Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harmer, John Reginald (1857–1944)

by David Hilliard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

John Reginald Harmer (1857-1944), by Elliott and Fry, c1900

John Reginald Harmer (1857-1944), by Elliott and Fry, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6971

John Reginald Harmer (1857-1944), Anglican bishop, was born on 11 July 1857 at Maisemore, Gloucestershire, England, son of Rev. George Harmer and his wife Kate, née Kitching. He was educated at Eton, where he was school captain and Newcastle scholar, and at King's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1881; M.A., 1884; D.D., 1895), where he had a distinguished scholastic career. He was a fellow of King's College in 1883-89. After a year as curate at Monkwearmouth, Durham, in 1884 he was ordained priest by and appointed domestic chaplain to Bishop J. B. Lightfoot of Durham, a noted biblical scholar and historian of the early church. At the episcopal residence, Auckland Castle, Harmer supervised the theological studies of university graduates (the Auckland Brotherhood) preparing there for ordination under Lightfoot. After Lightfoot's death in 1889, Harmer returned to Cambridge to edit the bishop's unpublished works, but he made no original contribution to theological scholarship. He was a fellow of Corpus Christi College in 1889-99, dean 1893-95, and honorary fellow 1905-44. In 1891-92 he was also vice-principal of the Clergy Training School, Cambridge. On 3 January 1895, at St Augustine's, South Kensington, London, he married Mary Dorothy Somers Cocks who had been born in India and whose family had many aristocratic connexions.

In March 1895 Harmer was appointed bishop of Adelaide, to succeed G. W. Kennion, by the archbishop of Canterbury and four bishops to whom the synod of the diocese of Adelaide had delegated its right of election. Consecrated bishop in Westminster Abbey on 23 May, he reached Adelaide on 2 July and was enthroned in St Peter's Cathedral two days later. Harmer's appointment aroused little enthusiasm in Adelaide because he had 'no impressive presence' and lacked parish experience. To some extent he was successful in winning respect. His manner was genial and unassuming. Describing himself as a 'moderate High Churchman', he avoided religious controversy and, unlike his predecessors, established good relations with the leaders of other denominations. He proved to be a capable administrator, but was criticized for failing 'to inspire the energies of his flock'.

Harmer saw his chief tasks as the completion of St Peter's Cathedral and an increase in the number of clergy. A collection of funds to finish the nave of the cathedral and to build twin towers and spires was successful, due largely to gifts of £4000 from Sir Thomas Elder and £10,000 from Robert Barr Smith, so that by 1904 the building's exterior was substantially complete. Although Harmer recognized the need for the Church of England in Australia to adapt to its environment, and the eventual necessity of a local ministry, he found it easier to obtain clergymen from England. In 1895-1905 he recruited thirty-seven English clergymen for the diocese, of whom twenty-seven were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. The only political issue in which he became deeply involved was the unsuccessful campaign to introduce religious instruction in South Australian state schools. He was deeply disappointed by the failure of an official referendum on this issue in 1896, and in 1902 he became first president of the interdenominational Religious Education in State Schools League. Initiated into Freemasonry while in Adelaide, he was master of Lodge St Alban in 1903-04.

Harmer visited England in 1897 to attend the Lambeth Conference, and again in 1903 when he declined the mastership of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and the suffragan bishopric of Southampton. It therefore came as no surprise in South Australia when in 1905 he accepted nomination to the see of Rochester, Kent. He left Adelaide on 4 May and was enthroned in Rochester Cathedral in July. Harmer's episcopate in Rochester was quiet, and he played little part in national church affairs. When he resigned the see in 1930 he was remembered chiefly for his tolerant leadership, his kindness, and his avoidance of controversy. In World War I he was active on behalf of Belgian relief, for which in 1919 he was appointed Commander of the Order of Leopold II.

He died at Marine Cottage, Instow, Devonshire, on 9 March 1944, survived by his wife and a daughter. His ashes were interred in Rochester Cathedral. There are oil portraits at Bishop's Court, Adelaide, and at Bishopscourt, Rochester.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Jose, The Church of England in South Australia, 1882-1905 (Adel, 1955)
  • Treasury (London), July 1905
  • Adelaide Church Guardian, Nov, Dec 1948, Feb, May, June, Aug 1949
  • Register (Adelaide), 3 July 1895, 3, 5 May 1905, 30 Apr, 8 May 1925
  • Times (London), 10 Mar 1944.

Citation details

David Hilliard, 'Harmer, John Reginald (1857–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harmer-john-reginald-6566/text11293, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Reginald Harmer (1857-1944), by Elliott and Fry, c1900

John Reginald Harmer (1857-1944), by Elliott and Fry, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6971