Herbert Henry Farmer was born in Highbury London on 27 November 1892 the youngest of William Charles Farmer and Mary Ann Buck’s four sons. Though he was from a working-class family (his father was a journeyman cabinetmaker) Herbert's early academic proclivities at Owen's School in Islington earned him a scholarship to Peterhouse Cambridge where he read for the moral sciences tripos and graduated first class in 1914. A pacifist and conscientious objector Farmer chose to work at a farm at Histon near Cambridge rather than entering the armed services during the First World War. In 1916 he decided to pursue ministry with the Presbyterian Church of England and was chosen as the Burney Student in the Philosophy of Religion at Westminster College Cambridge. Following the completion of his studies in 1919 he took a pastorate at Stafford and three years later moved to a parish in New Barnet where he remained until 1931. During this time he met and married Gladys Sylvie. The couple had a son and two daughters.
In 1931 Farmer left parish ministry to pursue an academic career. After a four-year post with the Hartford Seminary Foundation in Connecticut he returned to Westminster College Cambridge where he succeeded his friend John Oman as Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. In 1936 Farmer was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Glasgow followed in 1937 by his appointment as the Stanton Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge. While he was at Cambridge Farmer’s interest in homiletics became increasingly pronounced. It was during this time that he published his book on the task of preaching The Servant of the Word (1941) and his collection of sermons on religious language The Healing Cross (1938).
From his early days in the parish Farmer was regarded as a gifted preacher. The God whom Farmer preached was one who called humanity into obedient relationship with Himself. Ever the Reformed thinker Farmer sought to proclaim the Gospel through both the content of his preaching and the passion of his delivery. Though not ostentatious his sermons were both ardently heartfelt and intellectually rigorous. Farmer preached of a God who demanded obedience yet simultaneously offered succour to humanity. This message was clearly presented in his two courses of Glasgow Gifford Lectures given in 1950 and 1951. Indeed this Gospel resounded from both Farmer’s pulpit and his lectern as he served in the dual capacity of a minister and an academic committed in both regards to the traditions and work of the Presbyterian Church of England. Though an excellent scholar in his own right rather than leaving behind a corpus of books sitting on a library shelf Farmer would have wished his legacy to be the score of ministers whom he trained for the service of the Church.
Farmer retired from the college in 1960 and continued to preach and write into his twilight years. He died on 13 January 1981 in Birkenhead.
Farmer’s works include: The Experience of God (1929); The World and God: A Study of Prayer Providence and Miracle in Christian Experience (1935); The Healing Cross (1938); The Servant of the Word (1941); Towards a Belief in God (1942); God and Men (1948); Reconciliation and Religion: Some Aspects of the Uniqueness of Christianity as a Reconciling Faith (1951, 1998); Revelation and Religion: Studies in the Theological Interpretation of Religious Types (1954); and The Word of Reconciliation (1966).