BISHOP BEILBY PORTEUS
Rt Rev Beilby Porteus, DD, Bishop of Chester and London (May 8, 1731–May 13, 1809) was an Anglican reformer and leading campaigner against the slave trade.
The author of this site is currently writing a biographical paper on the life and work of Bishop Beilby Porteus, and would be grateful to hear from any researchers possessing original source material or later biographies which may be relevant.
Beilby Porteus was the son of Robert Porteus, a native of Virginia, US who had returned to England in 1720.
Educated at York and Ripon, he was a classics scholar at Christ's College, Cambridge, becoming a fellow in 1752. In 1759 he won the Seatonian Prize for his poem Death: A Poetical Essay, a work for which he is still remembered. He was ordained as a priest in 1757, and by 1762 had been appointed domestic chaplain to Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury and, from 1769, chaplain to King George III.
The Fight against Slavery
In 1776 Dr Porteus was appointed Bishop of Chester, taking a keen interest in the affairs of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.
As Bishop of Chester, Beilby Porteus became known as a noted abolitionist – he took a deep interest in the plight of West Indian negro slaves, preaching and campaigning actively against the slave trade and taking part in many debates in the House of Lords. Renowned as a scholar and a popular preacher, it was in 1783 that the young bishop was to first come to national attention by preaching his most famous and influential sermon.
The Anniversary Sermon
Porteus used the opportunity afforded by the invitation to preach the Anniversary Sermon of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) to criticise the Church's role in ignoring the plight of the slaves on its Codrington Estates in Barbados, and to recommend means by which the lot of slaves there could be improved.
It was a well-reasoned and much-reprinted plea for The Civilisation, Improvement and Conversion of the Negroe Slaves in the British West-India Islands Recommended, and was preached before forty members of the society, including eleven bishops of the Church of England.
When this largely fell upon deaf ears, Porteus next began work on his Plan for the Effectual Conversion of the Slaves of the Codrington Estate, which he presented to the SPG committee in 1784 and, when it was turned down, again in 1789.
These were the first challenges to the establishment in an eventual twenty-six year campaign to eradicate slavery in the British West Indian colonies. Porteus made a huge contribution and eventually turned to other means of achieving his aims, including writing, aiding political initiatives and supporting the sending of mission workers to Barbados and Bermuda.
He was active in the establishment of Sunday Schools in every parish, an early patron of the Church Missionary Society and one of the founder members of the British and Foreign Bible Society, of which he became vice-president.
Bishop of London
In 1787 Dr Porteus was translated to the bishopric of London on the advice of William Pitt (the Younger), a position he continued to hold until his death in 1809.
In 1788 Porteus supported Sir William Dolben's Slave Trade Bill from the bench of bishops, and over the next quarter century he became the leading advocate within the Church of England for the abolition of slavery, lending support to such men as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Henry Thornton and Zachary Macaulay to secure the eventual passage of the Slave Trade Bill in 1807.
In view of his passionate involvement in the anti-slavery movement and his friendship with other leading abolitionists, it was especially appropriate that, as Bishop of London, Porteus should now find himself with official responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the British colonies overseas. He was responsible for missions to the West Indies, as well as to India, and published volumes of sermons and tracts.
During much of the following twenty years – a time of huge national and international political upheaval, Porteus was in a position to influence opinion in the influential circles of the Court, the government, the City of London and the highest echelons of Georgian society.
Porteus did this, partly by encouraging debate on subjects as diverse as the slave trade, Catholic emancipation, the pay and conditions of low-paid clergy, the perceived excesses of entertainment taking place on Sundays – and by becoming a vocal supporter of Hannah More and the Clapham Sect of evangelical social reformers. He vigorously opposed the spread of the principles of the French Revolution as well as the doctrines of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason.
In 1788 George III had again lapsed into one of his periods of mental derangement (now diagnosed as Porphyria), after which there was a Service of Thanksgiving for his recovery in 1789 in St. Paul's Cathedral, at which Porteus himself preached.
The war against Napoleon began in 1794 and was to drag on for another twenty years. Porteus' tenure as Bishop of London saw not only services of thanksgiving for English victories at the Battles of Cape St. Vincent, the Nile and Copenhagen, but the great national outpouring of sorrow at the death of Nelson in 1805, and his state funeral service in St. Paul's Cathedral in 1806. As Bishop of London, Porteus may have officiated at some of these services, although it is unlikely that he did so at Nelson's funeral, because of the Admiral's reputation as an adulterer.
Bishop Porteus died at Fulham Palace in 1809 and, according to his wishes, was buried at Sundridge in Kent – a place to which he had loved to retire every summer.
Hodgson, Robert. The Life of Beilby Porteus (1811)
Overton, John Henry. Beilby Porteus in the Dictionary of National Biography, vol XVI, pp. 195–197 (1896)
McKelvie, Graham. The Development of Official Anglican Interest in World Mission 1783–1809: With Special Reference to Bishop Beilby Porteus, PhD diss. (U. Aberdeen, 1984)
Tennant, Bob. Sentiment, Politics, and Empire: A Study of Beilby Porteus's Antislavery Sermon, in Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and its Colonies, 1760–1838, ed Brycchan Carey, Markman Ellis, and Sara Salih (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
Robinson, Andrew. Beilby Porteus in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2005)
If you are able to help please contact Bruce Porteous.
Photograph above courtesy of Hammersmith & Fulham Libraries