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John William Colenso Papers

Call Number: RG 129

Scope and Contents

This record group contains primarily printed materials by and about John William Colenso, his children, and the Anglican Church in Natal. Colenso was an important figure in South African church history, representative of mid-nineteenth century "liberal" Anglican theology; these writings document his thought and the controversies that he aroused. The material written or published after Colenso's death relates to 1) the continuing constitutional controversy in the Church of Natal or b) his wife and children, particularly his children Harriette and Francis, who continued their father's involvement in native affairs in South Africa.


  • 1855-1908


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Acquired in 1970 through Africana Antiquarians (Pty) Ltd. of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.


  1. I. Writings by Colenso, 1855-1879, n.d.
  2. II. Writings about Colenso, 1856-1904, n.d.
  3. III. Writings by Colenso Family, 1907-1908
  4. IV. Photographs and Memorabilia, 1864-1882


0.5 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Writings by and about Colenso document the controversies that surrounded this church leader in South Africa. John William Colenso (1814-1883) was appointed Bishop of Natal, South Africa in 1854. He was a controversial figure due to his stance on polygamy and his theology.

Biographical / Historical

1814 January
Born at St. Austell, Cornwall, England
Served as a teacher and tutor, attended St. John's College, Cambridge; served as vicar of Fornett St. Mary in Norfolk.
1846 January
Married Frances Bunyon who became the mother of his five children: Frances, Harriette, Agnes, Robert, and Francis.
1854 January
Arrived in Natal to serve as the first bishop of Natal. Shortly after his arrival, controversy was aroused by his stand on polygamy.
Returned to Natal after a stay of some months in England.
Published a grammar of the Zulu language, a Zulu-English dictionar, manuals of instruction for natives on history, astronomy, geography, etc.
Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans published by Colenso was declared full of heresies by Bishop Gray of Capetown.
Colenso published a critical examination of the Pentateuch. His radical theology cause a controversy that shook the Anglican Church in Natal, raising constitutional as well as doctrinal issues. Bishop Gray, as metropolitan of Capetown, claimed to exercise coercive jurisdiction over Bishop Colenso and the power of trying and condemning Colenso.
1863 December 16
Bishop Gray pronounced a sentence of deposition followed by excommunication of Colenso. Colenso appealed to the crown and the judicial committee of privy council declared the whole of Gray's proceedings null and void. Colenso returned to his diocese as the legal bishop. Controversy continued to rage as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge chose to regard Colenso as canonically deposed.
In general, friendly feelings toward Colenso among the colonists increased until he took an unpopular stand on an issue of native trouble.
1883 June
Guide to the John William Colenso Papers
Compiled by Martha Lund Smalley
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared According To Local Divinity Library Descriptive Practices
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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