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Rabone, Stephen (1811–1872)

The announcement of the sudden decease of this widely known and respected Wesleyan minister, on his way to the church where he had undertaken to preach last Sunday evening, has awakened deep feeling in the hearts of many. A few particulars concerning his life will doubtless be read with interest.

Mr. Rabone was born near the town of Bilston in the county of Staffordshire, in January, 1811. One of his oldest friends in this colony writes thus concerning him:— "He had godly parents, and early commenced a religious life which he maintained to the end. He was called to the work of the ministry among the people called Methodists, in the year 1833 ; and was appointed to Appleby in Westmore land. But the work of a missionary was that which he coveted ; and in 1834, he received an appointment to Vavau, one of the Friendly Islands. Being shipwrecked with his young wife, on one of the Cape De Verde Islands, and losing all things, he had to return to England. This caused delay ; so that it was some considerable time before he reached his appointment in this hemisphere. In the various groups of the Friendly Islands, Tonga, Haabaï, and Vavau, he laboured with great acceptance and success for fifteen years."

It appears that Mr. Rabone spent, in all seventeen years of his life in the work of a missionary to the heathens. He and his wife, who was a sister of the venerable pioneer missionary of Tonga, John Thomas, arrived at Hobart Town in 1835. And there their eldest child—now Mrs. Oakes, widow of Mr. Frank Oakes—was born. From Hobart Town they shortly afterwards came on to Sydney, and hence they sailed for Tonga. Their two sons, and several of their daughters, were born in that country. One of their sons, Rev. William Thomas Rabone, and one of their daughters, the wife of the Rev. Mr. Rooney, are still in that part of the mission field, aiding in carrying on the work for which their father left his native land.

When Mr. Rabone first entered on his labours in the Friendly Islands, the path of a missionary there was beset by dangers that have gradually passed away with the progress of Christianity and civilisation. But neither danger nor fatigue turned him aside from the prosecution of the sacred enterprise to which he had devoted himself. He won the esteem and affection of the islanders. King George of Tonga, and multitudes of his subjects, loved and honoured Stephen Rabone. His reputation as a missionary was not confined to his own Church. Among others, the present Bishop of Lichfield, Dr. Selwyn, then Bishop of New Zealand, bore testimony to his consistent and devoted character as a fellow labourer in the great missionary enterprise of the Church of Christ.

Mr. Rabone left Tonga for New South Wales in 1850, and was appointed to the Maitland district in the year 1851. Since then his work has been in this colony. Being one of that class of men who like work, and yielding to the impulse of high aspirations, he willingly took on himself a large share of the burdens which must be borne by an evangelising church, with so wide a colonial field of labour as Australasia, and so extensive a missionary enterprise to sustain as that of Fiji and the Friendly Islands. In the discharge of pastoral duties, he travelled over a great part of New South Wales. In preaching, as in action, he was energetic and earnest. Endowed by nature with a powerful voice, and animated by zeal for the glory of God in the salvation of souls, he arrested the attention of the careless, and pressed home the solemn warnings and merciful invitations of the Gospel. Not limiting himself to the prescribed routine of duty, he often preached in the open air; and by his example taught his younger brethren to be "instant in season and out of season."

In addition to the ordinary duties of a Wesleyan minister, which are neither few nor light, he fulfilled for eight or nine years the work of secretary to the mission of his church in Polynesia. A few years ago he was appointed, with his friend the Rev. James Watkin, to visit as a deputation the various stations of the mission in Polynesia. This visit to the scene of his former labours gave him the joy of seeing many who had derived good from his ministry, and of witnessing ample evidences of the progress of the gospel. He had the special joy of seeing his own son faithfully and efficiently carrying on the work he himself had been engaged in for many years.

In 1861 he was made President of the Australasian Conference. This high honour he accepted with gratitude and bore without pride. At the close of the year he declared that the position, with its many responsibilities and the many sources of heartfelt comfort afforded by the good will of his brethren, was to him a means of grace. Both in this high office, in the ordinary work of a minister, and as a private Christian he was found acting in that genial spirit of fidelity to his heavenly Master, and hearty goodwill towards his brethren, which made him welcome as a helper in all Christian work. His companionship gave a cheerful impetus to the labours of those whom he joined. His sympathy with all whom he saw to be serving the same Lord, and advancing the same cause, naturally called forth a responsive sentiment of affectionate esteem: and he was, therefore, beloved by a large circle of friends in various religious denominations.

During the last two years his health had failed a good deal; and his once vigorous frame bore signs of the effect of years of labour and hardship. His spirit had been grieved by the loss of his wife, who in the early days of their union had shared with him the disaster of shipwreck, and had afterwards borne, with him, the heat and burden of the day in the mission field. But recently his friends thought he had in great measure recovered his health ; and he went with alacrity to the performance of his ministerial duties. On last Sunday afternoon he gave an address to a large assembly of Sunday-school children, and was going to fulfil his preaching engagement at the Wesleyan church in Redfern when his earthly career was suddenly brought to an end.

The text from which he was about to preach was one which, in the words of the Redeemer, declares the grand central subject of all Gospel preaching,—"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so shall the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish but have everlasting life." And one of the hymns which he had selected to be sung on the occasion was that which ends with this stanza:

Happy, if with my latest breath
I may but gasp His name, Preach Him to all, and cry in death,
Behold ! behold the Lamb !

He was passing along Devonshire-street, very near the residence of his son, Mr. Stephen Rabone, when he was met by the messenger sent to summon him into the unseen world. He leaned against the fence, and without falling to the ground breathed his last. In like manner departed one of his predecessors in the Wesleyan ministry, the memory of whose labours is still fragrant in England, the Rev. William Bramwell. And the remark made concerning the death of William Bramwell might be repeated in reference to Stephen Rabone ;—" it was more like a translation than death." For without a struggle, standing erect, without pain or dread, as the smile on the countenance of the departed gave assurance, the servant of the Lord passed in a moment from the path of labour here into the presence of Him, whom, though unseen, he had long loved and rejoiced to serve.

The funeral took place on Tuesday afternoon; on which occasion a large congregation assembled at the Wesleyan church, Bourke street, Surry Hills. Among those who attended the funeral were several citizens of distinction and ministers of different churches At the service the Scripture was read by the Rev. George Hurst, an address adapted to the occasion was delivered by the Rev. B. Chapman, and prayer was offered by the Rev. Mr. Clarke. The remains of the departed were then borne to the cemetery, followed by a numerous train.

Original publication

Citation details

'Rabone, Stephen (1811–1872)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/rabone-stephen-19300/text30778, accessed 12 December 2018.

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