Samuel Wilberforce Reforms the Role of Bishops

This is the day that … Samuel Wilberforce was born in Clapham, England, in 1805.

His father was William Wilberforce, famous parliamentarian who fought for the abolition of the slave trade – and won.

Raised in the evangelical tradition, young Samuel was “not particularly studious” during his education at Oxford, but set his sights on “holy orders” and was ordained to the Church of England priesthood in 1829.

He also “set his sights” on Emily Sargent, a vicar’s daughter (“she was 13 and I was 15 when I saw her first. And we never changed our minds!”) They married in 1828.

One biographer tells us how he “learned the Epistle to the Ephesians by heart” (19th Century Preachers, by J. Edwards, page 142).

As his ministry continued he came under the influence of John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey, leaders in what was called the “Oxford Movement” (not to be confused with the Oxford Group movement). This High Church teaching, with its Romeward emphasis, caused a major upheaval in 19th century Anglicanism.

Wilberforce remained loyal to the Church of England, even displaying “a passionate hatred of Rome” (Dictionary of English Church History, page 634), whilst many of his friends and direct relatives, including his son-in-law, seceded to the authority of the Pope.

His wife died in March, 1841.

He became Bishop of Oxford on 30 November, 1843, and “so began the most memorable episcopate of modern times” (ibid).

Controversies raged about him but “his eloquence and ready wit excelled in reconciling men of diverse opinions, hence his nickname of ‘Soapy Sam’” (Concise Universal Biography, page 1394).

Moreover he laboured to quicken the zeal of the clergy. The whole modern concept of a bishop constantly in touch with his diocese … instead of sitting silently by sipping unending cups of tea, or spending time fox hunting … begins with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

Dean Burgon called him “the remodeller of the Episcopate” – one who changed the face of the role of bishop in the Church of England.

He held firmly to the ‘doctrine’ of baptismal regeneration and of apostolic succession.

On 19 July, 1873, his life was suddenly cut short due to a fall from his horse.

His sons also attained significant posts within the church, continuing the family influence in English religion and politics.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at