Bingham, Joseph (DNB00)

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BINGHAM, JOSEPH (1668–1723), author of the 'Origines Ecclesiasticæ,' or 'Antiquities of the Christian Church,' was born at Wakefield in September 1768, and educated in his native town until 1684, when he went to University College, Oxford. Even in his undergraduate days he devoted himself to the studies which afterwards made his name famous. He took his B.A. degree in 1688, and was elected fellow of University in 1689. In 1691 he was made a college tutor, and in that capacity developed the talents and directed the tastes of a fellow-townsman, John Potter, who had followed him from Wakefield to University, and afterwards became archbishop of Canterbury, and author of the well-known works on 'Church Government' and the 'Antiquities of Greece.' In 1696, when the Trinitarian controversy was at its height, Bingham preached a perfectly orthodox sermon on the subject at St. Mary's, in which he gave a most accurate sketch of the opinions of the early fathers on the terms 'person' and 'substance.' The Hebdomadal Board, however, charged him with having 'asserted doctrines false, impious, and heretical, contrary and dissonant to those of the catholic church.' This severe censure was followed by other charges in the public press, accusing him of Arianism, Tritheism, and the heresy of Valentinus Gentilis. The result was that he was obliged to resign his fellowship and withdraw from the university. The blunder does not appear to have been recorded in the books of the university, but the sad fact remains that Oxford drove from her walls one of her most distinguished sons, on charges of which he was perfectly innocent. Bingham was not left quite destitute; as soon as he resigned his fellowship he was presented by the well-known Dr. Radcliffe, without any solicitation, to the living of Headbourn-Worthy. It was worth only 100l. a year, but it had the advantage of being close to Winchester, where Bingham could make use of the excellent cathedral library founded by Bishop Morley. Soon after his appointment to Worthy, Bingham was invited to preach a visitation sermon in Winchester Cathedral, and he chose the same subjects and expressed the same sentiments which had given such deep offence at Oxford. The sermon gave so much satisfaction that he was invited to preach again on a similar occasion in the following year, when he brought to a conclusion what he wished to say further on the subject of the Trinity. All the three sermons may be found in his published works, and every competent person must admit that they are not only a most orthodox, but also a most valuable contribution to the literature of this mysterious subject. In 1702 Bingham married Dorothy, daughter of the Rev. R. Pocock, rector of Elmore, and by her became the father of ten children. In 1708 the first volume of the 'Antiquities' was published, the tenth and last in 1722, the year before his death, and a large proportion of these fourteen years was occupied in the composition of this great work. In 1712 he was collated by the Bishop of Winchester to the living of Havant, near Portsmouth. As Havant was a better living than Worthy, and his writings began to bring him in a little money, he was for a time less straitened by poverty than he had hitherto been. But he foolishly embarked his money in the South Sea Bubble, and in 1720 the bubble burst. His constitution, which was naturally weak, was still further enfeebled by his sedentary habits, and after a long struggle with delicate health, anxiety, and poverty, he died 17 Aug. 1723, and was buried in his old parish of Headbourn-Worthy.

In one respect, at any rate, Bingham was fortunate, viz. in hitting upon a subject which wanted dealing with, and for dealing with which he was admirably adapted. 'He was the first,' says a German writer, 'that published a complete archæology [of the christian church] and one worthy of the name.' And, we may add, he will probably be the last. What he did he did so thoroughly and exhaustively, that he would be a bold man who should attempt again to go over ground so completely traversed. His object is thus stated by himself: 'The design which I have formed to myself is to give such a methodical account of the antiquities of the christian church as others have done of the Greek and Roman and Jewish antiquities, by reducing the ancient customs, usages, and practices of the church under certain proper heads, whereby the reader may take a view at once of any particular usage or custom of christians for four or five centuries.' Not a name, not an office, not a usage, not a law is omitted, or, indeed, left without the very fullest explanation. In ten substantial volumes, in which not a word is wasted, he completely exhausts his great subject, treating it with consummate learning and admirable impartiality. He is too full of matter to trouble himself much about style, but he writes naturally, and with a quiet, scholarly simplicity which is very attractive. The work was one not only for the church of England, but for every christian community; it was very fitting, therefore, that it should be translated into Latin; the universal language is the most suitable vehicle for a work which is of universal interest.

The 'Antiquities' is, of course, the one imperishable monument which Bingham has raised for himself; but his lesser works, though now forgotten, are written in the same exhaustive fashion. The largest of these is entitled 'The French Church's Apology for the Church of England,' which 'contains a modest vindication of the doctrine, worship, government, and discipline of our church from the chief objections of dissenters, and returns answer to them upon the principles of the reformed church of France.' The work was a very seasonable one, being written at a time when this country was flooded with French refugees, who were thought likely to swell the ranks of nonconformists. Bingham appeals to the refugees as well as to the English dissenters, urging them that, 'as they regarded the venerable authority of their own national synods, and of the avowed principles of that church, into which they were baptised, they should vigorously maintain and assert the cause of the church of England against all that set up distinct communions, &c.' He takes point by point, and works out each with extraordinary ingenuity and accuracy; but the subject is now quite out of date. Another of his lesser works is a 'Scholastical History of the Practice of the Church in reference to Administration of Baptism by Laymen.' This was at first intended to by only a single chapter in the 'Antiquities['], but the subject grew upon his hands (partly through the fact of a Mr. Lawrence taking up an opposite view, which Bingham felt bound to controvert), and he published it as a separate treatise. He contends that in extraordinary cases baptism by a layman in full communion with the church is valid, and he brings his inexhaustible store of learning to bear upon the case. Two long letters on 'Absolution,' addressed to the Bishop of Winchester, which are a sort of appendix to the treatise on lay baptism, and which finally dispose of Mr. Lawrence, and an excellent discourse 'On the Mercy of God,' intended for the use of persons troubled in mind, complete the list of this great writer's works. Though the list is not a long one, Bingham's literary industry must have been enormous; the 'Antiquities' alone is sufficient to prove this. The work bears on the face of it traces of many years' reading, before the writing began at all, and the labour must have been all the more severe because he was sadly cramped for books in spite of his proximity to Bishop Morley's library. His family preserved a copy of Pearson 'On the Creed,' in which were eight pages neatly transcribed in his own hand, because he could not afford the few shillings requisite to purchase a new copy in the place of his own mutilated one. But never was literary industry less thrown away. Bingham has not only written an invaluable work, but he has secured for the English church the glory of supplying a serious deficiency in ecclesiastical literature. Even Romanists have been forced to confess that the 'Antiquities' is a most important addition to theological libraries, and the fact that it was translated into Latin by a German protestant (Professor Grischovius or Grischow) shows how highly it was appreciated by the reformed churches abroad. Bingham's reward was posthumous. His eldest son, Richard, was presented to the living of Havant in recognition of his father s merits, and the Bishop of London (Dr. Robert Lowth) bestowed a living on his grandson, saying: 'I venerate the memory of your grandfather. He was not rewarded as he ought to have been. I therefore give you this living as a small recompense of his great and inestimable merits.' His biographer tells us that 'his disposition was of the purest and mildest cast, and was never ruffled by the common accidents and occurrences of life.' He had every kind of wisdom but worldly wisdom. All pecuniary matters were managed bv his wife, who, we are sorry to learn, was left dependent upon charity, for she died in 1765 in Bishop Warner's College for Clergymen's Widows at Bromley. The only occupation which diverted him from his studies was the care of his parish, to which he attended conscientiously. Within a short time of his death he was busy collecting materials for a new work, and revising the 'Antiquities,' for a new edition. His second son, Joseph, was educated at the Charterhouse and Corpus College, Oxford. He was a scholar of great promise, and died of over-work at the age of 22.

The order of Bingham's works as published in his lifetime appears to have been as follows:

  1. 'Three Sermons on the Trinity,' 1695-7.
  2. 'The French Church's Apology,' &c., 1706.
  3. The 'Origines Ecclesiasticae,' published volume by volume at intervals between 1708 and 1722.
  4. 'The Scholastical History of Lay Baptism/ &c., part i. in 1712, port ii. 1714, virtually concluded by the 'Dissertation upon the 8th Canon of the Council of Nice' (1716?).
  5. The 'Discourse concerning the Mercy of God.' &c., about 1720.

The first collective edition of his works was published in 2 vols, folio in 1726. The misfortunes which haunted Bingham during his life pursued him after death. This edition was not so perfect as it easily might have been made; for, in her poverty, 'Mrs. Bingham was induced to sell the copyright of her late husband's writings to the booksellers, who immediately republished the whole of his works without making any alteration whatever; and though the eldest son undertook the office of correcting the press, he did not insert any of the manuscript additions which his father had prepared; he was then so young that he probably had not the opportunity of examining his father's books and papers sufficiently to discover that any such preparations for a new edition had been made' (Memoir). Bingham also died just too soon to see the commencement of a work for which he had long been anxious. In 1724 appeared the first volume of the 'Origines,' published in Latin by J. H. Grischow at Halle. The other vol umes followed in due course, and the whole appeared under the following title: 'Josephi Binghami Origines, sive Antiquitates Ecclesiasticæ. Ex Lingua Anglicana in Latinam vertit J. H. Grischovius. Accedit Pnefatio J. F. Buddiei. 10 tom. 4to. Halffi, 1724-1729.' Another edition of the same is dated 'Halse Magdeburgicae, 1751-1781.' The best edition of Bingham's full works, including the sermons on the Trinity, &c., was published by Bingham's lineal descendant in 9 vols. 8vo, 1821-9, with a short but interesting memoir prefixed to vol. i. by Bingham's great-grandson, Richard Bingham the elder [q. v.] Another edition of the above, with the quotations at length in the original languages, was published by the Rev. J. R. Pitman, 1838-40. And another edition of the same was published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 10 vols., in 1855. A reprint of the 'Antiquities,' 2 vols. imp. 8vo, was issued by Bohn in 1845 and 1852. As early as 1722 'a summary of christian antiquities, abridged from Bingham's Antiquities,' entitled 'Ecclesice Primitivte Notitia,' was published in 2 vols. 8vo by A. Blackamore.

[Article in Biog. Brit., communicated by his son Richard; Life in Works (1829), by his great-grandson, who was also author of the life in Chalmers's Biog. Dict.]

J. H. O.