Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilberforce, Samuel
WILBERFORCE, SAMUEL (1805–1873), successively bishop of Oxford and Winchester, the third son of William Wilberforce [q. v.] and Barbara Anne, eldest daughter of Isaac Spooner of Elmdon Hall, Warwickshire, was born at Clapham on 7 Sept. 1805. Robert Isaac Wilberforce [q. v.] was his eldest brother; Henry William Wilberforce [q. v.] was his youngest. Samuel was privately educated, being the pupil successively of the Rev. George Hodson of Maisemore, Gloucestershire, and of the Rev. F. Spragge of Little Bounds, Bidborough, Kent. He matriculated at Oxford on 27 Jan. 1823, going into residence as a commoner of Oriel in the Michaelmas term of the same year, and graduated B.A. 1826 (first class in mathematics and second in classics), and M.A. 1829. Later he received the degree of D.D. in 1845, and was made an honorary fellow of All Souls' in 1871. From the age of sixteen he was designed by his father for the church, and took deacon's orders on 21 Dec. 1828, being appointed curate in charge of Checkendon in Oxfordshire. He had married, on 11 June in the same year, Emily, eldest daughter of John Sargent, rector of Lavington, Sussex. His wife's sister, Caroline, married in November 1833 Henry Edward (afterwards Cardinal) Manning [q. v.]
Wilberforce's stay at Checkendon did not exceed sixteen months. An offer of the living of Ribchester, Lancashire, while he was yet in deacon's orders, was declined by his father's advice, but after his ordination as priest (20 Dec. 1829) Bishop Sumner of Winchester, who considered himself under obligations to the Wilberforce family, presented him to the rectory of Brighstone or Brixton, Isle of Wight. He was inducted on 12 Jan. 1830, and remained there for ten years. During that period his gift of eloquence began to attract attention. His father had trained him in his childhood to the habit of public speaking, and when at Oxford he had been a prominent member of the Oxford Union, then recently founded. His visitation sermon delivered at Newport in 1833 was printed at the bishop's wish. Soon his services as a preacher came to be in much request, and within a few years he received offers of better livings at Tunbridge Wells and in London. At Brighstone, too, he made his first appearance as a writer with the ‘Note-book of a Country Clergyman,’ and after his father's death in 1833 he wrote the ‘Life of William Wilberforce,’ in conjunction with his brother, Robert Isaac Wilberforce. During the same period he prepared for the press the ‘Journals and Letters of Henry Martyn,’ and contributed frequently to the ‘British Magazine.’ He also did much work on behalf of the Church Missionary Society and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, two organisations which he tried to unite. He was appointed rural dean of the northern division of the Isle of Wight in 1836, archdeacon of Surrey in 1839, and canon of Winchester in 1840. At the close of 1840 he resigned the living of Brighstone, and was appointed by the bishop of Winchester to that of Alverstoke in Hampshire. He left behind him in the Isle of Wight the name of an earnest and zealous parish priest, and of one who had conspicuous talent for organisation. Before his migration the prince consort made him one of his chaplains (5 Jan. 1841), and thus gave him a position of influence at court which he was to hold for many years. Two months later he underwent the great sorrow of his life in the death of his wife (10 March 1841). Her death put him into possession of her estate of Lavington, which gave him the position the ownership of land in England rarely fails to bring with it, and further marked him out from the crowd of country clergy.
Upon his migration to Alverstoke Wilberforce quickly became known to a wide public. His new cure included the garrison town of Gosport, with the naval hospital at Haslar and the Clarence victualling yard, and he thus came into contact with many men who were afterwards to leave their mark upon English history. It was to be expected that he would soon receive further promotion. In October 1843 he was appointed sub-almoner to the queen, and two years later (9 May 1845) he was installed dean of Westminster. Greville writes of him early in 1845 as ‘a very quick, lively, and agreeable man, who is in favour at court.’ He remained at Westminster Abbey a few months, being appointed to the bishopric of Oxford in October 1845. He remained, perhaps contrary to his own expectation, bishop of Oxford for nearly twenty-five years, and it was in this office that the chief work of his life was done.
The task which he found before him at his enthronement (13 Dec. 1845) was no light one. On 1 Nov. in the year of his appointment John Henry Newman [q. v.] had been received into the Roman church. Pusey's two years' suspension from preaching before the university was just terminated, and he had taken Newman's place as head of the tractarian party. Immediately after Wilberforce's formal election by the Christ Church chapter he received a letter from Pusey commenting on the ‘strangeness’ of his having been ‘called to a see which most of all requires supernatural gifts,’ and going no further in the way of congratulation than to mention that God's providence had been shown in the freedom of Oxford from such a bishop ‘as some with which we had been threatened’ (Life of S. Wilberforce, i. 300). The presence in the diocese of a subordinate so much inclined to mutiny—a subordinate, too, whose least word or deed was certain at that time of receiving the attention of the public—rendered the bishop's position exceptionally difficult. Moreover, the diocese itself was utterly unorganised. It had lately been completed by the addition of the county of Bucks to those of Berks and Oxford, of which it consisted in Bishop Bagot's time, and the income was so small that a heavy grant was at first required from the ecclesiastical commissioners to make it up to 5,000l. a year. But Wilberforce contrived to dispel all difficulties. Pusey was so dealt with that, although the bishop privately inhibited him for two years from all ministrations in the diocese (except at Pusey in Berkshire), he yet succeeded in gaining his confidence, and in the end Pusey declared that he had received more support from Wilberforce than from any other bishop on the bench (Liddon, Life of Pusey, iv. 258). In other diocesan matters he worked a change which was almost a revolution. Besides transforming the old methods of confirmation and ordination, and introducing the system of lenten missions, he compelled the rural deans to assemble their clergy in regular chapters, and themselves to meet regularly under his own presidency. He established diocesan societies for the building of churches, the augmentation of benefices, the provision of additional clergy, and the education of the poor; supervised with much jealous care the establishment of some of the earliest protestant sisterhoods; and himself founded colleges for the training of theological students at Cuddesdon, and of national schoolmasters at Culham. Added to this, he was for some time chaplain to the House of Lords, lord high almoner to the queen (1847–69), and at all times an indefatigable preacher and collector for the principal missionary bodies, as well as a conspicuous figure in general society. Some idea of the extent of his activity in diocesan work may be formed from the fact that the total amount expended in the diocese during his episcopate on ‘churches, endowments, schools, houses of mercy, and parsonage-houses’ was upwards of two million pounds (see Eighth Charge to the Clergy, &c.)
Wilberforce's influence, however, extended far beyond his own diocese. The year of his elevation to the see was one in which several great questions affecting both church and state came before the House of Lords, and in the debates which followed Wilberforce made his mark as a debater. ‘I think the house will be very much afraid of you,’ was the comment of the prince consort's secretary after hearing the bishop's speech on the cornlaw bill; and thereafter he was always a power to be reckoned with. Although for the most part he confined himself to ecclesiastical matters, such as the position of the colonial church, the management of episcopal and capitular estates, the law of church buildings, and the controversy which raged over the establishment of the papal hierarchy in England, there were many other subjects in which he took a peculiar interest. Such were the law of charitable trusts, the prevention of cruelty to women and children, the treatment of prisoners, and national education. On all these subjects the House of Lords heard from him an able and eloquent presentation of the church's view of the matter in hand, while his frequent exposition of current business in his diocesan charges did much to instruct the country clergy in affairs of state. But the public act with which he is most identified was the reform of convocation. Since 1717, when the two houses of the Canterbury province entangled themselves in hopeless controversy over Bishop Hoadly's attack on the nonjurors, no license from the crown to debate had been given to them. In 1851 Lord Redesdale mooted the question of reviving the rights of convocation in the House of Lords, with the support of Wilberforce and Bishop Blomfield of London, but he was opposed by the archbishop of Canterbury, John Bird Sumner [q. v.], on the ground that it would only lead to endless discussions. In 1852, when the Gorham judgment [see Gorham, George Cornelius] had given deep offence to the advanced party in the church, Wilberforce resolved on a determined attempt at the revival of the former power of convocation as a synodical body. Convocation met as usual in 1852, expecting to be prorogued as usual after the transaction of merely formal business. But Wilberforce asked that it should petition the crown to be heard upon the clergy discipline bill then pending, and he finally succeeded in carrying his point. In the meantime parliament had been dissolved and convocation with it. On its reassembling, Wilberforce, taking advantage of Bishop Phillpotts's point that the prohibition against the transaction of business applied to the alteration of canons and not to discussion, succeeded in prolonging its session for several days [see Phillpotts, Henry]. By keeping the matter away from the public until it was ripe, he contrived to let convocation, in his own words, ‘feel its way to a revival of its functions’ (Life of S. Wilberforce, ii. 170). His action met with no support either from the friendly government of Lord Aberdeen or from the archbishop. But, at length, in 1858, he succeeded in winning over the archbishop (ib. p. 268), who had till then consistently opposed the extension of the sittings, and, with his approval, its discussions became more and more wide until, in 1860, it unanimously addressed the crown for license to alter the twenty-ninth canon on the subject of sponsors in baptism. The license was granted the following year. In this particular case no legislation followed, but due effect was given to a similar license granted in 1865 for the amendment of other canons, and since then the convocations both of Canterbury and York have recovered a portion of their ancient authority as the proper organs for the expression of clerical opinion. In the negotiations which led to this reform Wilberforce was, as appears from the letters published after his death, the ruling spirit, although he gladly availed himself of the historical learning of Bishop Phillpotts and Mr. Henry Hoare.
All Wilberforce's tact, however, was not sufficient to prevent him from falling into great, though temporary, unpopularity. In November 1847 the see of Hereford was offered by the prime minister to Renn Dickson Hampden [q. v.], then regius professor of divinity at Oxford. But Hampden's opinions, as shown in his writings, were distasteful to all high-churchmen. They had been condemned by convocation of the university in 1836, and an attempt in 1842 to repeal the statute of condemnation had failed. On the intended appointment being announced, steps were taken by the bishops to protest against it, the remonstrance to Lord John Russell being signed by thirteen out of twenty-six English prelates. In this remonstrance, of which Bishop Phillpotts was the mainspring, and Bishop Kaye of Lincoln the most active signatory, Wilberforce joined. Petitions followed from clergy and laity, both for and against the appointment, and Wilberforce wrote to Lord John expressing no opinion as to Hampden's orthodoxy, but asking the prime minister on the ground of expediency to require him to disprove the charges against him before his consecration. To this request Lord John did not accede, and articles for a prosecution were drawn up by W. H. Ridley, E. Dean, and H. G. Young, all beneficed clergy in the diocese of Oxford. The matter thus came before Wilberforce officially, the rectory of Ewelme, which was attached to Hampden's professorship, being within his diocese. The first step of the promoters under the Clergy Discipline Act of 1840 was to give notice to the bishop that the articles were about to be filed, in order that he might, if he thought fit, issue letters of request transmitting the case to the court of arches. He privately promised to do so, being under the impression that Hampden was about to ask for trial in a letter to Lord John Russell, which he was reported to be on the point of publishing. On 15 Dec. Hampden's letter appeared without the anticipated request for trial. On the following day the letters of request to the court of arches for Hampden's trial were signed by Wilberforce, who informed Hampden of the fact (ib. i. 454). On the following day (17 Dec. 1847) he again wrote to Hampden. He sent a list of questions on points of doctrine, to which he invited Hampden's affirmation, asking him at the same time to withdraw the inculpated writings, and stating that if he did so the articles against him would be withdrawn. Hampden replied satisfying the tendered test, but gave no answer to the demand for the withdrawal of the writings. Later, it came to Wilberforce's knowledge that that book by Hampden on which the promoters of the writ laid most stress was being sold, if at all, against the author's wish. Meanwhile the archbishop wrote privately to Wilberforce urging him strongly to quash the suit. Finally Wilberforce withdrew the letters of request, and approached Hampden with a view to obtaining from him the expurgation of the offending passages from his writings. In consideration of his assent to this expurgation, he offered to procure the withdrawal of the bishops' remonstrance. Although Hampden did not accede to Wilberforce's wishes, the bishop wrote to him on 28 Dec. 1847 that on the whole he considered his assurances satisfactory, and that he would use his influence to withdraw all opposition to his consecration. There can be little doubt that by his vacillation throughout the proceedings Wilberforce laid himself open at the time to the charge of facing both ways. But from the letters to his brother published in his ‘Life’ (i. 494–7) it is plain that the prosecution was really set on foot by Keble, Pusey, and other leaders of the tractarians; that it was they who suggested that he should try as Hampden's diocesan to bring him to an abjuration of the doctrines imputed to him without suit; and that it was because Wilberforce was really convinced that Hampden's opinions had been misrepresented that the letters of request were withdrawn (ib. i. 445).
Meanwhile Newman's secession was beginning to bear fruit in Wilberforce's own family. In 1846 his wife's sister Mrs. G. D. Ryder and her husband were received into the Roman church, and in 1850 his brother Henry and his wife followed. The next year came the secession of Henry Edward Manning [q. v.], his brother-in-law, and the rector of his own parish of Lavington, and in 1854 that of his guide and counsellor, his brother, Robert Isaac, the list being completed by the reception of his remaining brother William in 1863, and of his only daughter and her husband, Mr. J. H. Pye, in 1868. As a consequence, those who remembered only Wilberforce's vacillations in the Hampden case put aside his repeated denunciations of papal aggression and ‘the deadly subtleties of Rome’ (see his Charge of 1851) as expressions not to be taken literally. They considered that he was only watching his opportunity to follow the other members of his family into the church of Rome. The nickname of ‘Soapy Sam’—finally fastened upon him in consequence of Lord Westbury's description in the House of Lords (15 July 1864) of his synodical judgment on ‘Essays and Reviews’ as ‘a well-lubricated set of words, a sentence so oily and saponaceous that no one can grasp it’—both expressed and did something to confirm the public's impression of his capacity for evasion; he himself declared, with characteristic quickness, that he owed his sobriquet to the fact that ‘though often in hot water, he always came out with clean hands.’
The suspicions of his sincerity, however, which were caused by the defections to Rome of so many members of his family soon died away. In the controversy which arose in 1860 over ‘Essays and Reviews’ [see Williams, Rowland], Wilberforce began the fray by an article in the ‘Quarterly Review’ condemning the book. After the privy council reversed the sentence of a year's suspension passed by the court of arches on some of the authors of the volume, he procured the synodical condemnation of the council's decision by the convocation of Canterbury, and successfully defended the action of that body in the House of Lords. His action on the case of John William Colenso [q. v.] caused him to be regarded with more favour than before by the low-church party, one of whose spokesmen hailed him in 1862 as ‘our invaluable champion in the conflict with infidelity’ (Life of S. Wilberforce, iii. 1, n. 1); while his services on the ritual commission of 1867 did much to disarm their distrust of him as a ‘Romaniser.’ Hence it was generally expected that on the promotion of Bishop Tait to the archbishopric of Canterbury in 1868 he would receive the diocese of London thereby left vacant. This, however, was not to be, and it was not until the bishop's resignation act of 1869 had vacated the see of Winchester that Gladstone wrote to Wilberforce that the ‘time had come to seal the general verdict’ by offering him the vacant see. From a money point of view the translation offered no advantages, the income of the see being burdened with the pension of the retiring bishop, Charles Richard Sumner [q. v.]; but Wilberforce saw in it an opportunity of more extended work, and he was enthroned in December 1869. In his new post he initiated, and during the remainder of his life presided over, the revision of the New Testament, a joint committee of both houses of convocation being appointed for the purpose in February 1870; the revision was completed in 1882. He also passed through convocation in 1870 a clergy resignation bill which became law in 1872, contrived to allay the agitation for the disuse of the Athanasian creed, and arranged with Gladstone in 1873 the omission of the bishops from the supreme court of appeal instituted by the Judicature Act of that year. But the end was now near. His last public appearance was at a confirmation held by him at Epsom College on 17 July. Two days after he was thrown from his horse while riding with Lord Granville on the Surrey downs at Abinger, and was killed on the spot. He was buried, in accordance with his own wish, at Lavington churchyard by the side of his wife. Four children survived him (1) Emily Charlotte, the wife of Mr. J. H. Pye, mentioned above; (2) Reginald Garton Wilberforce, who succeeded to Lavington; (3) Ernest Roland (1840–1907), at one time bishop of Chichester; and (4) Albert Basil Orme, archdeacon and canon of Westminster.
Wilberforce was at once too energetic and too resourceful a man to have justice done him till after his death. In spite of the accusation of ambition often brought against him, it is plain that the interest of the church of England alone occupied his best thoughts. He was, as he said, ‘no party man,’ but a churchman of the type of Hooker and Cosin, and had no sympathy with those whose love for ceremonial led them to favour ritualistic innovations on the suggestion of Roman doctrines. ‘I hate and abhor the attempt to Romanise the church of England’ were almost the last words spoken by him in the House of Lords four days before his death, and the words formed a fitting summary of the policy which he had unfalteringly pursued throughout his life. At the same time, he was quick to see in the Anglo-catholic movement a means of infusing life into a church which had not yet shaken off the apathy of Georgian times. Hence he was long hated by the evangelical party, who saw their hitherto dominant position every day slipping from them, while the firm though kindly hand with which he ruled his diocese stirred up against him many jealousies. Yet he lived down the feeling against him, and came to be recognised as in a peculiar way the representative of the English episcopate, and the prelate to whom Scottish, colonial, and American bishops naturally resorted for advice and counsel. He transformed by his example the popular idea of a bishop, who is now expected to be, as he said, ‘the mainspring of all spiritual and religious agency in his diocese.’ In Burgon's ‘Lives of Twelve Good Men,’ he is called ‘the remodeller of the episcopate.’ It has fallen to few men to work such a complete change as Wilberforce wrought during his life, and, in the words of one who had peculiar opportunities of following his career, ‘few would deny that he was the greatest prelate of his age.’
Apart from his two-volume edition of the ‘Journals and Letters of Henry Martyn’ [q. v.], his share in the ‘Life’ of his father (abridged in 1868, 8vo), and numerous separately issued speeches, addresses, sermons, charges, prayer-manuals, and the like, Wilberforce was the author of:
- ‘Note-book of a Country Clergyman,’ London, 1833, 12mo, a collection of short stories, ‘intended to illustrate the practical working of the Anglican parochial system’ (see Athenæum, 1833, p. 650).
- ‘Eucharistica [a Manual for Communicants]; with an Introduction,’ London, 1839, 32mo; numerous editions.
- ‘Agathos, and other Sunday Stories,’ 1840, 18mo; numerous editions in England and America, and versions in French and German.
- ‘The Rocky Island, and other Parables,’ 1840, 18mo; (a so-called 13th edition appeared in 1869).
- ‘History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America,’ 1844, 8vo; New York, 12mo (see Quart. Rev. and New York Hist. Mag. 1856, p. 206).
- ‘Heroes of Hebrew History,’ 1870, 8vo.
The bishop's contributions to the ‘Quarterly Review’ included an indictment of Darwin's ‘Origin of Species’ in July 1860 (see Quarterly Review, April 1874, 332 sq.). ‘Maxims and Sayings [from the devotional manuals] of Samuel Wilberforce’ was dedicated to the bishop's ‘lifelong friend’ Archdeacon Pott in 1882 by C. M. S. (Edinburgh and London, 1882).
A portrait of Wilberforce in episcopal robes, by George Richmond, R.A., is now in the Theological College at Cuddesdon, and another in academical dress, by the same artist, in Lavington House, Sussex. A replica of the last is in the Diploma Gallery of the Royal Academy.
[Life of Samuel Wilberforce, 3 vols. 1879 (1st vol. by Canon Ashwell, 2nd and 3rd by the bishop's son, R. G. Wilberforce); The Life of Samuel Wilberforce, by his son, R. G. Wilberforce (revised from the above, with additions), 1888; Thomas Mozley's Reminiscences, 1882; Letters of J. B. Mozley, 1885; Life and Letters of Dean Church, edited by his daughter, 1895; Liddon, Johnston, and Wilson's Life of E. P. Pusey, 1893; Burgon's Twelve Good Men, 1888, with portrait; family information.]