John Ponsford, C. 1790-1870
Portrait of Rev. Robert Hawker, D.D. (1753-1827)
Portrait of Rev. Robert Hawker, D.D.
oil on canvas
40 x 30 in. (102 x 77cm.)


Robert Hawker, (1753–1827), Church of England clergyman, born at Exeter on 13 April 1753 and baptized at St Mary Steps, Exeter, on 14 May, was the son of Jacob Hawker (d. 1754), surgeon, and Sarah Smith (d. 1801). After the early death of his father, he was raised by his mother and two aunts. He was educated at the grammar school, Exeter, before becoming a pupil of Mr White, surgeon, of Plymouth. He married at the parish church of Charles, Plymouth, on 6 January 1772, Anne Rains (d. 3 April 1817), daughter of Lieutenant Rains RN; they had four sons and four daughters. Three of their sons entered the Anglican ministry, one of whom, the Revd John Hawker, seceded to protestant dissent, while another, the Revd Jacob Hawker, was father of the Revd Robert Stephen Hawker, poet and vicar of Morwenstow, Cornwall.

During his surgical training Hawker attended lectures at various London hospitals. On returning to Devon he obtained an appointment as assistant surgeon in the Royal Marines. After about three years, however, and for reasons which are not entirely clear, he abandoned surgery for the church; he matriculated on 27 May 1778 at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, but left before taking a degree. He was ordained deacon on 20 September 1778 by John Ross, bishop of Exeter, and priest on 30 May 1779, and was presented to the curacy of St Martin's, Looe, Cornwall; three months later he became curate of the parish of Charles, Plymouth, under the Revd John Bedford. On the death of Bedford in 1784 Hawker became vicar of Charles, where he remained for the next forty-three years. His Sermons on the Divinity of Christ (1792) procured for him the diploma of DD from the University of Edinburgh.

Hawker carried on a varied and energetic ministry, which touched the lives of many in Plymouth and further afield. In 1797 he became deputy chaplain of the local garrison. He also founded, or became involved in, a number of voluntary societies, including the Religious Tract Society (1799–1808), the Great Western Society for Dispersing Tracts among the Poor (1802–27), the London Missionary Society (1802–8), the Corpus Christi Society (1813–27), and the Gospel Tract Society (1824–7), which competed with its moderate rival, the Religious Tract Society, provoking a bitter, albeit short-lived, public controversy. Hawker was also interested in community issues, promoting Sunday schools as a remedy for social problems and encouraging penal reform; at his urging, a penitentiary for women was established at Plymouth in 1808.

Hawker exercised an important, albeit sometimes controversial, influence in evangelical circles. His voice was powerful, yet harmonious, and as a pulpit orator he was impressive and fascinating. For many years he paid an annual visit to London, preaching to large congregations. Doctrinally he was reckoned an ultra-Calvinist, and his parish of Charles was notorious for its high predestinarian doctrine. Having rejected ‘growth in grace’, Hawker was denounced by one critic as ‘the great patron and apostle of antinomianism’ (J. Cottle, Strictures on the Plymouth Antinomians, 2nd edn, 1841, 4, 11). William Wilberforce prohibited his children from attending services at London's Locke Hospital when Hawker was preaching, lest they drink in his ‘poison’ (R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, 1838, 3.473). His impact, however, both direct and indirect, can be clearly traced on the spread of extreme forms of ‘serious religion’ in the west of England, for the Western Schism (c.1815–17), the Oxford evangelical secessions (c.1831–5), and the (Plymouth) Brethren (c.1830s) were all influenced by his teachings.

Hawker was the author of a large corpus of religious writings, his Works (1831) filling ten quarto volumes. He was also a frequent contributor to various religious journals, especially (from 1798) Zion's Trumpet. He died at Plymouth on 6 April 1827, aged seventy-four, and was buried in the church at Charles, where a tablet, surmounted by a marble bust, was erected to his memory. Although his church was almost entirely destroyed by aerial bombardment during the Second World War, its outer walls have been preserved as a memorial.

By his wife Anne Rains (who died on 3 April 1817) he had eight children. One of his sons, the Rev. Jacob Hawker, was the father of Robert Stephen Hawker.

His principal works are:

Sermons on the Divinity of Christ, London, 1792.
Sermons on the Divinity and Operations of the Holy Ghost, Bath, 1794.
An Appeal to the People of England on the . . . French Revolution, 1794.
Paraclesis, or Conflations for a Dying Hour, from a review of the evidences of the renewed
life, London, 1797.
Zion's Pilgrim, Falmouth, 1801. Another edition, 'to which is now first added Zion's Pilgrim
past seventy', London, 1829.
Zion's Warrior, or the Christian Soldier's Manual, 1802.
The Sailor Pilgrim, 2nd edition, London [1806?].
Life and Writings of the Rev. Henry Tanner of Exeter, London, 1807.
The Poor Man's Morning Portion, being a selection of a verses of Scripture, with short
observations, for every day in the year, 2nd edition, London, 1809.
The Poor Man's Evening Portion, 4th ed. 1819. These last two works have been frequently
reprinted and were published together in 1842 and 1854.
The Poor Man's Commentary on the New Testament, 4 vols., London, 1816.
Visits to and from Jesus upon the most interesting occasions, and in the most hallowed
moments of life, London, 1816.
Lectures on the Person, Godhead, and Ministry of the Holy Ghost, Plymouth [1817].
The Poor Man's Commentary on the Old Testament, 6 vols., London, 1822.
The Portrait of an English Bishop of the Sixteenth Century, 2nd edition, London, 1829.
Life of Dr. T. Goodwin, 1838.
A Concordance and Dictionary to the Sacred Scriptures, both of the Old and New
Testament, new edition, London, 1846.
The list of Hawker's writings in the British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books occupies
six columns.
His Works, with a Memoir of his Life and Writings, by John Williams, D.D., minister of
Stroud, Gloucestershire, appeared in 10 vols., London, 1831. Prefixed to the first volume is
a portrait of Hawker, engraved by K. Woodman from painting by G. Patten.
[Life by Williams; Funeral Discourse by Henry Dowling, 1827; Dixon's Autobiog. of a
Minister of the Gospel; Darling's Cycl. Bibliographica; Lowndes Bibl. Man. (Bohn) p.1013;
Gent. Mag. I827. pt.ii. 87; Davidson's Bibl. Devonienis pp. 146, 167, 168, 200, Suppl. pp. 9,
33; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Comub. pp. 219, 497, 510, 515, 1116, 1316, 1417.]
T. C.


Grayson Carter  DNB

Artist biography

Born in Modbury, Devon. Studied in Rome, before becoming a portrait painter in Plymouth and St John's Wood, London. Exhibited at the RA (4), BI (1), SBA (5).