Porteus, Beilby (DNB00)

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PORTEUS, BEILBY (1731–1808), bishop of London, born at York on 8 May 1731, was youngest but one of the nineteen children of Robert Porteus. Both his parents were natives of Virginia, and lived on their own estate in that colony. His mother was daughter of Colonel Jennings, who was superintendent of Indian affairs for the province, and for some time acted as deputy governor; she is said to have been distantly related to Sarah Jennings, duchess of Marlborough. In order to procure a better education for his children, and on account of ill-health, the father left America for England in 1720, and settled at York. Beilby was educated at York until 1744 and at Ripon, whence he was admitted on 1 June 1748 as a sizar at Christ's College, Cambridge. He became a scholar on 19 Nov. 1748, graduating B.A. in 1752 as tenth wrangler. He also won the second chancellor's medal for classics on the first occasion on which it was awarded. On 26 May 1752 he was elected fellow of his college, and shortly afterwards was appointed esquire bedel. That office he held for a little more than two years, resigning it in order to devote himself to private tuition. In 1757 he was ordained deacon and priest. In 1759 he won the Seatonian prize for an English poem on ‘Death.’ He wrote feelingly, for he had recently lost both his parents; but his extravagant eulogy of George II caused him to be gibbeted by Thackeray in a well-known passage in ‘The Four Georges.’ He was brought into further notice by preaching in 1761 an able university sermon on the character of King David, in reply to the notorious pamphlet, ‘History of the Man after God's own Heart’ (1761), attributed to the deist, Peter Annet [q. v.] In 1762, on his appointment as domestic chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Secker), he quitted Cambridge for Lambeth. In 1765 he was presented by the archbishop to the two small livings of Rucking and Wittersham in Kent; but he soon resigned them for the rectory of Hunton in the same county. On 25 Sept. 1764 he received a prebend at Peterborough. In 1767 he was appointed rector of Lambeth, and proceeded D.D. at Cambridge, when he preached on the instruction of youth, especially in the principles of revealed religion. Some extracts from this sermon fell into the hands of John Norris (1734–1777) [q. v.], who was thereby moved to found the Norrisian professorship of divinity. In 1769 he was appointed chaplain to the king, and shortly afterwards master of the hospital of St. Cross at Winchester. In 1773 he joined in an abortive petition to the bench of bishops to promote a reform of the Liturgy and Articles. In 1776 Porteus was promoted to the bishopric of Chester. Thereupon he resigned Lambeth, but retained the valuable living of Hunton, and was held to have shown a praiseworthy self-denial in not keeping both. As bishop of Chester, Porteus was very energetic. He encouraged the activity of the rising evangelical school; he instituted a fund for the relief of the poorer clergy in the diocese; and he warmly encouraged the establishment of the new scheme of Sunday-schools in every parish. Acting for Dr. Lowth, bishop of London, who was incapacitated by ill-health, he carried through the House of Lords in 1777 a measure putting a stop to the evil custom of incumbents giving general bonds of resignation (that is, bonds to resign whenever the patrons required them), and he fought successfully a long contest, which ended in 1800, against a species of simony which was gaining ground in the purchase of the advowson of a living (Life, p. 153). He took the deepest interest in the welfare of the negro slaves in the West Indies, and vainly endeavoured, first by a sermon preached in 1783, and then by a pamphlet written in 1784, to persuade the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to set an example to slave-owners on its own trust estate in Barbados.

Meanwhile, on the death of Bishop Lowth in 1787, Porteus was translated to London. There he at once avowed himself a warm supporter of the schemes of piety and benevolence originated by the evangelical party, though he did not identify himself with all their views, being decidedly anti-calvinistic. Hannah More, in especial, found in him a staunch and powerful friend in her various beneficent enterprises. One of his first acts as bishop of London was to throw himself heart and soul into the work of the newly formed ‘Society for Enforcing the King's Proclamation against Immorality and Profaneness.’ His position enabled him to do yeoman service to the cause of the abolition of slavery. He took great but unsuccessful pains to get passed through the lords Sir William Dolben's ‘Slave-Carrying Bill’ (1788). He succeeded in transferring to a new ‘Society for the Conversion and Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the West Indies,’ which was formed under his auspices, a bequest of the Hon. Robert Boyle, made in 1691 for missionary work in America, but, owing to the altered state of affairs in America, no longer available for that purpose. He was an early patron of the Church Missionary Society; and it was at his suggestion that Dr. Claudius Buchanan [q. v.] wrote those works which mainly led to the foundation of the Indian episcopate. He joined the British and Foreign Bible Society, and suggested the name of John Shore, lord Teignmouth [q. v.], as its first president, while he himself accepted the post of vice-president. He had at all times the courage of his opinions, took on all subjects an independent line, and identified himself with no one party in the church. Though he was sometimes called ‘a Methodist,’ he was strict in enforcing the discipline, as well as the doctrine, of the church; and he incurred considerable odium by excluding from the parish churches of his diocese a clergyman (Dr. Draper) who had accepted the presidency of a college in Lady Huntingdon's connexion, and had preached in a chapel belonging to that lady. In 1779 he was in favour of the relief of the Roman catholics from penal laws, but he strongly opposed ‘Catholic Emancipation,’ especially the bill of 1805, on the ground that it is one thing to grant perfect toleration, quite another to confer political power. As diocesan for the church abroad, he maintained his right of veto upon the appointment of chaplains by the East India Company.

One of Porteus's chief aims was to secure the due observance of religious holidays. A letter which he addressed to his parishioners at Lambeth in 1776, on the neglect of Good Friday, led to a stricter observance of that day throughout London (see Brydges, Restituta, iv. 417). The letter was subsequently published as a tract by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. In 1780 he had taken a leading part in putting down two Sunday practices in London—viz. the Sunday debating societies, which were, in fact, assemblies for ventilating and propagating sceptical views; and the Sunday promenades, which had degenerated into meetings for assignations. When bishop of London he waged war against the custom of having Sunday concerts at private houses by professional performers, writing a letter to three ladies of rank who had helped to introduce them; and not long before his death he sought an interview with the prince regent (afterwards George IV), whom he persuaded to alter the day of meeting of a Sunday club which the prince had patronised in London. Pamphleteers bitterly attacked him, but he was indifferent to their onslaughts (Life, p. 272). At the same time he vigorously resisted the spread of French revolution principles, which he regarded with alarm. Paine's ‘Age of Reason’ he described as ‘rendering irreligion easy to the meanest capacity;’ and he warmly encouraged by way of antidote the dissemination of Hannah More's popular tracts. To counteract the spread of infidelity and the ‘growing relaxation of public manners,’ he delivered in St. James's, Piccadilly, Friday-evening lectures during four successive Lents, beginning in 1798. They were attended by crowds.

Porteus had ample means, and made a liberal use of them. He was generous to the poorer clergy, and attempted to raise the status and the stipends of assistant curates. In 1807 he built and endowed a chapel of ease, with a residence for the minister, in the parish of Sundridge, to which he loved to retire of a summer. On 28 May of the same year he gave 1,200l. to his old college (Christ's) for the endowment of three medals—one for a Latin dissertation on some evidences of Christianity; another for an English essay on some precept of the Gospel; and the third for the best reader of the lessons in the college chapel. He died at Fulham on 8 May 1808, and, according to his own desire, was buried at Sundridge. On 13 May 1765 he married Margaret, eldest daughter of Bryan Hodgson, landlord of the George Inn, St. Martin's, Stamford, afterwards of Ashbourne in Derbyshire; she survived him. There is a good portrait of the bishop, drawn by H. Edridge and engraved by C. Picart, of which both full-length and half-length copies were taken. The half-length copy forms the frontispiece of his ‘Life.’ Another portrait, which is anonymous, belongs to the bishop of London.

Porteus was a pleasing and effective preacher and writer. Besides several charges, volumes of collected sermons, and hortatory letters already noticed, he published: 1. ‘A Review of the Life and Character of Dr. Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury,’ 1770, which went through twelve editions. 2. ‘The Beneficial Effects of Christianity on the Temporal Concerns of Mankind proved from History and Facts,’ about 1804; 9th edit. 1836. 3. ‘A Summary of the Principal Evidences for the Truth and Divine Origin of the Christian Revelation,’ 1800; 15th edit. 1835. Many of his works were collected in ‘Tracts upon Various Subjects’ (1796). His ‘Complete [Prose] Works’ were published in 6 vols. 8vo; a new edition was published in 1816. [The first volume of Porteus's collected works contains a ‘Life,’ written shortly after the bishop's death, by a former chaplain, Robert Hodgson. See also Abbey's Engl. Church and its Bishops (1700–1800); Overton's English Church in the Nineteenth Century (1803–1833); Notes and Queries, 7th ser. v. 494, 8th ser. x. 111; private information through Canon H. Leigh-Bennett.]

J. H. O.