Wilberforce, Samuel (1805–1873), bishop of Oxford and of Winchester
by Arthur Burns

Wilberforce, Samuel (1805–1873), bishop of Oxford and of Winchester, was born on 7 September 1805 at Broomfield, Clapham Common, fifth child in the family of four sons and two daughters of and philanthropist, and his wife, Barbara Ann (1777–1847), eldest daughter of the evangelical Birmingham banker Isaac Spooner (1735–1818) and his wife, Barbara, née Gough-Calthorpe (1744–1826), of Elmdon Hall, Warwickshire. His brothers were William (1798–1879), , and , his sisters Barbara (1799–1821) and Elizabeth (1801–1831). In 1808 the family removed to Kensington Gore, then after 1821 moved several times before settling in 1825 at Highwood Hill in Mill Hill, Middlesex. Here they remained until the younger William's debts forced its sale in 1831.

Samuel was educated privately by a series of clerical schoolmasters: in 1817 he was sent to Stephen Langston at Hastings and then to Edward Garrard Marsh at Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire. In 1819 he was removed to George Hodson, at the time chaplain to William Wilberforce's friend Lewis Way at Stanstead Park, Sussex (fellow pupils included Henry Hoare), with whom he remained when Hodgson removed to Maisemore, Gloucestershire, in 1820. In 1822 Samuel was sent to Francis Spragg at Bidborough, Kent, to prepare for university. As befitted the son of a leading member of the Clapham Sect, Wilberforce's happy childhood was characterized by the strong evangelicalism of both his home and his schools. His parents took an intense interest in the spiritual and moral development of their children, and Samuel appears to have experienced particularly intense scrutiny as William's favourite. His father wrote to his nine-year-old son: ‘I am anxious to see decisive marks of your having begun to undergo the great change’ (Newsome, Parting of Friends, 49).

University and marriage

In 1823 Wilberforce followed his brother Robert to Oriel College, Oxford, as a commoner. Here he formed a close circle of friends, including George Prevost and Charles Anderson, known as the Bethel Union on account of its religiosity. Unlike Robert and his younger brother Henry, however, he did not become intimate with John Keble; though close to Hurrell Froude, Wilberforce was ‘stigmatized as a humbug’ by the latter and John Henry Newman (Ward, 247), differing from them not least on the question of celibacy. A keen rider and hunter, Wilberforce also took a prominent part in the proceedings of the nascent Union Society. Here he adopted a liberal stance, arguing that the deposition of Charles I had been justified and favouring Catholic emancipation. In 1826 he graduated BA with a first in mathematics and a second in classics, proceeding MA in 1829 (he was subsequently awarded a DD in 1845 and an honorary fellowship of All Souls in 1871). In November 1826 he was an unsuccessful candidate for a Balliol fellowship. Any further attempt was pre-empted by Wilberforce's eagerness to marry Emily (1807–1841), daughter of a close friend of the Wilberforces and Hodsons, , evangelical rector of Lavington, Sussex, and his wife, Mary (1778–1861), daughter of the banker Abel Smith. The marriage, on which Wilberforce had set his heart in 1821, was celebrated by Charles Simeon on 10 June 1828; during the next six years Henry Wilberforce, Henry Edward Manning, and George Dudley Ryder married Emily's sisters. Four sons and one daughter survived infancy, including , later bishop of Chichester.

Young clergyman

Fulfilling his father's hopes, Wilberforce took deacon's and priest's orders in 1828 and 1829 respectively. He was appointed to his first post, a curacy at Checkendon, Oxfordshire, in January 1829. Close to Oxford and with fewer than 300 inhabitants, the living was carefully selected to suit an inexperienced pastor; among others rejected as too demanding were a curacy at Chiddingfold, Surrey, and later the vicarage of Ribchester, Lancashire, offered by his father's two evangelical episcopal cousins, Charles Richard and John Bird Sumner. None the less, as clergyman in charge, Wilberforce was an active pastor, instituting Sunday afternoon lectures on the gospels and special services on saints' days. It appears that his encounter with dissent, continued contacts with Oxford associates, and dismay at the prospects for the established church combined to reinforce the respect for church order characteristic of Claphamite evangelicalism in a development towards high-churchmanship; simultaneously, his response to contemporary politics led him now to speak of himself as ‘a very high Tory’ (Ashwell and Wilberforce, 1.45), condemning Peel's acceptance of Catholic emancipation.

In January 1830 Wilberforce left Checkendon when C. R. Sumner presented him to the rectory of Brighstone, Isle of Wight. Worth £700 a year, and with 700 inhabitants, this was a more challenging post, and brought the advantage of comparative proximity to Lavington. The climate also suited Emily's poor health—the string of christenings at Brighstone being punctuated by miscarriages and a stillbirth. Wilberforce soon impressed Sumner with his qualities. He proved a model parochial clergyman, introducing evening and cottage services, and founding Sunday and day schools, an infirmary and dispensary, and an allotment ground. In 1833 Wilberforce formed a clerical society on the island, effectively establishing himself as one of the leading clerics in the diocese, a position recognized in 1836 when Sumner appointed him rural dean, and earlier by his selection as preacher at the 1833 visitation. His status was further enhanced by his inheritance of the Lavington estate on the death of Henry Sargent in 1836, Wilberforce thus becoming Manning's squire.

The 1833 visitation sermon, The Apostolical Ministry, alarmed some evangelicals with its emphasis on the apostolical succession and ‘high-church principles’. Wilberforce still retained great respect for the evangelical tradition, admiring Sumner and strongly supporting the Church Missionary Society (‘my favourite society’) while trying to bring it into closer association with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). Nevertheless, he was increasingly uncomfortable with Calvinism and the low-church tendencies of mid-1830s evangelicalism, and welcomed the publication of the Tracts for the Times, both for their emphasis on episcopacy and holy living, and as a protest against the Erastian policy of the state. In 1835 Wilberforce claimed to ‘belong to no school’ (Ashwell and Wilberforce, 1.90), and was in effect forging his own version of the via media. His support for the Tractarians could not extend to a repudiation of the Reformers (and effectively his father), and he was troubled by their neglect of justification, their severe line on post-baptismal sin, and the doctrine of reserve. He regarded these as deviations from the teachings of high-churchmen such as Richard Hooker and William Beveridge, to whom he professed his allegiance. Moreover, the publication of Hurrell Froude's Remains in 1838 disturbed Wilberforce deeply: whereas a university sermon preached in 1837 owed much to Newman, Wilberforce's two sermons as select preacher in 1838 both warned of the danger of Oxford teaching. Newman's subsequent refusal to publish Wilberforce in the British Critic, and the reluctance of Tractarians to subscribe to the Martyrs' Memorial in Oxford, confirmed his misgivings in their unacceptable display of party spirit.

From the mid-1830s, Wilberforce was establishing a wider reputation. This led to offers of further preferment, including a preachership in Tunbridge Wells Chapel (1834); St Dunstan-in-the-West, from Charles Simeon; the important vicarage of Leeds from Sir Robert Inglis in 1837; and Walter Farquhar Hook's proposed swap for his living of Leamington in 1838. Although Wilberforce was impatient of further advancement, these were all declined on Sumner's advice or medical grounds.

Wilberforce's reputation was in part acquired as an author. His portrait of evangelical sanctity in an anonymous Notebook of a Country Clergyman (1833) was echoed in an edition of Henry Martyn's journals prefaced with a memoir of John Sargent (1837), and it was probably Samuel who prevented Robert playing down their father's evangelicalism in their joint Life of William Wilberforce published in 1838, followed in 1840 by an edition of his correspondence. The influence of a young family is apparent in Agathos (1839) and The Rocky Island (1840), collections of improving stories for the young, and by the end of the decade Wilberforce was engaged on the history of the Episcopal church in the USA published in 1844.

More important than his writings, however, were Wilberforce's frequent and accomplished appearances in pulpits and on platforms. His most significant speaking engagement came with a preaching tour for the SPG in Devon and Cornwall in 1839, which won him the lasting admiration of Henry Phillpotts. With his speech on colonial bishoprics at the Mansion House on 8 April 1840—which prompted Charles James Blomfield to observe ‘I do not quite like hearing you, for you make me cry’ (Ashwell and Wilberforce, 1.160)—this tour established him as a leading speaker of the day.

Archdeacon of Surrey and dean of Westminster

Wilberforce's obvious talents were acknowledged when Sumner made him archdeacon of Surrey in November 1839, an appointment which entailed promotion to a canonry at Winchester the following August. Wilberforce took avidly to his new responsibilities, organizing ruridecanal chapters, attempting to establish a consolidated fund for the revenues of all church societies in the archdeaconry, and delivering widely read charges which William Ewart Gladstone, at least, worried adopted a tone more appropriate to a bishop than an archdeacon. In October 1840 the bishop presented him to the rectory of Alverstoke, Hampshire, a parish of some 13,000 inhabitants embracing both the military and naval establishments of Gosport and the resort of Stokes Bay. Outside commitments made him more dependent than previously on curates. Once more, however, Wilberforce was an active pastor, instituting additional services, schools, and district visiting. The curates (including his friend Richard Chenevix Trench) themselves were organized into an effective team ministry, and the parish attracted candidates for ordination seeking practical experience. More recognition came when a speech on the slavery issue won the favour of Prince Albert, who made Wilberforce a chaplain in January 1841; he became a favourite preacher at court, being appointed sub-almoner to the queen in October 1844, and then high almoner in 1847 (he served in this post until 1869).

Wilberforce was invited to deliver the Bampton lectures for 1841, but withdrew after Emily's death on 10 March 1841. This tragedy permanently marked Wilberforce. For the remainder of his life the anniversary, her birthday, and chance references to the past always provoked strong emotions, providing the occasion for self-examination and the renunciation of the worldly ambition which Wilberforce recognized in himself. Another source of distress in the early 1840s was the evident divergence in the theological positions of his circle as revealed by the contest for the Oxford poetry professorship (in which Wilberforce backed James Garbett) in 1841. During the same year Wilberforce welcomed the Anglo-Prussian scheme for a Jerusalem bishopric as a means of introducing episcopacy into the national church of Prussia. In each case Wilberforce found himself ranged against his brothers and other high-churchmen who had expected his support; given his association with Sumner and Baron von Bunsen at court, and his rapid advancement, there were inevitably accusations of trimming. As with his support for the degradation of William George Ward in February 1845, however, Wilberforce's stance owed more to his distaste for the divisions in the Church of England fostered by the Tractarians. It nevertheless did no harm to his prospects, and in March 1845 Wilberforce was promoted to the deanery of Westminster, his decision to retain Alverstoke provoking further criticism.

Bishop of Oxford

Wilberforce's Westminster career was short-lived. In October 1845 Sir Robert Peel offered him the bishopric of Oxford, overriding Blomfield's misgivings at the appointment of a high-churchman in the context of the Tractarian controversy. His new office, to which he was enthroned on 13 December 1845, thrust Wilberforce into national prominence, but much of his subsequent reputation rests on his work within his diocese. In 1845 Oxford was effectively a new diocese, Buckinghamshire being appended to an already recently enlarged bishopric. Part of the challenge confronting the new bishop was consequently to consolidate the jurisdiction.

Wilberforce's high estimation of the episcopal office and his commitment to the preservation of unity in the visible church ideally suited him for this task. The stress on unity also appeared in a memorandum drawn up on his appointment, which emphasized the need to ‘Be a “father in God” to men of all opinions amongst my clergy’ (Ashwell and Wilberforce, 1.319). Wilberforce sought to improve and invigorate diocesan institutions and clerical performance, and also to promote the corporate life of the diocese and counter the polarizing effects of church party. Many of the methods he employed had already been introduced by others—notably Sumner, from whom Wilberforce learned much—but sheer force of personality and energy combined with the systematic thoroughness of his reorganization of diocesan activity to convince many contemporaries that Wilberforce was ‘inaugurating a new era in the history of the English episcopate’ (Burgon, 2.12).

Central to Wilberforce's achievement was his own presence throughout the diocese. He travelled incessantly, increasing the number of confirmation centres from the nine employed by Bagot to 188 by the 1860s, each visited triennially; numerous consecrations, society meetings, and informal descents on individual clergy also took the bishop out into the diocese. In 1850 Wilberforce inaugurated annual Lenten missions, in which a week-long residency in a major town incorporated daily services and often an ordination. Wilberforce regarded ordinations as one of his most important responsibilities, and enforced rigorous standards. He ensured more personal contact with ordinands during a period of residence at the rebuilt episcopal palace at Cuddesdon. Candidates were thus introduced into the diocesan clerical community focused on its bishop. Wilberforce fostered this community through encouraging the calling of ruridecanal chapters, annual assemblies of rural deans at Cuddesdon, an embryonic diocesan synod summoned in protest at the ‘papal aggression’ in 1850, and from 1860 a clerical retreat at Cuddesdon. Cuddesdon was also the site for a theological college founded in 1854. Here students participated in a round of daily services and were trained in a highly clerical environment in close proximity to the episcopal palace, in contrast to the earlier foundations at Wells and Chichester, where no such common life had been practised.

Episcopal authority over the diocese was enforced through the accumulation of more diocesan patronage (the fourteen livings in episcopal hands in 1845 had increased to ninety-five in the diocese alone by 1869), and the careful selection of able men of all parties as archdeacons and rural deans. These officers assisted in the investigation of sensitive issues of doctrine or liturgical irregularity and in Wilberforce's determined effort to discipline inefficient or immoral clergy (he gleaned the names of those attending hunt balls from the newspapers). As in his own parishes, Wilberforce tried to increase the provision of services, insisting on monthly, and encouraging weekly, celebrations of holy communion. The diocesan machinery was completed by a series of diocesan societies and charities, under the auspices of which more than £2 million were expended in the diocese.

National prominence: ‘Soapy Sam’

Wilberforce's oratory and vigour promised increasing prominence in an episcopate the brightest ornaments of which were a generation older. His public speeches broadly accorded with the advice Prince Albert tendered the new bishop, in abstaining ‘completely from mixing himself up with the politics of the day’ (Newsome, Parting of Friends, 306) save when humanitarian concern dictated otherwise, as on the issue of slavery which had been so dear to his father. His views on the whigs—‘shabby, word-eating, pocket-picketing … sacrilegious villains’—were consequently reserved for private occasions (Soloway, 261–2). He made a successful maiden speech in the Lords on the subject of transportation in March 1846, and soon after was the main spokesman among bishops identified with conservatism who supported the repeal of the corn laws. If he thought of himself as a ‘Liberal Tory’, however, he remained an opponent of ‘modern liberalism … a heartless steam engine’ (ibid., 260) and what he regarded as the evils of industrial society. He strongly supported the Ten Hours Movement and purchased a suit from the Christian socialists' tailors co-operative. His charge of 1848 ranged widely across social issues, calling on the clergy to fight prostitution and blood sports while championing improved sanitation, amelioration of the poor law, and prison reform. If Wilberforce's social thought ultimately harked back to a pre-Victorian, hierarchical rural world, he also believed current social problems to be partly a result of the inadequate efforts of the Hanoverian church to bind the classes. This created a tension reflected in his support for additional free seating in churches while he remained less convinced than some other bishops of the need to dispense with appropriated pews altogether. Another consequence was his determined effort to promote church education, both nationally (he helped to arrange a compromise between the government and the National Society over inspection in 1846) and in his diocese, where his initiatives included the foundation of a diocesan training college for teachers, which opened at Culham in 1852.

The auspicious opening of Wilberforce's episcopate was swiftly followed by a severe set-back. In November 1847 Lord John Russell nominated Renn Dickson Hampden as bishop of Hereford. In 1836 Wilberforce had joined the outcry at Hampden's appointment as regius professor of divinity at Oxford; now he signed the episcopal protest initiated by Henry Phillpotts, and then individually suggested to Lord John Russell that Hampden's orthodoxy be determined before a special tribunal. Since Hampden was rector of Ewelme, Oxfordshire, it was to Wilberforce that William Henry Ridley and others gave notice of their intention to file articles against him. On 16 December 1847 Wilberforce signed letters of request to initiate a hearing before the court of arches, and wrote to Hampden, quizzing him on his theology and asking him to withdraw his Bampton lectures and Observations on Dissent from circulation. Hampden's answer failed to satisfy the bishop, but Wilberforce was later disquieted to discover that Hampden had already attempted to withdraw the Observations, leaving the less controversial Bampton lectures as the only basis for the charge of heterodoxy. Wilberforce now read the Bamptons for the first time, found no heresy, and was also advised that he should not have issued letters of request (which he had regarded as an administrative act) unless he believed there was a prima facie case to answer. Withdrawing the letters, Wilberforce unsuccessfully urged Hampden to expunge the offending passages, and then, in a letter of 28 December 1847 subsequently published in The Times, absolved Hampden of error. While close associates appreciated the courage of his public admission of error and determination to follow his conscience, Charles C. F. Greville spoke for many others in declaring that ‘Sly Sam of Oxford … has covered himself with ridicule and disgrace’ (Greville Memoirs, 6.118). His final efforts to extract concessions from Hampden were regarded as desperate attempts to save face. High-churchmen felt that Wilberforce had presumed to judge the case himself and then betrayed the cause from self-interest; liberals and evangelicals marked the bishop as an intolerant and impetuous high-churchman. The incident appears to have cost Wilberforce his favoured position at court, and, in his own view, his chance of promotion to Canterbury on the death of William Howley in 1848. As the queen informed Gladstone on Wilberforce's death, she had ‘admired and liked him most before he became a Bishop, and before he leant so much to those High Church views which did harm’ (Letters of Queen Victoria, 2.264). It was at this time that Wilberforce acquired his enduring nickname of ‘Soapy Sam’.

Wilberforce's position was also complicated by a series of conversions to Roman Catholicism in his close family. The defection of the Ryders in 1846 was followed in 1850 by that of his brother Henry and his wife. In 1851 the Gorham case provoked the secession of Manning; three years later it was the turn of Robert Wilberforce, and in 1863 the eldest brother, William, was received. Alongside Gladstone, with whom an association had developed during the early 1840s, Wilberforce struggled unsuccessfully to prevent this final disintegration of the Lavington circle. The conversions caused Wilberforce great personal distress, costing him some of his most sustaining friendships and sources of counsel. They also provoked suspicion as to the sincerity of Wilberforce's own Anglicanism. Robert's secession prompted Wilberforce to contemplate resigning his see ‘in order that without reproach of remaining in the English Communion for the sake of my preferments I may testify … against the accursed abominations of the Papacy’ (Newsome, Parting of Friends, 401).

The context of the conversions lay behind the close scrutiny applied to Wilberforce's response to Tractarianism and ritualism in his own diocese. He took a strong line on what he regarded as Romanizing excesses. Thomas William Allies repeatedly troubled his bishop, until in 1849 the publication of his Journal of the Tour in France led Wilberforce to demand a retraction, which was shortly followed by Allies's secession. A similarly uncomfortable relationship with Edward Bouverie Pusey culminated in a dispute over the latter's distribution of devotional manuals and the practice of regular confession. In 1850 Wilberforce informally inhibited Pusey from preaching in the diocese, only rescinding his ban after publicly condemning the manuals in his 1851 charge. None the less, where admonition was required Wilberforce preferred to act informally, and his inclusive vision of the national church made him determined to accommodate practices which he believed did not in themselves promote secession or might help to restrain those tempted to abandon the national church. His resolve in this respect was only hardened by evangelical demands that he should take punitive action; he consequently experienced fierce criticism, particularly from The Record. In 1849 Wilberforce gave his support to a proposal by William John Butler and Elizabeth Crauford Lockhart to create a sisterhood for the reclamation of fallen women at Wantage. In 1852 another house of mercy was established in the diocese, this time at Clewer on the initiative of Thomas Thelluson Carter. Although Wilberforce imposed strict restrictions on both institutions, there was inevitably controversy, not least when Lockhart seceded to Rome. Wilberforce was similarly vulnerable over developments at the theological college at Cuddesdon, where Henry Parry Liddon, appointed vice-principal in 1854, encouraged liturgical variations unacceptable to Wilberforce. Forced by the efforts of Charles Portales Golightly and public concern into initiating an inconclusive inquiry in 1858, Wilberforce continued to shelter Liddon from criticism while privately cautioning him that Cuddesdon graduates were ‘too peculiar’. The appointment of Henry H. Swinny as principal in 1858 finally led Wilberforce to acknowledge the incompatibility of their positions, and he accepted Liddon's resignation.

These difficulties made the 1850s and early 1860s frustrating for Wilberforce, and his discomfort was increased by his lack of sympathy with most of the governments of the period and in particular his outrage at the episcopal appointments of Russell and Palmerston. With Gladstone supportive but powerless, he also recognized the unlikelihood of his own promotion; his enmity with Palmerston dated back to an incautious attack on the future premier at a meeting of the Winchester Diocesan Church-Building Society in 1837. In 1862 he dared to dream of York, but was disappointed, as he was in 1868 when, despite his growing distance from Gladstone over politics and the Irish church, Benjamin Disraeli failed to promote him to London, the vacancy cruelly coinciding with a further apostasy, that of Wilberforce's surviving daughter, Emily (Ella), and her husband, J. Henry Pye.

Throughout this period Wilberforce was an important figure in national debates on ecclesiastical issues. His interventions had three overall objectives. The first was the preservation of the connection of church and state, and with it the Christian character of the nation. To this end Wilberforce resisted Jewish emancipation, changes in marriage and divorce law, the conscience clause in education, Sunday opening of museums and exhibitions, and the total abolition of church rates. He none the less accepted the need for adjustments to reflect changing circumstances, such as university reform, and on church rates his preferred solution was a voluntary rate if, in return, control of the parish church could be restricted to those prepared to pay.

This last proposal would have contributed to Wilberforce's second purpose, the strengthening of the church's capacity for independent action and self-determination. The same objective prompted his call for an expansion of the episcopate. Wilberforce also sought to ensure that missionary bishops should be appointed by the church and not the state, sponsoring an unsuccessful bill to this effect in 1853. While Wilberforce was less disconcerted by the Gorham judgment than many in his circle—‘a mere state decision’ (Ashwell and Wilberforce, 2.40)—it nevertheless gave an important impulse to his efforts in this direction. He supported Blomfield's efforts of 1850–51 to secure a more satisfactory final court of appeal in ecclesiastical causes than the judicial committee of the privy council. From the mid-1850s onwards Wilberforce argued that, in order more clearly to demonstrate that lay judges did not exercise authority over the church's doctrine, the ecclesiastical element should be removed from the judicial committee, with bishops sitting separately to determine doctrinal matters referred to them by the court of appeal.

In 1850 Blomfield's solution was to refer ecclesiastical causes to the upper house of a revived convocation. Wilberforce had previously argued against reviving convocation, but now emerged alongside Henry Hoare as a leading campaigner for its restitution. In 1852 Wilberforce persuaded the bishops convened for the formal business of convocation to petition to be heard on a pending Clergy Discipline Bill, and secured an agreement that Archbishop J. B. Sumner, who opposed the revival, would not prorogue the session without the agreement of his suffragans. From then on the revival progressed steadily but slowly as the archbishop's resistance was gradually eroded. While Sumner remained at Canterbury, Wilberforce was the leading figure in convocation, and, with Blomfield failing and then retiring, this helped to establish his pre-eminence among the episcopate, as did his early involvement in the church congress.

The defence of orthodoxy

Wilberforce's third aim was to resist challenges to doctrinal orthodoxy emerging from liberal churchmen and new scientific theories. An exception was his standing by Frederick Denison Maurice when he was dismissed for heterodoxy by King's College, London, in 1853. More characteristically Wilberforce was prominent in the orthodox response to the publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860. His anonymous review for the Quarterly Review (109, January 1861, 248–305), which sent the issue through five editions, condemned the essayists collectively for arguing away revelation and dogma in placing too much reliance on Rowland Williams's ‘verifying principle’ and already discredited German thought. Wilberforce drew up the collective episcopal response published in The Times (12 February 1861) and subsequently organized a volume of Replies to Essays and Reviews (1862). In February 1864 he moved the synodical condemnation of the volume in convocation, described by Lord Westbury as ‘a well-lubricated set of words, … so oily and saponaceous that no one can grasp it’ (Hansard 3, 176, 1864, col. 1546), an oblique reference to Wilberforce's nickname. It was also Wilberforce who in 1863 persuaded the bishops to inhibit his former friend John William Colenso and who secured the condemnation of the Pentateuch Critically Examined (that is, demonstrated to be a collection of fabulous stories) in convocation.

Wilberforce had a lifelong interest in natural history, being vice-president of the British Association and serving on the council of the Geological and Zoological societies. It was therefore as a keen amateur scientist as well as a theologian that he reviewed Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species for the Quarterly Review (108, July 1860, 225–64). Relying heavily on the work of his friend Richard Owen he dismissed the book as bad science with distressing theological implications; Darwin thought the review ‘uncommonly clever’ (Correspondence, 8.293). When the British Association met in Oxford in 1860, Wilberforce flippantly asked if anyone would be prepared to trace their descent from an ape on their grandmother's side. The joke elicited a stinging off-the-cuff riposte from Thomas Henry Huxley, who (in one version) claimed such ancestry was preferable to descent from a ‘man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and who yet employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion’ (Jensen, 168). The incident has subsequently acquired fame as a dramatic landmark in the supposed Victorian triumph of rational science over obscurantist religion, but caused no great stir at the time, Wilberforce himself believing he had got the better of the exchange.

Bishop of Winchester

Wilberforce's stance as defender of orthodoxy in the early 1860s moderated the hostility of his evangelical critics; moreover Anglo-Catholics, starved of episcopal representation, increasingly forgot their reservations and adopted Wilberforce as a champion. By the time of Gladstone's appointment as prime minister, therefore, he was a less controversial figure, whose stature in the church was unquestionable. The political differences between premier and bishop were also diminished as Wilberforce accepted the inevitability of Irish disestablishment after the 1868 election. Gladstone at last gave Wilberforce the recognition he craved: in December 1869 he was enthroned as bishop of Winchester. Wilberforce at once busied himself with diocesan affairs, combined now with his role as a member of the commission on ritual appointed in 1867 (on which he moderated proposals to discipline ritualists and resisted alteration of the Athanasian creed). In 1870 he was appointed president of a committee of convocation charged with revision of the translation of the New Testament, and became embroiled in a characteristic controversy over the involvement of the Unitarian scholar George Vance Smith. The demands of the new diocese strained his health: Wilberforce suffered three heart attacks during 1870 and 1871. He was still fully active, however, when on 19 July 1873 he suffered a riding accident near Abinger, Surrey, while accompanying Lord Granville to Holmbury to meet Gladstone. Wilberforce died almost immediately. On 25 July in accordance with his own wishes, he was buried next to his wife in Lavington churchyard.


Frequently caricatured during his own lifetime (for example by Disraeli in Lothair, and as the third son of Archdeacon Grantly in Anthony Trollope's The Warden), Wilberforce's considerable posthumous reputation was established in a predominantly Anglo-Catholic historiography which exaggerated the originality, if not the vigour, of his diocesan activity. Sabine Baring-Gould, writing in 1914, for example, claimed that ‘He was the first of the Bishops of the Victorian age to show what the duties of a bishop were. … He may truly be said to have recast the whole idea of the Episcopate, and to have successfully raised the tone of clerical life’ (Baring-Gould, 175). Later in the twentieth century he was most frequently remembered for his confrontation with Huxley, in which he was unjustly cast in the role of a pompous, privileged, and ignorant obscurantist. His prominence in so many aspects of Victorian religious history (not to mention the remarkable and moving family history so minutely documented in the Wilberforce family papers) nevertheless ensured that with the revival of academic interest in the subject from the 1960s onwards he received more scholarly attention than any other member of the nineteenth-century episcopate.

Wilberforce's most striking quality was his energy (not least as a letter writer: his son estimated that he completed an average of 6430 letters a year, and on one occasion he simultaneously dictated four letters to secretaries while writing a fifth himself). This lay behind his remarkable achievement of establishing himself as a leading national figure while simultaneously gaining a reputation for a uniquely intimate relationship with his own diocese. As a public speaker he had few clerical rivals. His charm and what Liddon called ‘the force of conscious sympathy’ won him influence and loyalty, if also feeding his reputation for ‘soapiness’. His public manner gave little hint of the personal griefs so movingly recorded in his private papers and somehow caught in the sober portraits of Wilberforce in later life. He himself recognized many shortcomings, without being able to overcome them. He was ambitious: in 1846 Benjamin Jowett observed harshly that Wilberforce never lost sight of the spiritual in pursuing the temporal (Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett, ed. E. Abbott and L. Campbell, 1, 1897, 152). He was impatient of the complexities of issues, his impetuosity leading him into positions which on later reflection he could not conscientiously sustain. The early Victorian church required the confident, non-partisan, and invigorating leadership at which Wilberforce excelled. Later in the century, however, Wilberforce's own uncomplicated faith ill equipped him for the necessary formulation of a constructive response to the challenge of liberal theology.



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Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and diaries; letters · Duke U., Perkins L., corresp., mainly relating to missionary activities · W. Sussex RO, corresp. and papers relating to his Sussex estate and family affairs |  BL, Aberdeen MSS · BL, corresp. with Lord Carnarvon, Add. MS 60839 · BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44343–44345 · BL, letters to Mrs W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 46227–46228 · BL, corresp. with Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, Add. MSS 49210–49214 · BL, letters to Sir R. I. Murchison, Add. MS 46128 · BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40423–40603 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Charles Anderson; letters to Benjamin Disraeli; corresp. with Lord Kimberley; corresp. with H. E. Manning · CKS, letters to duke of Cleveland and duchess of Cleveland; letters to fifth Earl Stanhope and Countess Stanhope · Exeter Cathedral, letters to Henry Phillpots · LPL, Blomfield MSS, corresp. with Baroness Burdett-Coutts; corresp. with C. P. Golightly; letters to C. T. Longley; letters to Charles Marriott; corresp. with A. C. Tait; corresp. with C. Wordsworth · Lpool RO, letters to fourteenth earl of Derby · LUL, corresp. with Lord Overstone · Oriel College, Oxford, letters to R. D. Hampden · Pusey Oxf., letters to H. P. Liddon · St George's Chapel, Windsor, corresp. with Dean Wellesley · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord John Russell, PRO 30/22 · Trinity Cam., letters to W. Whewell · U. Nott. L., Denison MSS · University of New Brunswick, corresp. with Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon · W. Sussex RO, letters to duke of Richmond


R. Woodman, stipple, 1843 (after G. Richmond, 1843), NPG · H. Robinson, stipple, pubd 1845 (after drawing by G. Richmond), BM, NPG · F. R. Say, oils, exh. RA 1846, LPL · E. M. Ward, group portrait, oils, 1855 (Queen Victoria investing Napoleon III with the Order of the Garter at Windsor Castle), Royal Collection · C. Pusey, pen-and-ink sketch, c.1856, NPG · C. Pusey, pencil and watercolour sketch, c.1856, NPG · H. Watkins, photograph, 1856–9, NPG [see illus.] · G. Richmond, oils, 1864–5, Cuddesdon College, Oxfordshire; study, NPG · G. Richmond, charcoal and chalk drawing, 1868, NPG · G. Richmond, oils, 1868, RA; version, The Deanery, Westminster · E. W. R., oils, 1873, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, London · wooden bust, 1876, Christ Church Oxf. · H. H. Armstead, recumbent effigy, 1890, Winchester Cathedral · Ape [C. Pellegrini], caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (24 July 1869) · W. Holl, stipple (after drawing by G. Richmond, c.1851), BM, NPG · Maull & Polyblank, photograph, NPG · oils, Oriel College, Oxford · photographs, NPG · photographs, LPL · woodcuts and engravings, NPG

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Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29385