ABRAHAM, Charles John
First Bishop of Wellington.
A new biography of Abraham, Charles John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Charles John Abraham was born at Farnborough, Hampshire, in 1814, the son of Captain Thomas Abraham, 16th Regiment of Foot. Captain Abraham was a distinguished soldier who fought under General Sir John Moore in the Peninsular Army and later under the Duke of Wellington in the battles of Talavera, Salamanca, and San Sebastian; he was a member of Wellington's staff at the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo and at the Battle of Waterloo.
At the age of seven years Charles Abraham was sent to Dr Thomas Arnold's private school at Laleham where he was fortunate indeed to come under the influence of one who was to change the face of education in England; Arnold is, of course, famed for his work as headmaster of Rugby School. Leaving Laleham, Abraham entered Eton College. Whilst there he attained considerable distinction in classics and at athletics and was “In the Field”, that is, the college football XI. A classical scholarship carried him to King's College, Cambridge, and he graduated B.A., 1837, proceeded M.A., 1840, and B.D., 1847. He was made deacon in 1838 and ordained priest in 1839. A fellowship of his college was conferred upon him which he retained from 1840–50. Whilst holding his fellowship he returned to his old school, Eton, as house master and assistant master. A further honour came to him in that he was presented to the office of lecturer in divinity at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, by the Dean and Chapter of St. George's, a rare distinction for one so young.
Whilst a boy at Eton, Abraham had become a friend of George Augustus Selwyn and when the latter was made Bishop of New Zealand, Abraham formed one of the number who volunteered to accompany the Bishop to New Zealand. As, however, certain far-reaching reforms in the organisation of Eton were in progress, reforms in which Abraham was most actively engaged, it proved impossible for him to join Selwyn until 1850. The work at Eton completed, the undertaking to join Selwyn was fulfilled. From the time of his coming to New Zealand, Abraham was to prove himself the loyal and faithful lieutenant of the Bishop of New Zealand. He was at once appointed to the office of Archdeacon of Waitemata and to the Mastership of Bishop's Auckland, or St. John's College as it was alternatively styled. The wide responsibilities of the mastership included the theological training of the European ordinands in the college. Doubtless the aspect of Bishop's Auckland in those early days was medieval and abbey-like with perhaps a flavour of monastic repose. If, however, St. John's College had something akin to the institutions of the Middle Ages, the resemblance, under the guidance of Archdeacon Abraham, lay rather in the fact that it was a place of many-sided and strenuous work, a fact to which the records of the daily routine bear ample evidence.
Abraham entered into his responsible tasks with vigour and a wise understanding; he enlisted the practical aid of friends and former pupils in England for the purpose of founding and endowing a scholarship to St. John's College, and thus the Eton Scholarship with its original endowment of £1,500 was established. The end of 1853 saw great changes in the college establishment. It was decided that the existing buildings should be devoted to the purposes of an English Collegiate Institution. Abraham was authorised to organise this institution and to have the entire management of the College Estate and its sundry farming activities, and he successfully negotiated these radical changes in the face of considerable opposition from certain quarters. The sound position which the college holds today is as the result of Abraham's useful work in 1853.
In 1857 Abraham returned to England to be consecrated First Bishop of Wellington. This marked a great forward move in the organisation and extension of the church's work in New Zealand. The long-planned setting up of the several dioceses had commenced with the establishment of the See of Christchurch in 1856, that of Wellington with Charles John Abraham as its first Bishop in 1858, and of Nelson, also in 1858. Abraham was consecrated in Lambeth Chapel in 1858 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Sumner, and Bishops Wilberforce (Oxford) and Lonsdale (Lichfield). A very famous figure in the early history of this country, Octavius Hadfield, Archdeacon of Kapiti, accompanied Abraham to England to act as his chaplain. Bishop Abraham's first concern after entering upon the duties of his new Diocese of Wellington was to make vigorous efforts for the erection of a cathedral church. He wrote to the churchwardens and parishioners of old St. Paul's – then situated where today Bellamy's, Parliament Buildings, stands–offering to guarantee a sum of £1,000 for the purpose, provided that the balance of the moneys required–£3,000–was guaranteed by the parishioners. His offer was accepted and the land on which the old church stood was given to Sir George Grey in exchange for a piece of land in Mulgrave Street. The Honourable Algernon Tollemache gave land adjoining it and Bishop Selwyn conveyed further land for the purpose of building a Bishop's residence. The Rev. F. Thatcher, Vicar of St. Paul's, was engaged to draw the necessary plans both for the cathedral and for the Bishop's residence. After many difficulties and setbacks the first Cathedral Church of St. Paul was finally completed in 1866. Bishop Abraham, however, was the driving force and the inspiration in the building of it, and his personal gift to the old cathedral may be seen today–12 very beautiful stained glass windows in the apse. In 1870 Abraham resigned the See of Wellington and returned to England to become coadjutor to Bishop Selwyn at Lichfield.
Abraham was a musical man and the possessor of a fine tenor voice; he acted as precentor of Lichfield Cathedral until 1890, the year of his retirement. By training he was a scholar, but he was also a man of action, one who played a very large and important role in the founding and organising of the Church of England in New Zealand. In 1882 Selwyn College, Cambridge, was founded–“To provide students willing to live economically, with a College wherein sober living and high culture of the mind may be combined with Christian training based upon the principles of the Church of England.” The college is a memorial to G. A. Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand, 1841–69, and chief amongst the names of its founders are those of Bishop C. J. Abraham, Bishop E. Hobhouse, and Sir William Martin, D.C.L.
by Maurice Russell Pirani, formerly Minor Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral Church, Wellington.
- Cathedral Minutes 1861–71 (MSS), St. Paul's, Wellington
- Memoir of the Life and Episcopate of George Augustus Selwyn, D.D., 2 vols., Tucker, H. W. (1879)
- History of St. John's College, Tamaki, Auckland, New Zealand, Davis, John King (1911).