1887 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Beilby Porteus

Charles J. Abbey, in The English Church and its Bishops (1887) 2:213-18.



Beilby Porteus (Chester 1777-87; London 1787-1809) was, as a principal leader of the Evangelical party, one of the most prominent among the bishops in the latter part of the eighteenth century. His father and mother were both natives of Virginia, and, though he himself was born after his parents had left the settlement and had returned to England, he naturally felt a special interest in the great questions afterwards at issue between the mother country and the colonies. Such family reminiscences gave force and pathos to his words when he pleaded for conciliatory efforts on either side, when he urged how contrary it was to the interests of America to separate, when he argued that there was yet time for both to see that they were in the wrong, and that surely it was not too late for fraternal affection to return.

His poem on Death, which took the Seatonian prize at Cambridge in 1758, is one of the best in that series. He wrote it with the more feeling from having lately lost his father, whom he had greatly loved and revered.

Porteus was for several years domestic chaplain to Archbishop Secker. He was greatly attached to the primate, and, both in his Review of Secker's Life and Character, and in various answers to some who were inclined to disparage him, spoke in the warmest terms of the talents, the learning, the beneficence, and the deep piety of the late prelate.

These were days when it was rare indeed for ecclesiastical pluralities to excite any misgivings even in the best of men. Porteus, before his elevation to the episcopate, was a very active parish priest; but he had no scruple in holding the two good livings of Lambeth and Hunton. Even as Bishop of Chester he only gave up the former, and was thought very conscientious in not availing himself of the permission to hold both. While Rector of Lambeth he published a letter on the universal neglect of Good Friday, which is said to have made a very marked impression both in London and Westminster. There never had been known such general observance of the day in closing of shops and in attendance on religious services as on the Good Friday subsequent to the publication of this letter. It is curiously significant of the manner in which what might have been thought the most established Church observances were at this time becoming obsolete, that either on this or a later occasion he met with some rough usage in his attempt to revive some better keeping of the day, and that he was soundly abused for it in the leading Journal of the day as nothing better than a Papist. About this time, in 1772, while he was yet only a parish clergyman, his name came prominently forward on account of a petition to the bishops, in which he took a leading part, urging them to consider whether the Liturgy and Articles, especially the latter, might be advantageously revised. The petitioners spoke particularly of the difficulty and offence caused by the 17th Article on election and predestination, and declared their belief that they were expressing the wishes of a large proportion both of the clergy and the laity. A secondary purpose in this memorial was to meet by a more temperate scheme the principal objections of Blackburne and others who were bent on more fundamental changes.

Horace Walpole said, with a characteristic sneer, that "Dr. Porteus succeeded to Chester on the merit of preaching a loyal pamphlet on the Fast." But in truth there could not have been a better promotion. The Evangelicals, who by this time were already beginning to represent, more than any other party in the Church, the vivid practical realities of Christian living, needed a worthy representative on the bishops' bench, and Porteus at once took this place, and occupied it well. How good a man he was may be gathered from the words of Hannah More, who knew him intimately and greatly esteemed him. "As to the bishop," she says, "his life is a tissue of good actions. His industry is incredible; he still rises at five" (this was in 1795), "and the end of one useful employment is only the beginning of another. His mind is always alive when any project of public good or private benevolence is on foot. His sweetness of temper, his playful wit, his innocent cheerfulness, embellish and delight our little society." Porteus was indeed an admirable episcopal leader of that active and beneficent section of the Evangelical party of which William Wilberforce and Hannah More were among the most conspicuous members. None were more diligent than they in all good works; but there was a brightness and a keenness of enjoyment in their lives which was very far removed from that sort of depression, if not gloom, which rendered the society of many who held the same general opinions far from being attractive. The bishop's pleasant urbanity, his conversational power, and what people called, without any hint of foppery or affectation, the elegance of his manners, made his company delightful to that comfortable and generally well-to-do coterie who were at once men and women of the world, and true, simple-hearted Christian philanthropists. Hannah More, soon after the first beginning of her long acquaintance with him, while she spoke of him as "perfectly to her taste," expressed a hope, evidently not unmixed with fear, that popularity and high estimation might not spoil him. Indeed it is a credit to him that he was not visibly the worse for all the incense of admiration with which he was received in the drawing-rooms and boudoirs of fashionable religious society. We catch a further glimpse of it in Miss Burney's diary, where she tells how "Mrs. Streatfield talked of her darling Bishop of Chester with her usual warmth of passionate admiration, and Mr. Cambridge praised him very much also." He was popular also as a preacher. "His sermon was admirable; rational, judicious, forcible, and truth-breathing; and delivered with a clearness, stillness, grace, and propriety that softened and bettered us all."

It will be enough to give a very brief, general sketch of Bishop Porteus's action in regard of various religious and ecclesiastical questions agitated in his time. He was in favour of the bill of 1779 for relieving Protestant Dissenters from subscription to the Articles, but urged the necessity of none being allowed to preach or teach without a formal acknowledgment of their being Christians and Protestants. When the repeal of a most oppressive Act against Roman Catholics raised a storm of bigotry throughout the country, he steadily resisted the clamour of the "Protestant Associations," as full of exaggeration and unreason. On the other hand, he was opposed to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1805. Although, like many other Evangelical Churchmen, he was often called a Methodist, he had little sympathy with Methodism, excepting esteem for the general piety he saw in it. It is not clear whether he regretted its severance by the close of the eighteenth century from the English Church. In any case he seems to have had no doubt that it was complete, and strongly objected to its clergy having anything to do with Methodist services or with those of the Countess of Huntingdon. He was very much in earnest on all points relating to the Sunday question. In 1781, alarmed at the sudden and rapid growth of Sunday debating societies, and Sunday promenades, both of which were becoming in different ways recognised places of amusement, where money was taken at the doors, he was mainly instrumental in bringing about the bill which stopped them. In 1798 he founded many voluntary associations for promoting a more religious observance of the Lord's Day; and in 1805 he exerted himself no less actively against a fashionable custom of Sunday concerts, in which hired professional performers took part, and which were attended by large assemblies. He was much interested in the condition of negroes; looked forward with hope to their final emancipation, and meanwhile laboured to get them Christian instruction, as he did also in measures for prohibiting the slave trade, and in forming societies for improving their general condition. Another work in which he took lively concern was that of organising the newly revived societies for the reformation of manners. The fierce outbreak of infidelity in France at the time of the Revolution filled him with anxiety lest the contagion of it might spread to England. He hoped much from the wide dissemination of cheap and sound publications, and, as his own contribution to the cause, delivered a series of Lent lectures on the Christian Evidences. Near the close of his life he became Vice-President of the newly founded British and Foreign Bible Society, and earnestly defended it against what he considered misapprehensions and misrepresentations. Finally, he took an active part in many matters relating to the wellbeing of the clergy, as in the subscriptions he set on foot for the relief of poor clergy and for the augmentation of some poverty-stricken London benefices, and in the measures he took for bringing about a more careful selection of chaplains for India, for encouraging residence, and for checking questionable contracts in regard of benefices. To these various labours may be added an effort to reform parochial psalmody.