Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilberforce, Robert Isaac

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WILBERFORCE, ROBERT ISAAC (1802–1857), archdeacon of the East Riding, the second son of William Wilberforce [q. v.] and Barbara Ann, eldest daughter of Isaac Spooner of Elmdon Hall, Warwickshire, was born at Clapham on 19 Dec. 1802. His brothers Henry William [q. v.] and Samuel [q. v.] are noticed separately. He was educated chiefly by private tutors in his father's house, and matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, on 14 Feb. 1820. In 1823 he took a first class in both classics and mathematics, graduating B.A. in 1824 and M.A. in 1827. Very early he came under the influence of John Henry Newman [q. v.], who was at the time exerting a paramount influence on his college. Wilberforce was elected a fellow of Oriel in 1826. Newman, Pusey, Keble, Thomas Mozley, Frederic Rogers (afterwards Lord Blachford), and Richard Hurrell Froude were thenceforth among his colleagues. In 1828 he was elected sub-dean and tutor. There were three tutors in all, Newman and Froude being the other two. Difficulties followed Wilberforce's appointment. Edward Hawkins (1789–1882) [q. v.] had just been promoted to the provostship of Oriel (2 Feb. 1828). From the outset the new provost objected to the guardianship in moral and religious as well as in disciplinary matters which the three tutors seemed to exercise over their pupils, and the friction between the head and his staff soon led to an open rupture. The ostensible cause was the claim of the tutors to arrange their table of lectures as seemed good to them. A long indeterminate discussion continued till June 1830—shortly after Wilberforce's appointment as classical examiner for that year. At that date the provost announced that he would send no more pupils to Newman, Wilberforce, or Froude. By this arrangement Wilberforce's tutorship gradually died out as his old pupils went out of residence; but it was not entirely at an end till 1831. In the autumn of that year he resigned his tutorship to travel on the continent, and did not again return to Oxford save as select preacher in 1849.

The position which Wilberforce occupied in the opinion of his contemporaries at the end of his academic career was deservedly high. Always of quiet and studious habits, he had become, in the words of Thomas Mozley (Reminiscences of Oriel, i. 225), ‘a scholar and a theologian.’ In these capacities he was generally consulted during the rest of his life by men of action like his brother Samuel (afterwards bishop of Oxford) [q. v.], and also by the leaders of the tractarian or high-church party with which he had gradually become identified (Prevost, Autobiography of Isaac Williams, p. 39). For some time also his thoughts had turned more and more to the church as a career. He had been ordained on obtaining his fellowship (subsequently taking priest's orders 21 Dec. 1828), and in 1829 Newman offered (Letters and Correspondence of John Henry Newman, i. 186) to separate Littlemore from his own parish of St. Mary's and to hand it over to him as a separate cure. This he did not see his way to accept, and Lord Brougham, who had been allied with his father on the slave-trade question, offered to provide for him. The rumour that Brougham offered him the bishopric of Calcutta (Letters of Canon J. B. Mozley, p. 25) does not seem to rest on any solid foundation; but in April 1832, after Wilberforce's return from the continent, Brougham presented him to the living of East Farleigh in Kent. This preferment he accepted against the advice of Newman and Froude (Letters and Correspondence, ii. 143; Autobiography of Isaac Williams, p. 39), and held for eight years. Within a few months of his institution he married Agnes Everilda, daughter of Francis Wrangham [q. v.], archdeacon of the East Riding. After bearing him two children his wife died in November 1834, and on 29 July 1837 he married again. His second wife was Jane, daughter of Digby Legard, and he lived happily with her till she died childless in 1853.

In 1840 Wilberforce exchanged the living of East Farleigh for that of Burton Agnes in Yorkshire. The following year Archdeacon Wrangham, the father of his first wife, resigned the archidiaconate of the East Riding, and Wilberforce was appointed in his stead. It was the last preferment that he was to receive in the church of England.

Newman's influence over Wilberforce did not survive their joint tutorship of Oriel, and from 1834 Wilberforce was thrown much into the company of his brother Samuel, in collaboration with whom he wrote the ‘Life’ of their father, published in 1838, and edited their father's ‘Letters’ which appeared in 1840. But about 1843 he began a correspondence which was to exercise a crucial effect on his career. Henry Edward Manning [q. v.] had in June 1833 been presented by Wilberforce's brother Samuel to the rectory of Lavington. In the November following he married Caroline Sargent, two of whose sisters were married respectively to Wilberforce's brothers Samuel and Henry William. In 1837 Mrs. Manning died, and a few years later the future cardinal was led by Robert Wilberforce's reputation for theological learning and for disinterestedness to turn to him as to a confessor for relief from the doubts as to the sufficiency of the church of England for salvation which had already begun to beset him. Over a hundred letters were written during this period by Manning to Wilberforce—most of them bearing the caution ‘under the seal’—in which Manning revealed his whole mind to his correspondent, while recognising, in the words of his biographer (Purcell, Life of Cardinal Manning, i. 502), ‘Robert Wilberforce's intellectual superiority and deeper reading.’ At first Wilberforce replied with arguments, afterwards with pleas for delay in the act of secession which he saw Manning was contemplating, and for some time he was successful. ‘I will take no step,’ writes Manning at the beginning of 1850, ‘none that can part me from you, so long as I am able in conscience to be united as in love, so in labours with you.’ But the Gorham judgment was pronounced in March of the same year, and was considered by most of the tractarians to assert the right of the crown to decide the teaching of the church of England in matters of faith as well as of discipline. Gladstone (Purcell, i. 539 sqq.) tried to induce the leaders to enter into a covenant not to take any overt step for a certain specified time, or to announce their intention of doing so. Gladstone seems to have convinced himself that Wilberforce among others would be willing to sign such a covenant. It was, however, promptly rejected by Manning; and in May 1850 a declaration appeared bearing the names of Manning (then archdeacon of Chichester), Wilberforce, and Dr. William Henry Mill [q. v.], regius professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, explaining the sense in which alone the signatories were willing to admit the royal supremacy in matters of religion. They stated clearly that ‘we do not, and in conscience cannot, acknowledge in the crown the power recently exercised to hear and judge in appeal the internal state or merits of spiritual questions touching doctrine or discipline, the custody of which is committed to the church alone by the law of Christ’ (Purcell, i. 541). A copy of this declaration was sent to every clergyman and layman who had taken the oath of supremacy. It met, however, with no response, and the result was to drive the two principal signatories a step further forward in the way of secession. ‘If you and I had been born out of the English church,’ writes Manning to Wilberforce in December 1850, ‘we should not have doubted for so much as a day where the true church is;’ and on 6 April in the following year Manning was received into the church of Rome. The change, though it did not lessen the intimacy between the two, yet altered their relative positions. Henceforward Manning, instead of seeking Wilberforce's advice, assumed the part of teacher. The revival of the church's synodical action in convocation seemed for some time to offer to Wilberforce a via media which he could follow, and his brother, the bishop of Oxford, who as early as 1850 had seen reason to dread his brother's secession, did all that he could to keep him steadfast in Anglicanism (Life of Samuel Wilberforce, ii. 252). The influence of his wife, too, was always exerted in favour of his remaining in communion with the church in which he had been brought up; but with her death in 1853 it became evident that the last barrier had disappeared. His book on the eucharist, published in the same year, caused many to foreshadow the step which he was about to take (Liddon, Life of Pusey, iii. 288); and there was some talk of a prosecution, but none came. The rumour was sufficient to delay Wilberforce's secession for a few weeks; but on 30 Aug. 1854 he wrote to the archbishop of York that, while he trusted he should always be under a loyal obedience to the queen, he could no longer admit that she was ‘supreme in all spiritual things or causes,’ and that he must therefore recall his subscription to the queen touching the supremacy, and as a necessary consequence resign the preferments of which he considered the subscription a condition (Kirwan Brown, History of the Tractarian Movement, app.) Although in this letter he spoke only of putting himself, ‘as far as possible, in the position of a mere lay member of the church,’ his ‘Inquiry into the Principles of Church Authority,’ which appeared soon after, left no doubt as to his intention to follow Manning into the church of Rome. On 1 Nov. 1854 he was received at Paris, his motive for allowing his reception to take place there rather than in England being the fear that the publicity sure to be given to it in the latter case might injure the position of his Anglican friends, and particularly that of his brother Samuel, to whom he was tenderly attached.

Wilberforce did not long survive his secession. For nearly a year, spent by him for the most part in travel, he hesitated as to whether he should become a priest; but at length the entreaties of Manning and others prevailed upon him to offer himself as a candidate for orders. He entered in 1855 as a student in the Academia Ecclesiastica in Rome, his expenses being defrayed by the pope. He was already in minor orders, and was within a few weeks of being ordained priest, when he was attacked in the first days of 1857 by gastric fever. He died at Albano on 3 Feb., and was buried at Rome in the St. Raymond Chapel of the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva, where a tablet has been placed to his memory. He left by his first wife two sons: William Francis Wilberforce, rector of Brodsworth, near Doncaster, Yorkshire, and Edward Wilberforce, a master of the supreme court of judicature in England, both of whom are still living.

Robert Wilberforce's sudden death deprived the Roman church of a valuable recruit. He was utterly without personal ambition, but with a great power of identifying himself with any cause he took in hand, and his earnestness seems to have made a profound impression on all with whom he came in contact. At the same time, he was better trained in theological and other academic learning than either Newman or Manning; and there is little doubt that had he lived he would have become as prominent a figure in controversy as any of his fellow-seceders. His own secession was a heavy blow to the church of England, and the attempt in his last book—on church authority—to destroy the position of those who uphold the royal supremacy on logical grounds remained for a long time unanswered.

Wilberforce was all his life a laborious writer, and although his published writings show no signs of brilliancy they bear evidence of much industry, and of care in expression. Besides many pamphlets, sermons, and charges, he published, in conjunction with his brother Samuel, a ‘Life of William Wilberforce’ (5 vols. 1838), the ‘Correspondence of William Wilberforce’ (1840), and an abridgment of the first-named work (1843). He was also the author of one of the hymns in the ‘Lyra Apostolica.’ His other works are:

  1. ‘The Five Empires,’ 1841, a sketch of ancient history, the five empires being the Assyrian, the Persian, the Greek, the Roman, and the Christian.
  2. ‘Rutilius and Lucius,’ 1842, a romance of the days of Constantine.
  3. ‘Church Courts and Church Discipline,’ 1843, containing arguments in favour of a revival of convocation.
  4. ‘The Doctrine of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ 1848, an appeal for unity of teaching among churchmen.
  5. ‘The Doctrine of Holy Baptism,’ 1849, a summary of the tractarian doctrine on baptismal regeneration as dealt with later in the Gorham case.
  6. ‘A Sketch of the History of Erastianism,’ 1851, in which first appear the signs of the author's dissatisfaction with the theory of the royal supremacy.
  7. ‘The Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist,’ 1853, in which the doctrine of the real presence seems to many to be affirmed.
  8. ‘An Inquiry into the Principles of Church Authority,’ 1854, arguing that the bishop of Rome is alone the successor of St. Peter and the primate of the universal church.
[Church's Oxford Movement, 1871; Mozley's Reminiscences of Oriel, 1882; Ashwell's Life of Samuel Wilberforce, 1883; Letters of the Rev. J. B. Mozley, by his sister, 1885; Kirwan Browne's History of the Tractarian Movement, 1886; Prevost's Autobiography of Isaac Williams, 1892; Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, by Canon Liddon and continuators, 1893; Purcell's Life of Cardinal Manning, 1896; Anne Mozley's Letters and Correspondence of John Henry Newman, 1898; family information, especially that kindly furnished by the Rev. W. F. Wilberforce and Master Wilberforce.]

F. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.280
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
203 i 23 Wilberforce Robert I.: for Brown read Browne
ii 2 f.e.