Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Four Irish-American evangelists

In John Hickson’s book, Notes of Travel, the name Needham turns up a number of times in the chapter on North America. He refers to them as “friends” or “relatives.” John Hickson was an Irish immigrant to Australia. How did he come to have friends and relatives in North America? Who were these Needhams, why were they in the USA and in what was their connection with John Hickson?

The text of the book gives some clues:

Camden (New Jersey) is a fair-sized town on the banks of the Delaware river about 90 miles from New York, and surrounded by some very fine farming land. The few days we spent there were excessively hot, not the dry heat of Australia, but an oppressive damp heat that makes life a burden. Our friends the Rev Wm (William) Needham and Mrs. Needham invited us to picnic with their congregation at a place called Glenlock, some twenty miles from Camden, and although we were most kindly and attentively treated, the heat and oppressiveness of that day will long remain in our memory. However, in the afternoon, over the strawberries and cream and iced tea, we forgot the heat and toil of the day, and talking of events of past days when we were boys together, we renewed our youth and laughed and joked over many an exciting incident. (Notes of Travel, pp 25-26)

William Needham (1856-1941) was eight years younger than John Hickson. But they had been friends in Ireland during their young days, despite their difference in age. William had come to America and become a minister. John had migrated to Australia and become a timber merchant. Now they were reunited in New Jersey. Apart from this picnic on a sweltering day in one 1893, the details of the visit are not recorded, but it is clear that William welcomed John and his daughter Alice to America with open arms. The two Irishmen (John was 45 and William 37) had a good laugh about old times and compared the way their lives had gone. It seems unlikely that they ever saw each other again.

Further down the same page we meet another Reverend Needham, this time Benjamin:

The town of Coatesville is nicely situated between low hills and undulating country, and is rich in agricultural and pasture land… the famous Brandywine [river] passes through it. We were driven by our friend and relative, Rev. B. Needham, along its banks and were shown the places where some severe battles had been fought between Washington and the English troops. It is a very pretty place and we enjoyed our visit very much although the days we spent there were oppressively hot. Mr Needham is pastor of the Baptist church, also conducts a gospel tent and is a man of large influence in the town of Coatesville. (Notes of Travel, pp 26-27)

Benjamin Needham was one of William Needham’s older brothers. He was forty in 1893, the year John Hickson and his daughter came to America, but still five years younger than John himself. He too had come out from Ireland, and had also become a minister. In contrast perhaps to Sydney, where John had made his home, there was a great spiritual revival happening in the north eastern states of the USA. DL Moody was in the centre of this awakening, but there were things happening all over the countryside. The Needham brothers seem to have been a part of this.

Like the Hickson family they were Irish Protestants, but they did not have the proud Church of Ireland tradition that seems to have characterised the Hickson family. There were ten children in the family and many, perhaps all of them, came to America. Benjamin, as can be seen from this extract, was a Baptist pastor. Even before they left Ireland they had been “non-conformists”, neither sharing the Catholic faith of the majority in their homeland, nor the Anglican faith of the Hicksons. The revival in North America of which DL Moody was a part was connected with the Holiness Movement, which had its origin in Methodism, so it was also in a sense a “non-conformist” movement. The strong Anglican traditions that characterised Protestant Sydney at that time was perhaps less dominant in America. And how much the revivals of the 1890s affected the predominantly Catholic Irish Americans is something of which I have no knowledge.

Moody’s name crops up repeatedly in John Hickson’s book. Hickson mentions travelling to Northfield, “the home of Moody and Sankey, where some of our friends live… Here Moody was born and here his mother still lives, as also both himself and Mr Sankey when not engaged in evangelistic work. They have both devoted large sums of money to the establishment of seminaries for the education of young men and women who show an inclination for advancement… Those institutions are … supplied with the best professors and teachers, and every modern appliance and convenience.” So Moody’s legacy is about more than just spiritual revival and had a profound effect on the educational development of that part of the States.

Northfield appears to have been the home of a third Reverend Needham, whose wife, as it turns out, was also a preacher of some note. Hickson writes:

We had the pleasure of hearing a very gifted American lady, the wife of Reverend G. C. Needham, addressing a meeting, and the style, terseness, beauty and common sense of her address would be a valuable acquisition to many of our modern ministers. The Sunday we were at Northfield Mr Needham preached to a large congregation in a beautiful church, and was assisted by a very able choir… Northfield is a lovely place and we would have been pleased to have been longer able to enjoy the hospitality of our friends Mr and Mrs Needham… but… after spending a few days there we took train via Millers Falls to Boston. (Notes of Travel, p.28)

George, born in 1846, was the big brother of the four Needhams who became ministers, and was two years older than John Hickson. His wife’s name was Elizabeth Annable and according to other records they are both buried in Narbeth, Pennsylvania. George is mentioned in Hartzler’s book, Moody in Chicago, as being one of Moody’s co-missioners, so it seems likely George knew DL Moody quite well.

The fourth of the Needham brothers who became an evangelist is not mentioned by John Hickson in his book. His name was Thomas (1854-1916), and since he wrote a book about his early life, I know more about him than any of the others. That book has the curious title of From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, and the story it contains I will write about another time. Where Thomas was in 1893 when John and his daughter were travelling I am uncertain since he doesn’t get a mention, but he lived in the same area around New York-Boston, and was known to DL Moody too, as can be seen he afterword to his book:

Mr Thomas Needham, who, for nearly forty years preached the gospel in the United States, having been associated with DL Moody, Dr Torrey, Dr Chapman, his brother George and many known evangelists and teachers in that land, passed into the presence of his Master on the first Sunday in October, 1916. (From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.69)

The question that arises, of course, is how John Hickson was related to all these evangelists. Hickson’s book indicates that he was childhood friends with at least one of them, William, the youngest, even if William was a good deal younger than John. But he was closest in age to George, who was two years older than him. Notes of Travel clearly states that John Hickson and the Needhams were boys together, but it seems they were more than friends, though Hickson does not explain in his book how they were related.

The answer to this question lies in their oldest sister, Mary Needham. The Needham boys I have mentioned were four of ten children in the family from County Kerry. Some years ago I received an email from Keith Walmsley, my mother’s cousin, himself a descendent of the Hicksons and Needhams. He explained the following:

[Mary] was one of ten children in the Needham family that lived in the south of Ireland. Her father was a captain in the coast guards and her mother died early (is it any wonder after so many children?). Anyway she took on being “mother” to all the other children and obviously did a fantastic job as they were a very keen Christian family of the nonconformist group. Four became evangelists in one way or another.

Mary Needham married William Hickson, John Hickson’s older brother, when John was just a lad. They had seven children, one of whom was Susie Hickson, my mother’s grandmother. Mary and William migrated with their first three children, and William’s father Richard Hickson, to the Boston area in 1865. It was some 12 years later that they decided to leave the USA and move to Australia, where they arrived in 1878. Richard had however died and is buried in Providence, Rhode Island, some way south of Boston.

John Hickson had lived with William and Mary in Ireland when he was a teenager in the years before they migrated to America. So Mary was John’s sister in law, and her evangelist brothers, who she had “mothered” after their own mother had died, were thereby John’s brothers-in-law. It was in his early years in Ireland that he got to know all Mary’s family. It was many years after they had all left their Irish homeland that they were reunited in the land of the star-spangled banner.

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2 thoughts on “Four Irish-American evangelists

  1. Marie A. Mohn on said:

    A wonderful Christian lady, Isabel Needham, passed to eternity August 9 2016. I came to know her through the American Baptist Churches, USA, specifically the American Baptist Women’s organization of Pennsylvania/Delaware. As a resident of Lititz, PA, I enjoy the history of this town and its historic news publication (since 1800s), now a weekly newspaper known as the Lititz Record. January 2015, the “Out of the Past” column, which prints news of the past, contained an article of an evangelist movement, with Rev. Thomas Needham, opening his campaign here. Knowing Isabel for the past 35+ years, I felt this Needham, who visited Lititz and was newsworthy in January 15, 1915 perhaps would be a relative. Thanks to the Forgotten Tales page and a few other resources, I’m sure Isabel’s husband, George C. Needham, is a decendent of the Irish Needham family. With appreciation, Marie A. Mohn

    • Thanks for letting me know about this connection with the past. I have not had any contact with current Needham descendants, so it’s exciting to hear from you. I am assuming that Isabel’s husband is also dead now, and I wonder if they have living children or grandchildren. It would be great to come in contact with them. Is the article in the “out of the past” column available online? The story of Thomas Needham contained in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land is an inspiring one. You can find it online. Sometime I will write an abridged version for my blog. My daughter and I are sitting on a ferry to Dublin at this minute, and are heading from there down to Kerry to visit some of the haunts of our ancestors. Mary Needham, who married William Hickson and migrated from USA to Australia in 1878, was involved in the Brethren church in Sydney. Her granddaughter, my grandmother, broke away from the Brethren and together with her husband attended the Baptist church, in which my mother was raised. My mother died a good many years ago, but she would have been excited to have read your comment. Thanks for taking the time to write. Kind regards, David Holford

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