Burgess, Thomas (1756-1837) (DNB00)

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BURGESS, THOMAS, D.D, (1756–1837), successively bishop of St. David's and Salisbury, born 18 Nov. 1756, was the son of a grocer of Odiham in Hampshire. He was sent in 1763 to Odiham grammar school, and thence in 1768 to Winchester. In 1775 he became a scholar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1777, while still an undergraduate, he re-edited Burton’s ‘Pentalogia,’ he took his B.A. on 17 Dec. 1778, won a prize essay in 1780, published a new edition of Dawes's ‘Miscellanea Critica,’ which won for him the friendship of Tyrwhitt, and in 1782 took his M.A., and became a tutor of his college. In 1783 he was elected to a fellowship. In 1784 he was ordained deacon and priest by Bishop Cornwall of Whnchester. In 1786 he was a pointed examining chaplain to Bishop Shute Barringion of Salisbury. Up to 1791 he continued to reside at Oxford, publishing various works on points of scholarship; but he gradually ‘turned his attention to sacred studies’—learnt Hebrew, and ‘imbibed deep and serious views of divine truth.’ He assisted in the promotion of Sunday schools in the diocese of Salisbury, wrote a pamphlet against slavery and the slave trade (1788), and became the friend of Hannah More and other prominent members of the evangelical party. In 1791 Bishop Barrington was translated to Durham, and Burgess, still remaining his chaplain, quitted Oxford for the north. In 179-1 he was appointed by the bishop to one of the valuable prebends of Durham Cathedral, and in 1795 to the ‘sweet and delightful’ living of Winston in the same county. In 1799 he married a Miss Bright. He continued to publish various treatises on classical and devotional subjects, and took a prominent share in all religious and educational movements. In June 1803 his old friend Addington, then prime minister, appointed him bishop of St. David's.

The bishopric of St. David’s was at that time hardly worth 1,200l. a year, and, being regarded merely as a stepping-stone to further promotion, its occupants not unfrequently completely neglected the duties of their office. But Burgess’s continued tenure of his Durham prebend gave him an adequate income, and he devoted himself with such zeal to the reformation of his diocese as to make a deep mark on the history of the Welsh church. He found the clergy ill educated, careless of their duties, often drunken and immoral. The livings were too poor to attract university men, and a year at the grammar school of Ystradmeurig was thought enough to qualify a youth fresh from the plough, and imperfectly acquainted with the English language, for holy orders. Burgess’s first step to improve classical education was to license four grammar schools, at which seven years’ study was required before ordination. In 1804 he established the ‘Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Church Union in the Diocese of St, David's,’ which aimed at raising the standard of classical education, at providing English and Sunday schools for the poor, at spreading religious books, and at founding libraries and a superannuation fund for the poorer clergy. Before long the bishop began to collect subscriptions with a view to establishing a properly equipped college on the Oxford and Cambridge model, for the education of his clergy, both in general subjects and in theology. He regularly set aside part of his income for the purpose, and persuaded many of his clergy to devote a tenth of their small means to the same object. By 1820 he had collected 11,000l., and, having obtained grants from the king and the universities, in 1822 he laid the foundation-stone of St. David‘s College at Lampeter in Cardiganshire. His translation to another see occurred before the college was opened in 1827; but he continued to watch over it with the greatest interest, and left in his will considerable legacies to an institution which he regarded as the chief work of his life, and which has had an important induence in spreading higher educacation in Wales.

Meanwhile Burgess continued to perform his duties ‘with a zeal worth of the best ages of christianity.' His confirmations and ordinations were conducted with a carefulness quite remarkable at that time. By a large personal sacrifice of fines for renewing leases, he permanently increased the income of his see. His attendance at Eisteddfodau showed his desire to approach the national sentiment of his flock, and he refused to induct clergy ignorant of Welsh into Welsh-speaking parishes. In 1804 he took a prominent share in establishing the Bible Society. In 1823 he drew up, at the king's command, a plan for the foundation of the Royal Society of Literature, of which he was the first president. He still found time for copious literary work, consisting of charges, sermons, devotional treatises, grammars, exhortatious to the study of Hebrew, fragments of biblical criticism, of controversial theology and ecclesiastical politics, and attempts at ecclesiastical history. At one time he wrote tracts, which essayed to prove the Pauline origin, the ‘evangelical’ doctrine, and the independence of Rome of the old British church. At another he attempted to vindicate the authenticity of 1 John v. 7 against more powerful critics than himself. He wrote and spoke in parliament against the catholic claims. Between 1814 and 1820 he denounced the unitarians in a long series of tracts. For several years in succession he exhausted the patience of the Royal Society of Literature by a demonstration that the newly discovered treatise ‘De Doctrina Christiana’ could not be written by Milton, because its orthodoxy on the question of the Trinity was more than doubtful. In nearly all that he wrote Burgess had some cherished principle or opinion to defend, for the sake of which he threw away dislxetion and impartiality. During his long career he published more than a hundred works; a list of which can be found in Harford’s ‘Life’ (appendix and ch. xxxiii,), and which occupy more than fifteen pages of the British Museum Catalogue.

In 1825 Burgess was translated to the richer see of Salisbury, and left some of his most important works at St. David’s in an unfinished state. But his health needed an easier post, and the complaints of his in-attention to formal business in his new see show that at the age of nearly seventy his great activity was beginning to abate. He, however, made his mark upon his new diocese, as well as on his old one. In 1829 he fought desperately the last battle against catholic emancipation by letters to the Duke of Wellington, published in the newspapers, and by a violent harangue in the House of Lords. He established in Salisbury a church union society, analogous to that in St. David’s, and showed great energy in visiting, confirming, educating, and ordaining. For several years he suffered from weakness of vision, and in 1835 he was seized with an apoplectic fit. His health now rapidly sank. He still had enough energy to protest in 1836 against Lord Melbourne’s Irish church policy. He died on Sunday, 19 Feb., and was buried at Salisbury on 27 Feb. 1837.

[Harford's Life of Bishop Burges.]

T. F. T.