John Colenso

A controversial bishop whose views on Biblical inerrancy and Zulu rights challenged Victorian England’s religious and colonial norms.

John William Colenso, born on January 24, 1814, in St. Austell, Cornwall, England, played a pivotal role as the Anglican Bishop of Natal, South Africa, until his death on June 20, 1883, in Durban, Natal. Colenso’s journey from a mathematics tutor at Harrow School to an influential and controversial figure in the Anglican Church was marked by his commitment to liberal religious views and social justice, particularly in relation to the Zulu people in Natal.

Colenso’s early life was characterized by his dedication to education and theology. His marriage to Frances Bunyon in 1846, who introduced him to the theologian Frederick Denison Maurice and the circle of free-thinking Broad Church people, deeply influenced his religious and social outlook​​​​. This influence led him to question traditional Christian doctrines and the literal interpretation of the Bible, setting the stage for his later controversies.

Appointed as the Bishop of Natal in 1853, Colenso’s mission was not just to spread Christianity but also to engage deeply with the Zulu population, learning their language and customs. His work in Natal involved not only religious instruction but also advocacy for the rights and dignity of the indigenous people. He published several works critical of the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua, using logical and historical analysis to question their accuracy and authenticity. These publications, particularly “The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined,” sparked fierce debate and led to Colenso being charged with heresy by the Anglican Church​​​​.

Despite the ecclesiastical and social opposition he faced, Colenso’s legal and moral victories allowed him to retain his bishopric and continue his work in Natal. He was a staunch defender of the Zulu people, challenging colonial and ecclesiastical authorities to advocate for their rights. His efforts in this area, especially his support for the Zulu king Cetshwayo and his opposition to the Anglo-Zulu War, cemented his reputation as a progressive and controversial figure.

Colenso’s beliefs extended to the realm of science and history, as evidenced by his support for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Charles Lyell’s geological theories. These views, combined with his biblical criticism, placed him at the forefront of religious and intellectual debate in the 19th century. His advocacy for the Zulu people and his critique of colonialism, though controversial, demonstrated his commitment to justice and equality​​.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *