BEILBY PORTEUS, a late eminent English prelate, was born at York May 8, 1731. He was the youngest but one of nineteen children. His father and mother were natives of Virginia, but retired to this country, much to the injury of their private fortune, solely for the honourable purpose of giving every possible advantage of education to their children. Dr. Porteus received the first rudiments of his education at York and at Ripon, whence at a very early age he became a member of Christ's college, Cambridge, where he was admitted a sizar. Humble as this station was, his private merits and studious accomplishments, advanced him, as might naturally be expected, to a fellowship of his college, and the active exertions of his friends soon afterwards procured him the situation of squire beadle, an office of the university, both advantageous and honourable, but not precisely adapted to the character of his mind or habits of his life. He did not therefore long retain it, but wholly occupied himself with the care of private pupils, among whom was the late lord Grantham, who distinguished himself not only as secretary of state, but as ambassador of Spain. Whilst employed in this meritorious office, he had some difficulty in obtaining a curacy, and has been heard to say, with good humour, that at this time, so limited was his ambition, he thought it an extraordinary piece of good fortune, to receive an invitation to go over every Sunday to the house of sir John Maynard, at Easton, a distance of sixteen miles from Cambridge, to read prayers to the family. In 1757 he was ordained deacon, and soon afterwards priest. His first claim to notice as an author was his becoming a successful candidate for Seaton's prize for the best English poem on a sacred subject. His subject was "Death," on which he produced an admirable poem, characterized by extraordinary vigour, warm sensibility, genuine piety, and accurate taste.
So much talent was not doomed long to remain unnoticed. In 1762 he became chaplain to archbishop Secker, and in 1765 married miss Hodgson, the eldest daughter of Brian Hodgson, esq. of Ashbourne in Derbyshire. His first church preferments were two small livings in Kent, which he soon exchanged for Hunton, in the same county, and a prebend in the cathedral church of Peterborough, an option of the archbishop; and not long afterwards he was promoted to the rectory of Lambeth. In the same year, 1767, he took his doctor's degree at Cambridge, and on this occasion preached the commencement sermon. From this period he became more and more an object of public esteem and attention. He divided his time between Hunton, which place he always visited with delight and left with regret, and Lambeth; and in 1769 he was made chaplain to his majesty, and master of the hospital of St. Cross, near Winchester.
In 1773 a circumstance occurred, which then excited considerable interest, and in which the part that Dr. Porteus took has been much misinterpreted and misunderstood. The following statement in his own words, will place the fact in its true point of view. "At the close of the year 1772, and the beginning of the next, an attempt was made by myself and a few other clergymen, among whom were Mr. Francis Wollaston, Dr. Percy, now bishop of Dromore, and Dr. Yorke, now bishop of Ely, to induce the bishops to promote a review of the liturgy and articles, in order to amend in both, but particularly in the latter, those parts which all reasonable persons agreed stood in need of amendment. This plan was not In the smallest degree connected with the petitioners at the Feathers tavern, but, on the contrary, was meant to counteract that and all similar extravagant projects; to strengthen, and confirm our ecclesiastical establishment; to repel the attacks, which were at that time continually made upon it by its avowed enemies; to render the 17th article on predestination and election more clear and perspicuous, and less liable to be wrested by our adversaries to a Calvinistic sense, which has been so unjustly affixed to it; to improve true Christian piety amongst those of our own communion, and to diminish schism and separation by bringing over to the national church all the moderate and well-disposed of other persuasions. On these grounds, we applied in a private and respectful manner to archbishop Cornwallis, requesting him to signify our wishes (which we conceived to be the wishes of a very large proportion both of the clergy and the laity) to the rest of the bishops, that every thing might be done, which could be prudently and safely done, to promote these important and salutary purposes.
"The answer given by the archbishop, February 11, 1773, was in these words: 'I have consulted severally my brethren the bishops, and it is the opinion of the bench in general, that nothing can in prudence be done in the matter that has been submitted to our consideration.'"
There can be no question that this decision, viewed in all its bearings, was right; and Dr. Porteus, and those with whom he acted, entirely acquiesced in it. They had done their duty in submitting to the bench such alterations as appeared to them to be conducive to the credit and the interest of the church of England, and of religion in general; and their manner of doing it was most temperate and respectful. At the same time, it appeared to the majority then, as it does still, that the proposal was rejected on very satisfactory and sufficient grounds.
In 1776, Dr. Porteus was promoted to the bishopric of Chester, where he distinguished himself by a faithful discharge of the duties of his high station; and in the interval between this period and his promotion to the se of London, the bishop evinced his zeal and ardour for the promotion of piety, benevolence, and the public good, by the part which he took in various matters which were objects of popular discussion. The principal among these were the Protestant association against Popery; that abominable nuisance, the Sunday debating society; the civilization of the negroes, and the establishment of Sunday schools. In the first of these, at the same time that. the bishop demonstrated his universal charity and candour, he was not negligent in guarding those committed to his care against the dangerous and delusive tenets of popery. In the second, his exertions effectually put a stop to a very alarming evil, to meetings which were calculated to destroy every moral sentiment, and extinguish every religious principle. With respect to the civilization and conversion of the negroes, he indulged the feeling nearest to his heart; but, although he had the happiness to see the final accomplishment of his wishes, his first endeavours were not effectual. The plan of Sunday schools was first introduced by Mr. Richard Raikes, of Gloucester, and when the bishop was convinced by time and experience of their real utility and importance, he promoted them in his diocese, and by an admirable letter which he addressed to his clergy, he explained their advantages, and recommended their universal adoption.
In 1787, on the death of bishop Lowth, Mr. Pitt recommended Dr. Porteus to his majesty as a fit person to succeed to the diocese of London, and his majesty having given his entire approbation, he was accordingly installed. The first object which engaged his attention on his promotion to this important see, was the king's proclamation against immorality and profaneness; and the good effects of his exertions on this subject were immediate and important; but his pastoral zeal was displayed to most advantage a few years after, when all moral and religious principle became endangered by the pernicious influence of the French revolution. The object of the authors of that convulsion was to degrade and vilify the truths of revelation, and to propagate in its place a blasphemous and infidel philosophy. The attempt succeeded but too effectually in their own country, and the contagion soon spread to this. No efforts were spared, which could tend to contaminate the public mind, and obliterate from it all reverence for our civil and religious establishments; and had it not been for the vigorous measures of that great minister, who was then at the head of the administration, and to whom, under providence, we owe our preservation, we might have witnessed here the same frightful scenes, which convulsed and desolated a neighbouring kingdom.
At a crisis such as this, in which all that is dear to us hung suspended on the issue, it was plainly every man's bounden duty to exert himself to the utmost for the public welfare: and, in a situation so responsible as the see of London, comprehending a vast metropolis, where the emissaries of infidelity were most actively occupied in their work of mischief, the bishop felt himself called upon to counteract, as far as in him lay, the licentious principles which were then afloat, and to check, if possible, the progress they had too evidently made in the various ranks of society. The best mode, as he conceived, of doing this, was to rouse the attention of the clergy to what was passing around them; and nothing surely was ever better calculated to produce that effect, than the charge which he addressed to them in 1794. We know not where, in a short compass, the character of the French philosophy is more ably drawn, or its baneful influence more strikingly developed. He had marked its course with an observing eye. He had read all that its advocates could allege in its favour. He had traced the motives which gave it birth, the features by which it was marked, and the real objects which it was designed to accomplish. It was not therefore without much deliberation and a full knowledge of his subject, that he drew up for his second visitation that eloquent and most impressive address, in which he gave such a picture of the infidel school of that day, and of the industry which was then employed to disseminate its principles in this country, as at once carried conviction to the mind, and most powerfully awakened the attention of every serious and thinking man. But it was on the clergy, in an especial manner, that he was anxious to leave a strong and fixed persuasion of the necessity of increased assiduity and vigilance in the discharge of their religious functions. Christianity, attacked as it was on every side, required more than common efforts, and more than ordinary zeal on the part of its natural defenders; and he therefore called upon them to repel with vigour and effect all those charges of fraud, falsehood, and fanaticism, which had been so liberally thrown upon it; at such a perilous crisis to contend with peculiar earnestness for "the faith once delivered to the saints;" and to shew that it is not, as our enemies affirm, "a cunningly devised fable," but "a real revelation from heaven."
In particular he recommended it to them, with the view of stemming more effectually the overwhelming torrent of infidel opinions, "to draw out from the whole body of the Christian evidences the principal and most striking arguments, and to bring them down to the understandings of the common people." "If this," says he, "or any thing of a similar nature, were thrown into a regular course of sermons or lectures, and delivered in an easy, intelligible, familiar language to your respective congregations, I know nothing that would, in these philosophic times, render a more essential service to religion." And to demonstrate that he was willing himself to take his full share of the burthen which he imposed upon others, he, in 1794, undertook to prepare and deliver at St. James's church, his justly-celebrated Lent lectures, which were received by the public with enthusiastic gratitude, both from the pulpit, in which they were repeated for some succeeding years, and from the press, where they passed through several editions.
This excellent prelate continued to exert all the influence of his high office, and to display all the energies of his character in whatever comprehended the extension and benefit of religion, morality, and literature. His address, in particular, to those who came to him for confirmation when he visited his diocese for the fourth time in 1802, is an admirable piece of eloquence. His charge on his last visitation, is more particularly deserving of attention, as it answered the objections of those who represented his lordship as friendly to sectaries. The part he took on the subject of the Curates' Bill, and residence of the clergy, evinces his tenacious zeal in whatever seemed in his opinion to be connected with his duty.
In 1805, he opposed the application for what was called Catholic Emancipation, is not being an application for liberty of conscience, but for political power. Among the last acts of his life were, his support of the English and Foreign Bible Society; his triumph on the successful termination of the question on the Slave trade; and his liberality in building and endowing a chapel at Sundridge, which was his favourite place of summer residence.
This worthy prelate had for some years been subject to ill health, which at length brought on a general debility, and on the 14th of May, 1808, he sunk under the pressure of accumulated disease, being in the 78th year of his age. He left behind him a justly-acquired reputation for propriety of conduct, benevolence to the clergy, and a strict attention to episcopal duties. As a preacher, he obtained the character of an accomplished orator; his language was chaste, his manner always serious, animated, and impressive, and his eloquence captivating. He seemed to speak from conviction, and being fully persuaded himself of the truth of those doctrines which he inculcated, he the more readily persuaded others, in private life he was mild, affable, easy of access, irreproachable in his morals, of a cheerful disposition, and ever ready to listen to and relieve the distresses of his fellow-creatures. In his behaviour towards dissenters from the established church, he discovered great moderation and candour. While he was a sincere believer in the leading doctrines contained in the thirty-nine articles, he could make allowance for those who did not exactly come up to the same standard. Toward the latter part of his life, he was accused of becoming the persecutor of the rev. Francis Stone, a clergyman of his own diocese, against whom he formally pronounced a sentence of deprivation for preaching and publishing a sermon in direct hostility to the doctrines of the church to which he belonged. Mr. Stone had for many years avowed his, disbelief of the articles of faith which he had engaged to defend, and for the support of which he had long received a handsome income, but no notice whatever was taken of the unsoundness of his creed. He preached the offensive; sermon before many of his brethren of different ranks in the church; yet perhaps, even this attack, which could scarcely be deemed prudent or even decent, would have been unnoticed, had he contented himself with promulgating his opinions from the pulpit only; but, when he made the press the vehicle of disseminating opinions contrary to the articles of his church, the prelate took the part which was highly becoming the high office which he held.
The benefactions of the bishop of London were numerous, public as well as private. While he was living, he transferred nearly seven thousand pounds in three per cents to the archdeacons of the diocese of London, as a permanent fund for the relief of the poorer clergy of his diocese. He also transferred stock to Christ's college, Cambridge, directing the interest arising from it to be appropriated to the purchase of three gold medals, to be annually contended for by the students of that college: one medal, value fifteen guineas, for the best Latin dissertation, on any of the chief evidences of Christianity; another of the same value for the best English composition on some moral precept in the gospel; and one of ten guineas to -the best reader in and most constant attendant at chapel. He bequeathed his library for the use of his successors in the see of London, together with a liberal sum towards the expence of erecting a building for its reception at the episcopal palace at Fulham. At Hyde-hill, near Sundridge, in Kent, where the bishop had a favourite rural retreat, he built a chapel under which he directed his remains to he deposited, and he endowed it with an income of £250 a-year.
As his works are now printed in a collected form, it is unnecessary to give their titles or dates. The edition wag preceded by an excellent life of him, written by his nephew, the rev. Robert Hodgson, rector of St. George's Hanover-square. To this we refer for many particulars of Dr. Porteus, which could not be included in the present sketch.