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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles

William Josiah Irons (1812–1883)

WILLIAM JOSIAH IRONS was the son of Joseph Irons, preacher and hymn-writer (1785–1852). Joseph Irons was a personal friend of the Rev. John Newton, and attended his ministry at St. Mary-Woolnoth, of which parish William Josiah Irons became rector in 1872. After the death of Newton, Joseph Irons seceded from the Church of England, and became the pastor of a Nonconformist Church at Sawston, and later of one meeting at the Grove Chapel, Camberwell, London. He was a powerful preacher, and sometimes addressed his congregation in eloquent and poetical blank verse. For the use of his own people he published a book of original hymns, which was used as a supplement to the psalms and hymns of Dr. Watts. This book, first published in 1816 under the title “Zion’s Hymns,” was enlarged from time to time, until in 1827 it contained six hundred and eleven original hymns. Many of these hymns are vigorous and expressive, but their strong Calvinistic flavour has limited their use, and very few have passed into other collections. The following hymn may be taken as a sample, though many are less pronounced in doctrine:—

  • The God of heav’n maintains
  • His universal throne;
  • In heav’n, and earth, and hell, He reigns,
  • And makes His wonders known.
  • His counsels and decrees
  • Firmer than mountains stand;
  • He will perform whate’er He please,
  • And none can stay His hand.
  • All worlds His will controls,
  • And His eternal mind
  • Fixes the destiny of souls;
  • Takes this, leaves that behind.
  • Jacob by grace He sav’d,
  • Nor gives a reason why;
  • But Esau’s heart He left deprav’d;
  • And who shall dare reply?
  • What, if the potter take
  • Part of a lump of clay,
  • And for himself a vessel make,
  • And cast the rest away?
  • Who shall resist his will?
  • Or say, “What doest thou?”
  • Jehovah is a sovereign still,
  • And all must to Him bow.
  • My soul shall still adore
  • My God in all His ways;
  • His sov’reignty I can’t explore,
  • But I will trust His grace.
  • Besides his hymns Joseph Irons published “Nymphas. Bride and Bridegroom communing. A Paraphrastic Exposition of the Song of Solomon in Blank Verse” (1840); “Judah, the Book of Psalms paraphrased in Spiritual Songs for Public Worship” (1847); and “Calvary,” a poem in blank verse.

    William Josiah Irons was born at Hoddesdon, Herts, on the 12th of September, 1812, and was educated privately, and at Queen’s College, Oxford, where he graduated B.A. in 1833. Two years later he took Holy Orders, and became Curate of St. Mary Newington. In 1837 he was appointed Incumbent of St. Peter’s, Walworth, and afterwards successively Vicar of Barkway, Incumbent of Brompton, Rector of Wadingham, and Rector of St. Mary-Woolnoth (1872). He received the degree of D.D. in 1854. He was Bampton Lecturer in 1870, and in this connection produced his most important prose work, the “Bampton Lectures” on “Christianity as taught by St. Paul.” He was also Prebendary of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He published many sermons, letters, and pamphlets in connection with the ecclesiastical controversies of his time, and many of his hymns were first published in sheet form, and afterwards collected into his own and other hymn-books.

    Of hymnological works he published a “Metrical Psalter” in 1857, to which he added an “Appendix” in 1861; also “Hymns for use in Church” (1866), and “Psalms and Hymns for the Church” (1873). The first two of these books contained hymns by various writers, but the “Psalms and Hymns for the Church” contained only original hymns and translations. Several editions of this work were called for, and additions were made from time to time, until the edition of 1883 contained three hundred and eight original hymns.

    According to Julian, “the principal object of this last work was to supply special hymns on the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, and for Advent and Lent, together with special hymns for the Festivals;” and this to a great extent Dr. Irons was enabled to accomplish. His versions of individual psalms are directly from the Hebrew line for line.

    Many of Dr. Irons’ hymns are very fine, and deserve much wider use than they have obtained. Julian places them in the very front rank of modern hymns, and with good reason. Few modern writers have produced so many really fine hymns, and it is to be regretted that modern compilers have not made more extensive use of them.