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Langham, Frederick (1833–1903)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Frederick Langham (1833-1903), Wesleyan missionary, was born on 24 April 1833 at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, son of Samuel Langham, builder, and his wife Eliza, née Robinson. Nurtured in a Methodist home he attended the Paterson Street Sunday school and was 'converted' under the ministry of Rev. William Butters. In 1847 the family moved to Victoria where Langham joined the Fitzroy Church. After two years training as a teacher in Britain he returned to Melbourne and on 16 November 1854 at Richmond married Ann Elizabeth Knight. In January 1855 Langham became headmaster of the Wesleyan Denominational School at Barker Street, Castlemaine, where he was a contemporary of Shirley Baker at the other Wesleyan school. Influenced by Rev. Thomas Raston to consider missionary work, Langham was prepared for the ministry by Rev. John Harcourt and in 1858 was received into the Victorian Conference. He was appointed to Fiji where he arrived in June.

Langham served at Lakemba in 1858-63, Bau in 1864-66 and Viwa in 1868-70. As one of the assertive 'colonial young men', he was resented at first by Rev. James Calvert and his colleagues, but Langham soon dominated the mission and was chairman of the Fiji district in 1869-94. From 1871 he lived at Bau where he won repute among Methodists as King Cakobau's adviser. Although his policies did not please all the missionaries, they accepted him as their spokesman. Believing himself the champion of the Fijians he encouraged annexation by Britain, but often nettled the colonial administrators by his paternalism and lack of imagination. To his colleagues he was 'Father' Langham and Sir Arthur Gordon referred to him as 'The Cardinal'.

In 1874-75 and 1890 Langham and his wife visited Melbourne mainly for their health. They finally left Fiji in April 1895 and lived in Sydney where Langham worked on the revision of the Fijian Bible. Though always reluctant in Australia to travel on deputationary work, he identified himself with the Orange cause and was easily persuaded to give anti-Catholic missionary lectures, which involved him in public controversy with Cardinal Patrick Moran. In 1898 Langham went to England to see his New Testament through the press. The subsequent burning of some testaments at the Roman Catholic mission at Namosi received much publicity in Australia.

Langham's wife had helped his revision and was author of many Fijian hymns. Their adopted (European) daughter Annie Langham Lindsay died on 21 December 1901, just before the revised Old Testament was completed. His wife did not recover from this shock and died on 5 January 1902. Langham became a supernumerary in 1901 and travelled on deputationary work in Britain, mainly for the British and Foreign Bible Society, of which he was a life governor. He also shared in the 'simultaneous mission' of the Evangelical churches. In addition to the Fijian Bible he had published other works in Fijian, some in conjunction with other authors. Recommended by Sir William MacGregor, Langham was awarded a doctorate of divinity by the University of Glasgow. He died at Wilton Villa, Albion Grove, Hackney, on 21 June 1903 and was buried in Abney Park cemetery. Although he bequeathed a 'cannibal fork with human bone attached' to a sister in Melbourne, the rest of his Fijian collection was sold. He instructed his trustees to destroy his journals and correspondence but many of his original letters are in other collections.

Physically impressive with leonine hair and beard, Langham cut his missionary role in the cloth of the schoolmaster. As a disciplinarian his punishments were severe but tempered with justice; he once insisted on being caned by a wrongfully punished boy. His relentless energy and simple piety won him renown as a great missionary by his denomination and those of the religious public familiar with the romanticized version of his career.

Select Bibliography

  • C. F. G. Cumming, At Home in Fiji (Lond, 1881)
  • T. McCullagh, Sir William McArthur (Lond, 1891)
  • A. H. Gordon, Fiji: Records of Private and of Public Life, 1875-1880, vols 1-4 (1897-1912)
  • J. Colwell, The Illustrated History of Methodism (Syd, 1904)
  • C. F. G. Cumming, Memories (Lond, 1904)
  • C. I. Benson (ed), A Century of Victorian Methodism (Melb, 1935)
  • Methodist Recorder (London), 23 Jan 1902, 3 July 1903
  • Spectator and Methodist Chronicle, 24 July 1903
  • Bible Society Monthly Reporter, 1903
  • British Monthly (1903), 403
  • Methodist overseas mission papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Langham, Frederick (1833–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/langham-frederick-3987/text6303, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 27 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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