Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol
Born: 1692 at Wantage, Berkshire
Bishop of Bristol
Bishop of Durham
Died: 16th June 1752 at Bath, Somerset
Not only the most distinguished name in the list of Bishops of Bristol and Durham, but one of the most honoured in the English Church. He was born, the youngest of eight children, of dissenting parents, at Wantage, in Berkshire, in the year 1692; and was educated first at the Grammar School at Wantage, and then at a Dissenting school kept by a Mr. Jones, first at Gloucester and afterwards at Tewkesbury. Whilst at Tewkesbury, Butler wrote a series of letters to Dr. Samuel Clarke, "laying before him the doubts which had arisen in his mind concerning the conclusiveness of some arguments in the Doctor's demonstration of the being and attributes of God." The first letter was dated 4th November 1713. The series was annexed by Dr. Clarke to his treatise, and has been retained in all subsequent editions. The correspondence was managed by Butler's friend and fellow-pupil, Thomas Seeker, who, like himself of Dissenting parentage, rose to the highest position in the Church of England. An "Examination of the Principles of Nonconformity," which Butler also undertook at Tewkesbury, led him to the Church; and, in spite of some dissuasion from his father, he became a Commoner of Oriel College, Oxford, in 1714. Here he became the intimate friend of Mr. Talbot, whose father was then Bishop of Oxford, and by his recommendation, together with that of Dr. Clarke, he was appointed Preacher at the Rolls Chapel, in 1718. He had been for some time in Orders. He remained at the Rolls until 1726, in which year he printed "Fifteen Sermons preached in that chapel;" but in 1722 Bishop Talbot, who had passed from Oxford first to Salisbury and then to Durham, gave him the rectory of Haugh-ton, near Darlington, which was afterwards exchanged for that of Stanhope, one of the richest livings in England. After leaving the Rolls Chapel, Butler remained at Stanhope for seven years, "in the conscientious discharge of every obligation appertaining to a good parish priest." From this retirement he was drawn by his friend Secker, who mentioned him to Queen Caroline. (The Queen had before asked Archbishop Blackburn if Butler was not dead; and the reply was, "No, Madam, but he is buried,") At Secker's instance, Lord Chancellor Talbot made Butler his chaplain, and a Prebendary of Rochester. In 1736 he was made Clerk of the Closet to Queen Caroline, and in the same year published Ms famous "Analogy of Religion." In December, 1738, Butler became Bishop of Bristol; and in 1740 Dean of St. Paul's, when he resigned the living of Stanhope.
There is a tradition at Bristol that he spent the whole income of his bishopric, (no very great one,) on the average of the twelve years he held it, in the repairs and improvements of the palace. A trait of his habits here is preserved by Dean Tucker (then his domestic chaplain) in one of his tracts: "The late Dr. Butler had a singular notion respecting large communities and public bodies. His custom was, when at Bristol, to walk for hours in his garden in the darkest night which the time of year could afford, and I had frequently the honour to attend him. After walking some time he would stop suddenly and ask the question, "What security is there against the insanity of individuals? The physicians know of none; and as to divines, we have no data, either from Scripture or from reason, to go upon relative to this affair." "True, my Lord, no man has a lease of his understanding, any more than of his life: they are both in the hands of the sovereign Disposer of all things." He would then take another turn, and again stop short. "Why might not whole communities and public bodies be seized with fits of insanity, as well as individuals?" "My Lord, I have never considered the case, and can give no opinion concerning it." "Nothing but this principle, that they are liable to insanity, equally at least with private persons, can account for the major part of those transactions of which we read in history." I thought little," adds the Dean, "of that odd conceit of the Bishop at that juncture; but I own I could not avoid thinking of it a great deal since, and applying it to many cases."
"What an application of it," continues Mr. Blunt, who quotes the passage, "would have suggested itself to Tucker, could he have been walking in that self-same garden on the 31st October 1831." It was then that the palace was destroyed by the rioters.
In 1747, Archbishop Potter died, and the primacy was offered to Butler; but he declined it, saying, as the tradition of his family reports it, that it was "too late for him to try to support a falling Church." In 1750 he was translated to Durham, where he set about repairing and improving the two episcopal residences at Durham and at Auckland, appointed three days in every week for public hospitalities, and was most munificent in the distribution of his large income : but his health rapidly declined, and on the 16th June 1752, he died at Bath, where he had removed for the sake of the waters. He was buried in his former cathedral at Bristol, on the south side of the choir.
Whilst attending his duties in Parliament he resided at Hampstead, in a house formerly belonging to Sir Harry Vane, and from which he was taken to the Tower before his execution. Here also the Bishop's taste for architecture displayed itself. "He decorated his windows with painted glass, and the subjects being scriptural, the incident was afterwards turned to account, and he was said to have received them as a present from the Pope. Most of this is now lost; some was given by a subsequent occupier of the house to Oriel College, as a relic of its great alumnus, and a few panes are still to be seen in their original position. In this retreat, which is described by one of its inmates as "most enchanting," Seeker (who had been rising in the Church pari passu, and was now Bishop of Oxford,) and Butler dined together daily."
Of Bishop Butler's great work, "The Analogy of Religion," it is unnecessary to speak here. It has long been a text-book both at Oxford and Cambridge. Perhaps the fullest and best examination of it, and of the character of Bishop Butler's teaching, will be found in the Rev. J. J. Blunt's volume of "Essays Contributed to the Quarterly Review." (London, 1860.) The inscription on the tablet erected in the transept of the cathedral to Butler's memory was written by Southey, and runs partly as follows: "Others had established the historical and prophetical grounds of the Christian religion, and the sure testimony of its truth, which is found in its perfect adaptation to the heart of man. It was reserved for him to develope its analogy to the constitution and course of nature; and laying his strong foundations in the depth of that great argument, there to construct another and irrefragable proof; thus rendering philosophy subservient to faith, arid finding in outward and visible things the type and evi-dence of those within the veil."
Edited from Richard John King's
'Handbook to the Cathedrals of England: Western Division' (1867)
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