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John Bird Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury (1780-1862)

This article was written by William Prideaux Courtney and was published in 1898

Sumner JBJohn Bird Sumner, archbishop of Canterbury, eldest son of the Rev. Robert Sumner, and brother of Bishop Charles Richard Sumner, was born at Kenilworth on 25 February 1780. He was educated at Eton from 1791 to 1798, when he proceeded, being the first of his year, to King's College, Cambridge. He was elected scholar (5 November 1798) and fellow (5 November 1801). In the second quarter of his residence at Cambridge he was nominated to a ‘King's Betham scholarship,’ and held it until 1803. In 1800 he won the Browne medal for the best Latin ode, the subject being ‘Mysorei Tyranni Mors,’ and he was Hulsean prizeman in 1802. He graduated B.A. in 1803, M.A. in 1807, and D.D. in 1828.

In 1802 Sumner returned to Eton as assistant master, and in 1803 he was ordained by John Douglas, bishop of Salisbury. On 31 March 1803 he married at Bath Marianne, ‘daughter of George Robertson of Edinburgh,’ a captain in the navy, and sister of Thomas Campbell Robertson. He thus vacated his fellowship at King's College, but he was elected to a fellowship at Eton in 1817, and in the following year was nominated by the college to the valuable living of Mapledurham, on the banks of the Thames, in Oxfordshire. Through the favour of Shute Barrington, the bishop of the diocese, he was appointed in 1820 to the ninth prebendal stall in Durham Cathedral. In 1826 he succeeded to the more lucrative preferment of the fifth stall, and from 1827 to 1848 he held the second stall, which was still better endowed, in that cathedral. Bishop Phillpotts, his contemporary and opponent, had previously held the ninth and the second canonry at Durham.

From 1815 to 1829 Sumner published a number of volumes on theological subjects, which enjoyed much popularity, and were held to reflect the best traits in the teaching of the evangelical party within the church of England. The soundness of Sumner's theological views, combined with his ripe scholarship and his discretion in speech and action, marked him out for elevation to the episcopal bench. He was also aided in his rise by the influence of his brother, at whose consecration at Lambeth on 21 May 1826 he preached the sermon. In 1827 he declined the offer of the see of Sodor and Man; but, on the promotion of Bishop Blomfield, he accepted in the next year the nomination by the Duke of Wellington to the bishopric of Chester. He was consecrated at Bishopthorpe on 14 September 1828, the second of the consecrators being his brother. Though he was known to be opposed to any concessions to the Roman catholics, and had been appointed to his see by the Duke of Wellington partly on the ground of his antipathy to their claims, he voted, as did his brother, for the repeal of the disabilities which pressed upon them. He then addressed a circular letter to his clergy in vindication of his vote. He voted in favour of the second reading of the Reform Bill (13 April 1832), and he was on the poor-law commission of 1834.

The energy of the new bishop soon made itself felt throughout the (then undivided) diocese of Chester. He was indefatigable in obtaining the erection of more churches and the provision of schools, and by 1847 had consecrated more than two hundred new churches. A remarkable tribute to his zeal was paid in the House of Commons on 5 May 1843 by Sir Robert Peel, when introducing his resolutions for the constitution and endowment of ‘Peel’ districts in parishes where the population was in excess of church accommodation. The charges which Sumner delivered at the visitations of his diocese in 1829, 1832, 1835, and 1838 were published in one volume in 1839, and five editions were sold.

The leader of the tory party had selected Sumner for the see of Chester. The archbishopric of Canterbury became vacant on 11 February 1848 by the death of Dr. Howley, and Sumner was chosen by Lord John Russell, the premier of the whig government, to succeed to the vacant place. He was confirmed at Bow church on 10 March, and enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on 28 April 1848. Despite the strength of his evangelical convictions, he acted upon them without any prejudice to opponents or any undue bias to friends. His moderation in tone made him at times suspected of a want of strength. Bishop Wilberforce spoke of his speech at the Mansion House for a church society as ‘like himself, good, gentle, loving, and weak’.

Sumner ‘decidedly repudiated’ the Bampton lectures of Dr. Hampden, but he declined to participate in the action of several of the bishops in protesting against the doctor's appointment to the see of Hereford, and his first public act, as primate, was to take the leading place in the consecration of Hampden. His second action was to preside at the opening of St. Augustine's College at Canterbury, which had recently been purchased and restored by Alexander James Beresford-Hope as a college for missionary clergy. By these acts he illustrated the impartiality of his attitude to the two great parties in the church of England.

During the period from 1847 to 1851 the church of England was rent in twain by the disputes over the refusal of Dr. Phillpotts, bishop of Exeter, to institute the Rev. George Cornelius Gorham to the vicarage of Brampford-Speke in Devonshire, on the ground that his views on baptismal regeneration were not in agreement with those of the English church. The case came before the privy council, when the archbishops of Canterbury and York concurred in the judgment by which it was ‘determined that a clergyman of the church of England need not believe in baptismal regeneration.’ This judgment led to the secession from the church of many of the leading members, both lay and clerical, of the high-church party, and it provoked the publication by the bishop of Exeter of his celebrated letter to the archbishop, which went through twenty-one editions. In this vigorous protest the bishop remonstrated against the action of the primate in supporting heresy in the church, and declined any further communion with him, but announced his intention of praying for him as ‘an affectionate friend for nearly thirty years, and your now afflicted servant.’

The archbishop was a consistent opponent of the bill for removing Jewish disabilities, and of that for legalising marriage with a deceased wife's sister. He supported the proposals for a compromise on the vexed question of church rates, and was favourable to the passing of the divorce bill, but resisted all measures for altering the language of the prayer-book. On 12 November 1852 convocation met for the first time for 135 years for the despatch of business. The upper house was under his presidency.

The archbishop was taken ill in May 1861, but recovered. He was one of the commissioners at the opening of the exhibition on 1 May 1862, and the fatigue of the proceedings proved too great a strain for his enfeebled frame. He died at Addington on 6 September 1862. A kindly message was sent to him on his deathbed by Dr. Phillpotts, and warmly reciprocated. He was buried with extreme simplicity in Addington churchyard on 12 September. The archbishop, two daughters, and some other relatives are interred at the north-east corner of the churchyard. His wife died at the Manor House, Wandsworth, on 22 March 1829. Two sons and several daughters survived him.

Sumner's works comprise:

1. ‘Apostolical Preaching considered in an Examination of St. Paul's Epistles,’ 1815 (anonymous); it was reissued, with the author's name, in 1817, after being corrected and enlarged, and passed into a ninth edition in 1850. A French translation from that edition was published at Paris in 1856. On 4 Aug. 1815 Sumner won the second prize, amounting to £400, of John Burnett (1729-1784), for a dissertation on the Deity. It was entitled:

2. ‘A Treatise on the Records of the Creation and the Moral Attributes of the Creator’ (1816, 2 vols.), and seven editions of it were sold. He rested his principal evidence of the existence of the Creator upon the credibility of the Mosaic records of the creation, and accepted the conclusions of geological science as understood in 1815. Sir Charles Lyell afterwards appealed to it in proof that revelation and geology are not necessarily discordant forces.

3. ‘A Series of Sermons on the Christian Faith and Character,’ 1821; 9th edit. 1837.

4. ‘The Evidence of Christianity derived from its Nature and Reception,’ 1824, in which he contended that the Christian religion would not have preserved its vitality had it not been introduced by divine authority; a new edition, prompted by the appearance of ‘Essays and Reviews,’ came out in 1861.

5. ‘Sermons on the principal Festivals of the Church, with three Sermons on Good Friday,’ 1827; 4th edit. 1831.

6. ‘Four Sermons on Subjects relating to the Christian Ministry,’ 1828; reissued in 1850 as an appendix to the ninth edition of ‘Apostolical Preaching.’

7. ‘Christian Charity: its Obligations and Objects,’ 1841.

Between 1831 and 1851 Sumner issued a series of volumes of ‘Practical Expositions’ on the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the epistles in the New Testament. Many editions were sold, and in 1849, 1850, and 1851 the Rev. George Wilkinson published selections from them in four volumes. Sumner himself issued in 1859 a summary in ‘Practical Reflections on Select Passages of the New Testament.’ He contributed to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ an article on the poor laws, and to Charles Knight's serial, ‘The Plain Englishman’; and he was the author of many single sermons, speeches, and charges.

A portrait of the archbishop hangs in the hall of University College, Durham; another, in his convocation robes, by Eddis, is at Lambeth; of this a replica is in the hall at King's College, Cambridge. A portrait, by Margaret Carpenter, was engraved by Samuel Cousins in 1839. A later portrait by the same artist was engraved by T. Richardson Jackson. Francis Holl executed an engraving of another portrait of him by George Richmond. A recumbent effigy by H. Weekes, R.A., is in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral.

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