Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Descended from a bishop

Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester and a force for Anglo-Catholocism in the mid-19th century, died 150 years ago today. His detailed diary underpins a three-part biography partly written by his son Reginald, though, unfortunately, it says nothing about his criticism of Darwin for which he is much remembered. Reginald, however, does include an anecdote about his father speaking at a British Association debate on Darwin: when he made a comment about monkeys in a zoo having no connection with his ancestors, a learned professor responded: ‘I would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop.’

Wilberforce was born in Clapham, London, the third son of William Wilberforce (also a diarist, see - God’s work against slavery). He studied mathematics and classics at Oriel College, Oxford, where he became associated with the Oxford Movement. In 1828 he married Emily Sargent, and they had five children that survived infancy, but then Emily herself died young, in 1841. The year of his marriage he was ordained and appointed curate-in-charge at Checkenden near Henley-on-Thames. Two years later he took over as rector of Brighstone, Isle of Wight.

Wilberforce published hymns and sermons as well as stories and tracts on social subjects. In the second half of the 1830s, he edited the letters and journals of Henry Martyn (see - My unprofitable life), and co-authored with his brother, Robert, a biography of his father. He rose up the church ranks quickly, becoming archdeacon of Surrey and canon of Winchester, and served as rector of Alverstoke, Hampshire, between 1840 and 1845. In 1841, he was appointed chaplain to Prince Albert, and in 1847 became Lord High Almoner to Queen Victoria, a post he held until 1869.

In the mid-1840s, Wilberforce became Dean of Westminster and Bishop of Oxford. When John Henry Newman, leader of the Oxford Movement, converted to Roman Catholicism, Wilberforce used his influence to try to keep the Movement together. He was a frequent critic of liberal bishops and is particularly remembered for attacking Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the 1850s, he founded one of the first Anglican theological colleges. In 1869, he was appointed Bishop of Winchester. He died on 19 July 1873. See Wikipedia, the Winchester Cathedral website or Anglican History for further biographical information.

For much of his life, Wilberforce kept a fairly detailed diary. This was used, and quoted, extensively for a three volume biography - Life of the Right Reverend Samuel Wilberforce - put together first by A. R. Ashwell, and then, after Ashwell’s death, by Wilberforce’s son, Reginald (John Murray, 1880-1882). All three volumes are freely available at Internet Archive.

Here are several extracts from Wilberforce’s diary, showing his politicking, his easy relations with royalty, and a good deal of self-analysis too. Only once, as far as I can tell, does Wilberforce mention Darwin in his diary. Reginald’s text, accompanying that one mention, bemoans the lack of any further reports by his father on the Darwin debate, but does include an interesting anecdote.

4 February 1855
‘Prepared sermon for St. Mary’s, Princes Street, Lambeth a most miserable population in Lambeth, through which I passed which quickened me in my sermon. To Chapel Royal in the afternoon, and walked back with Gladstone. Lord John has ‘utterly’ failed in forming a Ministry. Thank God. Lord Palmerston now sent for. He was invited by Lord Derby to join with Gladstone and Sidney Herbert. At first he was unwilling, and at night declined. Gladstone and Sidney Herbert ready to serve. Gladstone though feeling acutely the evil of Shaftesbury’s suggested Bishops would not feel clear on that ground of refusing not a fair constitutional ground. Dined with the Bishop of London. He agrees as to Convocation course. The Archbishop came to him yesterday. Had heard from Dean Elliott, and others, as to impropriety of allowing Convocation to meet in Ministerial interregnum. Second letter by a friend from Shaftesbury who is to move about it in the House of Lords to-morrow. The Bishop (London) said he thought Lord Aberdeen’s letter settled it. That he was in till another appointed and no right to suppose there would be a change; rather insulting to Lord Aberdeen and not very civil to the Queen (whose will he expressed) now to alter. The Archbishop: ‘Quite a relief to find that your opinion; it was my first opinion, and I shall be prepared to state it to-morrow in the House.’ ’

7 February 1855
‘Off to Windsor, to Chapter (of the Garter), and saw the Queen afterwards. She was cheerful and very affable. Went after Chapter to Clewer. Long conversation with Mrs. Monsell. Things quiet in House; but Miss –– very unsettled in mind. Fear that she will ultimately Romanize. Dear –– is acted on by these women far too much, and kept from heartily and with a strong English tone putting down the sentimentalism which leads to Rome. Dear fellow! he is good, and gentle, and loving beyond praise. But I am always trying to keep him from that perilous neighbourhood.

In the evening a large party. I had a talk with Lord Aberdeen about Palmerston’s Church preferment. Suppose Montagu Villiers must be a Bishop. But Palmerston will beware of Shaftesbury, for fear of Gladstone, &c. Lord Aberdeen natural, simple, good, and honest as ever. A longish talk on politics with good Stockmar, Lord Aberdeen’s honesty, Lord Palmerston’s ambition. He agreed with me that Lord Palmerston was a great take-in, but that it was necessary that bubbles should burst. He would have much preferred seeing Gladstone and Herbert join with Lord Derby. On the Continent it is constitutional liberty which is reproached by our failure at Sebastopol. They say, If England with all her strength cannot make head against the Autocrat, who could that has a constitutional Government, &c.? As to the Royal Family, he said, ‘The Prince of Wales is the strongest of all. He can bear great fatigue. He takes most after his father’s family. The Princess Royal is a thorough Brunswick. She is very clever indeed, has great imagination and varied powers; her picture of “The New Year” full of ability, &c. Prince Albert is not a strong man; a little would throw him down. The Duke of Kent was the ablest of that family. The Duke of Cambridge and King William the Fourth the kindest but the most stupid.’

20 March 1856
‘To Windsor Castle. The Confirmation of Princess Royal interesting she devout, composed, earnest; youngest sister much affected the Queen and Prince also. The Queen spoke most kindly to me after: all very kind. On to London large Confirmation at St. James’s  felt constrained, and very unlike my own. Then to London House. Met Dr. Todd, who spoke hopefully of Bishop. Saw him, very low, very affecting state, spoke of himself as dying. I certain to succeed him, and no one to whom he could more happily entrust his Diocese, &c. About himself, his keen sight of past sins; no hope but simply in Christ’s sacrifice for him. A great struggle between conscience and faith. Pray for me. A most affecting sight in one so good. How awful to all the vision of sin in the light of God’s countenance.’

23 March 1856
‘Very low all day, blessed Easter day as it was. But felt so bitterly my desolateness: my darling Emily gone or all would be too gladsome for earth. My Herbert! Robert and Henry worse than gone. Beloved Mrs. Sargent 76; Ella married. The three boys, will they be taken as they grow up? God’s will be done.’

20 May 1860
‘Up in good time and prepared sermon on ‘All are yours.’ Preached at St. James’s, great crowd; collected 176l. Then back to my rooms and finished (Darwin review) [for the Quarterly Review]. Walked across the Park with Gladstone, he rather subdued; he said, ‘If the next twenty years alter as much the position of those who govern England, &c.’

Reginald Wilberforce’s text accompanying the above diary extract says this: ‘From June 27 to July 3 the British Association was at Oxford: it is much to be regretted that the reports of the debates are of the most meagre description. From those which we possess, it is to be gathered that the Bishop on two occasions took part in the discussions. First in the Geographical Section, when, after the reading of some of Dr. Livingstone’s recent letters, Mr. Craufurd, the President of the Ethnological Society, argued against the scheme of extending commerce and Christianity in Central Africa, on the ground of the great difficulties that had to be overcome and of the incapacity of the natives to receive such benefits. The Bishop spoke against these inferences, and, when supporting an opposite view, carried his audience by the force of his argument. Secondly, in the Zoology and Botany Section, where a discussion took place on the soundness or unsoundness of the Darwinian theory. The Bishop, who, as the last-quoted Diary entry shows, had just reviewed Mr. Darwin’s work ‘On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection,’ made a long and eloquent speech condemning Mr. Darwin’s theory as unphilosophical and as founded on fancy, and he denied that any one instance had been produced by Mr. Darwin which showed that the alleged change from one species to another had ever taken place. In the course of this speech, which made a great impression, the Bishop said, that whatever certain people might believe, he would not look at the monkeys in the Zoological as connected with his ancestors, a remark that drew from a certain learned professor the retort, ‘I would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop.’

14 July 1863
‘Survey my Life. What wonderful advantages - my father’s son, his favourite, and so, companion. My good mother, such surroundings. My love for my blessed one, compassing me with an atmosphere of holiness - my ordination - my married life - my ministerial. Checkendon, its bliss, arid its work opening my heart. Brighstone, Alverstoke, the Archdeaconry, the Deanery, Bishopric, friends. My stripping bare in 1841. My children. Herbert’s death-bed. How has God dealt, and what have I really done - for HIM? Miserere Domine is all my cry.

Cuddesdon Chapel. After meditation on Death, resolve:
(I) to take periodic times for renewing this meditation;
(II) to strive to live more in the sight of Death;
(III) to commend myself more entirely as dying creature into the Hand of the only Lord of Life.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 19 July 2013.

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