Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gurney, Joseph John

GURNEY, JOSEPH JOHN (1788–1847), philanthropist and religious writer, born at Earlham Hall, near Norwich, on 2 Aug. 1788, was the tenth child and third son of John Gurney, a member of a well-known quaker family, and a successful banker in Norwich, who was descended from Joseph, younger brother of John Gurney (1689–1741) [q. v.] Joseph John was therefore a brother of Samuel Gurney [q. v.] and Daniel Gurney [q. v.] Of his sisters, Elizabeth, the third, became Mrs. Fry [q. v.], and Hannah became the wife of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton [q. v.] The mother of Gurney died while he was an infant, so that his domestic training fell to a large extent to his elder sisters, and especially to Mrs. Fry. Of a tall and manly figure, a handsome face, and a very affectionate disposition, Gurney was a favourite both with young and old. In his boyhood he was sent to study at Oxford under a tutor, though being a quaker he never became a member of the university. He was greatly and permanently attracted by classical study, and found that its discipline harmonised well with the discipline of self-control so characteristic of the Friends. His first literary effort was a contribution to the ‘Classical Journal,’ in the form of a review of Sir William Drummond's ‘Dissertations on Herculaneum.’ The learning shown in the paper was remarkable, and he was able to correct many of the author's statements. Gurney also studied Hebrew. From an early period he had many serious thoughts. His quaker views, at first rather lax, came to be held with great strength of conviction. Self-inspection became a ruling habit of his life; once a quarter, in what he called his ‘quarterly reviews,’ and every night, in ‘quæstiones nocturnæ,’ he examined the actions and spirit of each day.

In 1818 he felt himself called to be a minister of the Society of Friends, and from that time he was much engaged in work appropriate to his calling. In addition to such work, he was attracted strongly by philanthropic enterprises, and other, especially educational, movements for the benefit of the community. In conjunction with Mrs. Fry, he took a great interest in prison reform, thoroughly sharing her views on that subject. He was intimately associated with Clarkson, Wilberforce, Buxton, and others in the cause of slave emancipation. In politics he was a liberal, and an energetic and hearty supporter of free trade. In the Bible Society he took a very special interest, the day of the celebration of the society at Norwich being always a festival day with him. He made many tours to the United States, partly for religious services in connection with the Society of Friends, and partly to promote such public objects as the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital punishment, and the restraint of war. Ireland, Scotland, the United States, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Hanover, Prussia, and other parts of Germany he visited in this way. In July 1837 he sailed for America. He extended his journey to Canada and the West India islands, and did not return till August 1840. At Washington he invited the officers of the government and the members of congress to a religious meeting on a Sunday morning. The speaker of the lower house granted him the use of Legislation Hall; the chaplain of the house surrendered his usual morning service, and the room was crowded by the president and members of congress, their ladies, and many other persons. At the close of a powerful address upon Christian duty he was warmly greeted by Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and many other distinguished members.

Gurney's labours through the press were numerous and considerable. In 1824 he published ‘Observations on the distinguishing Views and Practices of the Society of Friends,’ intended chiefly for the younger members of the society. In the same year he published ‘A Letter to a Friend on the Authority of Christianity.’ In 1825, under the title of ‘Essays on the Evidences, Doctrines, and Practical Operation of Christianity,’ he embodied the result of the meditation and research of many years. Southey wrote (4 Jan. 1826): ‘I have gone through your volume with wonder as well as satisfaction. … It would have been a surprising book for one who was bred to the profession of divinity, and pursued the study with ardour during a long life.’ In 1827, after a long residence and inquiry, he published ‘A Report on the State of Ireland, made to the Lord-Lieutenant.’ In 1830 ‘Biblical Notes and Dissertations, chiefly on the Doctrine of the Deity of Christ.’ In reference to this work Dr. Tregelles remarked: ‘Thoroughly as the field of criticism has since changed, the value of that book remains.’ In 1832 ‘An Essay on the Moral Character of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ In the same year he published ‘Terms of Union,’ and ‘A Sketch of the Portable Evidence of Christianity,’ the result of a suggestion made to him by Dr. Chalmers. In 1834 his ‘Essays on the Habitual Exercise of Love to God’ appeared, and the book was reissued at Philadelphia in 1840, and in a French (1839) and a German (1843) translation. On his return from America in 1840 he published his ‘Winter in the West Indies,’ in familiar letters to Henry Clay of Kentucky. In 1843, anonymously at first, ‘The Papal and Hierarchical System compared with the Religion of the New Testament.’ This was reissued with his name, under the title ‘Puseyism traced to its Root, in a View of the Papal and Hierarchical System compared with the Religion of the New Testament.’ Several other works were printed privately, including ‘Letters to Mrs. Opie’ and an ‘Autobiography.’ After his death was published ‘Chalmeriana, or Colloquies with Dr. Chalmers’ (1853), and several little brochures selected from his works.

Gurney declined overtures made to him to enter parliament. He was conspicuous for the largeness of his gifts to philanthropic objects, his generosity being facilitated by simplicity and economy in the ordinary ordering of his life. He was married three times: first in 1817 to Jane Birkbeck, who died in 1822; secondly, in 1827, to Mary Fowler, who died in 1836; and thirdly, in 1841, to Eliza P. Kirkbride, who survived him. He died, after a few days' illness, on 4 Jan. 1847, in his fifty-ninth year.

[Memoirs of Joseph John Gurney, edited by Joseph Bevan Braithwaite, 2 vols. Norwich, 1854; Memoir of, by John Alexander, 1847; Memorial of, by Bernard Barton, 1847; Reminiscences of a Good Man's Life by Mrs. Thomas Geldart, 1853.]

W. G. B.