The Church
and the Empires
Historical Periods by
Henry William Wilberforce
Henry S. King & Co. London: 1874


Henry W. Wilberforce

{1} HENRY WILLIAM WILBERFORCE, the subject of this Memoir, was the youngest son of William Wilberforce, well known as the friend of Pitt and Member of Parliament for Yorkshire, and still more distinguished for his persevering and successful resistance in Parliament to the Slave Trade and Slavery, and for his high Christian character in a time of general religious declension.

He was born at Clapham on September 22, 1807. When nine years old, he was entrusted to the care of the Reverend John Sargent, the friend and biographer of Henry Martyn, and Rector of Graffham, Sussex, one of whose daughters he eventually married. With Mr. Sargent, who educated him with one of his own sons, he remained till he was fifteen, when he was transferred to the Reverend F. R. Spragge, who took pupils at Little Boundes, near Tunbridge Wells, and had charge of him till the time came for his going to the University. He was entered at Oriel College, Oxford, and came into residence in Michaelmas Term, 1826. {2}

I well recollect my first sight of him, on his presenting himself before the tutors of his college,—when the lectures had to be arranged for the Term, and his place in them, as a Freshman, determined. He was small and timid, shrinking from notice, with a bright face and intelligent eyes. Partly from his name, partly from his appearance, I was at once drawn towards him; and, as he subsequently told me, he felt a corresponding desire to know me; and, in a little time, though I was not formally his college tutor, and only had relations with him as with other undergraduates in my lecture room, we became very intimate. He read with me, as his private tutor, during a portion of four long vacations—at Hampstead in 1827, at Nuneham in 1828, at Horsepath in 1829, and in Oriel in 1830. In Michaelmas Term, 1830, he went up for his B.A. examination, and was placed by the examiners in the first class in classics, and in the second in mathematics.

At Oxford he remained after taking his degree of B.A. for several years; at least to the year 1833, when he gained the Ellerton Theological Prize, and took his Master's degree. His chief associates in his own college during his Oxford residence were, besides his elder brother Robert, and the Reverend R. Hurrell Froude, at that time Fellows and Tutors of Oriel, Mr. Frederic Rogers, now Lord Blachford; Mr. S. F. Wood, brother to the present Lord Halifax; Mr. George Ryder, son of the Bishop of Lichfield; Mr. Robert F. Wilson, at present examining chaplain to the Bishop of Salisbury; Mr. William Froude, F.R.S.; and Mr. Thomas Mozley, Rector of Plymptree, Devon. I am {3} not able to name any of his friends outside of his college besides the late Mr. John Rogers, and the present Archbishop Manning, both of Balliol, and Mr., now Sir Thomas, Acland, of Christ Church. He had a large acquaintance in the University, while an undergraduate, in consequence of the interest he took in the University Debating Society, called the Union. Of this Society he was at one time President, and for several years he took a prominent part in its debates. One speech, or rather act, of his, while he occupied the Chair, made a sensation at the time, and remains on the minds of some of his contemporaries even now. In the midst of a debate, a member, I am told, entered under the influence of wine, and began an address to the meeting so incoherent and noisy, and with so ludicrous a mixture of sense and nonsense, as to throw the room into extreme confusion. It seemed hopeless to restore order, when the President rose, and looking round on the members, simply asked, 'Has the noble Lord no friends here?' These words had their effect at once; friends came forward, the offender was removed, and the debate proceeded.

In 1836, after he had left the University, he gained the Deniers Theological Prize by an essay on 'Faith in the Holy Trinity.'

In the same year he took a prominent part in the proceedings at Oxford which followed upon Dr. Hampden's promotion to the Regius Professorship of Divinity.

His talents were of a character to ensure distinction, whether in a University or in a public career. He had a {4} singularly quick apprehension, a clear head, a largeness and sobriety of mind, a readiness in speech, and that sense of humour and power of repartee which makes a man brilliant in conversation and formidable to opponents. But he chose for himself another course. His tastes and habits, his affectionateness, his tenderness of conscience, his love of quiet and the country, his dislike of pomp and display, of routine toil, and of tyrannous obligations, turned him towards a domestic life and the pastoral charge. He liked to be master of his own time and his own movements; and though never idle, whether in mind or body, he had no wish to work under the lash. He used to tell me that it was my doing that he took Orders instead of following the Law. Perhaps it was; we are blind to the future, and are forced to decide, whether for ourselves or for others, according to what seems best at the time being. Certainly he had an oratorical talent so natural and pleasant, so easy, forcible, and persuasive, as to open upon him the prospect of rising to the foremost rank in his profession, had he been a lawyer. On the other hand, the legal disabilities, to which his Anglican Orders subjected him, became a great embarrassment to him when he found himself a Catholic. However, it may reasonably be doubted whether, humanly speaking, he would ever have been a Catholic but for his clerical profession, which, in the studies and enquiries to which it introduced him, served to place his mind and affections in the direction of the Catholic Church. And anyhow, he made an excellent parish minister, with a heart devoted to his Divine Master and to the cure of souls; and his love for his work was {5} ennobled by the prompt obedience with which he gave it up when His Master called upon him for that great sacrifice.

He held successively three parochial cures. First, immediately upon his most happy marriage, which took place on July 24, 1834, he received from the Bishop of Winchester, Dr. Charles Richard Sumner, the perpetual curacy of Bransgore, on the skirts of the New Forest. Here he remained for seven years; then he left it, in the summer of 1841, for the perpetual curacy of Walmer, near Deal, his patron being Archbishop Howley. Lastly, in the autumn of 1843, he was preferred by the Lord Chancellor, at the instance of the Prince Consort, to the well-endowed living of East Farleigh, near Maidstone, which some years previously had been held by his brother Robert.

I have heard various particulars of his earnestness and unweariedness in the discharge of his parochial duties from an intimate friend, who was his partner in them both at Bransgore and Walmer. They are too minute and familiar to put into print; but they are valuable, as coinciding with what I knew of him, and should have expected from him myself. His parsonage itself, in its domestic order, its frugality, its bountiful alms, and its atmosphere of religious reverence and peace, was, as it ought to be, the mainspring and centre of that influence which he exercised upon the people committed to him. To them, and to their needs, temporal and spiritual, he gave himself wholly. He had an almost overpowering sense of the responsibilities which lay upon him as the pastor of a parish; and his habits and ways, his words and deeds, his demeanour, his dress, and his general self-neglect, all in one way or other spoke to my informant of that simplicity of mind and {6} humility which I recognised in him when he was a youth at Oxford.

In all his livings he introduced daily service into his church; at Walmer he had, besides, an evening service for soldiers in hospital; also he addressed himself to the spiritual needs of that fine class of men, the seafaring population of Deal. His activity showed itself in matters ecclesiastical, as well as pastoral. There was no parsonage at Walmer; by an examination of the parish books he was able to ascertain the old glebe which belonged to the living, and he recovered it, together with a house which had been built upon it, for future incumbents. He also took measures for commencing a new church at Lower Walmer, which was built after he left, and, small as were his means, he headed the subscription list with a donation from himself. He had already, when at Bransgore, been instrumental in providing a church for Burley, a neighbouring village; and here too, he succeeded in making a munificent contribution to the building. He had in 1836 gained the prize of two hundred guineas, which had been offered to general competition for an essay on the Parochial System; and he gave this large sum to the fund collected for the new church. At East Farleigh he built a substantial school-house, and here, too, not without taking a part of the cost of it on himself.

A zeal so energetic and vigilant is often met with a jealous resistance on the part of those who are the subjects or witnesses of it, when they belong to the higher or middle classes. At Bransgore, a country district, he was able to act as he thought best, and was rewarded simply {7} by the respect and love of his people. Such a return also followed his pastoral activity both at Walmer and East Farleigh; but in those places he at certain times had to encounter much opposition in his work; and then it was found that, gentle and unassuming as he was at first sight and in his ordinary behaviour, and averse to all that was pretentious or overbearing, he had the command of plain words and strong acts when the occasion called for them; and could (as we all knew he could, who knew him at an earlier date) with fearlessness, directness, and determination speak his own mind and carry out his own views of duty.

It was his confidence, however, in his own ecclesiastical position and claims which alone supported him on such occasions, and the time came when that confidence was shaken. It is not to be supposed that he was an uninterested spectator of the series of events which occurred at Oxford from the year 1841 onwards; nor was the action of his own mind wanting to bring home those events to himself personally. He had ever accepted the teaching of the standard Anglican divines, strictly confining himself in his conduct within the rules and precedents of the Anglican Church; but at length he began to have misgivings as to that Church's divine authority and mission, and, as year passed after year, these misgivings increased. At length they became practical difficulties in his course; and in the autumn of 1849 an accident was the occasion of their ripening into convictions. His parish was visited, year by year, in the hop season by a large influx of Irish from London. The gathering had just commenced in this year, when suddenly there was a fearful outbreak of cholera among these poor {8} people; many were struck down at their work, and lay dead or at death's door in the gardens and barns round about. Being Catholics they could not accept Mr. Wilberforce's services; and the priest who promptly came over to their aid from Tunbridge Wells soon found himself insufficient for the multitude of sick and dying. Several Fathers of the London Oratory came to his assistance, and two nuns of the Good Shepherd from Hammersmith. These, the inmates of the parsonage, regardless of the peril, took into their own house, and supplied to the extent of their power with whatever was needed by their patients. Every act of charity done for our Lord's sake has its reward from Him; and Mr. Wilberforce used to call to mind with deep gratitude that on the day year on which he had received our Lord's servants into his house, he and his, through our Lord's mercy, were received into the everlasting home of the Catholic Church. This event took place on September 15, 1850.

Viewed on its human side, Mr. Wilberforce's conversion may be attributed, on the one hand, to the straightforward logic of a clear mind; on the other, to his intimate profound perception of the unseen world, and of his responsibilities in relation to it. While he was resolute in pursuing his principles to their legitimate issues, he was undaunted in facing those issues, whatever they might be. Religion was to him not knowledge, so much as obedience. The simple question was, as he felt it, not to rid himself of the thousand difficulties speculative and practical, which hem in and confuse our intellect here below, but what was the word and what was the will of Him who gave him a work {9} to do on earth. If that will was plain, it was nothing to the purpose, it was nothing to him, that 'clouds and darkness' closed it in on every side. 'What must I do to be saved?' that was the whole matter with him, as with all serious minds. That there had been a Revelation given from above to man, in order to our eternal salvation, was undeniable; the only point was, what was it? what were its gifts, its promises, its teaching? where were these to be found? how were they to be obtained? His intellect made answer—the more clearly and distinctly the longer he thought upon it—in the Church universally called Catholic, and nowhere else. It, and it alone, carried with it the tokens and notes, the continuity, succession, and claims, of that divine polity which had been founded and formed by the Apostles in the beginning. This, then, was the Fold of Christ, the Ark of Salvation, the Oracle of Truth, and the Anglican communion was no part of it. To this Church he was in consequence bound to betake himself without hesitation or delay, as soon as he had in his intellect a distinct recognition of it. This grave practical conclusion, which ought to be the motive principle of every convert, is signified in the letter which on resigning his living he addressed, with the respectful familiarity due to a friend and relative, to John Bird Sumner, then Archbishop of Canterbury, his diocesan. It ran as follows:—

'Your Grace will not be surprised to learn that I feel myself compelled to request you to accept the resignation of this living. I dare no longer officiate in the Church of England, and feel my individual salvation at stake.

'In taking this step I feel so many heartstrings breaking {10} that I dare not allow myself to think of the consequences or the cost on earth, either to myself, or to those I love. I have put my hand to the plough, and I must not look back. My own strength is nothing, and I dare not tempt God by presuming He will enable me to stand firm if I subject myself to any temptation which I can avoid. I have, therefore, purposely tried not to think of the pain which I must give to so many who are deservedly dear to me as my own soul.

'There are considerations, which leave me no room to doubt; first, what I should wish a stranger to do were he in my place; secondly, what I should wish to have done were I upon my bed of death; or, thirdly, were I at the judgment-seat of Christ.

'I have, perhaps, said more than I have any right to express to your Grace; but I was going to say, that, among many other bitter remembrances which I am forced to cast aside, the thought of giving pain to yourself, after the many kindnesses which I have received from you, has often forced itself into my mind.

'I can but thank you for your kindness; and yet there is one thing else which I may, and (by God's help) I trust I ever shall continue to do; I mean, to remember you at the Throne of Grace: my prayer must ever be, that He, who has been pleased to call me, so deeply unworthy of His grace, may extend the same favour to one so much more meet for it as yourself.

'Believe me, &c., &c.' {11}

There was one among the many severe trials involved in his change of religion, to which time brought no relief. He had devoted himself, when he became an Anglican clergyman, to the immediate service of God, and had willingly taken upon himself a lifelong ministry; but, while the law of the land refused to regard him, now that he was a Catholic, in any other light, on the other hand in the eyes of Catholics he was a mere layman. He, as many others, in the fulness and maturity of his powers, and with his best years before him, was doomed for life to have no definite place or work in a community which needed such as him so grievously, and to resign himself to the prospect henceforth of running to waste. Henceforth he must look to be a 'pilgrim and stranger' in his own land. He had to give up an honourable post and well-requited services for the almost certainty in time to come of a dull, listless inactivity, or of fitful, precarious employments. However, he was not the man to resign himself without a struggle to a lot as forlorn as it was unnatural. He had counted the cost; his ordination might be invalid, but his self-dedication was his own—hearty, deliberate, irreversible. After a season of retirement and repose, such as became him after the great crisis in his history, he put himself at the disposal of those who seemed likely to make the most use of him. In the spring of 1852 he accepted the office of secretary to the Catholic Defence Association, then lately founded in Dublin, under the auspices, I believe, of the present Cardinal Cullen, on occasion of that notorious 'Ecclesiastical Titles' Act, which has recently been repealed. Though he remained in Ireland only two or three years in this capacity, still he was able, on various occasions, even in that short sojourn, greatly to edify the born Catholics, among whom he found himself, {12} by the singleminded zeal and the devout spirit which he displayed as a convert to their faith.

Indeed, his very presence preached, though he had no ecclesiastical position; for it spoke of a man who, at the call of Christ, had left his nets and fishing, and all his worldly surroundings, to follow Him. As to instances in point, it is scarcely to be expected that, at this distance of time, any record of them should remain. One, however, by a happy accident, I am able to recall, in the words of a good parish priest of County Clare, who, on hearing of his death, thus wrote to one of Mr. Wilberforce's Sons: —

'The pecuniary aid I got from your esteemed parents, and from other powerful friends through them, the countenance, advice, and encouragement they gave me about twenty years ago, when four proselytising schools were erected in my parish to pervert my poor people, enabled me, next to God's grace, to succeed in keeping the Faith unbroken and flourishing. We have now entire religious peace. My parishioners all know as well as I do, the benefits your father and mother conferred on the religion of this parish. They sent me a valuable Remonstrance; and, every Festival since, the people have Benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament; and, please God, I will without delay have all my parishioners at a Requiem Mass, offered up for the repose of the soul of their friend and benefactor. The most of them will remember his kindness, and his earnest impressive exhortations to hold fast by their old faith.'

Also, I myself remember a conversation he had with me about one of his charitable acts in a distant part of {13} Ireland where he had land. He gave a piece of ground for a presbytery, and thereby was the means of gaining for the people a resident priest, whereas hitherto only an occasional Mass was said upon the property.

But these are only accidental records of many good works, forgotten except by Him who inspired them.

From 1854 to 1863 he was the proprietor and editor of the 'Catholic Standard,' afterwards called the 'Weekly Register.' In this, as in all his undertakings, he was actuated by an earnest desire to promote the interests of religion, though at the sacrifice of his own.

In December, 1859, he went with his family to Rome for the winter, and was received with much affection at a private audience by the Holy Father, who had known his brother Robert. On going a second time to the Vatican, after an attack of Roman fever, his Holiness, remarking the traces of illness upon his countenance, gave him his blessing, specially for his recovery. That night the usual access of fever did not take place, and he slept well; and this improvement, which continued for some time, he always attributed to the Apostolic blessing.

He visited Rome again in June, 1862, on occasion of the Canonisations. During that time he sent home many interesting letters, which were published in the 'Weekly Register,' descriptive of the proceedings which accompanied the sacred solemnity.

After his retirement from the management of the 'Weekly Register' he was for the future free from the duties of any formal occupation. Among the employments of these latter years has been the writing of his articles in {14} the 'Dublin Review,' some of which are to follow this Memoir. In 1871 he became sensible of a serious diminution of strength; and, on his proceeding in October to consult his medical friend, a voyage to Jamaica was proposed to him as a means of his recovery. Trying as it was in itself at his age to go so far from home, such advice was not without its recommendations to him. It had been the dream of his life to see the tropics; and now in this unexpected way that dream was to be fulfilled. He set out with a strong hope that his health would receive real benefit both from the voyage and from a climate so genial and so new to him. Yet his hope was tempered by those dominant sentiments which, I believe, never for an instant were absent from his mind. He wrote from Malvern to her who had for so long a spell of years made him so bright a home, 'May God keep His arm over you for good, and unite us hereafter in His kingdom! Coming here, and feeling how much older I am, makes me feel "the time is short." The generations of men are like "the leaves," as the Greek poet says; but our Lord Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.'

His youngest daughter accompanied him to Jamaica, where, though a stranger, he was received with the warmest hospitality. In his own words, he was received like a brother by the Chief Justice, Sir John Lucie Smith, on his first landing, and, through the winter up in the hills, by Judge Ker. He was amazed and enchanted by the beauty of the island, and for a time he really did gain good by going thither. This improvement, however, did not last; he returned home in July, 1872, to suffer a gradual but visible decay all through the following winter; and, when {15} Easter came, eternity was close upon him. He had ever lived in the presence of God; and I suppose it was this that specially struck one of his Jamaica friends, who has written, on the news of his death, 'I looked upon him as one of the most holy of men.' Indeed, in these last months his very life was prayer and meditation. No one did I ever know who more intimately realised the awfulness of the dark future than he. His sole trust, hope, and consolation lay in his clear, untroubled faith. All was dark except the great truths of the Catholic religion; but though they did not lighten the darkness, they bridged over for him the abyss. He calmly spoke to me of the solemn, unimaginable wonders which he was soon to see. Now he sees them. Each of us in his own turn will see them soon. May we be as prepared to see them as he was!

With his wife and children round him, and taking their part by turns at his bedside in a perpetual round of prayers, he died, emphatically, in peace on Wednesday morning, April 23, aged 65. He was buried on the 29th in the churchyard, close by his residence, of the Dominican Fathers, who had so carefully attended him during his long illness. Those kind Fathers had said Mass several times a week at an altar in his own house through the winter, by leave obtained from Dr. Clifford, Bishop of Clifton, for whose considerateness his family feel deep gratitude. The two last Masses, when he was in his bed, he heard from his own son of the order of St. Dominic, who also gave him the Viaticum, on his second reception of it, on his last morning. He had received extreme unction three days before; he died in the Dominican habit. {16}

Mr. Wilberforce was not without great family sorrows, from which the happiest homes have no immunity. Of his children four died, in infancy or childhood, between the years 1841 and 1853; but this trial, acute as it was, has been the only trial of his domestic life. To him, a good religious father, has been given the supreme blessing of good children. May they ever recollect how great a name they bear!

J. H. N.
July 14, 1873.

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