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

SEWELL, WILLIAM (1804–1874), divine and author, born at Newport, Isle of Wight, on 23 Jan. 1804, and baptised on 13 Jan. 1807, was second son of Thomas Sewell of Newport, and brother of Henry Sewell [q. v.], premier of New Zealand, of Richard Clarke Sewell [q. v.], of Elizabeth Missing Sewell, a well-known novelist, and of the Rev. Dr. James Edwards Sewell, warden of New College, Oxford, since 1860. William was a commoner at Winchester, and, matriculating from Merton College, Oxford, on 4 Nov. 1822, was postmaster there from 1822 to 1827. He took first-class honours in classics, and graduated B.A. 1827, M.A. 1829, B.D. 1841, and D.D. 1857. The chancellor's prize for the English essay fell to him in 1828, and that for the Latin essay in 1829. The former prize essay, ‘The Domestic Manners of the Greeks and Romans compared with those of the most refined States of Europe,’ was printed in the ‘Oxford English Prize Essays,’ vol. iv. 1836. On 30 June 1827 he was elected a Petrean fellow of Exeter College, in 1830 he was ordained to the curacy of Whippingham in the Isle of Wight, and on 10 July 1831 was appointed to the perpetual curacy of St. Nicholas in Carisbrooke Castle, a small sinecure which he held till his death. He was tutor of his college from 1831 to 1853, and became librarian in 1833, sub-rector and divinity reader in 1835, and dean in 1839. In 1832 he was an examiner in the classical schools, and from 1836 to 1841 Whyte's professor of moral philosophy. The substance of his lectures he recast and published in two volumes, called ‘Christian Morals and Christian Politics,’ which formed part of the ‘Englishman's Library’ in 1840. He established a Moral Philosophy Club, to meet at the members' rooms in succession.

Sewell was an early friend of Pusey, Newman, and Keble, and in the earlier stages of the tractarian movement was one of the ablest men of the party. But the movement's romanising tendencies alienated him from it, and after the issue of ‘Tract XC’ He withdrew from all association with it. He explained his position in a published letter to Pusey (1841), and in March 1842 more clearly defined it in an article in the ‘Quarterly Review’ on ‘The Divines of the Seventeenth Century,’ which helped to stem the progress of the Tractarians in the direction of Rome.

Sewell was long one of the most prominent men in Oxford, writing and speaking on every public question. Newman declared that he had a word ready for everything; Hampden took the less flattering view that he was ‘namby-pamby without solidity, consistency, and formation.’ James Bowling Mozley says, under date of 15 March 1834: ‘We had a splendid sermon from Sewell of Exeter College at the Assizes, on the origin of evil; not one person in the church understood one sentence of it.’

As a college tutor Sewell fully deserved his wide reputation. His lectures—chiefly on Plato and Bishop Butler—were discursive but always interesting (cf. Samuel Clark, Memorials, 1878, pp. 135, 147–9). On the appearance of J. A. Froude's ‘Nemesis of Faith’ in 1849, Sewell, after reading it, declaimed to his class next morning (27 Feb.) on the wickedness of the book; and when one of the pupils, Arthur Blomfield (afterwards rector of Beverston, Gloucestershire), admitted, in reply to Sewell's inquiry, that he possessed a copy, Sewell seized it, tore it in pieces, and threw it on the hall fire (Daily News, 2 May 1892). This incident gave rise to a commonly received report that Froude's ‘Nemesis of Faith’ was publicly burnt by the authorities of the university. He had advanced views in regard to university reform, but in all his schemes of reform, which he defended in numerous pamphlets, he sought to perpetuate the predominance of the church of England. After a visit to Ireland in 1842, he, in conjunction with a small body of friends, founded St. Columba's College, Rathfarnham, near Dublin, which was opened on 26 March 1843, to furnish the gentry of Ireland with a school on the model of Eton. Sewell was one of the managers, but he had no capacity for business, and by 1847 had involved the college in a debt of 25,000l. This sum Lord J. G. Beresford, archbishop of Armagh, paid on the condition that Sewell relinquished his connection with St. Columba. In 1847 he issued ‘Journal of a Residence at the College of St. Columba in Ireland.’

On his return to England Sewell helped to found St. Peter's College, Radley, near Oxford, a school for boys, which was opened on 6 March 1847, and was conducted on mediæval principles; the fasts of the church were strictly kept, and full services held in the chapel night and morning. He himself was warden from 1852 to 1862, by which time he had accumulated a debt of 28,000l. John Gellibrand Hubbard [q. v.] lent that sum to the college, and under improved management the loan was paid off. He published ‘A Year's Sermons to Boys preached in the Chapel of St. Peter's College, Radley,’ 2 vols. 1854–69.

Sewell thus involved himself irretrievably in debt. His fellowship at Exeter College was sequestrated, and in 1862 he went abroad to avoid his creditors. He took up his residence at Deutz on the Rhine, opposite Cologne, and employed himself in examining critically the text of the New Testament. The result was a work published in 1878, after his death, entitled ‘The Microscope of the New Testament.’ In 1870, by the aid of friends, he was enabled to return to England. Until 1874 he resided chiefly in the Isle of Wight. He died at the residence of his nephew, the Rev. Arthur Sewell, at Litchford Hall, near Manchester, on 14 Nov. 1874, and was buried in St. Andrew's churchyard at Blackley. He was unmarried. A window inscribed to his memory is in Exeter College Chapel.

Apart from controversial pamphlets and many collected volumes of sermons (in 1831, 1832, 1835, and 1850), his chief published works were:

  1. ‘An Essay on the Cultivation of the Intellect by the Study of Dead Languages,’ 1830.
  2. ‘Hora Philologica; or Conjectures on the Structure of the Greek Language,’ 1830.
  3. ‘A Clergyman's Recreation; or Sacred Thoughts in Verse,’ 1831; 2nd edit. 1835.
  4. ‘An Introduction to the Dialogues of Plato,’ 1841.
  5. ‘Christian Politics,’ 1844.
  6. ‘The Plea of Conscience for seceding from the Catholic Church to the Romish Schism in England,’ 1845; 3rd ed. 1845.
  7. ‘The Nation, the Church, and the University of Oxford,’ 1849.
  8. ‘Christian Vestiges of Creation,’ 1861.

Sewell also wrote four novels: ‘Uncle Peter's Fairy Tales,’ 1844; ‘Hawkstone, a Tale of and for England,’ 1845; ‘Uncle Peter's Tale for the Nineteenth Century,’ 1868; and ‘The Giant, a Fairy Tale,’ 1870. He edited several of the novels written by his sister, Elizabeth Missing Sewell (1844–1850). To the ‘Quarterly Review’ he contributed fifteen articles, chiefly on theological subjects. He published translations of the ‘Agamemnon,’ 1846; the ‘Georgics,’ 1846, another edition, 1854; the ‘Odes and Epodes of Horace,’ 1850. He left in manuscript ‘Lexilogus, a Collection of Greek Words,’ 4 vols.; ‘Lectures on Inspiration;’ ‘The Microscope of the Diatessaron;’ ‘The Diatessaron, arranged,’ 2 vols.; ‘The Psalms of David in Verse;’ ‘The Iliad of Homer translated,’ 2 vols; ‘The Odyssey of Homer translated,’ 2 vols.

[The Microscope of the New Testament, 1878, pref. pp. v–xii; Some Last Words of W. Sewell, with a prefatory notice by his sister, 1876; Liddon's Life of E. B. Pusey, 1893–4, i. 293, 305, ii. 204, 287, 289, iii. 137, 174, 248; Mozley's Reminiscences, ii. 23–8 (1882); Letters of J. B. Mozley, 1885, pp. 40, 71; Burgon's Twelve Good Men, 1891, pp. 158, 187; G. D. Boyle's Recollections, 1895, pp. 105–8; Stokes's Life of George Petrie, 1868, pp. 358–60; Quarterly Review, April 1891, pp. 399, 403–4; Reminiscences of Oxford, ed. Couch (Oxford Hist. Soc.), 1892, p. 351; English Churchman, 19 Nov. 1874, p. 560; Guardian, 18 Nov. 1874, p. 1480; Times, 16 Nov. 1874 p. 7, 18 Nov. p. 11; Boase's Rectors and Fellows of Exeter College (Oxford Hist. Soc.), 1894, pp. cxliii–cl, 174; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 344; note from the Rev. H. Edmund Sharpe, vicar of Newport.]

G. C. B.