Colenso, John William, 1814-1883

Alternative names
Birth 1814-01-24
Death 1883-06-20

Biographical notes:

John William Colenso, radical biblical critic and bishop in the Church of England, was born in Cornwall on January 24, 1814. Although mathematics was his first love, he was also taken with the study of religion and soon joined the ministry. Named Bishop of Natal in 1853, he went to Africa, where the natives' lives and questions prompted him to take a more radical view of the Bible. As a result of his revolutionary ideas, in 1863 he was excommunicated by Bishop Gray in Capetown. Although this judgment was argued, the issue was never completely settled. Colenso wrote several books including Commentary of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined, as well as a grammar and dictionary of Zulu and a Zulu translation of the Prayer Book. He died June 20, 1883.

From the description of John William Colenso letters, 1863-1864. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122583754

John William Colenso was appointed Church of England Bishop of Natal, South Africa in 1854. He was a controversial figure due to his stance on polygamy and his theology.

From the description of John William Colenso papers, 1856-1908 (inclusive). (Yale University). WorldCat record id: 702160982

Bishop of Natal.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Bishopstowe, to an unidentified correspondent, 1862 Apr. 30. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270904424

  • 1814 Jan: Born at St. Austell, Cornwall, England
  • 1831 - 1853 : Served as a teacher and tutor, attended St. John's College, Cambridge; served as vicar of Fornett St. Mary in Norfolk.
  • 1846 Jan: Married Frances Bunyon who became the mother of his five children: Frances, Harriette, Agnes, Robert, and Francis.
  • 1854 Jan: Arrived in Natal to serve as the first bishop of Natal. Shortly after his arrival, controversy was aroused by his stand on polygamy.
  • 1855: Returned to Nantal after a stay of some months in England.
  • 1859 - 1861 : Published a grammar of the Zulu language, a Zulu-English dictionar, manuals of instruction for natives on history, astronomy, geography, etc.
  • 1861: Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans published by Colenso was declared full of heresies by Bishop Gray of Capetown.
  • 1862: Colenso published a critical examination of the Pentateuch. His radical theology cause a controversy that shook the Anglican Church in Natal, raising constitutional as well as doctrinal issues. Bishop Gray, as metropolitan of Capetown, claimed to exercise coercive jurisdiction over Bishop Colenso and the power of trying and condemning Colenso.
  • 1863 Dec 16: Bishop Gray pronounced a sentence of deposition followed by excommunication of Colenso. Colenso appealed to the crown and the judicial committee of privy council declared the whole of Gray's proceedings null and void. Colenso returned to his diocese as the legal bishop. Controversy continued to rage as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge chose to regard Colenso as canonically deposed.
  • 1864 - 1875 : In general, friendly feelings toward Colenso among the colonists increased until he took an unpopular stand on an issue of native trouble.
  • 1883 Jun: Died.

From the guide to the John William Colenso Papers, 1855-1908, (Yale University Divinity School Library)


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  • Kwazulu-Natal (South Africa) (as recorded)
  • Kwazulu-Natal (South Africa) (as recorded)