Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, William (1819-1890)
THOMSON, WILLIAM (1819–1890), archbishop of York, born at Whitehaven on 11 Feb. 1819, was the eldest son of John Thomson of Kelswick House, near that town. Both his parents were of Scottish extraction. His mother, Isabella, was maternally descended from Patrick Home of Polwarth, and was related to the Earls of Marchmont. His father migrated to Whitehaven in 1813 to join the business of his uncle, Walter Thomson. He became director of the local bank and chairman of the ‘Cleator Moor Hematite Iron Company,’ the first hematite company formed in the north of England. He died at Bishopthorpe Palace on 18 April 1878, aged 87 (West Cumberland and Whitehaven Herald, 25 April and 2 May 1878; Whitehaven News, 25 April and 2 May 1878).
William was educated at Shrewsbury school, entering at the age of eleven. During his school days he preferred science to classics, although at Shrewsbury he had no opportunity of following his bent. On 2 June 1836 he matriculated from Queen's College, Oxford. He was elected a scholar in the following year, and a fellow in 1840. He graduated B.A. in that year and M.A. in 1844.
While an undergraduate, Thomson devoted himself chiefly to the study of logic, somewhat to the detriment of his work for the schools, and before he graduated he had practically completed a treatise entitled ‘Outlines of the Laws of Thought.’ This was published in 1842, and brought him his earliest reputation. The germ of his work, he states, he derived from Christian von Wolff's ‘Philosophia Rationalis,’ and Daniel Albert Wyttenbach's ‘Præcepta Philosophiæ Logicæ.’ Thomson's treatment of his topic was remarkably clear, and he arranged his matter with great skill. The merits of the treatise brought him into communication with many authorities on the subject, among others with Sir William Hamilton, Professor De Morgan, James McCosh, Philip Henry, fifth earl Stanhope (then Lord Mahon), and William Whewell, master of Trinity. From these, and especially from Sir William Hamilton, Thomson received many suggestions which induced him to make considerable alterations in the later editions of his work. Thomson's ‘Outlines’ in some respects anticipated John Stuart Mill's ‘System of Logic,’ and was long used extensively as a text-book.
Soon after the publication of his treatise in 1842, Thomson was ordained deacon, and left Oxford to devote himself to clerical work. He took priest's orders in 1843, and in the next four years served curacies, first at St. Nicholas, Guildford, Surrey (1844–6), and afterwards at Cuddesdon, near Oxford, under the nominal vicar, Samuel Wilberforce [q. v.], bishop of Oxford.
Thomson's growing reputation as a logician led the authorities of Queen's College in 1847 to recall him to Oxford to act as college tutor. In this capacity he did much to retrieve the standing of the college. Indefatigable in his attention to its affairs, he filled the office not merely of tutor, but also of chaplain and dean. In 1852 he became junior bursar, and in 1854 bursar. At the same time he was recognised in the university as a preacher of power. In 1848 he was appointed select preacher, and in 1853 he was chosen Bampton lecturer. Taking as his subject ‘the atoning work of Christ,’ he dwelt on the expiatory character of the atonement, and his sermons constitute a very complete exposition of that theory of the purpose of Christ's incarnation. They attracted great attention, and St. Mary's was more crowded than it had been since the time of Newman (Times, 7 June 1853). In the matter of academic organisation Thomson was strongly in favour of reform. He disapproved of the principles on which college fellowships were then filled. At that period they were nearly all confined to persons born in particular districts, and at Queen's College, contrary to the statutes, elections were restricted to natives of Cumberland and Westmoreland. In conjunction with another fellow, George Henry Sacheverell Johnson [q. v.], Thomson endeavoured to remedy this state of things. In 1849 the fellows rejected the candidature of Mr. Goldwin Smith, afterwards regius professor of modern history, and elected instead a native of Cumberland whom they had previously removed from the list of expectants on account of his insufficient attainments. Thomson appealed against this action to Lord John Russell, the prime minister; in consequence of this and other representations a commission was appointed in 1850 to inquire into the constitution and revenues of the university, and in 1854 a second commission was empowered to revise the statutes of the university and of the colleges and halls. The proposed innovations alarmed the more conservative members of the university, and several attacks on the commissions appeared. In reply to one of these, entitled ‘The Case of Queen's College’ (Oxford, 1854, 8vo), by the Rev. John Barrow, D.D., Thomson penned ‘An Open College best for all’ (Oxford, 1854, 8vo). This pamphlet was generally considered the ablest contribution to the reformers' side of the controversy, and was largely quoted in the parliamentary debates.
In 1855 Thomson married, and, losing his fellowship in consequence, was presented by the crown to the rectory of All Souls', Marylebone. Within a few months, however, on the death of the Rev. John Fox, D.D., on 11 Aug., Thomson was elected provost of Queen's College and resigned his living. As provost he steadily pursued his liberalising policy. He advocated the enlargement of the curriculum of university studies, and, with a view to aiding scientific study, was one of the projectors of the university museum, which was afterwards erected in the parks. Outside Oxford he accepted preferment, whereby he extended his reputation as a preacher who appealed to the intellect rather than to the emotions of his audience. In 1858 he was elected to the preachership of Lincoln's Inn, and in 1859 he was appointed chaplain in ordinary to the queen.
Thomson's theological position was conspicuously defined during the controversy that followed the issue in 1860 of the ‘Essays and Reviews.’ In his ardour for reform at Oxford he had associated himself with Benjamin Jowett and the newer school of broad churchmen, and in 1855 he had contributed a paper on ‘Crime and its Excuses’ to ‘Oxford Essays.’ But when, in 1860, Jowett and his friends enunciated more daring theological opinions in ‘Essays and Reviews,’ Thomson severed himself from them, and in 1861 edited in reply a volume of essays, entitled ‘Aids to Faith’ (London, 8vo). The volume included contributions from Edward Harold Browne, Frederick Charles Cook, Charles John Ellicott, and Henry Longueville Mansel, besides an article of his own on ‘The Death of Christ,’ which was substantially a restatement of his Bampton lectures in more popular form. ‘Aids to Faith’ was the best general answer which ‘Essays and Reviews’ called forth, and possesses historical value as a clear statement of the orthodox position at that period. Almost at the same time Thomson was engaged, as one of a committee of ten, in preparing the ‘Speaker's Commentary,’ to which he contributed the ‘Introduction to the Synoptical Gospels,’ probably the best treatise on the subject then extant.
In the same year (1861), on the translation of Charles Thomas Baring [q. v.] to the see of Durham, Thomson, whose established fame as a preacher marked him out for promotion, was appointed Baring's successor in the see of Gloucester and Bristol. Within ten months of his consecration, however, Charles Thomas Longley [q. v.], the archbishop of York, was translated to Canterbury, and, though so junior a bishop, Thomson was appointed Longley's successor. He was enthroned at York Minster on 26 March 1862, and entered on an archiepiscopate which extended over twenty-eight years.
Thomson performed the various duties incident to his office with eminent success. From the commencement of his archiepiscopate he realised that, to keep its place in English life, the English church must show itself able to meet modern needs. He was active in his support of diocesan conferences and church congresses, and showed a keen interest in social, economic, and political questions, together with a just discernment of their relation to ecclesiastical matters. He made his first public appearance as archbishop at a meeting of the Castle Howard Reformatory in 1863, and from that time onwards he was present at every considerable public meeting in the diocese, whether its object was the amendment of the criminal law, the amelioration of the state of the poor, the encouragement of education, or the cultivation of art or science. In 1862 the immense increase of population in the north of England had surpassed the resources of the church, and in the large towns the numbers of the clergy were quite inadequate for the needs of the people. Sheffield, for example, had only one church for eight thousand inhabitants, and that town, like all its neighbours, was a centre of anti-clerical feeling. The archbishop from the first set himself to meet these difficulties. In 1865, at the church congress at York, he suggested the addition of a working men's meeting to the ordinary programme. In 1869 he gained the attention of the workmen of Sheffield, who had hitherto treated the clergy with scorn, by a speech defending the English church from the charge that it was a useless institution maintained at an undue cost to the nation. This speech was followed by others of like tenor. The population of Sheffield at once acknowledged the force of his argument, and their attitude of hostility or indifference to all that concerned the church was converted into one of devoted esteem for himself and his aims. His artisan admirers subscribed to give him a present of cutlery in 1883 (Yorkshire Post, 13 June 1883). His success in Sheffield was only typical of what he achieved throughout the labour centres of northern England. During the latter part of his life no man equalled him in the affections of the working classes, and it is difficult to overestimate the effect of his influence in strengthening the position of the English church in the northern province. He was one of the first English clergymen who, while not himself a socialist, recognised the good elements that went to the making of socialism. When he dissented from opinions which to most men then were revolutionary ravings, he did so without bitterness and with full allowance for differences in the point of view from which the question was approached.
From the time of his elevation to the bench of bishops Thomson took an important part in ecclesiastical legislation. One of the first problems that engaged his attention was the reconstitution of the final ecclesiastical court of appeal. He was thus involved in a prolonged controversy with Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, who was ultimately victorious. At the outset in 1871 Thomson successfully opposed Wilberforce's proposal to reduce the bishops to the position of assessors in the judicial committee of the privy council; but in 1873 a clause was introduced into the Supreme Court of Judicature Act removing the episcopal members from the judicial committee altogether, and, though two years later they reappeared as assessors, they did not regain their judicial functions. In 1871, with John Jackson (1811–1885) [q. v.], bishop of London, Thomson introduced the Dilapidations Act, intended to compel the clergy to keep their residences and church buildings in repair. It was not, however, very happily framed, and some years later was condemned by a committee of the House of Commons. In 1874 he joined his friend Archbishop Tait in introducing a bill for the regulation of public worship. The measure was intended in part to check the growth of ritualistic practices, and in its original form largely increased the authority of the bishops; but the extensive modifications it received in its passage through parliament practically destroyed the effect that its framers had in view. In 1883 Thomson supported Tait's motion for the appointment of a commission on ecclesiastical courts. But, though he signed the general report of the commission, he joined with a minority in issuing a dissentient report, and was the author of a severe criticism on the work of the commission which appeared in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for January 1884.
A strict disciplinarian, Thomson came conspicuously forward in 1887 as the champion of ecclesiastical order. He had refused to admit Canon Tristram's election as a proctor in convocation, on the ground that he was not duly qualified. In consequence he was required to show cause in the court of queen's bench why Tristram's election should not be accepted. Thomson conducted his case in person, and, appearing before the court on 28 Nov. 1887, took exception to the court's jurisdiction. His pleading was successful, and the ability he displayed led Lord Coleridge, who tried the case, to remark, ‘Had Thomson followed our profession he would have been the second person in the kingdom instead of the third.’
In 1888 the Clergy Discipline (Immorality) Bill was introduced into parliament. It was materially altered in committee, and Thomson, disapproving of it in its amended form, hastened to London to oppose it on the third reading in the House of Lords. He pointed out that it tended to increase the cost of prosecution, and at the same time prevented an appeal to a higher court on matters of fact. No attempt was made to controvert his statements, and the bill, after passing the third reading, was suffered to drop. Another bill dealing with the same subject, which was more in accordance with his views, was introduced in the year following, but was successfully opposed by the Welsh members in the House of Commons. In the conduct of the ecclesiastical affairs of his province Thomson displayed both strength and tact. Though he had been accused of narrowness and intolerance, he earned the gratitude of men of opinions widely different from his own and from each other's by interposing his authority to shield them from petty annoyance. The only clerical prosecution for doctrine or ritual which he promoted took place in 1869, when he instituted proceedings for heresy against the Rev. Charles Voysey, rector of Healaugh in Yorkshire, author of ‘The Sling and the Stone,’ who, among other things, had published a sermon entitled ‘Is every Statement in the Bible about our Heavenly Father strictly true?’ The case was finally decided against Mr. Voysey on 11 Feb. 1870. The result did not, however, affect the personal friendship which had existed for many years between Mr. Voysey and the archbishop. In the judicial committee of the privy council Thomson's voice was frequently raised for toleration, and when, on 16 Dec. 1863, Robert Gray (1809–1872) [q. v.], the bishop of Capetown, pronounced sentence of deposition against John William Colenso [q. v.], Thomson warned him of the illegality of his proceedings. On another occasion, in the case of William James Early Bennett, he laid down the maxim that the question to consider in cases of difference is not whether a man's views are in strict accord with the teaching of his church, but whether they are so discordant as to render toleration impossible.
Prior to the appointment of Archdeacon Crossthwaite in 1880 as bishop of Beverley, Thomson had no suffragan. He always despatched the business of the see with punctuality, but the labour and anxiety gradually undermined his health. He died on Christmas Day 1890. He was buried in the churchyard of Bishopthorpe, near York. The pall was borne by working men of Sheffield.
A marble bust of the archbishop by W. D. Keyworth was erected by the working people of Sheffield and placed in the parish church there. His portrait, painted by Walter William Ouless, R.A., and presented to him on 27 Oct. 1886 by the clergy and laity of the diocese, hangs in the palace of Bishopthorpe. A marble bust by Onslow Ford, R.A., was at the same time presented to Mrs. Thomson.
In 1855 Thomson married Zoë, daughter of James Henry Skene, British consul at Aleppo, and granddaughter of James Skene [q. v.] of Rubislaw, the friend of Sir Walter Scott. By her he had nine children, four sons and five daughters.
[Private information; Thomson's Works; Times, December 1890; Guardian, 31 Dec. 1890; Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 26 Dec. 1890; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 17 Oct. 1878; Arnold's Our Bishops and Deans; Yorkshire Post, 28 Oct. 1886; Fireside Magazine, February 1891; Liverpool Courier, 6 Nov. 1889; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. ii. 484; Bullock's People's Archbishop; Quarterly Review, April 1892; Davidson's Life of Archbishop Tait, passim; Life of Robert Gray, Bishop of Capetown, 1876, ii. 386–92; Life of Samuel Wilberforce, 1882, iii. passim.]