05 January 2014

Finding an Irish-born theologian in Cambridge
who changed how we read the New Testament

Fenton Hort … a photograph in his son’s edition of his ‘Life and Letters’

Patrick Comerford

I was recently asked to write a paper on Josiah Hort (?1674-1751) for the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, which was published shortly before Christmas. Hort was Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin (1721-1727), and later Bishop of Kilmore and Archbishop of Tuam in the 18th century.

Josiah Hort ... Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin, later Archbishop of Tuam, and great-grandfather of Fenton Hort

Archbishop Hort attracted stern criticism and satirical reproach from Jonathan Swift. In my research, I found he never had the degrees he claimed from Cambridge University – indeed, he spent less than one full academic year in Clare College – and serious questions were raised during his lifetime about whether he had ever been ordained an Anglican priest.

Hort’s lifestyle and his lies about his academic credentials became a public scandal when Archbishop William King of Dublin refused to consecrate him as Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in 1721. Eventually, he was consecrated by the bishops of Meath, Kilmore and Dromore, and went on to become Archbishop of Tuam.

‘The greatest … theologian’

Fenton Hort was born in 35 Merrion Square ... the Dublin townhouse of his grandmother, Lady Hort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As I was researching the truth about Hort’s academic claims in Cambridge, I came across the story of his great-grandson, Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892), the Cambridge theologian who, with Brooke Westcott, was the editor of The New Testament in the Original Greek. Professor William Sanday of Oxford called Fenton Hort the “greatest English theologian of the century.” But I was surprised in Cambridge to discover that Fenton Hort was in fact Irish-born, spent his early days in Dublin, and always regarded Ireland as his home.

Fenton Hort’s father, also Fenton Hort (1794-1873), was educated at Trinity College Cambridge and in 1815 was one the founding members of the Cambridge Union, the student debating society. Hort’s mother, Anne, was the daughter of a Church of England vicar, the Revd Anthony Collett, of Kelsale Hall, Suffolk.

Leopardstown House, Co Dublin ... the childhood home of Fenton Hort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The future theologian was born on Saint George’s Day, 23 April 1828, in his grandmother’s Dublin townhouse on the corner of Merrion Square East and Lower Mount Street, now No 35 Merrion Square. Two years later, his father bought Leopardstown House, now at the centre of Leopardstown Hospital. Fenton Hort was High Sheriff of Co Dublin in 1837, but later moved to Cheltenham.

As a child, Fenton Hort was brought up in the strictest principles of the Evangelical movement. His went to school at Rugby (1842-1846), where his first year was clouded by the death of his younger brother Arthur, and by the death of Dr Thomas Arnold. At Rugby he was strongly influenced by both Arnold and his successor as headmaster, Archibald Campbell Tait, later Archbishop of Canterbury.

Fenton Hort entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1846 and became a Foundation Scholar in 1849 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1846, Hort entered Trinity College Cambridge, and became a Foundation Scholar in 1849. He read mathematics and classics, but seems to have read everything else too. At Trinity, he was a contemporary of Edward White Benson, future Archbishop of Canterbury, BF Westcott, and JB Lightfoot, future Bishops of Durham. The four men became lifelong friends and fellow-workers, and his other friends included the hymn-writer John Ellerton.

In 1850, Hort took his BA. A year later, in 1851, he also took the recently established triposes in moral science (philosophy) and natural science, and also received the Whewell Prize. It is said that in 1851 he also wrote the oath of secrecy associated with the “Cambridge Apostles.”

Fenton Hort became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1852 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1852 he became a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, and that year he was elected President of the Cambridge Union. Previous Irish presidents included Richard Chenevix Trench (1828), later Archbishop of Dublin, and William Smith O’Brien (1831), the Young Ireland leader, both from Trinity too.

Biblical scholarship

Fenton Hort ... a portrait by George Percy Jacomb-Hood (1893) in Trinity College, Cambridge

At this time, Hort became friends with FD Maurice and Charles Kingsley, and was influenced by their views on working class politics and Christian Socialism. He argued that Maurice offered a philosophy of religion that both the old evangelicalism and the Oxford Movement had failed to provide.

He received his MA in 1853. He was ordained deacon at Cuddesdon by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, in 1854, and priest in Ely Cathedral by Bishop Thomas Tutron in 1856. During this period, Hort and Westcott agreed to begin a project to jointly edit a critical edition of the Greek New Testament. Meanwhile, in 1854, with JEB Mayor and BF Lightfoot, Hort established the Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology, and he plunged himself eagerly into theological and patristic studies.

He received an MA at Oxford at the end of 1856, and on 14 May 1857, he married Fanny, daughter of Thomas Dyson Holland, of Heighington, Lincolnshire. However, the college statutes of Trinity meant that married dons forfeited their college fellowship. Instead, he accepted the college living of Saint Ippolyts with Great Wymondley, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, and he lived a quiet, secluded life as a country vicar for the next 15 years.

He had two churches to serve, and two volumes of his sermons there were published after his death. During that time, he also took part in discussions on university reform, continued his studies, read Charles Darwin, and wrote essays for a number of periodicals, although he declined to contribute to Essays and Reviews (1860).

Fenton Hort ... a portrait by George Percy Jacomb-Hood (1893) in the Divinity School, Cambridge

But hard work brought ill-health, and he was forced to give up all work between 1863 and 1865. During this interval, he spent winters in Cheltenham and summers in Switzerland. He became an ardent mountaineer and one of the first members of the Alpine Club. He was also a first-rate practical botanist and natural scientist.

In 1870, he was appointed a member of the committee for revising the translation of the New Testament, and for 10 years this was one of the most exacting demands on his time.

Return to Cambridge

Emmanuel College, Cambridge ... Hort accepted a fellowship and lectureship in 1872 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1871, he delivered the Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge University, under the title “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He returned to Cambridge a year later (1872), when he accepted a fellowship and lectureship at Emmanuel College, and he lived for the rest of his life at 6 Saint Peter’s Terrace, a few doors away from his friend Westcott, who had become Regius Professor of Divinity. Their other great scholar friend, Lightfoot, had been Hulsean Professor of Divinity since 1862. Another neighbour in Saint Peter’s Terrace was FD Maurice.

From 1872, Hort lived at 6 Saint Peter’s Terrace, Cambridge, where his neighbours included Westcott and FD Maurice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Back in Cambridge, Hort received the degrees BD (1875) and DD (1876) after presenting two dissertations, one on the reading of the Greek term μονογενὴς θεὸς (monogenes Theos, John 1: 18) in scripture and tradition, the other on the Constantinopolitan and other Eastern Creeds in the Fourth Century. He was the Lady Margaret’s Preacher in the university in 1875, and he lectured in Emmanuel College for six years on New Testament and Patristic studies. Meanwhile, he devoted all available time to his work with Westcott on New Testament textual criticism.

From 1879, Hort had rooms in the Cambridge Divinity School when it opened (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1878, Hort wrote for the second time an ‘Introduction’ to their text, and in that same year he was appointed Hulsean Professor of Divinity. Now the “Cambridge triumvirate” were divinity professors together in Cambridge: Westcott as Regius Professor, Lightfoot as Lady Margaret’s Professor, and Hort as Hulsean Professor. The combination was short-lived, for in 1879 Lightfoot became Bishop of Durham. The new Cambridge Divinity School opened that year.

Fenton Hort’s work has changed how scholars now read the Greek text of the New Testament (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On 12 May 1881, Hort and his friend Westcott published their edition of the text of the Greek New Testament based on their critical work of the previous 20 years. The Revision Committee had largely accepted this text, even before its publication, as a basis for their translation of the New Testament.

‘The Introduction’ and ‘Appendix’ explaining the work and text of Westcott and Hort were published on 4 September. ‘The Introduction’ was written entirely by Hort, and it immediately secured him a place among the great New Testament critics.

The publication created a sensation among scholars. It was received generally as being the nearest approximation yet made to the original Greek text of the New Testament. But it was denounced by more conservative critics, who argued the textua receptus had preserved a purer text than the version produced by Westcott and Hort.

In 1887, Hort was elected Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity in Cambridge. The appointment of Westcott as Bishop of Durham in 1890 in succession to Lightfoot left Hort behind in Cambridge as the last of the three old friends. On 1 May, he preached at Westcott’s consecration in Westminster Abbey.

Return to Dublin

Trinity College, Dublin ... Hort returned to receive an honorary doctorate in June 1888 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hort returned to his native Dublin in June 1888 to receive an honorary doctorate (LL.D) from Trinity College, Dublin. It was his first time back in Dublin since his childhood. Despite an absence of fifty years he could drew an accurate floor plan of Leopardstown House from memory. He visited the house the following day, and was filled with emotions and affection for “my much cherished place of birth and childhood.” He stayed for six days with George Salmon, the new Provost of TCD, and also visited Glendalough.

He wrote to Westcott: “I need scarcely say that we saw and heard almost nothing new bearing on the social and political state of the country. But I felt more than ever that no people has so strong an attraction for me personally; and, likewise, more than ever, that no people is so little able to stand alone.”

In 1892, he expressed his support for Archbishop Plunket of Dublin, who was being criticised in the Church of England for ordaining a deacon for the Spain Episcopal Reformed Church. But Hort’s health was giving way under the pressure of work. In 1892, he returned to Switzerland, but he was brought home in September. He completed his entry on Lightfoot for the Dictionary of National Biography shortly before he died in his sleep in Cambridge on 30 November 1892. His funeral took place in the chapel of Emmanuel College.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge ... Hort’s funeral took place in the chapel in 1892 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His ‘Essay on ST Coleridge,’ in Cambridge Essays, was regarded at the time “as one of the most successful endeavours to appreciate and interpret” the poet. Hort’s one published poem was ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1851). His few hymns are mainly translations; his only hymn in the Irish Church Hymnal, ‘O Strength and Stay’ (No 70), was translated with his friend John Ellerton.

‘The Cambridge Triumvirate’ ... Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort are commemorated side-by-side in the the Ante-Chapel in Trinity College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His Life and Letters was edited by his son, Sir Arthur Hort (1864-1935), and was published in two volumes in 1896. The title had been created in 1767 for Archbishop Hort’s son, Sir John Hort (1735-1807), the theologian’s grandfather. For generations the family owned land at Hortland, Co Kildare. The second baronet, Sir Josiah Hort (1791-1876) was MP for Kildare (1831-1832). Professor Hort’s son succeeded as sixth baronet in 1902. The present baronet, Sir Andrew Edwin Fenton Hort, lives in Devon.

In Cambridge, the Hort Society is the undergraduate theological society, and the aged pet tortoise at Westcott House, the theological college, is called Hort.

A brass on the north wall of the Ante-Chapel in Trinity College, Cambridge recalls that Fenton Hort was born in Dublin; the inscription was composed by his son, Sir Arthur Hort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in January 2014 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

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