Samuel Wilberforce

From New World Encyclopedia

A photo of Samuel Wilberforce by Lewis Carroll.

Samuel Wilberforce (September 7, 1805 – July 19, 1873) was an English bishop, third son of William Wilberforce the anti-slave campaigner and philanthropist, who has been described as the ideal bishop of the Victorian era. He has also been described as one of the most gifted public speakers of his time. A staunch defender of orthodoxy against the new criticism, called 'higher criticism' that identified human authors and agendas within the Biblical text, he also opposed the ideas of Charles Darwin. His debate with Thomas Huxley is considered to be a definitive moment in the history of science.[1]

While his high-church style mainly attracted the upper classes, he was also a champion of social justice and a defender of the rights of the poor.


Wilberforce was born at Clapham Common, London. In 1823 he entered Oriel College, Oxford. In the "United Debating Society," which afterwards developed into the "Union," he distinguished himself as a zealous advocate of liberalism. The set of friends with whom he chiefly associated at Oxford were sometimes named, on account of their exceptionally well-behaved conduct, the "Bethel Union." He was also, however, a keen rider, enjoying hurdle jumping and hunting. He graduated in 1826, taking a first class in mathematics and a second in classics. After his marriage on June 11, 1828, to Emily Sargent, he was ordained in December and appointed curate-in-charge at Checkenden near Henley-on-Thames.

In 1830 he was presented by Bishop Sumner of Winchester to the rectory of Brighstone in the Isle of Wight. In this somewhat isolated parish, he soon found scope for the energetic and varied activities which would characterize his subsequent career. In 1831 he published a tract on tithes, "to correct the prejudices of the lower order of farmers," and in the following year a collection of hymns for use in his parish, which had a large general circulation; a small volume of stories entitled the Note Book of a Country Clergyman; and a sermon, The Apostolical Ministry. At the close of 1837 he published the Letters and Journals of Henry Martyn, the pioneer Anglican evangelist to the Muslim world.

Although a High Churchman Wilberforce distanced himself from the Oxford movement, and tried to steer a middle course between the evangelical low church and the Catholic-inclined High Church. The Oxford Movement began at Wilberforce's old College, Oriel, when Tracts for Our Times was published in 1833, which argued against the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, identified the Church of England as a continuation of that of the Apostles and argued that government had no right to intervene in church affairs. The Tractarians drew increasingly closer to Roman Catholicism, especially when John Henry Newman (later Cardinal Newman} argued that the 39 Articles did not contradict Catholic dogma. In 1838, Wilberforce's divergence from the "Tract" writers became so marked that John Henry Newman declined further contributions from him to the British Critic, not deeming it advisable that they should longer "co-operate very closely." In 1838 Wilberforce published, with his elder brother Robert, the Life of his father, and two years later his father's Correspondence. In 1839 he also published Eucharistica (from the old English divines), to which he wrote an introduction, Agathos and other Sunday Stories, and a volume of University Sermons, and in the following year Rocky Island and other Parables. In November 1839 he was installed archdeacon of Surrey and in August 1840 he was collated canon of Winchester. In October he accepted the rectory of Alverstoke.

In 1841 he was chosen Bampton lecturer, and shortly afterwards made chaplain to Prince Albert, an appointment he owed to the impression produced by a speech at an anti-slavery meeting some months previously. In October 1843 he was appointed by the archbishop of York to be sub-almoner to the Queen. In 1844 he published the History of the American Church. In March of the following year he accepted the deanery of Westminster, and in October the prestigious bishopric of Oxford which carried a seat in the House of Lords.

In 1854 he opened a theological college at Cuddesdon, now known as Ripon College (Cuddesdon), which afterwards attracted controversy due to its alleged Romanist tendencies. He died July 19, 1873, after falling from his horse.


His diary reveals a tender and devout private life. This has been overlooked by those who have only considered the skills and expediencies that marked the successful public career of a bishop, and earned him the sobriquet of "Soapy Sam." In the House of Lords he took a prominent part in the discussion of social and ecclesiastical questions. He has been styled the "bishop of society"; but society occupied only a fraction of his time. Most of his energies was ceaselessly directed to the better organization of his diocese and to the furtherance of schemes for increasing the influence and efficiency of the church. He was a very competent administrator. He is credited with restoring to the convocations of the church (synodical meetings of clergy, extended to laity after 1886) authority which had been eroded.


In 1847 Wilberforce became involved in the Hampden controversy, and signed the remonstrance (a type of petition) of the thirteen bishops to Lord John Russell against Renn Dickson Hampden's appointment to the bishopric of Hereford. Hampden (1793-1868) had been accused of Arianism. Wilberforce tried to obtain satisfactory assurances from Hampden that he would uphold orthodox Trinitarian faith as bishop. Although Hampden did not offer any assurances, Wilberforce withdrew his name from the petition. The publication of a papal bull in 1850 establishing a Roman hierarchy in England brought the High Church party, of whom Wilberforce was the most prominent member, into temporary disrepute. The secession to the Church of Rome of his brother-in-law, Archdeacon (afterwards Cardinal) Manning, and then of his brothers, as well as his only daughter and his son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. JH Pye, brought him under further suspicion, and his revival of the powers of convocation lessened his influence at court; but his unfailing tact and wide sympathies, his marvelous energy in church organization, the magnetism of his personality, and his eloquence both on the platform and in the pulpit, gradually won for him recognition as without a rival on the episcopal bench.

A cartoon image representing Wilberforce during the Huxley-Wilberforce debate that was published in Vanity Fair.

In 1860, he took part in the famous debate at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with Thomas Huxley, criticizing the theories in Darwin's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. It is commonly believed that Huxley got the better of the exchange,[2] although this has been disputed.

His attitude towards Essays and Reviews in 1861, against which he wrote an article in the Quarterly, won him the special gratitude of the Low Church party, and latterly he enjoyed the full confidence and esteem of all except the extreme men of either side and party. The authors of Essays and Reviews cast doubt on the historicity of the Bible in the light of Darwin's thesis, arguing in favor of a critical approach to the Biblical record as a theological and not a scientific narrative. On the publication of JW 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. In 1867 he framed the first Report of the Ritualistic Commission, in which coercive measures against ritualism were discountenanced by the use of the word "restrain" instead of "abolish" or "prohibit." He also endeavored to take the sting out of some resolutions of the second Ritualistic Commission in 1868, and was one of the four who signed the Report with qualifications. Though strongly opposed to the disestablishment of the Irish Church, yet, when the constituencies decided for it, he advised that no opposition should be made to it by the House of Lords. After twenty-four years' labour in the diocese of Oxford, he was translated by Gladstone to the bishopric of Winchester. Huxley reportedly commented, hearing of Wilberforce's fatal fall from his horse that Wilberforce's brains had at last come into contact with reality, and the result had been fatal.


Wilberforce left three sons. The eldest, Reginald Carton Wilberforce, being the author of An Unrecorded Chapter of the Indian Mutiny (1894). His two younger sons both attained distinction in the English church. Ernest Roland Wilberforce (1840–1908) was bishop of Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 1882 to 1895, and bishop of Chichester from 1895 till his death. Albert Basil Orme Wilberforce (b. 1841) was appointed canon residentiary of Westminster in 1894, chaplain of the House of Commons in 1896 and Archdeacon of Westminster in 1900; he has published several volumes of sermons.

Besides the works already mentioned, Wilberforce wrote Heroes of Hebrew History (1870), originally contributed to Good Words, and several volumes of sermons. (See Life of Samuel Wilberforce, with Selections from his Diary and Correspondence (1879–1882), vol. i., ed. by Canon AR Ashwell, and vols. ii. and iii., ed. by his son RG Wilberforce, who also wrote a one-volume Life (1888).) 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).


  1. "Samuel Wilberforce Timeline" Natural History Museum, Retrieved January 18, 2008.
  2. Lucas, J. R. "Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter" Retrieved January 18, 2008. An examination of the evidence for what was really said in the 1860 debate on Darwinism.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Ashwell, A.R., and Reginald Garton Wilberforce. Life of the Right Reverend Samuel Wilberforce, D.D.: lord bishop of Oxford and afterwards of Winchester, with selections from his diaries and correspondence. NY: Dutton, 1883.
  • Newsome, David. The parting of friends: the Wilberforces and Henry Manning. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; Leominster, U.K.: Gracewing, 1993. ISBN 9780852441763
  • Meacham, Standish. Lord Bishop; the life of Samuel Wilberforce, 1805-1873. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970. ISBN 9780674539136
  • Wilberforce, Samuel, R.K. Pugh, and John Frederick Arthur. The letter-books of Samuel Wilberforce, 1843-68. Aylesbury: Buckinghamshire Record Society and the Oxfordshire Record Society, 1970. ISBN 9780902509009

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.

Preceded by:
Thomas Turton
Dean of Westminster
Succeeded by:
William Buckland
Preceded by:
Richard Bagot
Bishop of Oxford
Succeeded by:
John Mackarness
Preceded by:
Charles Richard Sumner
Bishop of Winchester
Succeeded by:
Edward Browne


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.