Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palmer, William (1803-1885)

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PALMER, WILLIAM (1803–1885), theologian and ecclesiastical antiquary, only son of William Palmer, military officer, of St. Mary's, Dublin, was born on 14 Feb. 1803. He graduated B.A. at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1824, and, after taking holy orders, migrated to Oxford, where he was incorporated at Magdalen Hall 20–23 Oct. 1828, and proceeded M.A. 28 Jan. 1829. From Magdalen Hall he removed to Worcester College in 1831. In 1832 he published ‘Origines Liturgicæ, or Antiquities of the English Ritual and a Dissertation on Primitive Liturgies,’ Oxford, 2 vols. 8vo; 4th edit. 1845, a learned and scholarly work on a subject then much neglected, which brought him into personal relations with Keble, Hurrell Froude, Hugh James Rose, John Henry Newman, and others of the party afterwards known as tractarian. He brought to Oxford an intimate knowledge of the controversy with Rome, gained by a study of Bellarmine and other eminent Roman catholic apologists. His own principles were fixed in the high-church school. Papers by him against dissent appeared in Hugh James Rose's ‘British Magazine’ in 1832. In the following year he published a vigorous pamphlet against comprehension, entitled ‘Remarks on Dr. Arnold's Principles of Church Reform,’ London, 8vo, and formed, in concert with Rose and Hurrell Froude, the ‘Association of Friends of the Church,’ for the maintenance ‘pure and inviolate’ of the doctrines, the services, and the discipline of the church. The association was at once turned to account by Newman as a vehicle for the circulation of the ‘Tracts for the Times,’ of which one, and one only, was contributed by Palmer. His keen eye, practised in the polemics of Rome, soon detected the trend of the movement, and he held aloof from it on Newman's rejecting his suggestion of a committee of revision.

In 1838 he published an ingenious ‘Treatise on the Church of Christ,’ London, 2 vols. 8vo; 3rd edit. 1842, designed to prove that the church of England was a branch of the catholic church co-ordinate with the Roman and Greek churches. Of this work, Mr. Gladstone wrote in the ‘Nineteenth Century,’ August 1894, that it was ‘perhaps the most powerful and least assailable defence of the position of the Anglican church from the sixteenth century.’ In 1840 appeared his ‘Apostolical Jurisdiction and Succession of the English Episcopacy vindicated against the Objections of Dr. Wiseman in the Dublin Review’ (vols. v. vii. and viii.), London, 8vo. The same year he contributed to the ‘Englishman's Library’ (vol. v.) ‘A Compendious Ecclesiastical History from the Earliest Period to the Present Time,’ London, 12mo. On the appearance of Dr. Wiseman's attack on ‘Tract XC.,’ Palmer published a trenchant counter-attack, entitled ‘A Letter to N. Wiseman, D.D. (calling himself Bishop of Melipotamus), containing Remarks on his Letter to Mr. Newman,’ Oxford, 1841, 8vo; reprinted, with seven subsequent letters in reply to Wiseman's rejoinder, under the title ‘Letters to N. Wiseman, D.D., on the Errors of Romanism,’ Oxford, 1842, and London, 1851, 12mo. In this controversy Palmer displayed regrettable heat (cf. an anonymous pamphlet, attributed to Peter Le Page Renouf, entitled The Character of the Rev. W. Palmer as a Controversialist, &c., London, 1843, 8vo).

The appearance in 1843 of Palmer's ‘Narrative of Events connected with the Publication of Tracts for the Times,’ London, 8vo, precipitated the crisis which led to the secession of W. G. Ward and Newman. Ward replied at enormous length in the celebrated ‘Ideal of a Christian Church,’ 1844, and Newman unveiled the inner workings of his mind in his ‘Development of Christian Doctrine,’ 1845. Palmer replied to both books in his ‘Doctrine of Development, and Conscience considered in relation to the Evidences of Christianity and of the Catholic System,’ London, 1846, 8vo. The ‘Narrative’ was reprinted, with introduction and supplement, in 1883 (London, 8vo), and is the primary authority for the history of the earlier phases of the tractarian movement. In 1875 he issued, under the pseudonym ‘Umbra Oxoniensis’ and the title ‘Results of the Expostulation of the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone in their Relation to the Unity of Roman Catholicism,’ London, 8vo, a clever and acrimonious attack on the papacy.

Palmer was instituted to the vicarage of Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset, in 1846, and held the prebend of Highworth in the church of Sarum from 1849 to 1858. He claimed and assumed the title of baronet on the death of his father in 1865. He died in London in 1885.

Palmer married, in October 1839, Sophia, eldest daughter of Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, K.C.B., by whom he had issue an only son.

Palmer is characterised by Newman as the only thoroughly learned man among the initiators of the tractarian movement; and Perrone described him as ‘theologorum Oxoniensium facile princeps,’ and added, ‘Talis cum sit, utinam noster esset!’ Döllinger also held a high opinion of his abilities.

[Dublin Grad.; Palmer's Narrative, cited above; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Clergy List; Newman's Apologia, chap. ii.; Newman's Letters, 1891, Essays, Critical and Historical, 2nd edit. i. 143–85, ii. 454; Mozley's Reminiscences, i. 308; Liddon's Life of Pusey; Wordsworth's Annals of my Early Life, pp. 340–3; Church's Oxford Movement; Cox's Recollections of Oxford, 1868; Stephens's Life of Walter Farquhar Hook, ii. 63; Heresy and Schism, by Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, Nineteenth Century, Aug. 1894; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. i. 349, 494.]

J. M. R.