The people of Liverpool wept the day Canon Richard Hobson retired. In ‘sixteen acres of the city’s sin’ a wonderful transformation had taken place. How was it, for example, that in a street once known as ‘the little hell’, an open-air service could be held as the residents united to hear God’s Word and sing his praises?
Simply that, where other curates had failed, Richard Hobson had succeeded.
From the 1840s Liverpool had faced increasing problems. Ireland’s ‘potato famine’ in 1846-47 had brought many thousands to Liverpool, most of them Roman Catholics. The different denominations sought to provide for the spiritual needs of the vast increase in population.
One day in l868 Rev. Woodward of St Clements Church, Liverpool, crossed the River Mersey to call on the curate of the affluent Christ Church in Birkenhead. ‘A church is to be built in a new parish that is being created within my own’, he told Richard Hobson: ‘I need a cleric for it’.
When Hobson first visited the area – known as Windsor, in the parish of Toxteth Park, West Derby – dirt, disease and poverty thrived. Beer shops and public houses drew the desperate population into greater degradation.
Sixty-four other candidates and a DD had been bypassed for this humble-minded man. Yet Hobson had no doubt of the Lord’s call. ‘I knew,’ he said, ‘that here it was that I should spend and be spent for him’.
Woodward had sought a ‘truly missionary-minded man’. He had found him in Richard Hobson.
Thirty-seven years earlier, in a village in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, John and Catherine Hobson’s forth boy, Richard, was born. Many joined in prayer for the infant. Throughout childhood, severe headaches afflicted Richard, and twice he nearly died.
Richard experienced hardship and poverty as high rents, demanded by greedy landlords, impoverished tenant farmers like his hardworking parents. Nothing, however, compared with the near starvation and dreadful distress of the 1846/7 potato famine, when his parents and their seven children were reduced to living in a hovel.
Soon after this ordeal, Richard was bereaved by the death of his prematurely worn-out father.
In later years Richard would glorify God for ordaining those sufferings – for they would enable him to minister to needy people with a depth of sympathy that would endear him to them – and gain their ears for the gospel of God’s transforming grace.
Power of love
It was through his mother that Richard first came to realise the compelling power of love. Her ‘very look’ through those trying times, he recalls, ‘was love and home to her children, in whom in her simple motherly way she planted the seed of eternal life’.
Consequently, Richard could never remember a time when he had not delighted in the things of God.
Later, it was the rector’s two daughters who gently instilled into his mind the precious truths of God’s redeeming grace. Richard could later say, ‘I had about that time [the age of twelve] realised consciously my sonship in Christ by the Holy Spirit’.
Once Richard was late for the tea that preceded one of the Methodist meetings through which, at that time, God was blessing his people.
‘Bring Richard to me’, threatened the blind minister, raising his white stick. ‘I’ll cane him’.
Then he paused: ‘No, perhaps I won’t’, he said; ‘maybe he will be preaching the gospel when we are in the clay!’ Richard would remember those words.
Streams of blessing
In the austerity of the post-famine years, Richard proved the Lord’s love and leading, obtaining work as a gardener. He was strengthened physically, and kept by a Father’s hand through the temptations of youth.
He grew in grace and the knowledge of God as he pursued the privileges and blessings of church life. Others saw in him a future minister of the church.
But a depth of pity was forming in him for his Roman Catholic countrymen. He longed to tell them what he had learned – that Jesus was a whole Saviour and that justification was by faith.
Richard thought, prayed and waited. Those prayers were heard, for God was preparing him for his future task.
At the age of 21, full of zeal and love, Richard was accepted as a junior agent in the Irish Church Missions. The doctrines of grace he learned were like streams of blessing to one ‘hungry and thirsty for righteousness’.
Richard was instructed in the best ways to approach and help Romanists and to deal with controversial issues. In the arduous work of home visiting, he learned its hazards and rewards.
Speedily promoted to overseer of a mission outpost, Richard encountered fierce opposition. ‘They called poor me “War Hawk”‘, he smilingly remembered.
But he rejoiced to have been ‘persecuted for righteousness sake’ and that, to the glory of God, nearly four hundred persons had been converted from Romanism during his eleven years of service.
Gradually the call to preach ‘the glorious gospel of the blessed God, the gospel of the good news to lost sinners’, had been developing in Richard. The long training in the school of adversity was over.
Leaving his much loved mother in good care, he applied for entry to a theological college, desiring to preach in Ireland.
But the Lord had other plans and Richard Hobson made a mistake. In error he addressed his application to Birkenhead. So it transpired in 1863 that – under the guiding hand of an omnipotent God – Richard Hobson entered St Aidan’s Theological College in Birkenhead.
Once again, as time would reveal, all things were working together for good for one who truly loved God.
Stand for the truth
The Principal was reputed to be thoroughly evangelical. Hobson expected to hear from him that ‘loving trust, the gift of God uniting [us] to Christ and purifying the heart [is] the means by which the life of Christ is received into the soul and by this access is given to God by Christ through the Spirit’.
But very soon the ritualistic tendencies prevalent in the area became apparent in the Principal’s teaching. Hobson’s courteous but faithful stand for the truth was to cost him the Principal’s good will – but gain for him the love, esteem and respect of many of his fellow students.
His stand also brought him to the attention of Dr Blakeney, Vicar of Christ Church, Claughton, Birkenhead, who offered him a title for Deacon’s Orders.
With prayer and much soul-searching, Hobson examined his state before God and his motives for seeking office as a minister in the church. He looked afresh to Christ’s most precious blood for cleansing and to the Holy Spirit for the blessedness of sanctification – and felt confirmed in the step he was about to take.
Ordained in March l865, he recalled: ‘My heart leaped for joy at it being the gospel, good news to lost sinners, the glorious gospel of the Blessed God, that I was given authority to read and to preach’.
Silently, but from the bottom of his heart, he prayed: ‘O God, help me to read the gospel as thy gospel now and always in its purity and fullness … as it is in thy holy word … the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. The one thing men need is a living, loving, personal God, an all-sufficient Saviour, a sanctifying Comforter’.
Tears of joy ran down Richard Hobson’s face as he gave thanks to God for first working in him and then giving him a ‘glorious commission’.
‘I felt humbly confident’, he tells us, ‘that I was not running without being sent and that the Holy Spirit would use me as an ambassador for Christ to glorify God in the salvation of souls.’
Hobson experienced something of what David must have felt – taken from a humble background and after ‘severe discipline and bitter trials, ultimately made leader of the Lord’s chosen people’.
Land of plenty
It was to a wealthy and cultured people that the newly ordained Richard Hobson ministered, casting himself on God for the grace, faith and wisdom to act appropriately among an unfamiliar class of people.
He visited the eclectic congregation systematically and, with the support of the incumbent, initiated weekly Bible studies, men’s meetings and other teaching activities.
At first the unfamiliar social life placed Hobson in difficult situations. ‘O do join us’, the card-playing hostess urged Hobson, ‘there’s no harm in them’.
Solemnly Richard refused. When dancing was the issue, Hobson quietly escaped, pondering the fact that ‘those who have been distinguished fishers of men, fathers of many spiritual sons and daughters, were not known as dancers or card players’.
After a three-year curacy, Richard Hobson left ‘that land of plenty’ to obey the Lord’s call to Windsor in Liverpool. When he did so, the church in Birkenhead paid tribute to his Christian sympathy and to his ability, faithfulness and zeal in unfolding the deep truths of God’s holy Word.
So came Richard Hobson in November 1868 to the rudest region in south-east Liverpool, with its population of 4,500, of whom a large proportion were Roman Catholics.