Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.
Bishop Beilby Porteus
8 May 1731-13 May 1809
Beilby was born in York, last but one of nineteen children. Educated at York and Ripon, he was a classics scholar at Christ’s College, Cambridge. In 1759 he won the Seatonian Prize for his poem Death: A Poetical Essay.
He was ordained as a priest in 1757, and in 1762 was appointed as domestic chaplain to Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was during this position he became more aware of the conditions of the enslaved Africans in the American colonies and the British West Indies. He corresponded with clergy and missionaries, receiving reports on the appalling conditions facing the slaves from Reverend James Ramsay in the West Indies and from Granville Sharp.
In 1769 Porteus was appointed chaplain to King George III. He is listed as one of the lenten preachers at the Chapel Royal, Whitehall in 1771, 1773 and 1774. He was also Rector of Lambeth from 1767–77, and Master of St Cross, Winchester between 1776–77.
Porteus was concerned about trends within the Church of England towards the watering-down of the truth of Scripture. He stood for doctrinal purity and opposed the anti-subscription movement, which would have watered down cardinal Christian doctrines and beliefs. At the same time he was prepared to suggest a compromise of a revision to some of the Articles. Always a Church of England man, he was, however, happy to work with Methodists and dissenters.
Porteus was nominated as Bishop of Chester, taking up the appointment in 1777. He lost no time in getting to grips with the problems of a diocese which had a vastly growing population within the many new centres of the Industrial Revolution, most of which were in the north-west of England, but where there were the fewest parishes. The appalling poverty and deprivation amongst the immigrant workers in new manufacturing industries represented a huge challenge to the church, resulting in vast pressure upon the parish resources. He continued to take a deep interest in the plight of West Indian slaves, preaching and campaigning actively against the slave trade and taking part in many debates in the House of Lords (As a Bishop he had become a member), becoming known as a noted abolitionist. He took a particular interest in the affairs of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, especially regarding the Church of England’s attempts to administer its plantations on the Codrington estate in Barbados.
Renowned as a scholar and a popular preacher, it was in 1783 that the young bishop was to first come to national attention by preaching his most famous and influential sermon. At the 1783 Anniversary Sermon of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts he criticised the Church’s role in ignoring the plight of the slaves on its estates in Barbados and to recommend means by which the lot of slaves there could be improved. It was an impassioned and well-reasoned plea for The Civilisation, Improvement and Conversion of the Negroe Slaves in the British West-India Islands Recommended, and was preached at the church of St Mary-le-Bow before forty members of the society, including eleven bishops of the Church of England.
It largely fell upon deaf ears. Porteus next began work on his Plan for the Effectual Conversion of the Slaves of the Codrington Estate, which he presented to the SPG committee in 1784 and, when it was turned down, again in 1789. These were the first challenges to the establishment in an eventual 26-year campaign to eradicate slavery in the British West Indian colonies.
Porteus made a huge contribution and eventually turned to other means of achieving his aims, including writing, encouraging political initiatives, and supporting the sending of mission workers to Barbados and Jamaica. Deeply concerned about the lot of the slaves as a result of the reports he received, Porteus became a committed and passionate abolitionist, the most senior churchman of his day to take an active part in the campaign against slavery. He became involved with the group of abolitionists at Teston, led by Sir Charles Middleton, and soon became acquainted with William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay and other committed activists.
As Wilberforce’s bill for the abolition of the slave trade was brought before the British parliament time and time again over eighteen years from 1789, Porteus campaigned vigorously and energetically supported the campaign from within the Church of England and the bench of bishops in the House of Lords.
In 1787, on the advice of Prime Minister William Pitt, Porteus became Bishop of London a position he held until his death in 1809. As is customary, he was also appointed to the Privy Council, and Dean of the Chapel Royal. In 1788, he supported Sir William Dolben’s Slave Trade Bill from the bench of bishops, and over the next quarter century he became the leading advocate within the Church of England for the abolition of slavery.
In view of his passionate involvement in the anti-slavery movement and his friendship with other leading abolitionists, it was especially appropriate that, as Bishop of London, he should now find himself with official responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the British colonies overseas. He was responsible for missions to the West Indies, as well as to India, and towards the end of his life personally funded the sending of scriptures in the language of many peoples as far apart as Greenland and India.
A man of strong moral principle, Porteus was also passionately concerned about what he saw as the moral decay in the nation during the eighteenth century, and campaigned against trends which he saw as contributory factors, such as pleasure gardens, theatres and the non-observance of the Lord’s Day. He enlisted the support of his friend Hannah More, former dramatist and bluestocking, to write tracts against the wickedness of the immorality and licentious behaviour which were common at these events. He vigorously opposed the spread of the principles of the French Revolution.
During much of the following 20 years – a time of huge national and international political upheaval, Porteus was in a position to influence opinion in the influential circles of the Court, the government, the City of London and the highest echelons of Georgian society. Porteus did this, partly by encouraging debate on subjects as diverse as the slave trade, Catholic emancipation, the pay and conditions of low-paid clergy, the perceived excesses of entertainment taking place on Sundays—and by becoming a vocal supporter of William Wilberforce, Hannah More and the Clapham Sect of evangelical social reformers. He was also appointed as one of the members of the Board for Encouragement of Agriculture and internal Improvement in 1793. He was active in the establishment of Sunday Schools in every parish, an early patron of the Church Missionary Society and one of the founder members of the British and Foreign Bible Society, of which he became vice-president.
He was a well-known and passionate advocate of personal Bible-reading and even gave his name to a system of daily devotions using the Porteusian Bible, published after his death, highlighting the most important and useful passages; and was responsible for the new innovation of the use of tracts by church organisations.
A gradual decline in his health began in 1806. Bishop Porteus died at Fulham Palace in 1809.
Beilby Porteus was one of the most significant, albeit underrated church figures of the eighteenth century. His sermons continued to be read by many, and his legacy as a foremost abolitionist was such that his name was almost as well known in the early nineteenth century as those of Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson – but a hundred years later he had become one of the ‘forgotten abolitionists’, and today his role has largely been ignored and his name has been consigned to the footnotes of history.
His primary claim to fame in the twenty-first century is for his poem on Death and, possibly unfairly, as the supposed prototype for the pompous Mr Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
But it is ironic that Porteus’ most lasting contribution was one for which he is little-known, the Sunday Observance Act of 1781 (a response to what he saw as the moral decay of England), which legislated the ways in which the public were allowed to spend their recreation time at weekends for the following two hundred years, until the passage of the Sunday Trading Act of 1994.
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