John William Colenso

1814-1883. First Anglican bishop of Natal. Born at St. Austell, Cornwall, he read mathematics at Cambridge, held a living in Norfolk, and was consecrated in 1853. His theology wedded the conclusions of F.D. Maurice* to liberal Protestant presuppositions and aroused much controversy. Unlike most missionaries, he favored the baptism of polygamists and respected African beliefs and customs. His missionary theology was expounded in a commentary on Romans (1861): the Atonement is entirely objective; men are redeemed from birth, and baptism merely proclaims this fact; the heathen must be shown the pattern of Christ. Colenso had already quarreled with James Green, Tractarian* dean of Pietermaritzburg, about church government and the Eucharist. Green now reported the commentary to Bishop Gray of Cape Town, who referred it to the archbishop of Canterbury.

Before Colenso's orthodoxy could be tested, he caused a further storm by publishing the first part of a work which questioned the historicity and authorship of the Pentateuch and Joshua. Although Colenso's critical views were moderate by German standards, they scandalized most Englishmen and dominated the controversy which culminated in his deposition by Gray in December 1863. Colenso denied Gray's jurisdiction and was supported by the judicial committee of the Privy Council, which confirmed his position as bishop. Further legal action secured his stipend and the control of church property. Many laymen supported him, but with insufficient clergy and finance he could do little.

In his closing years, Colenso championed the African people against injustice. This cost the friendship of his principal supporter, Theophilus Shepstone, but earned undying African affection. Colenso was a tragic figure whose positive contributions to missionary policy and biblical scholarship were vitiated by an inadequate theology, an impetuous manner, a difficult personality, and the intense conservatism of his contemporaries.

See P.B. Hinchliff, John William Colenso (1964), and The Anglican Church in South Africa (1963).