Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Magee, William Connor
MAGEE, WILLIAM CONNOR (1821–1891), successively bishop of Peterborough and archbishop of York, was eldest son of John Magee, librarian of the Cork Cathedral library and curate of the parish, afterwards vicar of Drogheda, prebendary of Raphoe (1825–9), and treasurer of St. Patrick's, Dublin (1831–7). His mother, Marianne, daughter of the Rev. John Ker, was of Scottish family. William Magee [q. v.], archbishop of Dublin, was his grandfather. He was born in the apartments adjoining the library of Cork Cathedral on 17 Dec. 1821. From childhood he received from his parents religious teaching of the old evangelical type. In 1832 he was sent to the classical school of Kilkenny, and in 1835, when only thirteen, he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He won a classical ship there in 1838, and graduated B.A. in 1842, M.A. and B.D. in 1854. His father died in 1837, and he was left to follow his own tastes and pursuits. Although he won Archbishop King's divinity prize in 1841, and showed in the examination an exceptional knowledge of theology, he chiefly devoted himself to desultory reading, but a retentive memory enabled him to benefit to the full by any information he acquired. To his contemporaries he was best known as a ready debater. He successfully agitated for the re-establishment of the old ‘Historical Society’—an institution analogous to the Oxford Union—in Trinity College, and, becoming the first president, delivered an opening address, which gave abundant promise of his future eminence as an orator. At one period he thought of entering the medical profession, and actually walked the wards of a hospital, but he always intended to join the ministry. He accordingly received deacon's orders in Advent 1844 from the Bishop of Chester, and priest's orders from the Bishop of Tuam in the following year.
After two years' hard work (1844–6) as curate of St. Thomas's, a populous Dublin parish, he was attacked by an ailment of the throat, which compelled him to give up work and winter in the south of Spain. He spent two winters (1846–7) at Malaga, and the intervening summer at Ronda. Seville and Granada were visited, and he studied the Spanish language and literature.
On his return home in 1818 he accepted the curacy of St. Saviour's, Bath, and in 1850 became joint minister, and soon sole incumbent, of the Octagon, a proprietary chapel in Bath. In 1859 he was made an honorary canon of Wells. At Bath his reputation for eloquence and common sense had grown steadily. In May 1860 he was appointed perpetual curate of Quebec Chapel in London. He preached his first sermon there 7 Oct. A month later he was instituted to the Trinity College living of Enniskillen. His association with Quebec Chapel ended in March 1861. The large and populous parish of Enniskillen involved Magee in controversies, and he experienced the difficulties of parochial work.
Meanwhile Magee's sermons had attracted general attention in London. In 1860 he preached at Whitehall Chapel an ordination sermon, which was published as ‘The Gospel and the Age,’ and when in 1861 he issued a lecture on ‘The Voluntary System and the Established Church’ (three editions), he was widely acknowledged as a singularly able champion of the establishment. In 1860 his university conferred on him the degree of D.D. unsolicited and without fees. The Earl of Carlisle, while lord-lieutenant of Ireland, after two ineffectual attempts to induce the prime minister to give Magee a bishopric in Ireland, promoted him in 1864 to the deanery of Cork, which had been held by his grandfather forty years before. At Cork he took up his residence close to the house in which he had been born. In 1865 he was elected Donnellan lecturer at Trinity College. A year later (1866) he was also appointed dean of the Chapel Royal, Dublin, and he divided his time between the two deaneries of Cork and Dublin. The Church Congress was held in Dublin in 1868, and Magee's opening sermon in St. Patrick's Cathedral, on the ‘Breaking Net,’ was one of his greatest successes in the pulpit. In the same year he preached before the British Association at Norwich on ‘The Christian Theory of the Origin of the Christian Life,’ and a few months later he was promoted, on the recommendation of Mr. Disraeli, then prime minister, to the see of Peterborough. He was consecrated at Whitehall on 15 Nov. 1868.
On 15 June 1869 Magee made a celebrated speech in the House of Lords in opposition to the second reading of the bill for the disestablishment of the Irish church. He condemned the bill as unjust, impolitic, and against the verdict of the nation. The effort, which was loudly applauded, placed his fame as a parliamentary orator quite as high as his reputation as a preacher. Lord Salisbury stated publicly that he had heard from the greatest authorities that they considered it the finest speech ever delivered by any living man in either house of parliament. Although Magee was an active member of convocation, he intervened only at intervals in parliamentary debates, and then always with effect. When in 1876 Lord Shaftesbury was appealing to the bench of bishops for aid in procuring legislation for the absolute prohibition of the practice of vivisection, Magee, with characteristic readiness and freedom from fanaticism, explained his inability to lend his support in an unpremeditated speech of forty minutes' duration, in which he made effective use of his early study of medicine. He completely carried his hearers with him, although he offended the fanatical opponents of vivisection. Two measures which he introduced into the House of Lords he was not destined to see become law. One was for the regulation of ‘church patronage;’ the other was for protecting infant life by regulating ‘infant insurance,’ which he introduced a few months before his death.
Magee ruled the diocese of Peterborough wisely and vigorously, and although his strong hand occasionally provoked opposition and jealousy, his efficiency was appreciated by both clergy and laity. He still preached with all his former spirit, and from 1880 to 1882 was select preacher in the university of Oxford. He received the honorary degree of D.C.L. at Oxford in 1870, and presided over the Church Congress at Leicester in 1880. A serious illness in 1883 evoked the widest sympathy not only in his diocese, but throughout the kingdom.
In January 1891 he was selected, with every sign of enthusiastic approval, to succeed Dr. William Thomson [q. v.] as archbishop of York. He was enthroned in York Minster on 17 March, but he died while on a visit to London to attend a committee of the House of Lords on his Infant Insurance Bill, on 5 May following. He was buried on 9 May in the burial-ground of Peterborough Cathedral. Magee married, in August 1851, Ann Nisbitt, second daughter of Charles Smith, rector of Arklow. She, with three sons and three daughters, survived him. Two elder children died young.
Magee was one of the greatest orators and most brilliant controversialists of his day. In his oratory, which Lord Beaconsfield described as persuasive, clearness and terseness of expression were accompanied by withering power of sarcasm, much logical reasoning and humorous illustration, and his full-toned voice was capable of sounding every gradation of feeling. In private society his faculty of witty retort was exercised without restraint, and easily placed him in the first rank of conversationalists. Although his religious views were always of an evangelical tone, they broadened considerably in later years. He viewed with disfavour ritualistic prosecutions; but all fanatical excesses in religion were abhorrent to him. His faith was too robust to tolerate artificial aids to Christian virtue or belief. Yet his sincerity attracted the two extremes of thinkers, the unquestioning believer and the honest intellectual sceptic. He had little sympathy with the eccentricities of teetotal fanatics and other social reformers, and some remarks in his latest speeches that he would rather see England free than sober, and that under certain circumstances betting was not wholly sinful, led to much misconception, but were fully consistent with his masculine hatred of exaggeration and misapplied enthusiasm.
Magee was the author of many speeches and addresses, separately issued. His chief published collections of sermons were:
- ‘Sermons at St. Saviour's, Bath,’ 1852.
- ‘Sermons at the Octagon Chapel, Bath,’ 1852.
- ‘The Gospel and the Age,’ 1884.
He also issued in a series called ‘Helps to Belief,’ 1887, a volume on ‘The Atonement,’ 1887; and two further selections from his sermons, edited by C. S. Magee, called respectively ‘Christ the Light of all Scripture,’ 1892, and ‘Growth in Grace,’ 1891, with a volume of ‘Addresses and Speeches,’ 1892, appeared posthumously.
[Private information; Times, 6 May 1891; Crockford's Clerical Direct. 1891; Burke's Peerage, 1891; Men of the Time, 1891; Foster's Alumni Oxon. A full Memoir by the present writer appeared in 1896.]