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Bishop Butler

His life, writing & theology.

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Portrait of Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752).

Literature on Butler's Life

Butler's first biography appeared in the supplement to Biographia Britannica (London, 1766; facsimile, Hidesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1969). The article is signed `P.'

The most frequently reprinted life of Butler is by Andrew Kippis and first appeared in his second edition of the Biographia Britannica (London: Printed by W. & A. Straham for C. Bathurst [etc.] 1778-93, 5 vol., completed only as far as Fastolff). This second edition is often, and understandably, confused with the supplement to the first edition.

The first and only full-length biography is Memoirs of the Life, Character and Writings of Joseph Butler by Thomas Bartlett (London: John W. Parker, 1839).

There are many accounts of Butler's life included in editions of his works or in reference books, but only a few include any new material. Those that do are William FitzGerald in his 1849 edition of the Analogy, Joseph Passmore in his 1855 edition of Bishop Butler's Ethical Discourses, and Leslie Stephen in his article on Butler for the Dictionary of National Biography (1886).

The other research on Butler's life, such as it is, has focused on particular periods or individual issues.

The problems of Butler's birth are nicely summarized by Spooner:

There is perhaps some little doubt about the date of his birth. May 18, 1692, is the date given in all the biographies from Kippis downwards. On the other hand, the Register of the University of Oxford gives his age as seventeen when he matriculated a member of Oriel on March 17, 1714. If this date were correct he could not have been born until May 1696. But there are almost insuperable difficulties in accepting the age as stated in the University Register. In the first place, we should have to believe that the correspondence with Dr. Clarke was carried on by him while still a mere lad of sixteen; but he himself, in his first letter, writes as if he had attained an age to which speculations of the kind he was engaged in were at least natural, and as if, further, he had already been engaged for some time in them. In the next place, he was ordained both deacon and priest in the year 1717. Now supposing the accepted date of his birth to be correct, he would be by that time of the suitable age of twenty-five, whereas if we were to accept the date given in the University Register he would be only just twenty years old, an age at which, even in those lax times, it is unlikely that he would have received ordination. Nor is it likely, again, that so young a man could have been appointed to so important a post as that of preacher at the Rolls in the next year. On these different grounds it would seem as if the traditional date is to be preferred, and we must suppose that some error has crept at this point into the Register of the University.

Bishop Butler by W.A. Spooner. London: Methuen, 1901, p. 4.

Butler's baptism was discussed in a series of letters to British Magazine in 1841.

For Butler's time at the Academy, we have his own letters to Clarke as well as Secker's letter to Watts, published in Porteus' life of Secker and discussed by Norman Sykes in Times Education Supplement (1948).

There do not seem to be any contemporary observations on Butler's years as preacher at the Rolls, and the building itself was torn down a century ago.

Many details of Butler's tenure as rector of Stanhope are in W. M. Egglestone's Stanhope Memorials of Bishop Butler, 1878.

Butler's years as bishop of Bristol have been studied somewhat more, but mainly from the point of view of correcting misconceptions. Norman Sykes published two articles showing that Butler did not decline the primacy (1936, 1958). At about the same time, J.F. Butler published two articles on Butler and Wesley (1935, 1936). In 1980, Frank Baker produced a major contribution on Butler and Wesley. Norman Sargent adds to comments in 1981. Christopher Cunliffe wrote the chapter on Butler in Bristol for the tercentenary volume he edited for Oxford University Press.

Arthur Lyon Cross provides the traditional sources for the "Butler Plan" in The Anglican Episcopate and the American Colonies, and John Frederick Woolverton raises some questions regarding the plan in Colonial Anglicanism in North America (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984).

The Durham years are recorded in J.C. Shuler's thesis (1975). Some earlier material is in North Country Life in the Eighteenth Century by Edward Hughes, and Ian Ramsey remarks on various aspects of Butler's life in his paper for Dr. Williams Trust.