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Samuel Wilberforce

By G. W. E. Russell

From S.L. Ollard and Gordon Crosse, eds. A Dictionary of English Church History

London: Mowbray and Co., Ltd, 1912, pages 633-636.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2007

WILBERFORCE, Samuel (1805-73), Bishop, was son of William Wilberforce (q.v.), who, like most of the Evangelicals of that time, disapproved of Public Schools, and Samuel was educated by private tutors; but he owed less to them than to his affectionate intimacy with his father. Amid all the press of political and philanthropic work the emancipator found, or made, time to write constantly to 'my dear lamb,' as he called young Samuel. His letters display, as might be expected from their writer, both fervent piety and excellent common-sense. There is no note of Samuel's confirmation, but he seems to have made his first Communion at Easter, 1822. In addition to his spiritual counsels, Mr. Wilberforce took great pains to cultivate his son's faculty of public speech, 'causing him to make himself well acquainted with a given subject, and then [633/634] speak on it, without notes, and trusting to the inspiration of the moment for suitable words.'

Samuel Wilberforce went up to Oriel College, Oxford, in 1823. He immediately joined the 'United Debating Society,' which had just been founded, and which soon afterwards developed into 'The Union.' From the first he took a prominent part in the debates, arguing on the Liberal side. He was an active and not particularly studious undergraduate, much addicted to hunting; yet he obtained a First Class in Mathematics and a Second in Classics, 1826. He had thought of going to the bar, for which his peculiar talents obviously qualified him. When he abandoned this idea he seems to have decided to seek holy orders, for Hurrell Froude (q.v.) wrote to him in March 1827: 'From what you said . . . I thought you seemed more reconciled to the idea of taking orders early if at all.' The cause of these uncertainties was probably the fact that he had long been in love with Emily Sargent, daughter of the Vicar of Lavington, whom in 1828 he married. In after-years he said: 'When I saw her first, she was thirteen and I was fifteen, and we never changed our minds.' Through this alliance he became eventually possessor of the Lavington estate, which belonged to Mr. Sargent's mother. He was ordained deacon by Bishop Lloyd of Oxford in Christ Church Cathedral, Advent, 1828, and was licensed to the sole charge of Checkendon, near Henley-on-Thames. He was ordained priest in 1829, and in June 1830 was appointed to the rectory of Brightstone in the Isle of Wight. As illustrating the manners and customs of the island at that date the following extract from Wilberforce's diary, describing his first Tithe Audit Dinner, is worth preserving:--'18th Jan. 1831. A good Audit Dinner; 23 people drank 11 bottles of wine, 28 quarts of beer, 2_ of spirits, and 12 bowls of punch; and would have drunk twice as much if not restrained. None, we hope, drunk.'

Even while at Checkendon he had made it clear that he held (as his father is said to have held) the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration; and in 1833 he preached, at Bishop Sumner's Visitation, a sermon which boldly asserted 'that unbroken succession whereby those who ordained us are joined unto Christ's own Apostles.' In 1839 this friend and patron, Charles Richard Sumner, the last Prince-Bishop of Winchester, made him Archdeacon of Surrey--a preferment which carried with it a canonry of Winchester; and in 1840 gave him the important living of Alverstoke. In 1840 also he was chosen Bampton Lecturer for 1841; and Prince Albert, who had heard him speak at an Anti-Slavery meeting at Exeter Hall, made him one of his chaplains. In 1841 he was suddenly called to undergo the great and abiding sorrow of his life. His wife died on the 10th of March. On the following day he wrote in his diary: 'May ye utter darkening of my life, which never can be dispelled, kill in time all my ambitions, desires, and earthly purposes, my love of money and power and place, and make me bow meekly to Christ's yoke.'

This heavy blow fell on Wilberforce at a critical moment of his life. He was just rising into fame as an indefatigable parish priest, as a popular orator on religious platforms, as an eloquent preacher, and as a favourite at court, whither his duties as chaplain to Prince Albert often took him. He was talked of as tutor to the infant Prince of Wales, and dreaded the prospect of being called from congenial work to an office for which he felt himself unfitted. But this trial was averted, for in March 1845 he was appointed by Sir Robert Peel to the deanery of Westminster, which he accepted with misgiving. He was installed on the 9th of May, retaining the benefice of Alverstoke, and thereby drawing down on himself from the Morning Post the reproach of avarice. On the 14th of October Sir Robert Peel offered him 'the Bishoprick of Oxford.' There was no nonsense of Nolo Episcopari, asking for time to consider, consulting friends, and the like. The diary simply says: 'I had wished for this, and now that it comes, it seems awful. Wrote to Sir R., whose letter was remarkably cordial, and accepted.' He was consecrated on the 30th November, and enthroned in Christ Church Cathedral on the 13th December. So began the most memorable episcopate of modern times. From 1843 to 1873 the life of Bishop Wilberforce is indeed the life of the English Church, and, to no small extent, the life also of the English State.

Wilberforce had been born and brought up an Evangelical of the older, i.e. the more Churchman-like, school. Through his membership of Oriel he had been brought into rather close relations with both Newman (q.v.) and Pusey (q.v.), but he was never an adherent of the Oxford Movement (q.v.). From first to last he had an even passionate hatred of Rome, 'that great Cloaca into which all abominations naturally run.' Burgon (q.v.) wrote: 'From the phraseology and many of the conventionalities of [334/335] "evan'gelicalism," he never, to the last hour of his life, was able to shake himself entirely free,' and probably he had not the slightest wish to do so.

From the very beginning of his episcopate to 1852 Wilberforce was engaged in almost incessant controversy with Pusey on such subjects as the Intermediate State, vows for sisters, and adaptations of Roman Catholic manuals. In all such discussions Pusey's theological and patristic learning gave him an immense advantage, while the bishop's common-sense and knowledge of the world laid bare the extreme unwisdom of some of Pusey's actions.

Meanwhile the bishop, who, though not a particularly strong man, had untiring activity of mind and body, pervaded every corner of his large and somnolent diocese. Everywhere he laboured to quicken the zeal of the clergy, to develop all the resources of the Church, to bring men of discordant views into harmony, and to raise the spiritual tone of the whole diocese. The modern conception of a bishop as a man who should be incessantly moving about, seeing with his own eyes and hearing with his own ears, grew out of the example of Bishop Wilberforce. The solemnity and pathetic earnestness of his addresses at confirmations produced a deep effect, and, together with his impressive manner in conferring holy orders, set a new standard for the public ministrations of the episcopate. He did much to promote Communities for women at Cleaver and at Wantage [RELIGIOUS ORDERS, MODERN]; and, with a view to providing more adequate training for the clergy, he established, close to the palace at Cuddesdon, the theological college which afterwards became famous. [THEOLOGICAL COLLEGES.]

1847 was a decisive year in Wilberforce's life. The nomination of Dr. Hampden (q.v.) to the see of Hereford excited lively and widespread indignation. Thirteen of the bishops, including Wilberforce, addressed a formal remonstrance to the Prime Minister, and were well snubbed for their pains, and there the matter might have been left. Unfortunately some well-meaning busybodies resolved to impede Hampden's elevation to the bench by commencing a suit against him, in the Court of Arches, on a charge of false doctrine. As a professor in the University Hampden was exempt from episcopal control, but as Rector of Ewelme he was subject to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Oxford. When approached by the clergy who were promoting the suit, Wilberforce declined to institute the proceedings, but did not discourage them. The promoters then asked him to sign 'Letters of Request' to the Court of Arches, which he did, giving thereby his sanction to the commencement of the suit. He had been advised that, if he did not grant the 'Letters of Request,' a mandamus compelling him to sign would most certainly have been granted. In fact, he was advised that in signing the 'Letters of Request' he was merely acting ministerially, and that he had no option but to sign. But, later on, he was advised that he had the power and duty of examining into the charges contained in the letters, so as to assure himself that a prima facie case was made out to his satisfaction; or, in other words, that he could and should act judicially. Thereupon he set himself to do what he obviously had better have done before, and applied himself, 'with all the study he was master of,' to Hampden's incriminated writings, with the result that he satisfied himself of Hampden's essential soundness, and on the 24th of December he withdrew the 'Letters of Request' which he had signed on the 16th, thereby bringing the suit to an abrupt close. This lame and impotent conclusion pleased no one. Hampden declined further communications with the bishop except through his solicitor. Every one, High and Low alike, who had wished to bring Hampden to trial was furious with Wilberforce for stopping the proceedings, and the Bishop of Exeter (Phillpotts) wrote him such a rebuke as prelates seldom receive. At the same time the court and the Government, naturally incensed by Wilberforce's attempt to interfere with the appointment, were not the least placated by his sudden submission. As Lord High Almoner and as Chancellor of the Order of the Garter he was still brought into official relations with the Queen and the Prince Consort, but he was no longer the familiar friend and spiritual adviser. In 1880 Dr. Liddon (q.v.) wrote: 'The Hampden affair, by making him unpopular at court, was probably the greatest blessing of his life. . . . He was in a fair way to be spiritually ruined outright, and was saved by the consequences of the Hampden matter. It cut him off from the court, and from ambitious visions which had overclouded his soul; and it sent him back to his conscience and his diocese.'

In 1849 Wilberforce, reviewing the events of the year, numbers among them 'Evident withdrawal of Royal favour.' As years went on this 'favour' was further withdrawn, and one reason, at least, for the withdrawal came to the knowledge of the present writer. In the days of his intimacy at court Wilberforce was always urging the fitness of H. E. Manning (who had married his sister-in-law, Caroline Sargent) for a bishopric. In 1851, when Manning seceded to Rome, Prince Albert said to Wilberforce: 'You see we were right in not attending to your advice about Manning. It would have been a great scandal if an English bishop had gone over to Rome.' 'But, sir,' said Wilberforce, 'if Manning had been made a bishop he never would have gone.' There was a certain savour of worldliness and calculation in this remark which tended to shake the royal confidence, just as the affair of Hampden had roused the royal ire.

'Sent back,' as Liddon said, 'to his conscience and his diocese,' Wilberforce worked with an incredible vigour. He was the first to introduce Parochial 'Missions' in his diocese, and the first Bishop of Oxford to make special attempts to reach the undergraduates. He did more than any other prelate to restore Convocation (q.v.). In the House of Lords he was a constant and effective debater whenever any measure affecting the Church came up. He played a brilliant part on the platform and in society, and as years went on he contrived to acquire a kind of primacy among English bishops. His reputation for humour was "exaggerated, and he was the centre of countless anecdotes, mostly false; but his powers of unpremeditated speech could scarcely be exaggerated. Gladstone (q.v.) said he was one of the three men whom he had ever known who had the greatest faculty of public speaking. His theology developed, though very slightly, in the Catholic direction, though now and then he courted popularity by rebuking the despised ritualists. None of the 'Three Schools' trusted him very completely; but there was a fourth school, formed chiefly of those who fell under his personal influence, and this school adored him. The Radicalism of his early youth had made way for Toryism, and Toryism again for a kind of Liberal Conservatism, in which he was a close follower of Gladstone. Unfortunately for his chances of promotion, he had offended equally the court, Lord Palmerston, and Disraeli. Accordingly he was passed over for the sees of Canterbury, York, London, and Durham. Had Gladstone become Prime Minister six weeks sooner than he did he would inevitably have sent Wilberforce to Canterbury; but Tait was appointed by Disraeli on the 12th of November 1868, and Gladstone did not kiss hands till the 3rd of December. The first act of Gladstone's ministry was to disestablish and disendow the Irish Church. Archbishops Tait and Thomson and Bishop Wilberforce abstained from voting on the Second Reading, and in the following September Gladstone translated Wilberforce to the see of Winchester, amid disagreeable innuendoes from those who had reckoned the Bishop of Oxford as a staunch supporter of the Irish establishment. After a brief but energetic occupancy of his new diocese, Wilberforce was killed by a fall from his horse on the 19th of July 1873. He was buried by the side of his wife in Lavington Churchyard. The sincerity of his personal devotion is unquestionable, and he was, as Burgon called him, the Remodeller of the Episcopate. [G. W. E. R.]

Lives by Ashwell and R. G. Wilberforce (3 vols.); by R. G. Wilberforce (1905); J. W. Burgon; and oral tradition.

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