This article is about the life and ministry of Irving Hetherington (born 1809).

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1987. 6 pages.

Irving Hetherington 'The Poor Man's Minister'

Irving Hetherington, the first evangelical minister of Singleton, N.S.W., and subsequently of the Scot's Church, Melbourne, was born in Ruthwell, Dumfries-shire, Scotland, on July 23, 1809. In this parish one of his friends of youth was Robert M. M'Cheyne, who, being a relative of the minister, frequently spent his summer holidays in the district. After nine years at College in Edinburgh, Hetherington was licensed to preach in the Church of Scotland in 1835 and, the following year, he became a missionary in the poor eastern suburbs of Edinburgh. While engaged in this field of labour, and with evident signs of the help of the Spirit of God, Hetherington read Dr Lang's appeal for preachers in N.S.W. Lang's words came to him as a divine call even though he knew it could mean the refusal of his fiancée, Jessie Carr, to accompany him. But there was no refusal — 'Where you wish to take me, there I wish to go' — and immediately upon their marriage they travelled to Dundee to embark on the John Barry' for Sydney. Their last Sunday, before sailing, they spent at St Peter's Church, Dundee, hearing R. M. M'Cheyne. 'It seemed as if God had directed them there, to hear the Saviour's last command: "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature".' 1

The John Barry' sailed on March 24, 1837, with nearly 400 people on board, more than 100 being children. By Sunday, April 19, they were at St. Jago, in the Cape de Verde Islands, and Jessie Hetherington wrote to her sister of the 'confused and unchristian-like Sabbath'. The British Consul and three Roman Catholic Portuguese gentlemen had come on board at breakfast-time and remained all day:

Our sailors were employed in getting water into the ship; and many of the emigrants, who had been on shore the preceding day, were suffering from the effects of intemperance. The noise of the sailors prevented our having divine service in the morning; therefore Irving and I spent most of the time in our little cabin. In the afternoon the people were collected on the quarter­deck, and worship was performed. Our Catholic strangers were very atten­tive; and the Consul, who is a Protestant, expressed himself highly pleased. In the evening we had a prayer meeting between decks, which was numer­ously attended. O that God may give efficacy to His own word, and that the seed sown may hereafter appear, for His own glory!

On May 4 Jessie Hetherington began a letter to her mother but it was never finished. The next day she took ill with a sore throat which, in a few hours, was followed by fever (the next symptom of the dreaded scarlet fever). A few minutes after midnight the following Thursday she died and was buried at sea in the morning. In his subsequent prostration of body and spirit, Hetherington himself caught a fever and, in the delirium of fever, he rose from his cabin, went up on deck and 'was at the very point of casting himself into the sea, when he heard a voice, as though from heaven, restrain­ing him'. Some passage of Scripture, says his biographer, came to him as command from God with such vivid force 'that even in the delirium he at once obeyed. When he came to himself, and remembered the circumstance, though he did not think it was actually a voice from heaven, he did think it was virtually such, and he thanked God most fervently, to the very end of his life, for this merciful interposition of providence.’

As no ship heading for England passed them throughout the entire voyage to Sydney, it was not until two months later that he could complete his wife's letter to her mother. After describing the week which preceded Jessie's death, he proceeded:

And now, my beloved mother, having got over the account of her disease — many tears it has cost me to write it; how shall it be read by you? — you will expect me to give you other information regarding my lamented darling's ill­ness, no less interesting — how she looked, and what she said; and, were I now with you, it is possible that I could describe every look, and repeat the few words she spoke. I say few, for, her throat being affected, it caused her much pain to speak, though she had little pain when not speaking. Were I with you, I could do this; but I feel I cannot on paper. I write now in Sydney, for, during our whole voyage, we met no opportunity to England; yet is my Jessie's every look and every tone as distinctly engraved on my memory — as fully remembered, as they were two months ago. O yes! I never can forget. And in particular will you be anxious to know what was her experience in the prospect of eternity. It was of the serenity of heaven. Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like hers! O, it was the most perfect peace! On the surgeon apprising me on Tuesday of her extreme danger, I thought it right to communicate this to her. She was quite collected at the time; and was looking at me in the affectionate manner that was so usual to her, and which will, I think, never cease to haunt my dreams. I said to her that Mr. Thomson did not give us reason to expect her recovery. "It is the Lord's will, and we must submit, Irving," she quietly answered. "And have you no fear then, of death, Jessie?" "No dear". "And how is it that you are not afraid to die?" "I have long taken Christ for my portion, and set my hopes on Him". I could but weep. Afterwards I asked her what word of God it was that then gave her most comfort. "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest", she replied, with much eager­ness; and, after I had made some remarks on this, she bade me repeat some of those scriptures in which salvation by grace is offered to sinners. This I continued to do, when I thought she was in a state of consciousness; and prayed with her day and night. Her spirit ascended as I was commending her to the God of grace. As assured do I feel of her blessedness, yea, as confident that she is now with the God for whom she gave up so much, as I could be were an angel to bring to me tidings of her mingling with the choir above. To her, death was indeed unspeakable gain. But what a loss have I sustained!

Arriving in Sydney on July 13, 1837, the 'John Barry' and all her pas­sengers were held in quarantine in Spring Cove for about six weeks, a number of passengers besides Jessie Hetherington having died of scarlet fever. On his landing the Presbytery of Sydney appointed Hetherington to Patrick's Plains, a little town on the bank of the Hunter river, 123 miles to the north, soon to be known as Singleton. Here, covering a district 50 miles long by 30 broad, he was to remain for nine years. His parish included Jerry's Plains and Muswellbrook as out-stations. A letter, written to a minis­terial friend in England in 1838, gives some account of his situation and advises against emigration:

In addition to the Sabbath services I give an occasional sermon at the houses of the settlers for the sake of their servants; and I do assure you that if I wanted an attentive auditory I should almost prefer a convict one. The poor wretches seem to swallow every word; and every appeal seems to be strongly felt. I lament my district is so extensive, and my weekly rides so long, that I cannot get this other part of my duty so fully cared for as I devoutly wish I could. I trust, however, that ere many years pass I shall be relieved of my more distant connections, and be thus enabled to concentrate my efforts on one sphere. Meanwhile I must do my best to manage what is committed to me. The families in connection with me are the most respect­able in the district, and are very wealthy; and I can number not a few carri­ages and phaetons and gigs at my stations every Sabbath. I have therefore, beyond what is enjoyed in most of our Scottish parishes, the advantage of good society — a literary society I may term them; for having much leisure all read a great deal. And perhaps you would infer, as another advantage, a good revenue for the support of the tabernacle. But of this I cannot boast, for truly my stipend is not oppressive. Through a law passed some time ago, I have from Government an allowance of £100 a year to aid my people's contributions. That allowance has, however, been all I have received. This is not the land for a voluntary church, for, as far as my own experience goes, it does not seem to form one of the maxims of Australians to give anything to their ministers. But, notwithstanding; I am content. For me the £100 is abun­dance; I am thankful for it. The law by reason of which this salary is enjoyed is this: — When a hundred people above fourteen years of age, male or female, bond or free, agree to attend the ministrations of a clergyman at any one station where he officiates, there is given one hundred pounds; where two hundred adults attend, there is issued £150; and when three hundred adults, £200. Now, my district yields me but the lowest rate at present; though it is not impossible that in a few years it may yield the second. Yet, as I said, were that all my income, it would suffice. And most enlightened and praiseworthy was the enactment of the legislature, whereby the ministers of our church were admitted to such a boon. The law noticed applies to the three denominations alike: there is here no established church, properly speaking. There is, however, one palpable flaw in this Act; it is not permitted in it to combine two districts in making up the aggregate of our people, when suing for the salary. Suppose — as is nearly correct — I have two stations twenty miles apart, where ninety-nine adults do agree severally to convene for worship, and that I do, by dint of hard riding, regularly every Sabbath preach to both congregations; nevertheless, were I to fail in making one of the ninety-nine one more, that is, a hundred, I should be held to have no people at all, though in reality a hundred and ninety-eight. That is very hard...

But notwithstanding, I thank the Government for so much. Through this aid the ordinance of the ministry will still be kept in the country; and it is not a vain hope that, when this ordinance has been for a time possessed, men will learn to appreciate it, and of their superfluity to give unto those who spend themselves in seeking their good...

But how have I been wearying you, I fear I should say, by these egotistical representations! You will forgive me, my dear friend, when I tell you how it is I have been so tedious about my own affairs. I have almost fancied myself again in William Street, and I have written as though we were still sitting over the drawing-room fire, and you were still inviting me to say everything to you that at all interested my self. Very delightful to me were those evenings! When I think of happiness tasted by me from earthly sources, I think of them. You were then a patient listener, and hence I have taken for granted that you are a diligent and patient reader. And besides, it is a mournful but much valued gratification to me to write to you; and I could keep writing to you without ceasing: While I write, distance seems, as it were, withdrawn; and my heart, which I thought sorrow had chilled entirely, is again warmed by renewals of my dearest associations. But I must not indulge too far at your expense.

Hetherington's biographer, giving an account of the 'hard and rough work' which his subject faced, writes:

He once mentioned to the writer a few facts in connection with the convict element in his district. He was appealed to sometimes by the convict servants, to use his influence to protect them from unkindness and tyranny. For although tyrannical treatment was certainly exceptional in his district, there were stations on which cases of it did occur. He mentioned one case specially. The man was an unusually civil and industrious servant, a very superior man. For some trivial fault he was sent off to the police quarters, where, of course, he would get a flogging. And the floggings of convicts in those days were severe. Mr. Hetherington pled for the poor fellow most com­passionately, but in vain. The man was marched off to the whipping-post, and the lash unsparingly laid upon his back; and Mr. Hetherington heard the blows, and, at length, the cries of tortured nature, that haunted his memory long after. The poor fellow never forgot Mr. Hetherington's kindness and sympathy.

The long rides which Mr. Hetherington had to take in all weathers, con­joined with the mental work required in the preparation of a young minister's discourses, and, at first, the care of the school, which he superin­tended for several years, were trying enough. At that time he wrote out his sermons in long hand; and carefully were they prepared. Much of his study­ing, however, he was compelled to do on horseback; and when a thought struck him, he would dismount and note it down, and then remount and pursue his journey. At one time a drought of long continuance had so bared the pastures as to weaken the horses, and make them useless. He had, there­fore, to perform his journeys on foot, and generally during the night, so as to avoid the heat of the day. One Saturday night he had to walk thirty miles; and, after climbing a hill, and while resting on a log at the summit, the idea of ministers in Scotland complaining of being Mondayish after two services, and without other fatigue, struck him as so ludicrous that he could not help bursting out into a loud "guffaw" of laughter, which sounded strange in the darkness and loneliness of the bush. On one occasion, long after he had left New South Wales, and when he was travelling with the writer in a wild part of the bush in Heytesbury, in Victoria, it was suggested, as the night came on, and the roads were bad and somewhat dangerous, that we had better camp out for the night. "Did you ever camp out for the night?" asked Mr. Hetherington. "No", was the answer. "I have", quoth he decidedly; "press on". Still, trying as his work sometimes was — and he never spared himself — it was useful work, and to him it was congenial work. After his removal to Melbourne, he often said — while staying now and then for a week or so with a minister in the country, and assisting in his labours — "The bush is the place after all."

While minister at Patrick's Plains, Mr. Hetherington was brought unpleasantly into contact with the Church of England clergyman; whose lofty assumption of priestly dignity as a direct successor to the Apostles, and his supercilious treatment of the dissenting preacher, and his public asser­tion of extreme high-church views, stirred up Mr. Hetherington to deliver a series of lectures on Presbyterianism and otherwise to defend his position as a minister of the Gospel. The remembrance of this passage in his life, and the research involved in getting up the lectures, gave that definiteness to his views, and that firmness to his expression of them, from which we reap the benefit in the Presbyterian Catechism, drawn up by him not long before his death.

There is no record of the spiritual results of Hetherington's work in his first Australian parish but, on his accepting a call to Melbourne, Victoria, in 1847, the inscription in some theological volumes reveals the warmth with which some viewed him:

Presented to the Rev Irving Hetherington by the inhabitants of Singleton and Patrick's Plains, as a mark of their esteem and affection for his talents as a preacher and kinness as a friend, during the period of nine years he laboured among them...

Hetherington had remarried in 1842 and, with three children, the removal to Melbourne was a considerable undertaking (as well as costing him £30). As the second minister of the Scot's Church (founded 1838) he was to labour in the capital of Victoria until his death on July 5, 1875. In his latter years (from 1867) his congregation called a young colleague to lighten his labours, the Rev P. S. Menzies. Menzies proved to be a very popular preacher, but his theology was not that of the first Presbyterian settlers. F. R. M. Wilson writes:

Mr. Hetherington, sympathising as he did so deeply with evangelical views, was much exercised in mind by the preaching of his young friend. It was a subject of anxious thought with him, and many prayers; and he felt called upon to preach the doctrine of the atonement of Christ for sinners with even more earnestness and fulness and frequency than ever.

One day when Mr. Hetherington and Mr. Menzies were dining together at the house of one of the people, a gentleman from a neighbouring colony was present — a man of piety and of singular dignity and impressiveness of manner. The conversation turned upon theology, and Mr. Menzies made some rather brusque remarks reflecting upon the doctrine of the vicarious atonement. The gentleman, speaking with quiet earnestness and almost judicial dignity, said — "If you take away from me the doctrine of the atone­ment for sins by the death of Christ, you leave me nothing peculiar to Chris­tianity within the boards of the Bible which I care to retain". Mr. Menzies was much struck with the remark, and with the manner in which it was uttered. And Mr. Hetherington noticed that he never again heard from Mr. Menzies the same tone of observation with regard to that doctrine.'

It would appear that, aided by his older colleague, Menzies became increasingly evangelical. Instead of succeeding Hetherington he was to die at the age of 35, and his colleague, in a funeral sermon, reminded the church 'how he agonized for our salvation'.

The necessity of being sure of a saving relationship to Christ was an emphasis particularly apparent in Hetherington's latter years. An illness in 1874, says his biographer, 'brought before his mind the whole subject of personal religion, and he studied it anew from the foundation as though he had never studied it before, studying it now in the immediate prospect of eternity. He thought upon the nature and character of that God before whom he was soon to stand, and upon his own relation to God by nature as one conscious of sins against God: He thought what must be the demands of justice on account of his sins against such a Being: He considered anxiously how he might escape from these demands: And he came again to the assured belief that only through the atoning blood of the divine Redeemer is there ground of hope for a sinner. He studied carefully the plan of salvation as revealed in scripture; — the substitution of Christ for the sinner, and the imputation of Christ's righteousness to those who believe in Him. With all his heart he committed himself to the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood cleanseth from all sin; and in this faith waited for His salvation.

It was also noticed how, in his later years, he lost some of that Scottish reserve which disinclined many to speak of their spiritual feelings and expe­riences. His biographer has recorded some of his friend's testimony, which would sometimes be spoken at the fireside at night when the rest of the household had gone to rest. The feelings he expressed, says Wilson, 'were evidently deepened and softened by the various trials which God sent him'. One of these trials had been his inability to return to Scotland to see his father who was still alive in 1865, another was the sudden death of his wife in 1870. The following words, recorded by Wilson, reveal his spirit:

I now realise how it is that men can postpone preparation for eternity, even when they have attained to old age — even when they have one foot in the grave: we never feel old. However it may be with the body, the mind never grows old. At least, I don't feel one bit older than when I was a boy. I am not so active as I once was, and a smaller amount of work fatigues me now. Sometimes, when I have been in the town, and have made a few calls, I am so tired when I return that I can scarcely lift my foot to come up the steps; but my spirit is still as young as ever. The most notable symptom of declining vigour that I experience is the loss of recuperative power. When I am attacked by illness, I find that I do not recover so readily as I was wont when a younger man. But you may note it as a fact that a man never feels old.

It is a merciful provision of Providence, this gradual taking down of the tabernacle piece by piece — taking out a pin here, and loosening a cord there giving warning to secure, now if ever, eternal habitations.

O, what a blessed hope is set before us through Christ! Life and immor­tality brought to light through the gospel! We know not what we shall be; but when He appeareth, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.

I am conscious that I have been an unworthy servant, and that my ministry has been in many respects a failure; and though I have been most mercifully preserved from many grievous sins, yet I have much to answer for opportunities unimproved, time misspent, souls unwarned. O, I have much to answer for! But the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.

Irving Hetherington preached almost until his death. On June 20, 1875, he preached in the morning on, 'It is finished' and in the evening on, 'Put on the whole armour of God'. The following Friday evening he was writing until late at night, 'as he generally did', when an illness came on which prevented him the next day from travelling to Geelong for Sunday services at which he was expected. Nonetheless, at 4 am Sunday morning he struggled to get up, thinking it was the hour to leave for Geelong. His sickness and weakness increased until in the early morning of the following Friday 'he sat up without help (which he had not done for some days), and when his daughter asked him, "What do you want, father?" he said, "Get pen and ink". "What for?" "I want you — to record — no rebellion in me".' These were among his last audible words.

Much was said by way of tribute upon his death, 'He was a true man of God'; 'he was pre-eminently the poor man's minister'; 'his endowments were marked by a richness and fulness which have left a stamp upon his young community'; 'his Christian character was a power; no one could know him without his giving the impression that he was walking with God'. A funeral sermon, preached by Dr Macdonald in the Scot's Church, included a paragraph which is a fitting summary of his life as a servant of Christ:

Mr. Hetherington also shrank perhaps too much from all revelation of his own inner life. He did not wear his heart on his sleeve. It was only on rare occasions that you found that his soul was much with God, and especially when he engaged in prayer you heard breathings of spirit and wrestlings which brought you into the inner sanctuary, and into the very presence-chamber of Jehovah. As a preacher he had many excellencies including, of course, the chief that he himself believed. He preached in a way that I am afraid is going out of fashion now — logically, doctrinally, evangelically. His sermons were full of marrow, founded on the first of all gospel doctrines — atonement by blood, Christ crucified; and no man mourned more than he over the loose preaching which is becoming popular now-a-days, which does not convince of sin, and in which sound doctrine and godly experience are dropping out of sight.


  1. ^ For this and all the following material we are dependent on the Memoir of the Rev Irving Hetherington, F.R.M. Wilson, Melbourne, 1876

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