The Enchiridion

Selected Obituaries and Biographies

John Curwen

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[transcription of Obituary Notice in the Year Book of the Congregational Union of England & Wales for 1881, page ___, from a copy in Dr Williams's Library, London.]

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CURWEN, John, who was descended from an old Cumberland family, was born at Heckmonwike, in Yorkshire, on November 14th, 1816. His father was the Rev. Spedding Curwen, of Reading. When John was but four years of age he lost his most excellent and godly mother. He always remembered being taken to the bedside of his mother to receive her dying benediction. She then presented to him her pocket Bible. This he cherished, even to his dying day, as a most sacred relic.

While he was yet young he began to love and serve the God of his father and mother. At the age of sixteen, after having had some experience in Sunday- school work, prayer meetings, and evangelistic services, he decided to prepare himself for the Christian ministry. To this he believed himself to be called by the voice of God in the secret sanctuary of his conscience. As to conversion, he never knew the exact time when a spiritual change took place. He knew that he possessed the spiritual life by the fact of its energy and growth rather than by the period and circumstances of its birth.

With such mental and spiritual qualifications as he then had he entered Coward College, at just sixteen years of age, to prepare himself for his life-work. He also availed himself of the educational advantages provided at University College, London. Some of his fellow-students still speak most feelingly of his rare goodness as a young student. His earnestness, integrity, and simplicity of character won for him, even then, unusual affection and respect.

On leaving college, Mr Curwen became assistant minister in the Congregational church, Basingstoke, in 1838.

As a young minister he manifested an intense interest in the young. He was an enthusiastic friend of Sunday-schools. He earnestly desired to make them attractive and useful to children. He found that the singing was not as bright, as cheerful, as happy as it ought to be and as it might be, and he determined to do what he could to improve it, and began to teach a few of the Sunday-school scholars to sing. Thus his singing mission began at Basingstoke when he was about twenty-two or twenty-three years of age.

In 1841 Mr Curwen left Basingstoke, and became pastor at Stowmarket, Suffolk. There his ministry was much blessed, and he was greatly beloved both by young and old. About this time he became acquainted with Miss Glover's method of teaching singing through a book which Mrs Reed, the wife of the Rev. Dr. Andrew Reed, lent him. Becoming convinced that its method of teaching music was, as he said, "the most simple of all, the most easy to teach, and the most easy to learn," he visited Norwich in order to see the practical working of this new system in Miss Glover's schools. He was delighted with what he heard and saw, and at once adopted Miss Glover's principles of music and method of teaching, with certain modifications and improvements of his own.

At this time Mr Curwen was a good deal engaged in lecturing and preaching, in various parts of the country, for Sunday-schools. He attended a conference of Sunday-school teachers at Hull, and spoke on the importance of cultivating music and singing for the service of God, declaring that what God required from "all the people," young men and maidens, old men and children, must be simple and easy of attainment. The conference, by special resolution, charged him to make this his mission. Mr Curwen says, "The chairman, the Rev. T.Stratton, charged me very solemnly, and I accepted the charge." Before that year closed he published, as the first instalment of works included in his charge, "The Little Tune Book Harmonised."

About two years after this, in 1844, he accepted the pastorate of the church at Plaistow. Soon after going to Plaistow he married Miss Mary Thompson, the daughter of a Manchester merchant. At Plaistow he developed and promoted the Tonic Sol-Fa method of teaching to sing, with a view to its adoption in schools and congregations, using it in his own schools, Bible-classes, and church, and meanwhile lecturing on the art of teaching generally for Sunday-schools in England, Scotland, and Wales. As long as God continued to him health and strength his mission as a preacher, however, he held to be paramount.

He himself has declared, "For some years I kept under this music mission, as of third or fourth-rate importance. As a young minister I had first, my church; second, my Sunday-school; third, my day-school.All these came before my duty to music. I was even so jealous of myself that I would not learn the piano, lest I should be tempted to waste time. But looking back, I see that I have been gradually forced, sometimes by strong encouragements, sometimes by misfortunes, and more often by the sharp stimulus of opposition, to put music in the front."

In 1867 failing health compelled him to resign the pastorate which he loved so much and in which he had been so successful, for he had ben the means of building a large new church, with commodious schools. After a period of rest his health was partially restored. He then devoted the whole of his time and energies to the propagation of the Tonic-Sol-Fa method, establishing a printing and publishing business in order the better to create a Tonic-Sol-Fa literature.

From this house he issued "The Child's Own Hymn Book," "The Standard Course of the Tonic-Sol-Fa Method," "How to Observe Harmony," "The Teachers' Manual," "Musical Statics," "Constructive Exercises in Elementary Musical Composition," and "Musical Theory," besides other works.

His system of music is now used in many schools and churches in America, in Australia, in all the British colonies, and in hundreds of mission stations all over the world, as well as in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It has hundreds of associations, and a college for teaching the higher branches of music.

Mr Curwen took an earnest interest in all political, educational, social, and religious movements. He bravely fought the battle of right and liberty in the parish where he lived. He was not ashamed of being a political Dissenter, while, at the same time, the most bigoted opponents were constrained to acknowledge that he was a religious Dissenter. He never shrank from avowing his principles, but this he always did with courtesy, gentleness, and kindness. This characteristic came out most markedly in the struggle for the formation of a school board in the parish, which was successful mainly through his efforts. Whatever aimed at the social and religious improvement of the people he was ever ready to help to the utmost of his power by purse, pen, and personal effort. He was a prominent helper in the formation of the Freedmen's Aid Society.

As to his giving, it was proportionate and systematic. It was always a pleasure to mention to him any case of need, because he never gave grudgingly. He seemed to consider it a favour conferred on himself when he was asked to help in any good case or cause. He could not be satisfied with giving a mere tenth of his income. He said where the Lord had given special prosperity there should be special returns of giving. He thought that two-tenths were scarcely enough in his case. He generously helped the new church at Stratford, of which he was a member, with his rare wisdom and liberal gifts, at a time when these were much needed. With him, too, there was a constant reference to the will of God in all that he did. This made him scrupulously conscientious. He once said, "I believe in finding things out and in getting things done, and, more than that, I believe in a Providence which helps and stimulates the diligent, the earnest, and the true.

The beginning of 1880 brought Mr Curwen a great trial. After a long and painful illness his beloved wife died on 17th January. This was a severe shock to his already shattered health. Although he bore his loss with wonderful fortitude of mind and submissiveness to the will of God, his intimate friends saw that his attachment to the affairs of earth was immensely loosened, and that he was looking forward to heaven with, as he said, "an infinite longing." On the 19th of May he went to Manchester to see his departed wife's only surviving brother, who was sinking under an incurable disease. He was wishful to minister to the comfort of his dying brother-in-law.

Leaving Manchester, he went to visit a relative at Heaton Mersey. In walking from the railway station, but a very short distance, to Heaton House, he became exhausted. On his arrival a doctor was sent for, restorative remedies were administered, and he somewhat revived. Summoned by telegram, his only daughter and two sons hastened by midnight train to see their dying father. He lingered, however, till Wednesday night, May 2th, 1880, when he peacefully "fell on sleep" in Jesus.

The mortal remains of the Rev. John Curwen were interred beside those of his recently buried wife in the City of London Cemetery, at Ilford. An immense concourse of people, representing Parliament, Church, Non-conformity, education, and the musical world, attended the funeral.

The first portion of a new church which Mr Curwen originated, and to which he contributed £1,276, was opened for Divine service on November 23rd, 1880. This church his friends desire to complete as Mr Curwen's memorial.

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(The Rejoice & Sing Enchiridion:edited by David Goodall; last amended 14/1/04)