Milner, Isaac (DNB00)
|←Milne, William||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 38
MILNER, ISAAC (1750–1820), mathematician and divine, was born at Leeds on 11 Jan. 1750. His education began at the grammar school, but on the sudden death of his father, who had been unsuccessful in business, he was taken away when only ten years old, and set to earn his livelihood as a weaver. He followed this trade until his eldest brother, Joseph [q. v.], who had been sent to Cambridge by the kindness of friends, had taken his degree, and obtained the mastership of the grammar school at Hull. As soon as he was established there he appointed Isaac his usher (1768). It is said that the friend whom he sent to make inquiries as to his brother's fitness for the post found him at his loom with Tacitus and a Greek author by his side. It seems certain that he had obtained considerable knowledge of Latin, Greek, and mathematics before he went to Hull, and that while there he became, as he said himself, ‘a tolerably good classic, and acquainted with six books of Euclid’ (Life, p. 523). In 1770 Joseph Milner found means to enter him as a sizar at Queens' College, Cambridge. The brothers came up together on foot, with occasional lifts in a wagon (ib. p. 128).
Milner found the menial duties then incumbent on sizars so distasteful, that when reproved for upsetting a tureen of soup, he exclaimed, ‘When I get into power I will abolish this nuisance’ (which he did). He refused to sign a petition against subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles; and, when keeping the ‘opponency,’ then required of all candidates for the B.A. degree, he used an argument so ingenious as to puzzle even the moderator, who said, ‘Domine opponens, argumentum sane novum et difficile, nec pudet fateri meipsum nodum solvere non posse’ (ib. p. 8). Hard reading combined with his natural talents secured for him the first place in the mathematical tripos of 1774, and enabled him to outstrip his competitors so
- completely that the moderators wrote the word
Incomparabilis after his name. Like many men who have taken high degrees, he was so dissatisfied with his own performance that he thought he had completely failed (ib. p. 707). He also obtained the first Smith's prize. He was ordained deacon in 1775; became fellow of his college in 1776; and tutor and priest in 1777. In 1778 he was presented by his college to the rectory of St. Botolph, Cambridge, which he held till 1792. In 1780 and 1783 he was moderator. His reputation as an examiner stood very high in the university, and for many years he was constantly appealed to to settle disputed questions about brackets. His method of examination was peculiar. His keen sense of humour led him to joke over failures, especially those of stupid men, whom he called ‘sooty fellows,’ and when he had such to examine he would shout to the moderator in a voice which could be heard from one end of the senate house to the other, ‘In rebus fuliginosis versatus sum’ (Gunning, Reminiscences, i. 83). When he examined viva voce he interspersed his questions with anecdotes and irrelevant remarks. In spite of this habit, however, he had a wonderful instinct for discovering the best men.
In 1776, while still B.A., Milner was elected fellow of the Royal Society, and subsequently contributed four papers to the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ But before long he gave up mathematics, and turned his attention to other subjects. He had a strong natural taste for practical mechanics, and is said to have constructed a sundial when only eight years old. After taking his degree he studied chemistry in Professor Watson's lecture room, and in 1782 lectured on it as deputy for Professor Pennington. In the following year, upon the university's acceptance of the professorship of natural philosophy founded by Richard Jackson [q. v.], he became the first professor. He took great pains with his lectures, working indeed so hard at the preparation of them as to injure his health, and those on chemistry are said to have been excellent. He corresponded with several scientific men, but his name is not associated with any important discovery. His lectures on natural philosophy, which he delivered alternately with those on chemistry, are described as amusing rather than instructive (ib. i. 236). It would seem that he could not divest himself of his love of burlesque, even in the lecture-room. Notwithstanding these defects Professor William Smyth [q. v.] thought him ‘a very capital lecturer,’ adding that ‘what with him and his German assistant, Hoffmann, the audience was always in a high state of interest and entertainment’ (Life, p. 32).
The close friendship with William Wilberforce [q. v.], which lasted during Milner's whole life, began at Scarborough in 1784, when Wilberforce asked him to be his companion in an expedition to the south of France. They left England in October 1784, and were absent for about a year, with the exception of a few months in the spring of 1785. Wilberforce says of Milner, at the beginning of their residence at Nice, that his ‘religious principles were in theory much the same as in later life, yet they had at this time little practical effect on his conduct. He was free from any taint of vice, but not more attentive than others to religion; he appeared in all respects like an ordinary man of the world, mixing like myself in all companies, and joining as readily as others in the prevalent Sunday parties’ (Life of Wilberforce, i. 75). In the latter part of their tour, however, Wilberforce and Milner read the New Testament together in the original Greek, and debated on the doctrines which it teaches. In those conversations the foundation was undoubtedly laid of the great change which about this time took place in Wilberforce's convictions.
In 1786 Milner proceeded to the degree of bachelor in divinity. His ‘act’ excited the greatest interest, on account not of his talents only, but of those of his opponent, William Coulthurst, of Sidney Sussex College, who had been specially selected to ensure an effective contest. Professor Watson, who presided as regius professor of divinity, paid them the compliment of saying, ‘non necesse est descendere in arenam, arcades enim ambo estis.’ The subject, St. Paul's teaching on faith and works, is said to have been handled by the disputants with a wonderful combination of knowledge, eloquence, and ingenuity, long remembered in the university, and referred to as a type of what a divinity ‘act’ ought to be.
In 1788, on the death of Dr. Plumptre, Milner was elected president of Queens' College. He set to work at once, with characteristic energy, to change the tone of the college, to increase its importance as a place of education, and at the same time to make it a centre for the spread of those evangelical opinions of which he was recognised as one of the principal promoters in the university. The tutorship was, by custom, in the gift of the president, and Milner, in order to effect the latter object, deliberately rejected, as he himself admits (Life, p. 243), several fellows who were intellectually well fitted for the office, because he thought them ‘Jacobites and infidels,’ and sought elsewhere for men. whose opinions were identical with his own. Those he forced the society to elect to fellowships. His proceedings excited considerable opposition at first, but gradually the. society submitted, and to the last he ruled over the college with a despotism that was rarely called in question. Nor was he unpopular. The numbers steadily increased, and though sneered at as ‘a nursery of evangelical neophytes,’ Queens' College stood fourth on the list of Cambridge colleges in 1814.
In December 1791 Milner was presented to the deanery of Carlisle. He owed this preferment to the active friendship of Dr. Thomas Pretyman, afterwards Tomline [q. v.], bishop of Lincoln, who had been Pitt's tutor. In consequence of his university duties he was installed by proxy a beginning which might have been regarded as typical of his whole career as dean, for during his twenty-nine years of office he never, except once towards the close of his life, resided at Carlisle for more than three or four months in each year. He made a point of presiding at the annual chapter. He preached frequently in the cathedral, and energetically supported all measures for moral and material improvement, but this was all (Life, p. 101).
Milner resigned the Jacksonian professorship in 1792, and thenceforward gave up chemistry, and science in general, except as an amusement. To the end of his life he was, however, continually inventing something— as for instance a lamp or a water-clock—in the workshop fitted up for his private use in Queens' Lodge. He was also a member of the board of longitude. But after his election to the headship of his college he became daily more and more immersed in, and devoted to, university affairs. In November 1792 he was elected vice-chancellor. His year of office was rendered memorable by the trial in the vice-chancellor's court of the Rev. William Frend [q. v.] for publishing ‘Peace and Union,’ a tract recommending both political and religious reforms. Frend announced himself a Unitarian, and objected to various parts of the liturgy. But the prosecution was political rather than religious. Mr. Gunning, who was present at the trial, says that ‘it was apparent from the first that the vice-chancellor was determined to convict’ (Reminiscences, i. 272). Milner hated what he called ‘Jacobinical and heterodox principles,’ and had, moreover, personal reasons for exhibiting himself as the assertor of law and order at this particular time. He was ambitious, and the piece of preferment that he most ardently coveted was the mastership of Trinity College. This is evident from a remarkable letter to Wilberforce, dated 13 May 1798 (Life, p. 161), in which he admits that he ‘should not have been sorry to have been their master’ in 1789, when Dr. Postlethwaite was appointed. In 1798 the office was again vacant, and the letter was written in the hope of influencing Pitt in the choice of a successor. In the course of it this sentence occurs: ‘I don't believe Pitt was ever aware of how much consequence the expulsion of Frend was. It was the ruin of the Jacobinical party as a university thing, so that that party is almost entirely confined to Trinity College.’ Then, after discussing various claimants, he adds: ‘When I say that in all I have said, I have, on this occasion, whatever I might have had formerly, no respect to myself, I am sure you will believe me.’ Wilberforce may have believed his correspondent, but it is difficult for posterity to be equally credulous.
In November 1797 Milner lost his elder brother, Joseph. The grateful affection with which he had always regarded him is one of the most pleasing traits in his character. During the rest of his life his best efforts were directed to preserve his brother's memory. He edited, with additions, the volumes of his ‘History of the Church of Christ’ which had already appeared, and continued it to 1530. He prided himself greatly on the importance assigned to Luther, and on his character as there set forth; but the writer's ignorance of German, and his religious prejudices, must throw doubt on the accuracy of his statements. In connection with this work he was led into a controversy with Dr. Thomas Haweis [q. v.]
In 1798 Milner was elected Lucasian professor of mathematics, a post which he held till his death. He delivered no lectures, but performed the other duties, such as examining for the Smith's prizes, very efficiently.
The remainder of Milner's life was apportioned, with undeviating regularity, between Cambridge and Carlisle. In 1809-10 he was again vice-chancellor, and in 1813 he had a brisk controversy with Dr. Herbert Marsh [q. v.] on the Bible Society. Marsh had addressed the senate on the impropriety of circulating the Bible without the prayerbook, and of allowing an auxiliary branch of the society to establish itself at Cambridge. Milner had spoken (12 Dec. 1811), at the meeting called to establish the auxiliary branch; and subsequently elaborated a volume of ‘Strictures on some of the Publications of the Rev. Herbert Marsh,’ in which he traversed almost the whole of his life and writings. Marsh replied, and his antagonist did not venture to enter the lists with him again.
Milner was fond of describing himself as an invalid, and towards the end of his life rarely quitted his lodge. In the spring of 1820, while on a visit to Wilberforce at Kensington Gore, he had a more than usually severe attack. No danger was at first apprehended, but he grew gradually weaker, and passed away peacefully 1 April 1820. He was buried in Queens' College Chapel.
In person Milner was tall, with a frame that indicated great bodily strength, and regular features. In old age he became excessively corpulent. He was constitutionally gay; and his religious views, though they made him disapprove of amusements of various kinds, did not impose upon him gravity in society. He was ‘the life of the party’ (Life, p. 329), and if the official dinners which, as vice-chancellor, he gave on Sunday before the afternoon service at St. Mary's were very merry, his private parties were uproarious (Gunning, Reminiscences, i. 246). Sir James Stephen, who knew him well, says of his conversation: ‘He had looked into innumerable books, had dipped into most subjects, whether of vulgar or of learned inquiry, and talked with shrewdness, animation, and intrepidity on them all. Whatever the company or whatever the theme, his sonorous voice predominated over all other voices, even as his lofty stature, vast girth, and superincumbent wig, defied all competitors.’ He was a popular and effective preacher, and when he occupied the pulpit at Carlisle, ‘you might walk on the heads of the people’ (Life, p. 116). His thirst for knowledge prompted him to discourse affably with anybody from whom he could extract information or amusement. In charity he was profusely generous, and contributed annually to the distressed poor of Leeds. He delighted in the society of young people, and spared no pains to make their time with him amusing. In politics he was a staunch tory, and an equally staunch supporter of the established church as a state institution. His friendship with Wilberforce made him an abolitionist, but he nearly quarrelled with him over catholic emancipation. There is a portrait in oils of Milner by Opie, in the dining-room of Queens' College Lodge, and a second, by an unknown artist, in the combination-room. He was also drawn in chalk by the Rev. Thomas Kerrich [q. v.] in 1810.
He wrote: 1. ‘Reflections on the Communication of Motion by Impact and Gravity,’ 26 Feb. 1778, ‘Phil. Trans.’ lxviii. 344. 2. ‘Observations on the Limits of Algebraical Equations,’ 26 Feb. 1777, ib. p. 380. 3. ‘On the Precession of the Equinoxes produced by the Sun's Attraction,’ 24 June 1779, ib. lxix. 505. 4. ‘A Plan of a Course of Chemical Lectures,’ 8vo, Cambridge, 1784. 5. ‘A Plan of a Course of Experimental Lectures Introductory to the Study of Chemistry and other Branches of Natural Philosophy,’ 8vo, Cambridge, n.d. 6. ‘A Plan of a Course of Chemical Lectures,’ 8vo, Cambridge, 1788. 7. ‘On the Production of Nitrous Acid and Nitrous Air,’ 2 July 1789, ‘Phil. Trans.’ lxxix. 300. 8. ‘Animadversions on Dr. Haweis's Impartial and Succinct History of the Church of Christ; being the Preface to the 2nd edition of vol. i. of the late Rev. Jos. Milner's History of the Church of Christ,’ 8vo, Cambridge, 1800. 9. ‘Further Animadversions on Dr. Haweis's Misquotations and Misrepresentations of the Rev. Mr. Milner's History of the Church of Christ,’ 8vo, Cambridge, 1801. 10. ‘An Account of the Life and Character of the late Rev. Joseph Milner,’ 8vo, Cambridge,1801. 11. The same, enlarged and corrected, 2nd edit. 8vo, Cambridge, 1802. 12. ‘Strictures on some of the Publications of the Rev. Herbert Marsh,’ 8vo, London, 1813. 13. ‘The History of the Church of Christ, by the late Rev. Jos. Milner, A.M., with Additions and Corrections by the Rev. I. Milner, D.D.,’ 8vo, London, 1816. 14. ‘Sermons by the late Jos. Milner. Edited by I. Milner,’ 2 vols. 8vo, London, 1820. 15. ‘An Essay on Human Liberty, by the late I. Milner,’ 8vo, London, 1824.[Life of Isaac Milner, D.D., by his niece, Mary Milner, 8vo, London, 1842; Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, by Sir James Stephen, 1849, ii. 358-67; Life of Wilberforce, passim, see index; Gunning's Reminiscences, 1855, i. 83-5, 234-51, 255-84; the Missionary Secretariat of Henry Venn, by W. Knight, 1880, p. 10.]