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Islington religion in Calcutta

29 July 2016

William Jacob recalls a courageous bishop in the subcontinent


Survivor: Bishop Daniel Wilson

Survivor: Bishop Daniel Wilson

The Journal of Bishop Daniel Wilson of Calcutta 1845-1857 (Church of England Record Society 21)
Andrew Atherstone, editor
Boydell Press £70
Church Times Bookshop £63


DANIEL WILSON was the fifth Bishop of Calcutta, a diocese then stretching from the Khyber Pass to Sarawak and Australia. His four predecessors, since 1813, had died in rapid succession, with six years of vacancies between them. In 1832, no one wanted to be Bishop of Calcutta. It was a death sentence. Anyone accepting the position had little hope of seeing England again; for the legislation establishing it permitted a furlough only after 15 years’ service. But Wilson, aged 54 when he was appointed, survived into his 80th year.

As Vicar of Islington, Wilson was the leading Evangelical incumbent of his day. India was a particular focus of Evangelical missionary interest, but at least three leading Evangelicals had declined Calcutta; so he volunteered. Government ministers, however, hesitated to accept his offer. He would be the first Calvinist bishop since the early 17th century, and was suspected of “irritating conduct”. He claimed, however, that he could distinguish between being a “private clergyman” and a bishop, and undertook to act “with discretion and mildness”.

The journal shows his high view of episcopal authority, and the duty to maintain order and unity in the Church. He tried to be fair to High Churchmen, though doubting their missionary zeal, and so alienated some Evangelical friends; but he abhorred Tractarians as crypto-papists.

The journal covers the second half of his episcopate, including his furlough in England in 1845-46. It reveals his courage, deep humility, and sense of utter dependence on God and the workings, in every detail of life, of divine providence and punishment.

It illustrates colonial bishops’ frustrations in dealing with uncomprehending British governments and colonial administrators, and, for India, the East India Company, as well as CMS committees in London and India, in developing mission strategies, recruiting missionaries, and developing an indigenous clergy for future leadership. He believed that Britain had a God-given duty to proclaim the gospel throughout the Empire. He was deeply hostile to what he regarded as the idolatry of Roman Catholicism and Hinduism, and the heresy of Islam.

Like English bishops, he confirmed and ordained candidates, and consecrated many churches and burial grounds, but he was more hands-on in supporting and disciplining clergy. The remoteness and strangeness of India is vivid. In the 1830s, it took from five to six months to travel between London and Calcutta: an answer to a letter could take a year. There is sadness at the frequent sickness and deaths of English clergy. Visitations of his far-flung diocese were medieval: he travelled over land, accompanied by an entourage of about 200, and a flock of sheep and goats, and guarded by soldiers, but, in his later years, mostly by sea.

Andrew Atherstone, has provided an excellent introduction, and notes, setting Wilson in his context as a pioneer of the Anglican Communion.


The Ven. William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross.

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