Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Colenso, John William
COLENSO, JOHN WILLIAM (1814–1883), bishop of Natal, born at St. Austell, Cornwall, on 24 Jan. 1814, was the son of John William Colenso, the mineral agent for part of the duchy of Cornwall. The adverse results of some mining operations seriously straitened his father's circumstances, and his son, still a lad and struggling manfully to carry on his own education, was weighted on his first start in life with the burden of helping to support his family. Early in 1831 he became an assistant in a school kept by Mr. Grubb, incumbent of St. Petrox, Dartmouth, where, with duties which occupied him from five a.m. to eight p.m., he managed to get some two hours daily for his own reading. His letters at this time show the serious tone of his mind, expressed in language usually described as Evangelical. His great desire was to enter the ministry, especially in the church of England. With this view he wished to go to Cambridge as a sizar of St. John's College; and going with the help of some of his relatives, he nobly redeemed his promise of repaying to them the full amount of their aid.
His life at Cambridge was hard to severity. In 1836 he became second wrangler and Smith's prizeman. Three years later Dr. Longley, then head-master of Harrow, appointed him mathematical tutor at the school. His sojourn at Harrow was marked by many misfortunes. A fire destroyed his boardinghouse: and the depressed state of the school under the management of Dr. Wordsworth left him so heavily in debt that a change became necessary. Returning to St. John's College, of which he had been admitted a fellow 14 March 1837, he worked there as tutor from 1842 to 1846, when he married Miss Sarah Frances Bunyon, and became vicar of Forncett St. Mary, a college living in Norfolk, where he worked for seven years among his parishioners and with his pupils. His school treatises on arithmetic (1843) and algebra (1841) had raised his reputation to the highest pitch, and a natural ambition might have led him to look for higher promotion in England. But in 1853 he received and accepted the offer of the new bishopric of Natal, which, with that of Grahamstown, was formed out of the original see of Capetown. Shortly before his consecration he dedicated to his intimate friend, Frederick Denison Maurice, a volume of sermons, which showed at the least that he could not rest contented with some notions generally associated with the theological school in which he had been trained. His sermons were violently attacked by the 'Record' newspaper; but he vindicated himself ably in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The turning-point of his life had now come. Up to this time his moral and spiritual instincts lacked free play; but the questions of the 'intelligent Zulu' became for him questions like those which led Luther to nail his paper of theses on the church door at Wittenberg.
Sailing from Plymouth on 15 Dec. 1853, he made a visitation of his diocese, of which his small volume, 'Ten Weeks in Natal,' is a pleasant record. But he could not break ground in the field allotted to him without running counter to the prejudices of certain sections of his countrymen. This opposition was roused in the first instance by his remarks on Kafir polygamy. Holding most firmly that polygamy was debasing and demoralising in every way. he yet saw that the divorcing of wives on the conversion or baptism of the husband only made bad worse. He protested strongly against the injustice so caused to the women and to the children; and to his surprise he found that the whole body of the American missionaries in Burmah had reached the same conclusions with himself.
Returning to obtain help for his mission work, he remained in England for some months, and then took his family to Natal, where he landed on 20 May 1855. The work done during his first seven years is astonishing. The list of books written, and for the most part printed under his direction by natives, contains a grammar of the Zulu language (1859), a Zulu-English dictionary (1861), selections and reading-books in Zulu, manuals of instruction for the natives in the English language in geography, history, astronomy, and other subjects, with translations of Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, and of the whole of the New Testament (1876). In the printing of these books great part of the work was done by a Zulu lad whom he took as a young savage from his kraal, with some others who were given up to him by their fathers for education during a period of five years only. To these poor lads the bishop was emphatically Sobantu, the 'father of the people;' but as he was their teacher and guide, so in turn he was stimulated by their questions to the most momentous inquiries. Early in 1861 he published his 'Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans,' a work which, according to Bishop Gray of Capetown, bristled from beginning to end with heresies. There can be no question that it struck at the roots of what is commonly called the sacramental system. The Epistle to the Romans, in his opinion, dealt the death-blow to all notions of covenant and privilege. It asserted that the benefits received from and through Christ were received for all the world, and that the divine work was a work for the extinction of sin, not merely for its punishment. He allowed that on this point his eyes had been opened to see that all theories of partial satisfaction implied, not the conquest of evil, but a compromise with it; and having been | brought to this conviction, he expressed it with absolute fearlessness.
He was now translating the book of Genesis for human beings with the docility of a child, but with the reasoning powers of mature age, and he was met at every step by the point-blank question, 'Is all that true?' 'My heart,' he says, 'answered, in the words of the Prophet, Shall a man speak lies in the name of the Lord? I dared not do so.' These questions had set him free. Critics in England found satisfaction in relating how ' the newly appointed bishop went to convert and was converted himself.' The bishop went on with his scrutiny of the Pentateuch, and came to the conclusion that with some historical matter these books contained a large amount which was not historical at all, and that the extremely minute and highly wrought ecclesiastical legislation of the books of Numbers and Leviticus was the work of an age later by many centuries than that to which it professedly belonged. This was the substance of the first three volumes of his critical examination of the Pentateuch, published in the latter part of 1862 and in the following year. From all sides came the indignant summons to give up his office as bishop, and retire from all work as a Christian teacher. Shaken at first, but only for a moment, the bishop soon came to see that he would be basely deserting his post and doing an irreparable wrong to the coming generations if he should foreclose the debate by declaring that such conclusions as these might not lawfully be maintained by a clergyman of the church of England.
The publication of these was to cost him one most valued friendship. Almost from the first they shocked Maurice, who broke off all intercourse with his old friend. The examination of the Pentateuch soon resolved itself into an examination of all the Hebrew scriptures. The book of Deuteronomy contained many passages which could not have been written until long after the settlement of the Jews in Canaan. He was struck by its resemblance to the prophecies of Jeremiah. Now the historical books showed that the so-called Mosaic law was never carried out before the Babylonish captivity. The popular religion down to the time of the great prophets was a debased idolatry, according to the witness of the prophets themselves. But in the time of Josiah occurred the discovery of the Book of the Law in the Temple. This book, whatever it was, had been utterly forgotten. He inferred that the book discovered was the book of Deuteronomy, and this book is identical in feeling, style, purpose, and language with the book of the prophecies of Jeremiah. The conclusion followed that it was written by Jeremiah and placed in the Temple in order that its discovery should lead to a resolution on the part of the king to put down the abominations which were eating out the spiritual life of his people. This conclusion, the bishop insisted, threw light on many difficulties, and proved the books of Chronicles to be a narrative deliberately falsified with the set purpose of exalting the priests and Levites.
A state of wild excitement followed the publication of these boots. Answers were poured out in shoals, but they displayed rather the perturbation of the writers than strength or consistency of argument. In South Africa, Bishop Gray, as metropolitan of Capetown, claimed to exercise coercive jurisdiction over Bishop Colenso, and this jurisdiction the latter utterly denied. The claim might have been conceded if Bishop Gray had not professed also to interfere with the course of ecclesiastical law and justice in this country. He protested against the tyranny of secular courts, and resolved that he would allow no appeal to them. He claimed the power of trying, and, if need be, of condemning and deposing, the Bishop of Natal, and of doing so on charges some of which could not even be entertained against him in England.
To these ecclesiastical pretensions the Bishop of Natal determined to oppose a firm resistance. In the court constituted for his so-called trial at Capetown he appeared by proxy, simply to protest against Bishop Gray's jurisdiction. Putting aside this protest, Dr. Gray pronounced sentence of deposition on 16 Dec. 1863, and, when Bishop Colenso disregarded this sentence, he followed it up by what he termed the greater excommunication. Dr. Colenso appealed to the crown, and the judicial committee of privy council pronounced the whole of these proceedings null and void in law.
Soon after the giving of this judgment Bishop Colenso returned to his diocese, where he was welcomed with unexpected warmth. The great majority admired him as an outspoken and honourable man, who was still their lawful bishop; although Archbishop Longley declared that they could not receive him as their bishop 'without identifying themselves with his errors.'
In the eye of the law he was bishop of Natal. The two societies, for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, chose to regard him as canonically deposed, and transferred to the Bishop of Capetown all their grants in aid of missions in the Natal diocese. In all cases in which it was possible to do so the clergy were told that they must either renounce their allegiance to the bishop or cease to receive their incomes from these two societies. The clergyman who called himself vicar-general of the Bishop of Capetown bade him depart from the house of God as one who had been handed over to the power of the Evil One. His native converts were warned against him. The bishop bore all with patience, and his sermons were listened to with unbroken attention by crowded congregations in the cathedral. These 'Natal Sermons,' afterwards published in England, are full of interest as showing the thorough compatibility of the deepest spiritual faith and trust with the most advanced and searching historical criticism. Another attempt was made to hinder or to stop his work by a refusal of the trustees of the Colonial Bishoprics Fund to pay him his episcopal income. The question was brought before the rolls court, and Lord Romilly gave judgment (1866) that Dr. Colenso was still bishop of Natal and fully entitled to the temporalities of the see. The society which called itself the church of South Africa was declared to have no standing in the eye of English church law, and the principles which had guided Bishop Gray in the so-called trial and sentence of the Bishop of Natal were emphatically condemned.
Meanwhile the bishop continued his examination of the Pentateuch. The sixth part was published in 1871, the seventh and last in 1879. He brought at length to an end a work which remains as a monument of sound learning, unwearied industry, and of keen critical insight. The so-called 'Speaker's Commentary' was announced in terms which plainly showed that it was designed to answer the Bishop of Natal. With the same patience he examined each portion relating to the Pentateuch as it came out, and the six parts of his 'New Bible Commentary literally examined' appeared in 1871-4. The result was not a triumph for the 'bishops and other clergy' who had undertaken to cross lances with him.
Colenso was gaining more thoroughly the confidence of his own clergy and laity, whom he met from time to time in consultation in the church council, the first session of which held in 1858; and it is probable that nothing would have occurred to hinder the growth of this friendly feeling among the colonists for the bishop had it not been for troubles with the natives. These troubles arose out of incidents connected with the diamond-fields. Some young men belonging to the Amahlubi brought home guns which they had received instead of money wages. Their chief, Langalibalele, was summoned to Maritzburg to account for the possession of these unregistered guns. He made a false excuse, and, in fact, refused to appear, his plea being that he was afraid of treachery. Langalibalele's tribe were hunted out of their location, many were killed, those who were caught were apprenticed out for terms of years among the colonists, and the chief himself was tried and sentenced to death, which was commuted to transportation for life. The bishop protested against the hard measure dealt out to him, and circumstances led to the discovery of facts which perfectly explained the cause of Langalibalele's fears. The Matshana inquiry proved that English officials in years long past had been guilty of bad faith in their dealings with natives. Failing to obtain justice in Natal, bishop came to England, brought the whole matter before Lord Carnarvon, and returned (1875) with something like redress for the prisoner. In this he was greatly assisted by the help of the late Colonel Durnford, R.E. But although his own action was thus vindicated, it had roused very bitter feelings in the colony, and these feelings were exasperated when the bishop showed himself as determined that, so far as his power went, right should be done to the Zulu king Cetshwayo as he had been that it should be done to the humbler chief of the Amahlubi. The alarm of a Zulu invasion had been raised, and the colonists lost the balance of their judgment. For this the responsibilitylay beyond doubt with the high commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere. But he was not to be turned aside, and the bishop raised his voice against, the pertinacity with which Sir Bartle Frere fanned the strife until he kindled the flame of war. On the day of humiliation appointed to be kept (13 March 1879) after the disaster of Isandhlwana, he spoke with equal fearlessness, and he had carry on the fight for the restoration of Cetahwayo although his own strength was failing. Work and anxiety had told upon him more, probably, than he had himself supposed. But his actual illness was brief. On the last Sunday of his life he was not able to preach, as usual, at the cathedral; two days later (20 June 1883) he peacefully passed away, preserving to the last an unclouded mind. He had done a great work, and he had done it with singular sweetness and serenity of temper. Those who knew him will remember the charm and dignity of his manner, and for those who never saw him, his writings will attest at the least his unswerving and incorruptible veracity. Colenso's daughter, Frances Ellen, born 30 May 1849, wrote, with Colonel Edward Durnford, the 'History of the Zulu War' (1880), and 'The Ruin of Zululand' (1884-1886). She died 29 April 1887.
[Unpublished Life of John William Colenso, D.D., Bishop of Natal, by the Rev. Sir George W. Cox; for a full bibliography, see Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub. i. 76-9, iii. 1126-7.]