The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Bishop of Natal

John William Colenso, Bishop of Natal

A carte-de-visite portrait of the controversial cleric John William Colenso (1814-1883), first Anglican Bishop of Natal.

Born at St. Austell, Cornwall, Colenso’s first love was mathematics, but he was also taken with the study of religion and soon joined the ministry. In 1846 he became rector of Forncett St. Mary in Norfolk, and in 1853 he was appointed Bishop of Natal. He immediately devoted himself to learning the Zulu language, of which he compiled a grammar and a dictionary, and into which he translated the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament. He had already shown, in a volume of sermons dedicated to F.D. Maurice, that he was not satisfied with traditional views concerning the Bible. The puzzling questions put to him by the Zulus strengthened him in this attitude and led him to make a critical examination of the Pentateuch. His conclusions were published in a series of treatises (1862-1879) that proved controversial in England.

The suspicions of the South African bishops had already been aroused by the liberality of his views regarding polygamy among native converts and by a commentary he had written on the Epistle to the Romans in which he denied the doctrine of eternal punishment. They met in conclave to condemn him and in December 1861 pronounced his deposition. Colenso, who had refused to appear before the tribunal but had sent a protest by proxy, appealed to the Privy Council, which pronounced that Robert Gray, the metropolitan of Cape Town, had no jurisdiction and no authority to interfere with the Bishop of Natal.

Undeterred, Bishop Gray not only excommunicated Colenso but also consecrated a rival bishop for Natal, who, however, took his title from Maritzburg. The contributions of the missionary societies were withdrawn, but an attempt to deprive him of his Episcopal income was frustrated by the courts. Colenso, encouraged by a testimonial raised in England, returned to his diocese and devoted the latter years of his life to further labours as a biblical commentator and translator. He also championed the cause of the natives against Boer oppression, a course that earned him more enemies among the colonialists than he had ever made among the clergy.

Colenso died at Durban on 20 June 1883.

Photographed by Frederick Jones of London.


Code: 123450
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© Paul Frecker 2018