Bishop Beilby Porteus

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Rt Rev Beilby Porteus, DD, Bishop of London (May 8, 1731May 13, 1809) was an Anglican reformer and leading abolitionist.

Beilby Porteus was the son of Robert Porteus, a native of Virginia, US who had returned to England in 1720. Educated at York and Ripon, he was a classics scholar at Christ's College, Cambridge University, becoming a fellow in 1752. In 1759 he won the Seatonian Prize for his poem Death: A Poetical Essay, a work for which he is still remembered. He was ordained as a priest in 1757, and by 1762 had been appointed domestic chaplain to Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury and, from 1769, chaplain to King George III.

In 1776 Dr Porteus was appointed Bishop of Chester, taking a keen interest in the affairs of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

As Bishop of Chester, Beilby Porteus became known as a noted abolitionist - taking part in many debates in the House of Lords, where he vigorously opposed the slave trade. He was responsible for missions to the West Indies, as well as to India, and published volumes of sermons and tracts.

Renowned as a scholar and a popular preacher, it was in 1783 that the young bishop was to preach his most famous and influential sermon, a well-reasoned and much-reprinted plea for The Civilisation, Improvement and Conversion of the Negroe Slaves in the British West-India Islands Recommended, before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

Beilby himself took a deep interest in the plight of West Indian negro slaves, preaching and campaigning actively against the slave trade. He was active in the establishment of Sunday Schools in every parish, an early patron of the Church Missionary Society and one of the founder members of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

In 1787 Dr Porteus was translated to the bishopric of London on the advice of William Pitt (the Younger), a position he continued to hold until his death in 1809.

In view of his passionate involvement in the anti-slavery movement and his friendship with other leading abolitionists, it was especially appropriate that, as Bishop of London, he should now find himself with official responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the British colonies overseas.

During much of the following twenty years - a time of huge national and international political upheaval, Porteus was in a position to influence opinion in the influential circles of the Court, the government, the City of London and the highest echelons of Georgian society.

This he did, partly by encouraging debate on subjects as diverse as the slave trade, Catholic emancipation, the pay and conditions of low-paid clergy, the perceived excesses of entertainment taking place on Sundays - and by becoming a vocal supporter of William Wilberforce, Hannah More and the Clapham Sect of evangelical social reformers. He vigorously opposed the spread of the principles of the French Revolution as well as the doctrines of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason.

In 1788 George III had again lapsed into one of his periods of mental derangement (now diagnosed as Porphyria), after which there was a Service of Thanksgiving for his recovery in 1789 in St. Paul's Cathedral, only a year or so after Beilby Porteus came to take up the London bishopric.

The war against Napoleon began in 1794 and was to drag on for another twenty years. Porteus' tenure as Bishop of London saw not only services of thanksgiving for English victories at the Battles of Cape St. Vincent, the Nile and Copenhagen, but the great national outpouring of sorrow at the death of Nelson in 1805, and his state funeral service in St. Paul's Cathedral in 1806, at which Beilby Porteus almost certainly officiated.

Bishop Porteus died at Fulham Palace in 1809 and, according to his wishes, was buried at Sundridge in Kent - a place he had frequently loved to retire to in the summer.

One of many Porteous/Porteus family members who were Anglican churchmen, Beilby Porteus was a supporter of the growing evangelical movement. He was a prolific preacher and writer, and a friend and supporter of William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, and Hannah More, the philanthropist and writer.

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