Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Milner, Joseph

MILNER, JOSEPH (1744–1797), divine, was born at Quarry Hill, then in the neighbourhood, now in the midst of Leeds, on 2 Jan. 1744, and was baptised in Leeds parish church. He was educated at Leeds grammar school. An attack of the measles when he was three years old left him permanently delicate; but he early developed great precocity and a wonderfully retentive memory. His father was poor, but through the pecuniary help of friends he was sent to Catharine Hall, Cambridge, where he was appointed chapel clerk. He had little taste for mathematics, and the classical tripos was not then founded. But he achieved the respectable position of third senior optime, and thus qualified himself to compete for the chancellor's medals for classical proficiency, the second of which he won in 1766 in an unusually strong competition. He then went to Thorp Arch, near Tadcaster, Yorkshire, as assistant in a school kept by Christopher Atkinson, the vicar of the parish, received holy orders, and became Atkinson's curate. At Thorp Arch he contracted a lifelong friendship with the son of the vicar, Myles Atkinson, who subsequently became a leader of the evangelical party and vicar of St. Paul's, Leeds. While yet in deacon's orders he left Thorp Arch to become head-master of the grammar school at Hull, which greatly improved under his direction, and he was in 1768 elected afternoon lecturer at Holy Trinity, or the High Church, in that town. He was now in a position to assist his family, and he paid for the education of his brother Isaac [q. v.] In 1770 he became an ardent disciple of the rising evangelical school, and incurred the disfavour which then attached to those who were suspected of ‘methodism.’ He lost most of the rich members of his congregation at the High Church, but the poor flocked to hear him. He also undertook the charge of North Ferriby, a village on the Humber, about nine miles from Hull, where he officiated first as curate and then as vicar for seventeen years. At North Ferriby many Hull merchants had country seats, and among them he was long unpopular. But after seven or eight years opposition ceased both at Hull and Ferriby, and for the last twenty years of his life he was a great moral power in both places. Largely owing to him Hull became a centre of evangelicalism. His chief friends were the Rev. James Stillingfleet of Hotham, at whose rectory he wrote a great part of his ‘Church History,’ and the Rev. William Richardson of York, who both shared his own religious views. In 1792 he had a severe attack of fever, from the effects of which he never fully recovered. In 1797 the mayor and corporation offered him the living of Holy Trinity, mainly through the efforts of William Wilberforce, M.P. for Yorkshire. The corporation also voted him 40l. a year to keep a second usher at his school. On his journey to York for institution he caught a cold, which ended his life in a few weeks (15 Nov. 1797). He was buried in Holy Trinity Church, and a monument to his memory was erected in it.

As a writer Milner is chiefly known in connection with ‘The History of the Church of Christ’ which bears his name, though the literary history of that work is a curious medley. The excellent and somewhat novel idea of the book is no doubt exclusively his. He was painfully struck by the fact that most church histories were in reality little more than records of the errors and disputes of Christians, and thus too often played into the hands of unbelievers. Perhaps the recent publication of Gibbon's ‘Decline and Fall’ (first volume, 1776) strengthened this feeling. At any rate his object was to bring out into greater prominence the bright side of church history. ‘The terms “church” and “Christian,”’ he says, ‘in their natural sense respect only good men. Such a succession of pious men in all ages existed, and it will be no contemptible use of such a history as this if it prove that in every age there have been real followers of Christ.’ With this end in view he brought out the first three volumes— vol. i. in 1794, vol. ii. in 1795, and vol. iii. in 1797. Then death cut short his labours; but even in these first three volumes the hand of Isaac as well as of Joseph may be found, and after Joseph's death Isaac published in 1800 a new and greatly revised edition of vol. i. Vols. ii. and iii. did not require so much revision, because they had been corrected by Isaac in manuscript. In 1803 appeared vol. iv., and in 1809 vol. v., both edited by Isaac, but still containing much of Joseph's work. In 1810 the five volumes were re-edited by Isaac, and John Scott published a new continuation of Milner's ‘Church History’ in three volumes (1826, 1829, and 1831). Both Joseph and Isaac Milner were amateur rather than professional historians, for Joseph's forte was classics, Isaac's mathematics, and both were very busy men also in other departments. When Samuel Roffey Maitland [q. v.] brought his unrivalled knowledge of ‘the dark ages’ to bear upon that part of Joseph Milner's history which related to the Waldenses (1832), he was able to find many flaws in it. Joseph Milner's fellow-townsman, the Rev. John King, ably defended him, but Maitland remained master of the field. His ‘Strictures on Milner's Church History’ (1834) appeared at the time when the high church party was reviving. A controversy ensued, and fresh attention was called to the Milners' work, a new and greatly improved edition of which was published by the Rev. F. Grantham in 1847.

The other works published by Milner in his lifetime were:

  1. ‘Gibbon's Account of Christianity considered, with some Strictures on Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion,’ 1781.
  2. ‘Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of William Howard, who died at North Ferriby on 2 March 1784,’ 1785, a tract which passed through several editions.
  3. ‘Essays on several Religious Subjects, chiefly tending to illustrate the Scripture Doctrine of the Influence of the Holy Spirit,’ 1789.

He also edited, with the Rev. W. Richardson, ‘Thomas Adam's Posthumous Works,’ 1786. After Joseph Milner's death a vast number of his sermons were found, and these were published in four volumes under the title of ‘Practical Sermons,’ the first (1800) with a brief but touching memoir by the editor, Isaac Milner; the second (1809), edited by the Rev. W. Richardson. These two were afterwards republished together. A third volume (1823) was edited by the Rev. John Fawcett, and a fourth (1830), ‘On the Epistles to the Seven Churches, the Millennium, the Church Triumphant, and the 130th Psalm,’ by Edward Bickersteth. In 1855 Milner's ‘Essentials of Christianity, theoretically and practically considered,’ which had been left by the author in a complete state for publication, and had been revised by his brother, was edited for the Religious Tract Society by Mary Milner, the orphan niece of whom Joseph Milner had taken charge, and writer of her uncle Isaac's ‘Life.’

[Joseph Milner's Works, passim; Dean Isaac Milner's Life of Joseph Milner, prefixed to the first volume of Joseph Milner's Practical Sermons; Mrs. Mary Milner's Life of Dean Milner.]

J. H. O.