Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cowherd, William

COWHERD, WILLIAM (1763–1816), sect-founder, was born at Carnforth, Lancashire, in 1763. Little is known of his early life. He describes himself as ‘formerly classical teacher in Beverley College,’ an institution for the preparation of candidates for the ministry, and from Beverley he went to Manchester as curate to John Clowes [q. v.], the Swedenborgian rector of St. John's. Leaving Clowes, he preached in the Swedenborgian ‘Temple,’ Peter Street, for a short time before 1800, in which year he opened a chapel, called Christ Church, built for himself in King Street, Salford. Here he founded a congregation on Swedenborgian principles; he is said to have been the only man who ever read through all Swedenborg's Latin writings. His preaching, into which he freely introduced his radical politics, made him a favourite with the populace. Cowherd broke with the Swedenborgians after their conference at Birmingham in 1808, mainly on the ground of renewed attempts to establish what he called ‘a Swedenborgian priesthood.’ On 28 June 1809 a rival conference met in Cowherd's chapel, and continued its sittings till 1 July. It was attended by four ministers, Joseph Wright of Keighley, George Senior of Dalton, near Huddersfield, Samuel Dean of Hulme, and Cowherd, with a considerable number of laymen, including Joseph Brotherton [q. v.], afterwards M.P. for Salford. This conference formulated a scheme of doctrine, which has a strong Swedenborgian tinge. No mention is made of vegetarianism or of teetotalism in the minutes of this conference, but in the same year the practice of both was made imperative in Cowherd's congregation. The new religious body thus formed took the name of Bible Christian, a designation also used by several other dissimilar religious bodies. Cowherd, on 26 March 1810, opened a grammar school and academy of sciences; he had a large number of boarders, and was assisted by two masters. He built Christ Church Institute, Hulme, which came afterwards into the hands of James Gaskill, who left an endowment for its support as an educational institution. Besides being a working astronomer, Cowherd was a practical chemist, and he treated the ailments of the poor with remedies of his own, so that he was familiarly known as Dr. Cowherd. In 1811 he had a project for a printing office, to bring out cheap editions of Swedenborg's philosophical and theological works. Robert Hindmarsh [q. v.], the leader of the Swedenborgian sect, went down to Manchester to assist the scheme; but Hindmarsh and Cowherd differed about abstinence and other matters, and soon came to a quarrel. Seceders from Cowherd and from Clowes built in 1813 a ‘New Jerusalem temple’ for Hindmarsh in Salford. Cowherd died on 24 March 1816. He was buried beside his chapel; inscribed upon his tomb is a brief epitaph written by himself, with the curious summary (adapted from Pope), ‘All feared, none loved, few understood.’ Cowherd's portrait shows a good-looking man, with a rather florid countenance. His congregation (to which Joseph Brotherton ministered for many years) still flourishes in a new chapel (1868) in Cross Lane, Salford, and possesses a valuable library, founded by Cowherd. Its members dislike the name ‘Cowherdite’ by which they are often called. There is a sister congregation in Philadelphia, founded by Rev. William Metcalfe.

Cowherd published:

  1. ‘Select Hymns for the use of Bible Christians,’ which reached a seventh edition in 1841.

Posthumous was

  1. ‘Facts Authentic, in Science and Religion: designed to illustrate a new translation of the Bible,’ part i. Salford, 1818, 4to; part ii. Salford, 1820, 4to (‘printed by Joseph Pratt, at the Academy Press, Salford;’ it consists of a compilation of extracts from various authors, those in part i. arranged under topics, those in part ii. under the several books of the Bible; the paging of the two parts runs on).

[Report of a Conference, &c., 1809; White's Swedenborg, 1867, ii. 610; Inquirer, 17 July 1869; Sutton's List of Lancashire Authors, 1876, p. 26; Axon's Handbook of the Public Libraries of Manchester and Salford, 1877, p. 38 sq.; information from Rev. Alfred Hardy (who assisted in Cowherd's school) and from Rev. James Clark, minister of Cross Lane Chapel.]

A. G.