Rt Rev Beilby Porteus, D.D., Bishop of Chester and London (May 8, 1731–May 13, 1809)

ALTHOUGH THE PORTEUS FAMILY was of Scottish ancestry, Beilby Porteus’ parents were Virginian planters who had returned to England during the difficult times and economic problems in that province during the early eighteenth century and who in 1720, for the sake of his father Robert’s health, eventually relocated to York, where Beilby was born in 1731, last but one of nineteen children.

Porteus was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and in 1762 was offered a position as domestic chaplain to archbishop Thomas Secker at Lambeth Palace, London. It was during these years that it is thought 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 Rev. James Ramsay in the West Indies and from Granville Sharp, the English lawyer who had supported the cases of freed slaves in England.

Porteus was married to Margaret Hodgson on May 13, 1765, the wedding performed by Archbishop Secker who, at the same time, presented him with the rectory of Hunton, Kent and later a prebend at Peterborough Cathedral. When the rectory at Lambeth fell void in 1767 due to the death of Dr. Denne he was presented to the living by the Bishop of Winchester, continuing to hold Hunton in plurality.

In 1769 Porteus was appointed chaplain to King George III and a few years later presented to the mastership of the St. Cross Hospital, Winchester. He had evidently been earmarked for this preferment by Secker prior to his death, and as soon as it became vacant it was to be offered on condition that Porteus resign his Prebend at Peterborough in favour of the late archbishop’s other chaplain, George Stinton.

He was concerned about trends within the Anglican church towards what he regarded as the watering-down of the truth of Scripture and stood for doctrinal purity and opposed the members of the Subscription Movement, who would have watered-down cardinal Christian doctrines and beliefs and allowed clergy the option of subscribing to the Thirty-Nine Articles. At the same time he was prepared to suggest a compromise of a revision to some of the Articles.

In 1776 Porteus was appointed as Bishop of Chester and 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.

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. Porteus used the opportunity afforded by the invitation to preach the Anniversary Sermon of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) to criticise the Church’s role in ignoring the plight of the slaves on its own Codrington Estates in Barbados, and to recommend means by which the conditions of slaves there could be improved.

The sermon was a well-reasoned and much-reprinted plea for The Civilisation, Improvement and Conversion of the Negroe Slaves in the British West-India Islands Recommended, and was preached before forty members of the society, including eleven bishops of the Church of England.
When this 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. His dismay at the rejection of his Plan by the other bishops is palpable. His Diary entry for the day reveals his moral outrage at the decision and at what he saw as the apparent complacency of the bishops and the committee of the Society at its responsibility for the welfare of its own slaves.

These were the first challenges to the church establishment in an eventual twenty-six 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, aiding 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 in Kent, led by Sir Charles Middleton, and soon became acquainted with William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay and other dedicated activists. Many of this group were members of the so-called Clapham Sect of evangelical social reformers and Porteus willingly lent his support to them.

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.

He was translated to Bishop of London in 1787 and as such had responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the Royal Family – a charge which he took immensely seriously. He had the opportunity of preaching at the Chapel Royal before The Prince of Wales on several occasions and conducted the Service of Thanksgiving for the recovery of King George III in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1789, as well as the state funeral of Admiral Lord Nelson in 1806.

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, Porteus 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.

Greatly concerned by what they perceived to be the degeneracy of British society, Porteus and William Wilberforce were also active in matters of moral reform, lobbying against ‘the torrent of profaneness that every day makes more rapid advances,’ and considered this issue and the abolition of the slave trade as equally important goals. At their suggestion King George III was requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury to issue in 1787 the Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice, as a remedy for the rising tide of immorality.

The proclamation commanded the prosecution of those guilty of ‘excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day, and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices.’ Greeted largely with public indifference, they sought to increase its impact by mobilising public figures to the cause, and by founding the Society for Suppression of Vice.
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 as well as what he regarded as the ungodly and dangerous doctrines of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. In 1793, at Porteus’ behest, Hannah More published Village Politics, a short pamphlet designed to counter the arguments of Paine, the first in a whole series of popular tracts designed to oppose what they saw as the prevailing immorality of the day.

A product of his time, Porteus was deeply concerned for observance of the Lord’s Day and campaigned for legislation to enforce it, the resulting Sunday Observance Act which he drew up prohibited the unlicensed and unrestricted opening of places of entertainment and clubs, and was part of English law until only a few years ago.

Porteus 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.

After a gradual decline in his health over the previous three years, Bishop Porteus died at Fulham Palace in 1809 and, according to his wishes, was buried at St Mary’s church, Sundridge in Kent – a stone’s throw from his country retreat in the village – a place to which he had loved to retire every autumn.

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. Always a Church of England man, he was, however, happy to work with Methodists and dissenters and recognised their major contributions in evangelism and education.

His legacy was such that his name was almost as well-known in the early nineteenth century as those of Wilberforce and 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.

And yet Beilby Porteus was one of the most significant, albeit underrated church figures of the eighteenth century. His legacy lives on, though, as the campaign which he helped to set in motion eventually led to the transformation of the Church of England into an international movement with mission and social justice at its heart, appointing African, Indian and Afro-Caribbean bishops and archbishops and others from many diverse ethnic groups as its leaders.

We may now live in a different age, but the church and the various peoples whom it represents around the globe have much to thank him for.

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