Over the last two months, we have sketched Havelock’s military career. But what was it that marked him out as a model for public Christianity?
The first noteworthy feature of Havelock’s life was his commitment to the highest standards in his chosen profession. Always an assiduous scholar, from his earliest days in the 95th Foot (Rifle Brigade), Havelock was an ardent student of military history.
Excellence and spirituality
He was committed to excellence in all that he did, storing in his tenacious memory details of battles and fostering a developing sense of strategy and tactics (John Clark Marshman, Memoirs of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, K.C.B. , Longmans, Green, and Co.; p. 9).
When India loomed, he set himself to study Persian and Hindustani (Marshman, p.10; John Pollock, The Way to Glory: Major-General Sir Henry Havelock: The Christian Soldier, Christian Focus; p.19), becoming so proficient that he tutored other officers.
He demonstrated in this role of responsibility a combination of amiable disposition, rigid punctuality and strict discipline (Marshman, p.13). During the campaigning that followed, he sifted his experience through his knowledge of history and assessed his history in the light of his experience.
Once married, he wrote that ‘it was the great object of my ambition to be surpassed by none in zeal and determination in the path of my duty, because I was resolved to put down the vile calumny that a Christian could not be a meritorious soldier’ (Pollock, p.49).
In addition, Havelock came early to the conclusion that he had a responsibility for the spiritual welfare of those under his influence, and so he began informal religious meetings for men who were ‘well disposed’ to them.
He did not abuse his authority and force his convictions down their throats, but rather won their hearts and their ears. Indeed, he appalled his fellow-officers by reading, praying and singing with the men who gathered, so that it was carried out ‘in the very teeth of ridicule and opposition’ (Pollock, pp. 26, 53); much of the opposition private, but some more overt.
On at least one campaign he was found singing hymns with his men in the shelter of captured Buddhist temples. This was, it should be appreciated, a matter of convenience and not religious point-scoring! This practice of worship he pursued with regularity whenever the circumstances permitted it; and as he could, when they did not.
At times in his career he even preached when there was no suitable minister available. Pollock remarks that his status as an officer of the Raj made direct missionary work almost an impossibility (Pollock, p.51); and it is worth noting that Havelock did not buck against these restrictions as if they were an affront to his Christian freedom, but rather manifested his regard for India and her people in other tangible ways, not least by financial support of the missionaries.
Sensitivity and respect
He worked where he legitimately could and did not trample over the boundaries that the Lord established for him. Also impressive is the fact that his converted men considered him a true brother in Christ, and yet he was able to maintain the authority and respect needed to command them in the field.
It was in Burma in late 1825 that Havelock’s religious reputation was somewhat cemented. With an outpost under assault, it was discovered that the men of the next company on the roster were largely drunk.
The Commander-in-Chief, Sir Archibald Campbell, to whom Havelock was then Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General, cursed vigorously and roared, ‘Then call out Havelock’s saints. They are always sober and can be depended on and Havelock himself is always ready’ (Pollock, p.32).
Later, in the 1830s, another officer called Colonel Sale, dealing with slanders about Havelock and his Baptists, lost his temper with the accusers, thumped his desk and exclaimed, ‘Baptists! Baptists! I know nothing about Baptists! But I know that I wish the whole regiment were Baptists. Their names are never in the defaulters’ roll and they are never in the congee-house’ (Pollock, p.54; Marshman, p. 41). (A congee-house is Indian army slang for the cells.)
Again, when Lord William Bentinck made him an adjutant (personal staff officer), he told Hannah, ‘Give your husband my compliments and tell him he must continue his religious exertions, and if possible convert the whole regiment. He can baptise the lot if he likes. But the Adjutant must not preach’ (Pollock, p.56).
When drunkenness became an even more marked problem in the 13th, Havelock not only began a temperance society but (despite being a gentleman!) took the pledge himself to set an example. Alongside this, a savings bank was established for the men and their families.
Soon drunkenness in the regiment was largely confined to a group of repeat offenders. When rum ran out on one campaign, Havelock made bold connections between the absence of liquor, the fighting qualities of the men in action and their humane behaviour in victory.
Duty and diligence
His dutiful and diligent spirit was manifest on the day of his wedding, 9 February 1829. He was married in the morning, then attended a military court of enquiry at midday, for he said that as a soldier he was ‘bound to obey orders, regardless of his own convenience’ (Marshman, p.33; Pollock, p.45). He returned to his bride and guests for what we would call the reception once his work was done.
Holding Havelock up as a model for these qualities is not the same as demanding that every Christian be the most gifted in their vocation. However, believers ought to be marked by faithfulness and diligence in their calling and the pursuit of excellence in accordance with their gifts, making the most of every opportunity. It is in this way that they can commend the gospel in the face of calumnies and criticisms.
Furthermore, a Christian need not be a vocational preacher to be a faithful witness to the truth. And, when opportunities for direct instruction and clear declaration are lacking or denied, there are different ways in which one can also show one’s attachment to Christ.
A strong sense of duty, a commitment to professional excellence, the cultivation of exemplary service and a principled, unembarrassed, but wise and sensitive public testimony marked Havelock out as a man of God, even in the teeth of opposition.
A second noteworthy feature is Havelock’s embrace of and occasional struggles with providence. He was an ambitious man, with sensitivity to rank and birth and an appetite for advancement typical of his day.
During his lifetime, promotion in the army was most often purchased but — as we have seen (ET, May 2014) — he lacked the means for this. Before conversion, he put into practice his philosophy that all men must aspire to the highest. He fostered throughout his life an eagerness for sole command in a successful action. Nothing else, it seemed, would satisfy his martial appetite.
Conversion did not remove his robust desire for advancement, but it was tempered by a confidence in God. It also introduced a calmness and confidence in considering and executing his own plans and purposes. Even so, we can trace a far more wise mind and a far more certain hand at work.
One does not have to embrace the idea of a divinely favoured nation or an anointed ‘arm of the Lord’ to suggest that Havelock was the right man, in the right place, at the right time, or that his remarkable series of victories clearly depended on the superintendence of God.
It is worth remembering how, as a young man, he was turned painfully from law to war. Afterward, Havelock’s advancement, humanly speaking, largely depended on war and the recognition of his professional qualities.
However, tracing the stuttering, upward path of his career, and the seemingly fortuitous friendships and opportunities that cropped up at key moments, we can discern God’s providence unfolding.
Havelock was often frustrated, sometimes grieved, to see those around and behind him purchasing promotions over his head. His friend Marshman gives us a clue to Havelock’s feelings when he says that ‘supersession is perhaps the most bitter ingredient in a soldier’s lot’ (Marshman, p.43).
There were times when Havelock thought advancement was within his grasp, only to be disappointed. On other occasions, he received a temporary step up, only for wars to end or more favoured candidates to step into his shoes.
Even taking into account Marshman’s sympathy for his brother-in-law, one reads of Havelock’s stop-start, hopes-raised-and-dashed career and gets a real sense of frustrated expectation. Nevertheless, Havelock maintained the conviction that a constant badgering of the powers-that-be for promotion was unbecoming.
To be continued
The author is pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, West Sussex.