1902 Encyclopedia > Connor Thirwall

Connop Thirwall
English bishop (in Wales) and historian
(1797-1875)




CONNOP THIRLWALL, (1797-1875), bishop of St David's, was born at Stepney on 11th January 1797, and was the son of the Rev. Thomas Thirlwall, at the time lecturer at St Dunstan's, Stepney, and afterwards rector of Bowers Gifiord, in Essex. The family were of North-umbrian extraction. Young Connop showed the most remarkable precocity, learning Latin at three, reading Greek at four, and writing sermons at seven. When he was twelve his admiring father published his Primitix, sermons and poems, the thoughts of an imitative boy in the style of a grown man. No especial greatness could have been safely predicted from these performances, which Thirlwall assiduously strove to suppress in after years. He shortly afterwards went to the Charterhouse, where he wrote a number of letters to a friend named John Candler, some of which have been preserved. They dis-play the same extraordinary prematurity, but are barren of anything original except what he himself calls " sensi-bility to the great and beautiful in morality." By a curious coincidence his future rival in Greek history, Grote, and Hare, his coadjutor in the translation of Niebuhr, were among his schoolfellows. He took up his residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1814, and gained the Craven university scholarship, one of three recorded instances of this honour being obtained by fresh-men, and the chancellor's classical medal. In October 1818 he was elected to a fellowship, and immediately went for a year's travel on the Continent. At Bome he gained the friendship of Bunsen, which had a most import-ant influence on his life. On his return, " distrust of his own resolutions and convictions " led him to abandon for the time his intention of being a clergyman, and he settled down to the study of the law, " with a firm determination not to suffer it to engross my time so as to prevent me from pursuing other branches of knowledge." This was not the way to become lord chancellor, and, though he afterwards says, " My aversion to the law has not in-creased," he adds, " It scarcely could." How little his heart was with it was shown by the labour he soon im-posed upon himself of translating and prefacing Schleier-macher's essay on the Gospel of St Luke, "very injudi-ciously," says Maurice, who seems to think that it may have cost Thirlwall the archbishopric of Canterbury. The translation, nevertheless, marks an era in English theology. He further, probably influenced by Hare, who had already translated Tieck, rendered two of the latter's most recent Novellen into English. In 1827 he at length made up his mind to quit his uncongenial profession, and was ordained deacon the same year. Beyond all question he might have obtained the highest distinction both as jurist and advocate, had law interested him more, or other things less. No one ever possessed a more judicial mind. Of his oratory, Mill, whom he opposed at a debating society, says, " Before he had uttered ten sentences I set him down as the best speaker I had ever heard, and I have never since heard any one whom I placed above him."
It is not often that a scholar twice makes an epoch by a translation. Such was Thirlwall's destiny : he joined with Hare in translating Niebuhr's History of Bome; the first volume appeared in 1828. The translation was attacked in the Quarterly as favourable to scepticism, and the translators jointly replied. In 1831 the friends estab-lished the Philological Museum, which lived through only six numbers, though among Thirlwall's contributions was his masterly paper on the irony of Sophocles,—" the most exquisite criticism I ever read," says Sterling. On Hare's departure from Cambridge in 1832, Thirlwall became assistant college tutor, which led him to take a memor-able share in the great controversy upon the admission of Dissenters which arose in 1834. Dr Turton, the regius professor of divinity, had written a pamphlet objecting to the admission, on the pretext of the apprehended un-settlement of the religious opinions of young churchmen. Thirlwall replied by pointing out that no provision for theological instruction was in fact made by the colleges except compulsory attendance at chapel, and that this was mischievous. This attack upon a time-hallowed piece of college discipline brought upon him a demand for the resignation of his office as assistant tutor. He complied at once; his friends generally thought that he ought to have tested the master's power. The occurrence marked him out for promotion from a Liberal Government, and in the autumn he received the chancellor's living of Kirby-under-Dale, in Yorkshire. Though devoted to his parochial duties, he found time to begin the book which has remained the principal work of one whose performance, however great, rarely rose to the level of his power. His History of Greece, unfortunately for him and for us, was a commission from Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopxclia, and was originally intended to have been condensed into two or three duodecimo volumes. The scale was enlarged, but Thirlwall always felt cramped. He seems a little below his subject, and a little below himself. Yet, such was his ability that his history is usually allowed to fall only just short of Grote's, a work undertaken with far greater enthusiasm, and executed with far greater advantages. Sterling pronounces him " a writer as great as Thucydides and Tacitus, and with far more knowledge than they." The first volume was published in 1835, the last in 1847. A noble letter from Thirlwall to Grote, and Grote's generous reply, are published in the life of the latter.
In 1840 Thirlwall was raised to the see of St David's. The promotion was entirely the act of Lord Melbourne, an amateur in theology, who had read Thirl wall's introduction to Schleiermacher, and satisfied himself of the propriety of the appointment. " I don't intend to make a heterodox bishop if I know it," he said. Thirlwall so little expected the honour that he was absent on a pedestrian tour, and it was some days before he could be found. In most essential points he was a model bishop, and in acquainting himself with Welsh, so as to preach and conduct service in that language, he performed a feat which few bishops could have imitated. It cannot be said that he was greatly beloved by his clergy, who felt their intellectual distance too great, and were alternately frozen by his taci-turnity and appalled by his sarcasm. The great monu-ment of his episcopate is the eleven famous charges in which he from time to time reviewed the position of the English Church with reference to whatever might be the most pressing question of the day,—addresses at once judicial and statesmanlike, full of charitable wisdom and massive sense. No similar productions, it may safely be said, were ever so eagerly looked for, or carried with them such weight of authority. His endeavours to allay ecclesi-astical panic, and to promote liberality of spirit, frequently required no ordinary moral courage. He was one of the four prelates who refused to inhibit Bishop Coleuso from preaching in their dioceses, and the only one who with-held his signature from the addresses calling upon Colenso to resign his see. He took the liberal side in the questions of Maynooth, of the admission of Jews to parliament, of the Gorham case, and of the conscience clause. He was the only bishop who voted for the disestablishment of the Irish Church, though but as a painful necessity. Concur-rent endowment would have been much more agreeable to him. For many years he was the only statesman on the bench ; it would have been a great benefit to the Church of England had it been possible to have raised him to the primacy upon the death of Archbishop Howley. But such was the complexion of ecclesiastical politics that the eleva-tion of the most impartial prelate of his day would have been resented as a piece of party spirit.
ThirlwalPs private life was happy and busy. He never married, but found sufficient outlet for his deep affection-ateness of nature in his tenderness to the children of others, and to all weak things except weak-minded clergy-men. He was devoted to animals, and rivalled Southey and Jeremy Bentham in his love for cats. Perhaps the most durable monument to his memory will be his incomparable volume of letters to a friend, Miss Johnes of Dolaucothy, a young lady in every way worthy to be the correspondent of such a man. Even as letters these rank with the best in the language; but as letters from age to youth, sym-pathizing with all its feelings, entering into all its pleasures, at once inspiring and amusing, guiding without seeming to direct, and entertaining without seeming to condescend, they are unique in their delightful branch of literature. They are also important as revealing Thirlwall's mind on numerous subjects which he has not elsewhere treated, and most interesting from their picture of simplicity of char-acter associated with greatness of intellect, and of the multiplicity of his intellectual interests, from which novels and fine art were by no means excluded. During his latter years he took great interest in the revision of the authorized version of the Bible, and was chairman of the revisers of the Old Testament. He resigned his see in May 1874, and retired to Bath, where he died on July 27, 1875.
As scholar, critic, and ecclesiastical statesman Thirlwall is almost above praise. He was not a great original thinker; he lacked the creative faculty and the creative impulse. The world owes such vestiges of his power as it possesses to a series of fortunate accidents—an importunate editor, vexatious church controversies, and an admirable friend. Though not most fully exerted, the force of his mind is perhaps best appreciated in the volume of his letters edited by Dean Perowne. His treatment of every question is consummate ; the largest and the smallest seem alike to him. His character, with its mixture of greatness and gentleness, was thus read by Carlyle :—" a right solid honest-hearted man, full of knowledge and sense, and, in spite of his positive temper, almost timid."
Thirlwall's History of Greece remains a standard book. His
literary and theological remains have been edited by Dean Perowne
in three volumes, two of which are occupied by his charges. His
letters on literary and theological subjects, with a connecting
memoir, have been published by Dean Perowne and the Rev.
Louis Stokes. His Letters to a Friend were originally published
by Dean Stanley, and there is a revised and corrected edition. For
a general view of Thirlwall's life and character, see the Edinburgh
Review, vol. cxliii.; for a picture of him in his diocese, Temple
Bar, vol. Ixxvi. The review of his letters in Blackwood's Maga-
zine for 1882 is by the late Kev. W. Lucas Collins. (R. G.)







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