plymouth's Great Preacher in a Preceding Age; Who, though Dead, yet Speaketh. By I. Plimsott. Plymouth. Printed by W. Cann (1868)
- Comb, George (1827) A Tribute of Respect to Departed Greatness: being the substance of a sermon, delivered on occasion of the decease of the Rev. Robert Hawker, D.D. Vicar of Charles, Plymouth, at Soho Chapel, Oxford Street, London, Lord's day evening, 15 April 1827. London: Ebenezer Palmer
- Mutter, George (1827) Zion's Faithful Priest: a sermon, occasioned by the death of the late Rev. Robert Hawker, D.D. Vicar of Charles, Plymouth: delivered on Sunday evening, 22 April 1827, at the Broadway Church, St. Margaret's, Westminster / by the Rev. George Mutter, A.M. minister of Broadway Church. London: Ebenezer Palmer
- Palmer, Ebenezer (1826) Prospectus of a handsome, uniform edition of the works of the Rev. Robert Hawker ... London: printed for E. Palmer
- Williams, John, minister of Stroud (1831) Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Robert Hawker, D.D., late Vicar of Charles, Plymouth. London: E. Justins & Son, printers