He went to Charterhouse School, where George Grote and Julius Hare were among his schoolfellows. He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1814. gained the Craven university scholarship and the chancellor's classical medal and served as Secretary of the Cambridge Union Society in the Lent term, 1817. In October 1818 he was elected to a fellowship, and went for a year's travel on the Continent. In Rome he made friends with Christian Charles Josias Bunsen, which had a most important influence on his life. On his return, "distrust of his own resolutions and convictions" led him to abandon for the time his intention of being a clergyman, and he settled down to study law, though he did not lose interest in other subjects. In the meantime, he took on the task of translating and prefacing Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher's essay on the Gospel of St Luke. He further rendered two of Johann Ludwig Tieck's most recent Novellen into English. In 1827 he made up his mind to finish with law, and was ordained deacon the same year.
Thirlwall now joined Hare in translating Niebuhr's History of Rome; the first volume appeared in 1828. The translation was attacked in the Quarterly as favourable to scepticism, and the translators jointly replied. In 1831 they established the Philological Museum, which lasted only six numbers. Among Thirlwall's contributions was his masterly paper On the Irony of Sophocles. On Hare's departure from Cambridge in 1832, Thirlwall became assistant college tutor, which led him to join in the great controversy upon the admission of Dissenters which arose in 1834. Thomas Turton, the regius professor of divinity (afterwards dean of Westminster and bishop of Ely), had written a pamphlet objecting to the admission. Thirlwall replied by pointing out that no provision for theological instruction was made by the colleges except compulsory attendance at chapel. This attack on a time-hallowed piece of college discipline brought a demand for his resignation as assistant tutor. He complied at once; his friends thought that he ought to have sat it out.
History of Greece
Though devoted to his parochial duties, he found time to begin his principal work, the History of Greece. This work was a commission from Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia, and was originally intended to be condensed into two or three duodecimo volumes. The scale was enlarged, but Thirlwall always felt cramped. Compared with Grote's history it lacks enthusiasm for a definite political ideal and is written entirely from the standpoint of a scholar. It shows a more impartial treatment of the evidence, especially in respect of the aristocratic and absolute governments of Greece. For these reasons its popularity was not so immediate as that of Grote's work, but its substantial merits were later recognized. A letter from Thirlwall to Grote, and Grote's generous reply, are published in the life of the latter. John Sterling pronounced Thirlwall "a writer as great as Thucydides and Tacitus, and with far more knowledge than they." The first volume was published in 1835, the last in 1847.
Bishop of St David's
In 1840 Thirlwall was raised to the see of St David's. The promotion was entirely the act of Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, an amateur in theology, who had read Thirlwall's introduction to Schleiermacher, and satisfied himself of the propriety of the appointment. "I don't intend to make a heterodox bishop if I know it," he said. In most essential points he was a model bishop, and he acquainted himself with Welsh, so as to preach and conduct services in that language. He was not greatly loved by his clergy, who found him both taciturn and sarcastic. The great monument of his episcopate is the eleven famous charges in which he from time to time reviewed the position of the English Church with reference to whatever might be the most pressing question of the day—addresses at once judicial and statesmanlike, full of charitable wisdom and massive sense.
His attempts to allay ecclesiastical panic, and to promote liberality of spirit, required no ordinary moral courage. He was one of four prelates who refused to prevent Bishop Colenso from preaching in their dioceses, and the only one who withheld his signature from the addresses calling upon Colenso to resign his see. He took the liberal side in the questions of Maynooth, of the admission of Jews to parliament, of the Gorham case, and of the educational conscience clause.
He was the only bishop who voted for the disestablishment of the Irish Church, though a scheme of concurrent endowment would have been much more agreeable to him. He would have made an admirable successor to Howley in the primacy, but such was the complexion of ecclesiastical politics that the elevation of the most impartial prelate of his day would have been resented as a piece of party spirit.
Thirlwall's private life was happy and busy. Though never married, he was fond of children and of all weak things except weak-minded clergymen. He had a very judicial mind, and John Stuart Mill said he was the best orator he had ever heard. During his latter years he took great interest in the revision of the authorized version of the Bible, and was chairman of the revisers of the Old Testament.
As scholar, critic and ecclesiastical statesman Thirlwall stands very high. He was not a great original thinker; he lacked the creative faculty and the creative impulse. His character, with its mixture of greatness and gentleness, was thus read by Carlyle: "A right solid, honest-hearted man, full of knowledge and sense, and, in spite of his positive temper, almost timid."
- History of Greece. 8 vols. London: Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman and John Taylor, 1835–1844
- Remains Literary and Theological, ed. J. J. S. Perowne. 3 vols. London: Daldy, Isbister, 1877-78 (Vols. 1-2: Charges, 1877;Vol. 3: Essays, speeches, sermons, etc., 1878.)
- "Thirlwall, Connop (THRL814C)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- "Thirlwall, Connop". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Bibliographic directory from Project Canterbury
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource
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William Basil Jones