Charles John Abraham is said to have been born on 17 June 1814 at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, England, and was baptised there on 3 July 1814. He was the son of Captain Thomas Abraham and his wife, Louisa Susanna Carter. Abraham's father had served in the Napoleonic wars and then on the staff at Sandhurst. At the age of seven Charles was sent to Dr Thomas Arnold's private school at Laleham, Surrey. He was a pupil at Eton from 1826 to 1832 and was accomplished both academically and in sport. A Classical scholar at King's College, Cambridge, he graduated BA in 1837, MA in 1840, BD in 1849, DD in 1858 and was a fellow of King's College from 1840 to 1850.
Ordained deacon in 1838, and priest in 1839, Abraham was a curate at Headley Down, Hampshire. As a housemaster and assistant master at Eton from 1839 to 1849, he played an important part in reforming the school. His lectures at St George's Chapel, Windsor, in 1848–49, were published as Festival and Lenten lectures and acknowledged the influence of Bishop G. A. Selwyn and the Oxford movement; he himself took a moderate attitude towards ritualistic innovation.
A younger contemporary of Selwyn as both pupil and teacher at Eton, Abraham volunteered to come to New Zealand with him in 1841, but his involvement in educational reform at Eton delayed his departure until 1850. Prior to his departure he married Caroline Harriet Palmer, a cousin of Selwyn's wife, Sarah, at Wanlip, Leicestershire, on 17 January 1850. Their only child, Charles Thomas, became suffragan bishop of Derby. During the voyage to Sydney on the Lloyds he was the first ship's chaplain to emigrants appointed by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The Abrahams arrived in Auckland on the Emma on 6 August 1850, and Charles became one of Selwyn's chaplains and principal of St John's College, Auckland, until 1853. Well versed in the Classics, Charles Abraham found the transition from life at Eton to St John's College difficult. His attempts 'to insense the Colonial youth with something of the Eton spirit,' and make them 'more gentlemany [sic]' had little success in the face of a utilitarian approach to education.
As archdeacon of Waitematā from 1853 to 1858, Abraham had responsibility for a small English boys' school and oversight of the large St John's College estate. He faced apathy towards the church and 'the false position of continually dunning for payment for the Clergy of the archdeaconry'. He participated in the constitutional conference in May and June 1857 which established the Church of the Province of New Zealand.
Abraham acted almost as an unofficial publicity agent for Selwyn, corresponding with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel concerning Selwyn's work and the church in New Zealand. He was an apologist for the Melanesian mission and critical of negative settler attitudes towards Selwyn, the church and Māori rights. Extracts from his letters were published in the Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal and The Mission Field. When Robert Wynyard, the acting governor, asked Selwyn to go and calm Māori and settler tensions in Taranaki in 1855, Abraham and the Reverend Rota Waitoa accompanied him. Abraham's account of this was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge as Journal of a walk with the bishop of New Zealand in 1856.
Abraham returned to England in 1857 for surgery after breaking his arm in a fall from a horse. Consecrated first bishop of Wellington at Lambeth Palace Chapel on 29 September 1858, Abraham was enthroned on 3 April 1859. He faced considerable difficulties: a shortage of clergy, severe financial constraints, indifference towards the church, and arduous travel throughout his diocese. He frequently filled in as parish priest during vacancies and personally prepared students for priest's orders. He was committed to making both the provincial and diocesan structure of church government work, encouraging lay participation and support for the church.
In his early years as bishop Abraham frequently commented in his correspondence with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on the impact of the conflict between Māori and Pākehā on both church and society. He was firmly aligned with Selwyn, Octavius Hadfield and the 'missionary party' in opposing the government action at Waitara and settler attitudes towards the Māori, and in lobbying for Thomas Gore Browne's replacement as governor. With Hadfield he wrote to the secretary of state for the colonies in June 1860, requesting that the governor should be directed 'to act in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi'. In April 1861 he asked the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to impress on the secretary of state for the colonies the need to send a commission to inquire into the Taranaki grievances. He believed Governor George Grey was misled in invading Waikato.
In the 1850s Abraham was critical of the Church Missionary Society's failure to develop an adequate structure of schools for Māori throughout the country. He had a high opinion, however, of the work of Hadfield at Ōtaki and supported Samuel Williams's work at Te Aute College. He used his limited resources to contribute to ministry among Māori in his diocese but agreed with Māori opinion concerning his Pākehā clergy, that 'Kua hoki te tupu o nga minita' (The growth of clergy nowadays is stunted). Abraham had a high regard for Māori clergy such as the Reverend Riwai Te Ahu and tried to encourage Māori participation in church government.
A member of the Ecclesiological Society, Abraham endorsed the use of the neo-Gothic style in architecture. This is best seen in Frederick Thatcher's design of Old St Paul's, Wellington, which was built as a joint parish church and cathedral with Abraham's strong support and includes furnishings and windows given by him.
Abraham returned to England in November 1868 and, after resigning his see in 1870, served as coadjutor bishop of Lichfield under Selwyn until 1878. He had appointments as prebendary of Bobenhall from 1872 to 1876, was non-resident rector of Tatenhill from 1875 to 1876, and served as a resident canon and precentor at Lichfield Cathedral from 1876 to 1890. Abraham declined consideration for appointment as a diocesan bishop in 1875 because he opposed what he saw as parliamentary and judicial interference in the affairs of the church. After Selwyn's death in 1878 he took a leading part, together with Bishop Edmund Hobhouse, formerly of Nelson, and Sir William Martin, in founding Selwyn College, Cambridge; in 1882 he became its chief benefactor. He died at Bakewell, Derbyshire, England, on 4 February 1903.