HARKNESS, ROBERT (b. Bendigo, Vic, 2 March 1880; d. London, 8 May 1961). Hymnwriter and evangelist.
Robert was the son of Abraham and Jane Elizabeth Harkness, two staunch Methodists and deeply committed Christians. He was educated at Bendigo, worked for a short time in a printing firm and then in his father's foundry. At a very early age he displayed a remarkable musical ability on the piano and organ, and soon began to compose hymns. The whole direction of his life changed in 1902 when the Torrey-Alexander Mission team visited Bendigo. His brilliant piano playing immediately caught the attention of Charles M Alexander, the mission's song leader, who arranged for him to join the mission group. Several months later he dedicated his life completely to Christ during a mission at Dunedin, New Zealand. From that time onwards, for the next sixty years, he devoted the whole of his many talents, energy and expertise to the presentation of the gospel through music, song and the spoken word.
Harkness was the accompanist and composer with Alexander from 1902-16, from 1902-09 as a member of the Torrey-Alexander team and from 1910-6 with the Chapman-Alexander group. He travelled with them around the world on numerous occasions and took part in all their major missions.
During the 1909 Chapman-Alexander Mission in Australia he became engaged to Adela Ruth Langsford, and the couple were married on 16 Feb 1912 on the team's next visit to Australia. Ruth was a trained singer and after their marriage often sang at missions at which Harkness played. They had no children.
During the 1909 Australian tour Alexander used his very popular Alexander's hymns Not for the First time. This hymn book had been compiled at Alexander's Birmingham home during a break in their mission program. Harkness wrote the tunes for 61 and the Lyrics for 14 of the hymns in this book, 9 other lyrics being written by Fred P Morris, another Bendigonian.
Harkness and his wife moved to the United States after World War One where they spent the remainder of their lives giving sacred concerts and composing sacred songs. He composed, in all, over 2500 gospel hymns. They lived at Pasadena near Los Angeles on the west coast. Here he formed the Harkness Music Co by which he published three very popular correspondence courses for hymn playing; founded and edited a very popular monthly music magazine called The Sacred Musician, compiled a slender hymn book called New Harkness Hymns and Sacred Hymns; and wrote a 127 page book called Reuben Archer Torrey: the Man and his Message.
During their forty years in the United States Harkness and his wife conducted many sacred concert tours throughout North America, England, Scandinavia and the Continent. He returned to Australia and his home city of Bendigo seven times. On each occasion he gave sacred concerts and played hymns tunes on his father's foundry whistles. A feature of the concerts was his invitation to the audience to suggest a text to which immediately he would compose and play a tune.
Ruth died in the United States in 1958 and he died in a London clinic on 8 May 1961. He was buried in the Alexander family plot in Birmingham, England.
Keith Cole, Robert Harkness: the Bendigo hymnwriter (Bendigo, 1988)
Electronic Version © Southern Cross College, 2004
Content © Evangelical History Association of Australia and the author, 2004