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Samuel Wilberforce

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Samuel Wilberforce

Bishop of Winchester
ChurchChurch of England
In office1870–1873
PredecessorCharles Sumner
SuccessorHarold Browne
Personal details
Born7 September 1805
Clapham Common, London, England
Died19 July 1873 (aged 67)
Dorking, Surrey, England
Previous post(s)Bishop of Oxford
Dean of Westminster
EducationOriel College, Oxford

Samuel Wilberforce, FRS (7 September 1805 – 19 July 1873) was an English bishop in the Church of England, and the third son of William Wilberforce. Known as "Soapy Sam", Wilberforce was one of the greatest public speakers of his day.[1] He is now best remembered for his opposition to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution at a debate in 1860.

Early life


He was born at Clapham Common, London, the fifth child of William Wilberforce, a major campaigner against the slave trade and slavery, and Barbara Spooner; he was the younger brother of Robert Isaac Wilberforce. He had an Anglican education, outside the English public schools. This was the "private and domestic" pattern of instruction chosen for his sons by William Wilberforce. It concentrated on a traditional teaching of the classics, but in a clerical home environment.[2]

Samuel Wilberforce was from 1812 under Stephen Langston, and then Edward Garrard Marsh.[3][4] With Henry Hoare of Staplehurst and others, he was a pupil in 1819 at Stanstead Park, near Racton in Sussex, of George Hodson, at that time chaplain to Lewis Way.[5] Hodson was tutoring Albert Way, but gathered a small class of six boys, who included also James Thomason. In 1820 Hodson moved to Maisemore near Gloucester as a curate, taking pupils with him.[2][6] Wilberforce was schooled under Hodson in Gloucestershire until 1822, when he required coaching for university entrance. For that he went, with his younger brother Henry, to Francis Roach Spragge at Bidborough.[7][8]

In 1823 Wilberforce entered Oriel College, Oxford. In the United Debating Society, the forerunner of the Oxford Union, he demonstrated some Whig views. His friends included William Ewart Gladstone and Henry Edward Manning, and were nicknamed the "Bethel Union" for their religiosity. Wilberforce's student recreations included riding and hunting.[3] He graduated in 1826, taking a first-class degree in mathematics and a second in classics.[9]

Wilberforce in late 1826 tried and failed for a fellowship at Balliol College. He spent the summer and autumn of 1827 touring the continent. He married Emily Sargent, daughter of the rector of East Lavington, West Sussex in 1828. After his marriage a college fellowship was no longer possible. He was ordained deacon in the Church of England. In 1829 he was ordained priest and appointed curate at Checkendon, near Henley-on-Thames.[3]


The arms of Wilberforce are displayed in a garter over the doorway of 39a St Giles in Oxford

In 1830, Wilberforce was presented by Charles Sumner, Bishop of Winchester, to the rectory of St Mary's Church, Brighstone, in the Isle of Wight.[9][10] In November 1839 he was installed archdeacon of Surrey, in August 1840 he was collated canon of Winchester, and in October he accepted the rectory of Alverstoke.[9]

In January 1841, Wilberforce was made chaplain to Prince Albert, an appointment he owed to an anti-slavery speech he had made some months previously. He was chosen as that year's Bampton lecturer, but his wife Emily died on 10 March, and he withdrew.[3] In October 1843, he was appointed by the Archbishop of York to be sub-almoner to the Queen. Later, his part in the revival of the powers of Convocation lessened his influence at court.[9]

In March 1845 Wilberforce accepted the position of Dean of Westminster and, in October the same year, was appointed as the Bishop of Oxford by Sir Robert Peel.[3] This year, also, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.[11] He set up a Diocesan Church Building Fund. This gave small grants intended to act as a lever for more substantial funding from other sources, a successful fundraising approach. In 1850 Wilberforce appointed George Edmund Street as architect to the diocese of Oxford. Street built or improved 113 churches there during his tenure.[12] In 1854, Wilberforce opened a theological college at Cuddesdon, now known as Ripon College Cuddesdon, which later was the subject of some controversy over its alleged Romanist tendencies.[9]

Samuel Wilberforce, painted by George Richmond, 1868

After twenty-four years in the diocese of Oxford, Wilberforce was translated by Gladstone to the bishopric of Winchester in 1869.[3]

Views and controversies


From an evangelical background and upbringing in line with Clapham Sect orthodoxy, Wilberforce began to develop into a High Churchman and High Tory in the early days of his priesthood. His ideas developed with broader contacts, and the politics of Catholic Emancipation.[3]

High Churchman


Although a High Churchman, Wilberforce held aloof from the Oxford Movement. In 1838 his divergence from the Tractarian writers became so evident that John Henry Newman declined further contributions from him to the British Critic.[9]

In 1847 Wilberforce, at Newman's suggestion, became involved in the Hampden controversy.[13] He signed the remonstrance of 13 bishops to Lord John Russell against the appointment of Hampden, accused of heretical views, to the bishopric of Hereford. He wished to obtain some assurances from Hampden; unsuccessful in this, he withdrew from the suit against him.[9] His handling of process and change of mind marred his intervention, and although he made a public statement of error, Charles Greville expressed a widely-held view that "Sly Sam" had made himself look ridiculous.[3]

In 1850 Charles Blomfield, the Bishop of London, proposed the upper house of a revived Convocation as a court of last resort for the ecclesiastical courts of the Church of England. Wilberforce took up the suggestion, and campaigned with Henry Hoare of Staplehurst that the dormant assemblies of Convocation should be put to use. They won the argument, over a few years.[3]

In 1867 Wilberforce framed the first Report of the Ritualistic Commission, in which coercive measures against ritualism were undermined by the use of the word "restrain" instead of "abolish" or "prohibit." He also tried to soften some resolutions of the second Ritualistic Commission in 1868, and was one of the four who signed the Report with qualifications. He was strongly opposed to the disestablishment of the Irish Church, but when the constituencies decided for it, he advised that no opposition should be made to it by the House of Lords.[9]

Contra Darwin


Wilberforce took part in the famous 1860 debate concerning evolution at a meeting of the British Association on 30 June. Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley had already clashed on man's position in nature two days previously; on the Saturday, at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Wilberforce got his chance to criticise Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, especially the implication that humans and various species of apes share common ancestors.[14]

Lucas argues that "Wilberforce, contrary to the central tenet of the legend, did not prejudge the issue".[15] He criticised Darwin's theory on scientific grounds, arguing that it was not supported by the facts, and he noted that the greatest names in science were opposed to the theory.[15] Nonetheless, Wilberforce's speech is generally only remembered today for his inquiry as to whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that Huxley considered himself descended from a monkey. Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. Darwin was not present, but several of his friends replied, with Huxley perhaps the most effective. The popular view may be that Huxley had the better of the exchange; but there is a consensus view of historians that this account of the debate involves later fabrication, and that the outcome was moot.[16] "Reports from the time suggest that everybody enjoyed themselves immensely, and all went cheerfully off to dinner together afterwards".[17]

Wilberforce wrote a review of On the Origin of Species for the Quarterly Review. In it, he disagreed with Darwin's reasoning.[18]

Essays and Reviews


His attitude towards Essays and Reviews in 1861, against which he wrote an article in the Quarterly Review, won Wilberforce the gratitude of the Low Churchmen.[9]

Colenso controversy


On the publication of John William Colenso's Commentary on the Romans in 1861, Wilberforce endeavoured to induce the author to hold a private conference with him; but after the publication of the first two parts of the Pentateuch Critically Examined he drew up the address of the bishops which called on Colenso to resign his bishopric.[9]


Cartoon of Wilberforce in the 1860 Huxley-Wilberforce debate, published in Vanity Fair, 1869

The publication of Universalis Ecclesiae, the papal bull in 1850 re-establishing a Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, brought the High Church party, of whom Wilberforce had become a prominent member, into temporary disrepute. The secession to Catholicism of his brother-in-law Manning, and then of his brothers, as well as his only daughter and his son-in-law, brought him under suspicion.[9]

"Soapy Sam" may have been a reference to Wilberforce's characteristic hand-washing gesture, captured in the Vanity Fair cartoon by "Ape" (illustration, right). The nickname may also derive from a comment by Benjamin Disraeli that the bishop's manner was "unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous".

Wilberforce has been called the "bishop of society"; but society occupied only a fraction of his time. In the House of Lords he took a prominent part in the discussion of social and ecclesiastical questions.[9]



Wilberforce died from a riding accident on 19 July 1873, near Abinger. He had been on the way to visit Gladstone at Holmbury St Mary, with Lord Granville.[3] He was buried at East Lavington with his wife and her sister, the wife of Manning.



Wilberforce published:[9]

  • A tract on tithes (1831), "to correct the prejudices of the lower order of farmers".
  • A collection of hymns for use in his parish (1832), which had a more general circulation
  • Note Book of a Country Clergyman, stories
  • The Apostolical Ministry, sermon.
  • Letters and Journals (1837) of Henry Martyn, the Anglican missionary.
  • Life (1838) of his father William Wilberforce published, with his elder brother Robert Wilberforce.
  • Eucharistica (1839, editor) from the old English divines.
  • Agathos and other Sunday Stories (1839)
  • University Sermons (1839)
  • Correspondence (1840) of William Wilberforce
  • Rocky Island and other Parables (1840)
  • A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America (1844)
  • Heroes of Hebrew History (1870), originally contributed to Good Words.

There were several volumes of his sermons.[9] He left a diary, and its content is considered influenced in parts by the editorial work he did on his father's papers, while also revealing of his own emotional life.[19] The anonymous Britannica 1911 author wrote of it that His diary reveals a tender and devout private life which has been overlooked by those who have only considered the versatile facility and persuasive expediency that marked the successful public career of the bishop, and perhaps earned him the sobriquet of "Soapy Sam".[9]



Wilberforce was the patron of Philip Reginald Egerton, who founded Bloxham School in Oxfordshire.[20] A boarding house at the school is named after Wilberforce. Together with his brother Robert, he joined the Canterbury Association on 27 March 1848. He resigned from the Canterbury Association on 14 March 1849. The Wilberforce River in New Zealand was named for them.[21]



Wilberforce married on 11 June 1828 Emily Sargent (1807–1841), daughter of John Sargent, and his wife Mary Smith, daughter of Abel Smith. They had five children who survived early childhood, one daughter and four sons.[3]

In literature


Wilberforce appears, caricatured, in Anthony Trollope's novel The Warden (1855), where he is portrayed as the third child of the Archdeacon, Dr Grantly, who is named Samuel and nicknamed Soapy, and is engaging and ingratiating but not to be trusted.[25]


  1. ^ Natural History Museum. Samuel Wilberforce. Retrieved on 14 February 2008.
  2. ^ a b Newsome, David (1993). The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Manning. Gracewing Publishing. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-8028-3714-1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Burns, Arthur. "Wilberforce, Samuel". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29385. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Foster, Joseph (1888–1892). "Langston, Stephen" . Alumni Oxonienses: the Members of the University of Oxford, 1715–1886. Oxford: Parker and Co – via Wikisource.
  5. ^ Curthoys, M. C. "Hoare, William Henry". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/13389. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ Meacham 1970, p. 8.
  7. ^ Newsome, David (1993). The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Manning. Gracewing Publishing. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-8028-3714-1.
  8. ^ "Spragg, Francis Roach (SPRG804FR)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Wilberforce, Samuel" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ "Three famous men of Brighstone" Sibley, P Brighstone, Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Brighstone ISBN 0-906328-31-4
  11. ^ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. W. Bowyer and J. Nichols for Lockyer Davis, printer to the Royal Society. 1850. p. 35.
  12. ^ Richard, Peats (12 November 2018). "The Church Interiors of George Edmund Street in the Diocese of Oxford: An Assessment of Significance - Historic England Research Report 59/2018". research.historicengland.org.uk. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  13. ^ Stephen Thomas (30 October 2003). Newman and Heresy: The Anglican Years. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-52213-7.
  14. ^ Wilberforce, Samuel (1860). "(Review of) 'On the origin of species'". Quarterly Review: 225–264.
  15. ^ a b Lucas, JR (June 1979). "Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter". The Historical Journal. 22 (2): 313–330. doi:10.1017/S0018246X00016848. PMID 11617072. S2CID 19198585..
  16. ^ Livingstone, David. "Myth 17. That Huxley Defeated Wilberforce in Their Debate over Evolution and Religion," in Numbers, Ronald L., ed. Galileo goes to jail and other myths about science and religion. No. 74. Harvard University Press, 2009, 152-160.
  17. ^ Ruse, M. (2001) Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521637163. p. 5
  18. ^ "[Wilberforce, Samuel]. 1860. [review of] On the origin of species, by means of natural selection; or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin, M. A., F.R.S. London, 1860. Quarterly Review 108: 225-264". darwin-online.org.uk. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  19. ^ Tolley, Christopher (1997). Domestic Biography: The Legacy of Evangelicalism in Four Nineteenth-century Families. Clarendon Press. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-19-820651-4.
  20. ^ Batten, Simon (2010) A Shining Light: 150 Years of Bloxham School. James & James. ISBN 1903942977
  21. ^ Blain, Rev. Michael (2007). The Canterbury Association (1848–1852): A Study of Its Members' Connections (PDF). Christchurch: Project Canterbury. pp. 89–92. Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  22. ^ O'Kell, Robert (2013). Disraeli: The Romance of Politics. University of Toronto Press. p. 388. ISBN 978-1-4426-4459-5.
  23. ^ Wright, Henry Press (2012). The Story of the 'Domus Dei' of Portsmouth: Commonly Called the Royal Garrison Church. Cambridge University Press. p. 76. ISBN 978-1-108-04462-2.
  24. ^ Haythornthwaite, Philip J. (1995) The Colonial Wars Sourcebook, London: Arms and Armour Press, ISBN 1-85409-196-4, p. 336
  25. ^ The Warden, Chapter 12, 'Mr. Bold's Visit to Plumstead'


  • Life of Samuel Wilberforce, with Selections from his Diary and Correspondence (1879–1882), vol. i., ed. by Arthur Rawson Ashwell, and vols. ii. and iii., ed. by his son Reginald Garton Wilberforce, who also wrote a one-volume Life (1888).
  • Meacham, Standish (1970). Lord Bishop: The Life of Samuel Wilberforce, 1805-1873. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674539136.
  • One of the volumes of the "English Leaders of Religion" is devoted to him, and he is included in John William Burgon's Lives of Twelve Good Men (1888).
  • Woodward, Horace B. 1907. History of the Geological Society of London. Geological Society, London, 336p
  • John Hedley Brooke, "Samuel Wilberforce, Thomas Huxley, and Genesis," in Michael Lieb, Emma Mason and Jonathan Roberts (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (Oxford, OUP, 2011), 397–412.
  • Burgon, John William: Lives of Twelve Good Men, Murray, London 1891, pp. 242–278.



 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Wilberforce, Samuel". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Church of England titles
Preceded by Dean of Westminster
Succeeded by
Preceded by Bishop of Oxford
Succeeded by
Preceded by Bishop of Winchester
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