There are records of the clergy at St Mary’s dating back to the 13th century – one in particular became famous and attracted controversy across the Christian world. He was JOHN WILLIAM COLENSO who started with a distinguished academic career, was rector at St Mary’s from 1846 to1853 and went on to bring Christian teaching to the Zulu population in Natal, South Africa - (see top picture)
The son of a mineral agent in St Austell, Cornwall, Dr Colenso studied at St John’s College Cambridge, where he became a Fellow in 1837 and Tutor in 1842. He wrote books on arithmetic and algebra, and from 1838 he became the first mathematics tutor at Harrow School.
The Forncett years
Dr Colenso, who had been ordained by the Bishop of Ely in 1839, arrived at Forncett St Mary in 1846, with his new wife, Sarah. She was born Sarah Frances Bunyon, the granddaughter of Thomas Bignold, the founder of the Norwich Union. Four of their five children were born while he was rector at St Mary’s. They lived at Tharston Hall until the grand new rectory – now called Forncett Manor – was built for them in 1848.
During his seven years at Forncett he published, in addition to his mathematical books, two collections of of hymns – one became much used in the Norwich diocese – a set of Family Prayers and nine ‘Village Sermons’.
An article written by his son Francis Ernest following Colenso’s death and published in St John’s College ‘The Eagle’ (Lent Term 1884) shows how highly he was regarded at Forncett:
That his preaching was appreciated by the people of his parish is evidenced by an incident which one of them has recounted to me. At a neighbouring Nonconformist chapel some time after he had been established at Forncett, the congregation resolved one Sunday morning, nem.con., to close the chapel and to go over and hear Mr. Colenso.
Becomes Bishop of Natal
In 1853 he was recruited by Bishop Robert Gray of Cape Town to become the first Bishop of the newly formed diocese of Natal. During his 30 years there his forward-thinking and pioneering ministry among his Zulu people made his name known throughout the 19th century Church.
He worked hard to educate the Zulus, providing them with a written language, defending their human rights and gaining unpopularity with the ‘establishment’ by denouncing the Zulu War and exposing the corruption of some of the Colonial Officials and their cruelty towards the Zulu people. The Church condemned him for not demanding that any woman who was the wife of a polygamist must obtain a divorce before she could be baptised.
Theologically, he dared to question things that few bishops had done publicly before, encouraging people to look critically at the Bible. His 1861 Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans questioned the Christian concept of eternal punishment and much traditional theology of the sacraments, which enraged Anglo-Catholics, especially when he dared to state that receiving Holy Communion was not necessary for salvation. He produced a series of papers on the first five books of the Old Testament and the Book of Joshua, examining them critically and challenging the established views as to their authorship and historical accuracy.
Bishop Gray deposed him as a heretic in 1863, depriving him of his diocese, but he remained and appealed to the Privy Council in London, who found in his favour on legal, rather than theological, grounds. Gray created a replacement diocese and consecrated its bishop in 1869. But Colenso remained, having legally secured the cathedral and its endowments, until his death at Pietermaritzburg in June 1883.
Most traditional Anglicans, especially in England, were conditioned to condemn him as a heretic, but the people in his diocese adored him for the good he had done for them. His theological approach, then considered revolutionary, is now validated and has often been overtaken by most theologians today.
The Church maintains a collection of information and material about Bishop Colenso, which is available to view on request.
Exploring his life and achievements
More detailed information about the life of John Colenso is given in a talk by the Rev Dr William Whyte, senior dean and modern history tutor at St John’s College, Oxford, on Christianity and Colonial Expansion recorded at the college on June 7 2012. The talk covers both John and William Colonso, the two Cornish cousins who were both Victorian missionaries. John went to South Africa and William to New Zealand. Both took with them a printing press which enabled them to publish the Bible in Zulu and Maori for the very first time.
A short audio recording (7:03 minutes) can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bgo7susquE
A video recording of the full talk can be found at: https://vimeo.com/43630477
The full length is more than one hour (1:19:12); the main part of the John Colenso story is from 29:00 to 53:53