Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Knox-Little, William John

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KNOX-LITTLE, WILLIAM JOHN (1839–1918), divine and preacher, the sixth son of John Little, J.P., of Stewartstown, co. Tyrone, by his wife, Emily Kyle, was born at Stewartstown 1 December 1839. He was educated, as were several of his nine brothers, at the royal grammar school, Lancaster, whence he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge. He graduated B.A. with a third class in the classical tripos of 1862, and proceeded M.A. in 1865. He was ordained deacon in 1863, priest in 1864, and was an assistant master at his old school and curate of Christ Church, Lancaster, 1863–1864. He was next an assistant master at Sherborne School from 1864 to 1870. In 1870 he became curate-in-charge of Turweston, Buckinghamshire, a parish of 330 inhabitants. Here he worked devotedly as a parish priest, and discovered, it is said, by chance his powers as a preacher. Taking duty for a neighbour one winter afternoon, he was obliged to preach extempore. The effect was remarkable and his gifts soon became known.

In January 1874 Knox-Little (he transferred his third Christian name, Knox, to his surname at this time) took part in a general mission in London as missioner at St. Thomas's, Regent Street, and became curate there to the Rev. W. J. Richardson. His mission preaching made him famous, and in 1875 the dean of Manchester, Dr. Cowie, persuaded him to accept the benefice of St. Alban's, Cheetwood, Manchester, a parish of 15,000 people. Here he worked zealously, and his church rapidly became an important religious centre. In January 1877 he took Manchester itself by storm as preacher at the cathedral in a general mission; the effects were comparable with those produced by the Wesleys and Whitefield, and the services at the cathedral had to be duplicated.

Knox-Little was an uncompromising high churchman, and insisted frankly on the benefit of sacramental confession—teaching at that time most unpopular; but he never flinched before the fiercest puritan opposition, and he became a religious force both in England and in the United States. He conducted remarkable missions at Leeds parish church in 1883, and at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1884; at St. Paul's he was for some years the preacher at the Passion-tide services and drew vast congregations. His appeal was especially to men: naturally an orator, his experience as a public-school master had trained him to be a clear expositor, and in addition his strong vein of sympathy and his earnestness and sincerity were a great part of his charm to men in every rank of life.

In 1881 Knox-Little was appointed by the Crown to the residentiary canonry in Worcester Cathedral vacated by Dr. George Granville Bradley. He resigned St. Alban's, Cheetwood, in 1885 and accepted the vicarage of Hoar Cross, Staffordshire, where G. F. Bodley had built what was reputed to be the most beautiful modern parish church in England. He resigned it in 1907 and henceforth lived in Worcester, where he was sub-dean from 1902 and proctor in Convocation for the chapter from 1888 to 1911. For part of the South African War (1899–1902) Knox-Little served as a chaplain, first with the Brigade of Guards, later with the Household Cavalry. Officers and men alike were devoted to him, he was mentioned in dispatches, and received the Queen's medal and clasp. He was fearless of danger and used to carry the Sacrament to soldiers under fire. On their return he marched with the Guards through London. For many years the cathedral at Worcester was crowded when he preached; latterly his health, always delicate, broke; his voice began to fail, and he preached written sermons. But his pastoral zeal was unabated, and up to the end he exercised a deep individual influence on young men and lads in Worcester.

Between 1877 and 1891 Knox-Little published nine volumes of sermons and two short stories, The Broken Vow (1887) and The Child of Stafferton (1888); in 1893 he addressed to his old friend, Dr. W. J. Butler, dean of Lincoln, a controversial work, Sacerdotalism, if rightly understood, the Teaching of the Church of England: a Letter in Four Parts. In 1905 he published an interesting book on The Conflict of Ideals in the Church of England.

Few preachers have won a reputation so quickly as Knox-Little, or have enjoyed such wide popularity, but his success never weakened his character; he was utterly free from self-seeking, and he never flinched from taking the unpopular side. He was a man of unfailing humour, an omnivorous reader, a pianist, and a good linguist (he could preach as readily, it is said, in French as in English), and he was a spiritual guide of great integrity and wisdom. He had a thoughtful Irish face with the mouth of an orator. In appearance he was of middle height with broad shoulders and a pronounced stoop. His slight Irish accent added to the attraction of his low but most agreeable voice.

Knox-Little died at Worcester 3 February 1918, and is buried at Turweston. He married in 1866 Annette, eldest daughter of Henry Gregson, of Moorlands, Lancashire. They had ten children, six sons and four daughters, seven of whom survived their father.

[No memoir of Knox-Little has been published. The Fountain, 7 July 1881; Yorkshire Post, 6 February 1883; Court and Society, 30 September 1886; private information.]

S. L. O.