Pennefather, William (1816–73), evangelist, philanthropist, and hymn writer, was born 5 February 1816 at 5 Merrion Square, Dublin, the youngest son of the eight children of Richard Pennefather (qv), chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland, and his wife, Jane, daughter of Judge John Bennett, of Dublin. A sickly child, he was educated at home and at a preparatory day-school in Dublin until 1829, when he was sent to Westbury College, near Bristol (run by Rev. Samuel Field). He underwent an evangelical conversion experience in childhood as the result of receiving a farewell blessing from his eldest sister, who was dying following childbirth. (His mother also held strong evangelical views.) From an early age he wished to enter the anglican ministry. At Westbury he formed a prayer and Bible-reading group which he ran enthusiastically but strictly. Despite constant ill health, he walked three miles every Sunday to attend church, and used to pray to God as he walked that he would be able to lead a useful life.
Early in 1832, possibly because of his ill health, Pennefather left Westbury to study with Rev. William Stephens at Levens parsonage, six miles from Kendal in Cumberland, where he continued to study the scriptures and cultivate his love of poetry, painting, and music; he had some social contact with William Wordsworth and his family, who lived nearby. Although Pennefather shared some of the aesthetic puritanism stereotypically associated with his religious beliefs (he thought novel-reading a sinful waste of time), his combination of the romantic aesthetic of the sublime with low-church protestantism was not uncommon among evangelicals of his generation. Throughout his life he took a keen interest in deploying his artistic talents to make worship more attractive to the poor. At this time he also made the acquaintance of a Westmorland gentry family, the Crewdsons, who became his closest lifelong friends; he regarded their house, Sizergh Hall, as ‘his English home’.
Pennefather's elder brothers went to Balliol College, Oxford, but his intermittent education and poor health made this impossible for him (to his regret). He therefore entered TCD in 1834. Illness interrupted his studies for three years, during which time he alternated between bouts of invalidism consoled by the Bible, preaching to fishermen near a brother-in-law's residence at Portstewart (Co. Londonderry), and moving in Dublin evangelical circles. One of his sisters was active in the circle of prophecy believers around the Powerscourt conferences, and Pennefather's published letters describe theological discussions with members of the brethren sect which grew out of this circle, including an unnamed leader (possibly John Nelson Darby (qv)). Pennefather maintained a lifelong interest in unfulfilled prophecy and the second coming. He was a member of the Prophetical Society and in later life founded the Prophetical Alliance, a discussion group for those interested in such matters. Although his biographer implies that he tended to avoid specific predictions based on current events, he was a premillennialist who believed that the Jews would soon return to Israel as a prelude to the enactment of the events foretold in the Book of Revelation, and his lifelong work ethic seems to have been driven in part by a sense that time was short.
Pennefather returned to full-time study at TCD in March 1837, and was strongly influenced by the lectures of J. T. O'Brien (qv), whose wife was his cousin. He developed an interest in the Irish church missions and met with like-minded divinity students every morning to discuss how best to encourage the missionary spirit in the college. From 1839 he raised funds to build a church for a protestant congregation at Roundstone in Connemara; he even visited the Aran Islands and thought of establishing a congregation there (he was subsequently active in the proselytising Irish Islands Society). He graduated BA in 1840 and was ordained deacon at Durham in 1841 and priest in 1842.
Pennefather had developed strong links with the proselytising evangelical circle associated with the Farnham family of Kingscourt, Co. Cavan. (One of his sisters married Somerset Maxwell, a younger brother of the 7th Baron Farnham, who succeeded to the title in 1868; Rev. William Krause (1796–1852), incumbent of Bethesda chapel, Dublin, and a close associate of the Farnhams since the 1820s, was a friend.) This led to his first curacy, in the parish of Ballymachugh, diocese of Kilmore (1841–4), where Pennefather tried to learn Irish and helped with Kingscourt-based missionary activities. In April 1844 he became curate of Swanlinbar, Co. Cavan; however, in July he took up the living of Mellifont, near Drogheda, believing this would give him greater scope to keep in touch with his ailing and widowed father. While serving in these parishes he preached throughout Britain and Ireland for the Irish Society, and befriended such figures as Alexander Dallas (qv) of the Achill misson. His time at Mellifont was unhappy; his congregation was small and scattered and attendance at his services was poor.
During the Great Famine Pennefather was a member of the local relief committee and provided employment by draining a field he owned and organising the making of paths; in November 1847 his residence was ‘besieged by starving crowds’ and he gave out meal there and at a mission school which he had opened at Tullyallen in his parish the previous year. The school encountered violent opposition from local catholic clergy, traders, and farmers; although Pennefather's activities were not ‘souperism’, in the sense of explicitly making relief conditional on a change of religion, the school was professedly a proselytising institution, and it is not surprising that what Pennefather saw as a charitable act should have been interpreted in this light.
In February 1848 Pennefather accepted the incumbency of Walton, Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, where he arrived in March. His biographer states that he experienced severe doubts at the thought of leaving Ireland, especially given his father's emotional dependence on him, and that he only did so after satisfying himself that it was God's will and that his father accepted his decision. He may also have been influenced by famine fatigue.
The newly created Aylesbury congregation was relatively poor. Despite continuing ill health, Pennefather worked hard, raising funds to build a new school, conducting missions for bargemen (even fitting out a boat as a floating chapel), and enlarging the church. Concern for the evangelisation of the working class and desire to dispel the widespread view of anglicanism as the church of the rich were to mark his English mission. During the cholera epidemic of 1849 his prayer meetings met with suspicion and opposition, since these were not then a common feature of Church of England practice. Pennefather found himself at the centre of rumours (presumably that he was a crypto-methodist and/or a political subversive) and experienced derision from the local press.
In December 1852 Pennefather was appointed vicar of Christ Church, Barnet, Hertfordshire, where he set to work increasing school accommodation and opened a temperance meeting-house for working men. As a result of the Crimean War he and his wife developed an interest in soldiers’ orphans, placing them in homes and orphanages within the parish aided by the Royal Patriotic Fund; at the height of their activities they were responsible for 400 children. The Pennefathers may have been encouraged in this by the fact that they were to have no children of their own (though after the death of Pennefather's last remaining brother in April 1855 they brought up his three children).
In 1856 Pennefather organised a conference on missionary work which took place in Barnet and became an annual event. This was a pan-evangelical event comprising members of many different protestant denominations, strongly influenced by American revivalism; Pennefather took it to the lengths of practising intercommunion at the concluding communion services (which would then have been regarded as highly irregular by anglicans). After his death these conferences were merged into the better-known Keswick Conference, for which they served as a model. Pennefather defended the conferences in The church of the first-born (1865). When his father died suddenly two days before the 1859 conference he did not attend his funeral, believing the conference could not go ahead without his presence; this led to strained relations with his Irish friends. During this period he undertook nationwide preaching tours for the Church of England home mission. From 1858 the Pennefathers trained female missionary workers under Catherine's supervision.
In 1864 Pennefather was appointed vicar of St Jude's, Mildmay, Islington (bordering on the slums of the East End of London), where he continued the annual conferences and carried out extensive building work. His departure from Barnet was hastened by a dispute over the religious upbringing of the orphans under his care and by his refusal to allow his schoolchildren to participate in official celebrations of the prince of Wales's wedding, which included pupils from the local catholic school. Pennefather believed not merely that catholicism was idolatrous and unscriptural but that it was impossible for a sincere follower of the pope to be a loyal subject of a protestant monarch, though in private he expressed qualified admiration for Fr Theobald Mathew (qv). He constructed a conference hall, a mission hall (also used as a school), a soup kitchen for the poor, three new schools, and an institution housing deaconesses, who undertook social and evangelising work not only within the parish but in the wider East End. This last, based on German models, was the first such institution in Britain. Pennefather also sponsored a medical mission in Bethnal Green; he composed and circulated numerous pamphlets and circulars for evangelistic and fund-raising purposes. He always demanded from others the same strict discipline which he imposed on himself. Although Pennefather's general outlook was paternalist, he was scathing about upper-class neglect of the poor and liked to quote the sixth chapter of Amos to those whom he believed it would make uncomfortable. In 1868 he published Perilous times, denouncing such alleged evils as alcohol and ritualism. He was president of the children's special service mission and in January 1865 undertook his last preaching tour for the church home mission. His health collapsed in January 1873, and he died 30 April 1873 at Melford Lodge, Muswell Hill, Middlesex. Catherine continued and developed their social work.
Pennefather composed numerous hymns during his life and printed them on circulars, but took no interest in their preservation. However, they were retained by friends who, after his death, collected them as Original hymns and thoughts in verse (1875). A selection of his hymns is in John Julian's A dictionary of hymnology (rev. ed. 1907). The bridegroom king: a meditation on Psalm XLV (1875) was also published posthumously, and his Life and letters, compiled by Rev. R. Braithwaite, went into four editions. While Pennefather shared in the theological divisiveness of his era, most of those who met him recorded a strong sense of his personal holiness.
Pennefather married on 16 September 1847 Catherine, the eldest daughter of Admiral James William King, youngest son of the second earl of Kingston (qv), of Co. Cork (Archbishop Euseby Cleaver (qv) was her maternal grandfather). Catherine Pennefather (1818–93) was born in 1818 in Angley, Kent. She devoted her married life to collaborating in her husband's philanthropic and evangelical work, including a brief period in Ireland when she engaged in famine relief. Some time after they moved to England, she founded and served as president of the Association of Female Workers. In 1864 she accompanied her husband to St Jude's, Mildmay Park, London, where they pursued an ever-widening array of charitable concerns. For twenty years after her husband's death she successfully managed their varied philanthropic projects. In addition to her charitable work, she was a prolific writer on religious themes, producing books, verse, pamphlets, and hymns, and edited the Mildmay monthly journal, Service for the King. She died, childless, 12 January 1893 at 68 Mildmay Park, Islington.