John William Colenso

John William Colenso

Infobox bishopbiog
name = John William Colenso

religion = Church of England
See = Natal
Title = Bishop of Natal
Period = 1853–20 June 1883
Predecessor = none
Successor = Arthur Hamilton Baynes
ordination =
bishops =
post = rector of Forncett St Mary
date of birth = 24 January 1814
place of birth = St Austell, Cornwall
date of death = 20 June 1883
place of death = Durban, Natal Colony
Anglican Portal

John William Colenso (1814–1883), first Anglican bishop of Natal, mathematician, theologian, Biblical scholar and social activist.


Colenso was born at St Austell, Cornwall, on January 24 1814. His father (John Williams Colenso) invested his capital into a mineral works in Pentewan, Cornwall, but the speculation proved to be ruinous when the investment was lost following a sea flood. His cousin was William Colenso, a missionary in New Zealand.

As a result of his family's financial problems, Colenso had to take a job as an usher in a private school to be able to afford to attend University. These earnings and a loan of £30 raised by his relatives paid for his first year at St John's Cambridge where he won a scholarship. In 1836 he was Second Wrangler and Smith's Prizeman at Cambridge, and in 1837 he became fellow of St John's. Two years later he went to Harrow School as mathematical tutor, but the step proved an unfortunate one. The school was at its lowest ebb, and Colenso not only had few pupils, but lost most of his property in a fire. He went back to Cambridge, and in a short time paid off an enormous debt of £5,000. The money was raised by diligent tutoring and the sale to Longmans of his copyright interest in the highly successful and widely read manuals he had written on algebra (in 1841) and arithmetic (in 1843).

In 1846 he became rector of Forncett St Mary, Norfolk, and in 1853 he was recruited by the Bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray, to be the first Bishop of Natal.

Life in Africa

Colenso was a significant figure in the history of the published word in nineteenth century South Africa. Using the printing press he brought to his missionary station at Ekukhanyeni in Natal, he published the first Zulu Grammar and English/Zulu dictionary. His 1859 journey across Zululand to visit Mpande (the then Zulu King) and meet with Cetshwayo (Mpande's son and the Zulu King at the time of the Zulu War) was recorded in his book "First Steps of the Zulu Mission". The same journey was also described in the first book written by native South Africans in Zulu - "Three Native Accounts" (with accounts written by Magema Fuze, Ndiyane and William Ngidi). He also translated the New Testament and other portions of Scripture into Zulu.

Before his missionary career his volume of sermons dedicated to Frederick Maurice had signalled the critical approach he was interested in applying to biblical interpretation. After spending time in Natal, Colenso wrote a commentary upon the "Epistle to the Romans" (1861) in which he contested the doctrine of eternal punishment and that Holy Communion was a precondition to salvation. Colenso, in his missionary context, would not preach that the ancestors of newly Christianised Africans were condemned to eternal damnation. The thought provoking questions put to him by students at his missionary station encouraged him to re-examine the contents of the "Pentateuch" and the "Book of Joshua" and question whether certain sections of these books should be understood as literally or historically accurate. His conclusions, positive and negative, were published in a series of treatises on the "Pentateuch" and the "Book of Joshua", over a period of time from 1862 to 1879. The publication of these volumes created a scandal in England and were the cause of a number of anguished counter-blasts from those (clergy and laity alike) who refused to countenance the possibility of biblical fallibility. Colenso's work attracted the notice of biblical scholars on the continent such as Abraham Kuenen and played an important contribution in the development of biblical scholarship.


Colenso's biblical criticism and his liberal views about the treatment of African natives created a frenzy of alarm and opposition from the High Church party in South Africa and in England. As controversy raged in England, the South African bishops headed by Bishop Gray pronounced Colenso's deposition in December 1863. Colenso, who had refused to appear before this tribunal otherwise than by sending a proxy protest, appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. The Privy Council eventually decided that the bishop of Cape Town had no coercive jurisdiction and no authority to interfere with the Bishop of Natal. In view of this finding of "ultra vires" there was no opinion given upon the allegations of heresy made against Colenso.

His adversaries, though unable to remove him from his episcopal office, succeeded in restricting his ability to preach both in Natal and in England. Bishop Gray not only excommunicated him but consecrated a rival bishop of Natal (WK Macrorie), who, however, took his title from Pietermaritzburg. The contributions of the missionary societies were withdrawn, but an attempt to deprive him of his episcopal income and the control of the cathedral was frustrated by another court ruling. Colenso, encouraged by a handsome testimonial raised in England, to which many clergymen subscribed, returned to his diocese, and devoted the latter years of his life to further labours as a biblical commentator and translator. He also championed the cause of the Zulus against Boer oppression and official encroachments and in so doing he made more enemies among the colonists than he had ever made among the clergy.

He was known as Sobantu (father of the people) to the native Africans in Natal and had a close relationship with members of the Zulu royal family (one of whom he taught at his school in Bishopstowe). After his death his daughter continued his work supporting the Zulu cause and the organisation that eventually became the ANC.

Death and legacy

He died at Durban on June 20, 1883. His daughter Frances Ellen Colenso (1849-1887) published two books on the relations of the Zulus to the British (1880 and 1885), taking a pro-Zulu view; and an elder daughter, Harriette E Colenso (b. 1847), became prominent as an advocate of the Zulus in opposition to their treatment by Natal, especially in the case of Dinizulu in 1888—1889 and in 1908—1909.

In the film Zulu Dawn Colenso is sympathetically portrayed (Freddie Jones acts the role) as a principled critic of the decision to declare war on Cetshwayo and the Zulus. In an article by Patrick Wright of Windhoekt, it has been argued that Colenso's career provides an interesting example of 19th century Liberation Theology and can be viewed as a "father" of the kind of Liberation Theology found in 20th century Latin America.

Bibliography of Colenso's works

*"Commentary on the Romans" (1861)
*"Critical Examination of the Pentateuch" (1862-1879)
*"Ten Weeks in Natal". Elibron Classics - recent re-print. Orig. 1855 [ via Google Books]
* "The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined". Elibron Classics, 2003 re-print; "People's Edition" (1865) [,M1 via Google Books]
*"Lectures on the Pentateuch and the Moabite Stone" (1873) [,M1 via Google Books]
*"Natal Sermons". Four vol.
*"Village Sermons"
*"Zulu-English Dictionary" (1884) [,M1 via Google Books]
*"First Steps in Zulu" (4th ed., 1890) [,M1 via Google Books]


*Colenso, Frances Ellen. "History of the Zulu War and Its Origin". Elibron Classics, 2004 re-print
*Cox, Sir GW. "Colenso's Life". 2 vols. London, 1888
*Draper, Jonathan A. editor. " The Eye of the Storm : Bishop John William Colenso and the Crisis of Biblical Interpretation". Cluster Publications, Pietermaritzburg, 2003
*Draper, Jonathan A. editor."Commentary on Romans by Bishop John Colenso". Cluster Publications 2003
*Guy, Jeff. "The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: The Civil War in Zululand, 1879-1884". Longman, London, 1979
*Guy, Jeff. "The Heretic : A Study of the Life of John William Colenso". Pietermaritzburg, 1983
*Guy, Jeff. "The View Across the River : Harriette Colenso and the Zulu Struggle Against Imperialism". Oxford, UK, Claremont, S.Africa, & Charlottesville US, 2001
*Hinchliff, Peter. "John William Colenso : Bishop of Natal". London, 1964
*Morris, Donald R. "The Washing of the Spears. The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation". Simon & Schuster, New York, 1965
*Rees,Wyn editor. "Colenso Letters from Natal - written by Mrs Frances Colenso". Pietermaritzburg, 1958
*Rowse, AL. "The Controversial Colensos". Redruth, 1989

*A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature

ee also

* KwaZulu-Natal Province
* Colenso

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