BY THE RIGHT REV. THE LORD BISHOP OF SODOR AND MAN.
SINCE the days of St. Brandon more than sixty Bishops in succession have occupied the see of the Isle of Man. Of that long list no name stands forth more prominently than that of Thomas Wilson. Keble, the author of the " Christian Year, " in his " Life of Bishop Wilson, " has affirmed that " if simplicity and pathetic earnestness and watchful sympathy with all men, tempered by an unfailing vein of practical common sense, do yet in any degree characterise the teaching and devotion - especially the household devotion - of our clergy :and laity; if veneration for the Universal Church and unreserved faith in the Bible do yet in any degree prevail in our popular theology - to Bishop Wilson more than to any single divine of later days, with the single exception of his great contemporary, Bishop Butler, are these good effects owing. What more of spiritual good " (he adds) " it may have pleased God by his instrumentality to bring to pass, for those of his own time, for us, and for our children, - this (if I may adopt a very sacred form of speech) we know not now, but if we be found worthy we shall know hereafter."
Thomas Wilson was born, in the year 1663, at Burton, near Neston, in the county of Chester. In his eighteenth year he entered Trinity College Dublin, obtaining a scholarship in 1683. Originally intended for the profession of medicine, he was led by the influence of a friend, Michael Hewetson, to offer himself to the work of the ministry, and was, although not of canonical age, ordained a deacon in the cathedral of Kildare, on St. Peter's Day, 1686. Shortly afterwards he became curate to his uncle Dr. Sherlock, the Rector of Winwick, in Lancashire having charge of the chapelry of Newchurch, but residing with his uncle in the Rectory. As Dr. Sherlock never had fewer than three curates living with him, and was himself a man of primitive example, it can well be understood that the six years Thomas Wilson spent in this " school for young divines " would be greatly blessed to him. In 1693 he became domestic chaplain, at Knowsley, to William, the ninth Earl of Derby, and tutor to his only son, Lord Strange. In 1697 the Earl, as King of Man, offered him the Bishopric of the Isle of Man, which he modestly declined, "alleging that he was unequal to, as well as unworthy of, so great a charge. " Ultimately his scruples were overcome, and, as he himself records in the "Sacra Privata," he was " forced to accept the Bishopric of Man, November 27th, 1697." He was consecrated at the Savoy Church, January 16th following, and, after two months' delay, set sail for his diocese, in which, for the long period of fifty-eight years, he was to make full proof of his ministry, dying at the age of ninety-three. He lies buried in the churchyard of Kirkmichael, distant rather more than a mile from Bishopscourt, and over his grave is a simple black marble monument, on which may still be read:-
"THIS MONUMENT WAS ERECTED BY HIS SON, THOMAS WILSON,
D.D., A NATIVE OF THIS PARISH, WHO, IN OBEDIENCE TO THE EXPRESS
COMMANDS OF HIS FATHER DECLINES GIVING HIM THE CHARACTER HE SO JUSTLY
LET THIS ISLAND SPEAK THE REST ! "
And indeed it is not possible to estimate the change wrought in the island for the better during the long episcopate of Wilson. At his first entrance on the see, with only seventeen parishes, he had to deal with three cases of clerical delinquency-two of them vicars of parishes-for notorious immorality. Upon his death his successor, Bishop Hildesley, reports in a memorial to the S. P. C. K. Society, " that he found the clergy a very sensible, regular, decent set of men, and the natives. to a man, of the Established Church; orderly, devout and constant in their attendance on religious worship; there being no less, " he says elsewhere, " than six hundred at the Communion in a country parish church at Easter."
One of the first duties which devolved upon our good Bishop at his entrance upon the see was to :restore - indeed all but rebuild - his residency. Six years had intervened between the death of Bishop Levintz, his immediate predecessor, and his own consecration, during which Bishopscourt had become uninhabited. For two years previous to his death Bishop Levintz, moreover, had not resided in the island, holding as he did a prebendary at Winchester, in which cathedral he lies buried. In his days the trees which now surround and beautify Bishopscourt did not exist, and in the storms of winter the house must have felt the fury of the winds which from time to time descend from the neighbouring hills. Very plaintive are the letters which Levintz writes to his patron, Archbishop Sancroft, and which he dates from his " Isle of Patmos ," pleading for some English preferment which might enable him to winter in England, and thus avoid the "prodigious winds and inundations of rain we have had here for the last fortnight, which truly did your Grace see, your Grace would think I had a disconsolate residence indeed.." Not a twig " did Bishop Wilson find; but he straightway stocked the garden with fruit trees, and planted many thousand timber trees, turning the bare slopes in process of time into a richly-wooded Sign. It was from the wood of one of his favourite elms which he had planted that some years before his death he had the planks sawn which were kept in readiness for his coffin. It was beneath their shade that he loved to meditate, and it was whilst walking in the north avenue after evening prayers, on a damp day at the close of winter, that he caught the cold which was the immediate cause of his death. Some of these tall trees, with their thick and spreading branches, are visible from the old library in which Bishop Wilson was wont to sit. It was whilst sitting in this room, a few weeks before his death, listening to one of his students, a Mr. Corlett, reading aloud the Greek Testament, that the Bishop suddenly exclaimed, " Don't you see them? don't you see them ?" " See what, my lord ? " answered Mr. Corlett, with great surprise. "The angels, " replied the Bishop, " ascending and descending among the branches of those trees. ""All who are much conversant with death-beds "(is Keble's comment)" must have now and then witnessed something like what then occurred - a true sign from Heaven. And at such times what the dying Christian declared himself to see and hear, how could they possibly deny what might be real?"
The early years of Bishop Wilson's episcopate were coincident with the years in which the magnificent Cathedral Church at St. Paul's, London, was brought to completion. The contribution which the good Bishop gave to in erection symbolised in some ways the greater contribution which he rendered to the edification of the Christian Church. More than a mile from Castletown, at Poolvash, in the south of the island, is a quarry, " which yields tolerable good black marble, fit for tombstones and for flagging of churches, of which some quantities have of late been sent to London for these Uses." Thus writes Bishop Wilson in his history of the Isle of Man, but he modestly omits to explain that some of the Poolvash marble sent to London was sent by himself to the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's, and that the worshippers and visitors, as they mount the dark steps which lead to the two main doorways of that noble cathedral, make their entrance by means of his own thoughtful gift. Who can count the number of those who, in the use of our good Bishop's devotional publications, such as the " Short Morning and Evening Prayers for Families and for Particular Persons," the " Principles and Duties of Christianity," the " Short and Plain Instruction for the Better Understanding of the Lord's Supper, with the Necessary Preparation Required," and above all, the " Sacra Privata," have found steps and spiritual degrees of ascent, by which they have entered into the true sanctuary and immediate presence of their Lord
It is not often remembered that the Form for Consecration of Churches - although each Bishop can exercise his own discretion - now generally employed was compiled by Bishop Wilson. The old church of St. Matthew's still stands in the crowded market-place of Douglas, adjoining the busy quay, which Bishop Wilson consecrated September 21st 1708, and for which apparently the form now substantially in general use was compiled. The accompanying engraving is interesting, as preserving for us the type of an old Manx church " chancel and nave without any architectural division and western campanile." Within, attached to the southern wall, there still remains the simple throne frequently occupied by the good Bishop; for the Bishop's son records that his father often preached in St.Matthew's Church. The church still stands, I say; for town improvements and the inadequacy of the church for the seating of the congregation now worshipping within its walls have compelled the active vicar, the Rev. T. A. Taggart, and his fellow-workers to promote the building of a new St. Matthew's Church. In so poor a parish the work is almost too heavy; but the self-denying efforts of these worthy people, aided, it is hoped, by the contributions of outside friends, will render possible the carrying out of this necessary scheme. Ere long, then, the old church will have passed away; but not, it is to be hoped, the remembrance that for its use was first compiled the service since then associated with thousands of happy days in all parts of England, when simple village shrines and stately town churches have been set apart for the service of Almighty God.
BISHOP WILSON'S heart was much drawn out to the fishermen of his little Diocese. Visitors to the island at this day will often notice the additional suffrage in the Litany in use in all the churches,"that it may please Thee to restore and continue to us the blessings of the seas, so as in due time we may enjoy them" In prosperous times the herring had frequented the coasts of the island in such vast shoals that five hundred had been sold for a groat, and yet the fishery had produced £3,000a year. In 1705, however, the fishing seasons for some years having been seasons of great scarcity, and the country having been reduced to great extremities, the Bishop ordered (with the approbation of the Civil Government) that the public services of the Church the petition in Litany above named "should be constantly used in all the churches within this isle." After years of signal failure prosperity returned; and the people attributing their return of blessing to the Bishop's prayer, hold him in such additional esteem, that even the harvest of the fields (it was often noted) was not reaped until the Bishop's harvest was begun. The addition to the Litany was not the only mark of the Bishop's interest in the fishermen. By an old statute which had fallen into disuse, every " vicar or minister of a parish where the fishing is got was bound to repair to the harbour every morning and evening to read Divine Service, and deliver to them good meditations, upon pain of every default to forfeit his tithe of fish the following night." In 1714 the Bishop compiled " A Form of Prayer to be used by those Clergy who attend the Boats in the Herring Fishery." In recent years several attempts have been made to revive the use of this form; but different times require different treatment, and the spiritual interests of the fishermen have to be cared for in other ways. The reverent mind, however, and the due regard for the Sabbath Day, and the love of prayer, which still distinguish the brave and hardy men who are the pride of the island, may in no small degree be considered due to the fatherly interest of our good Bishop in days gone by.
For the better regulation of his diocese Bishop Wilson, in 1703, drew up a series of ecclesiastical constitutions, introduced by the solemn words, "In Name of our great Lord and Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the glory and increase of His kingdom amongst men." With these constitutions Lord Chancellor King was so greatly pleased, that he declared that "if the ancient discipline of the Church were, lost, it might be found in all its purity in the Isle of Man." Some of these constitutions required the authority of the Civil Power to make them effectual and accordingly, after ratification by the Governor, Council, and Keys, they received the Royal assent that is, the assent of the Earl of Derby, as King of Man and were published at the "Tynwald Court holden in St. John's Chappell the 6th day of June A.D, 1704", The strictness of the Bishop's rule may be gathered when we find persons prosecuted for sleeping in church; for shaving in church time on a Sunday for swimming a duck with a spaniel on the evening of Sunday; for absence from the public worship of the Lord's Day on the part of one who vainly pleads the patients pressed upon him to administer physic ant draw blood; and for fiddling on Sunday, or even on Saturday night. The severity with which certain offences were visited may be gathered, not so much from the sentence by which a confirmed transgressor we.. condemned to " stand duly in penitential habit at the parish church door every Lord's Day during the time of morning service for three years, and is prohibited entrance into church during the term aforesaid, and the blessed sacrament not to be administered unto him ,except in articulo mortis ," as from the judgments by which women notoriously bad were sentenced to be dragged through the water across the bay at the tail of a boat. In June 1714 he ordered a bridle to be made as a terror to people of evil tongues, and it was in frequent use. " A woman of ungovernable tongue, (for example,) is sentenced to a fortnight's imprisonment, and to wear the bridle three market days at the Cross of Castletown." To judge aright the discipline of Bishop Wilson we must bear in mind, as one of his biographers wisely states, that " though the principles of religion and morality are unchangeable, yet the proceedings of fallible men in the application of these principles vary materially according to times and circumstances. Whatever seeming severity there might be in his ecclesiastical censures, there was no severity in his heart. This fountain, purified by Divine grace, overflowed with kindness towards every child of man. Sin was the only object of his hatred, and could he have extirpated that root of bitterness without giving pain to the sinner, no offender would ever have experienced a moment's uneasiness from his administration."
In no respect was the loving kindness of Bishop Wilson's nature more apparent than in his devotion to the poor. From the earliest years of his ministerial, life he had set apart a considerable and fixed proportion of his income for charitable purposes. He selected a certain drawer, which he entitled " The Poor's Drawer," and into this sacred receptacle he placed year by year, first a tenth, then a fifth, then a, third, and latterly the half of his revenues. And as our good Bishop had a drawer in his bureau for money- - for the poor, so in his barn he had a chest for the; reception of corn and meat for the poor. " This chest " says Stowell, " he was in the habit of frequently inspecting, that he might be satisfied that it was filled, even up to the brim. At a season of unusual scarcity in the island, when inspecting the poor man's chest he found it almost empty, whilst the family chest was abundantly supplied, he expressed great displeasure, and gave a strict charge to the steward of his house that whoever were neglected the poor should not be. When corn was measured for the poor, he gave express orders to his steward not to stroke it, as is usual, but to give heaped measure."
One of the approaches to Bishopscourt is still known as " The Beggars' Gate," from the tradition of the bounty administered to those who, coming by that entrance, never found a deaf ear turned to their tale of woe and want. Whilst his discipline was severely strict in the repression of mendicancy elsewhere, Bishopscourt was the relieving house of the island; so that it was said, in a sermon preached at his death, that "he kept the beggars from every door but his own " He employed an agent at every fair to buy up russets and flannel and coarse linen to clothe the poor. In the outbuildings of Bishopscourt tailor and cobblers plied their different callings, so that the poor's wardrobe was kept always supplied with garments of every size, suited to every sex and age. The poor who could weave or spin repaired to Bishopscourt with their webs, their worsted, and yarn, as to a general mart, where they bartered their differed articles for corn. An assortment of spectacles were provided for the aged poor whose sight began to fail so that such of them as could read might read the Bible, and such of them as could not might " us these glasses to help them to thread a needle to mend their clothes." The story has often been told hot in the latter years of his life, having given orders his tailor to make a cloak for him, he desired that he would merely put a button and loop in it to keep together" My lord," says the tailor, "what would]become of the poor button-makers and their family if every one thought in that way ? They would have starved outright." " Do you say so, John ? " says the Bishop. " Yes, my lord, I do." " Then button it all over, John."
The imprisonment of our good Bishop in a cell still shown to visitors, in Castle Rushen, by the Governor of the island, for the impartial exercise of discipline, only increased his popularity. Hundreds of people assembled daily under the windows of his prison to receive his instructions, which they treasure up in their hearts and practised in their lives; so that in after years Bishop Wilson was accustomed to say that he never governed the diocese so well as in the time of his imprisonment. " The day of his release said an eye-witness, " was a jubilee throughout the island. The people, on his return home, scatters flowers in his path, and for three miles the road were lined with farmers on their best steeds. For want of better instruments the cavalcade had furnished themselves with flutes made of the elder-tree, on which they contrived to make a loud and merry noise whilst in the village of Kirkmichael itself a band "testified to the general joy."
The fame of our good Bishop was by this time wide spread. Travellers, such as Bishop Pocock came to pay their respects; whilst Cardinal Fleury, is said, invited him to France, wanting much to so him, and sent to inquire after his health and his age, as they were, he believed, the two oldest and poorest Bishops in Europe. Such was the Cardinal's esteem that he obtained an order that no French privaters should ravage the Isle of Man.
Opportunities were not wanting to our good Bishop to leave his remote little diocese, and to enjoy rich preferments upon the mainland. On one occasion when at Court to pay his duty to Queen Caroline, his Majesty, turning to several other prelates at her levee said, " See here, my Lords, is a Bishop who does not come for a translation." No, indeed, and please your Majesty," said the good Bishop; " I will not leave my wife in my old age because she is poor."
As long as strength enabled him Bishop Wilson, on each succeeding Sunday, preached in the different churches of his diocese, but in the last years he was unable to move far from home. He took the air at times in his old chariot along the fine grassy turf which in those days bordered the neighbouring strand at the outlet of the glen, in the open and upper portion of which Bishopscourt is built, but which has long ago been eaten away by the encroaching sea. At other times he strolled along his garden walks, and by the fireside at night would amuse his intimate friend and chaplain, Philip Moore, in enumerating those who themselves had been carried off before the aged prelate whose see they had hoped to fill; " he counted off on his fingers his departed successors "
His death took place on the 7th March, 1754/5;in the ninety-third year of his age and in the fifty eighth of his consecration, and on the very day of his 'wife's death fifty years before. At his funeral all the island was present, and for the honour of carrying him to his last resting-place in the yard of Kirkmichael Church-more than a mile-there was a frequent contest at every halt. No greater proof of the enduring affection with which his name and memory were cherished could be formed than in the fact that twenty-five years later, the Vicar of St. German's, alarmed at the progress of Methodism, tried the experiment of preaching Bishop Wilson's sermons " Next Sunday, good people," he tells his parishioners, " Bishop Wilson will preach here in Manx." " And it is astonishing, " it is added, " what multitudes it brings together, insomuch that the church cannot contain them, and heard with such silent attention that it quite overpowers himself and fills his heart. And since he has begun to use these Divine discourses his people are returning fast to their parish church, and are more frequent communicants."
Our brief sketch of Bishop Wilson was begun with the striking testimony borne in his favour by the author of "The Christian Year," and it shall close with the exquisite eulogy of one, unhappily long lost to our English Church, but who, as John Henry Newman, republished in 1838 the " Sacra Privata"of Bishop Wilson, and prefaced the edition with these touching words: " A burning and shining light was Bishop Wilson; he seemed like the Baptist in an evil tine, as if a beacon lighted on his small island to show what his Lord and Saviour could do in spite of man; how when a nation had fallen into the enemies hands he could preach to it even off its own shores, and be nigh at hand when they would fain leave him not so much as to set his foot on. The English soil, indeed, had its own witnesses and teachers at the time; but none at once so exalted} station and so saintly in character, so active and so tried in his lifetime, and so influential in his works, as Bishop Wilson "