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Brooke Foss Westcott

Brooke Foss Westcott (12 January 1825 – 27 July 1901) was a British bishop, Biblical scholar and theologian, serving as Bishop of Durham from 1890 until his death. He is perhaps most known for his co-authoring of The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881.

Early life and education

He was born in Birmingham. His father, Frederick Brooke Westcott, was a botanist. Westcott was educated at King Edward VI School, Birmingham, under James Prince Lee, where he became friends with Joseph Barber Lightfoot.[1]

The period of Westcott's childhood was one of political ferment in Birmingham and amongst his earliest recollections was one of Thomas Attwood leading a large procession of men to a meeting of the Birmingham Political Union in 1831. A few years after this Chartism led to serious disturbances in Birmingham and many years later Westcott would refer to the deep impression the experiences of that time had made upon him.[2]

In 1844, Westcott entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was invited to join the Cambridge Apostles. He became a scholar in 1846, took Sir William Browne's medal for a Greek ode in 1846 and 1847, and the Members' Prize for a Latin essay in 1847 and 1849. He took his BA degree in January 1848, obtaining double-first honours. In mathematics, he was twenty-fourth wrangler, Isaac Todhunter being senior. In classics, he was senior, being bracketed with Charles Broderick Scott, afterwards headmaster of Westminster School.[3]

Early teaching career

After obtaining his degree, Westcott remained in residence at Trinity. In 1849, he obtained his fellowship; and in the same year he was ordained deacon and priest by his old headmaster, Prince Lee, later Bishop of Manchester.

As well as studying, Westcott took pupils at Cambridge; fellow readers included his school friend Lightfoot and two other men who became his attached and lifelong friends, E.W. Benson and F.J.A. Hort. The influence of Westcott left its mark upon these three men; they regarded him not only as their friend and counsellor, but as in an especial degree their teacher and oracle.

He devoted much attention to philosophical, patristic and historical studies, but his main interest was in New Testament work. In 1851, he published his Norrisian prize essay with the title Elements of the Gospel Harmony.

In 1852, he became an assistant master at Harrow School. He succeeded in combining with his school duties an enormous amount both of theological research and of literary activity. He worked at Harrow for nearly twenty years under Dr C.J. Vaughan and Dr Montagu Butler, but he was never good at maintaining discipline among large numbers.

Early theological writings

In 1855, he published the first edition of his History of the New Testament Canon, which, frequently revised and expanded, became the standard English work on the subject. In 1859, there appeared his Characteristics of the Gospel Miracles.

In 1860, he expanded his Norrisian essay into an Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, a work remarkable for insight and minuteness of study, as well as for reverential treatment combined with considerable freedom from traditional lines. Westcott's work for Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, notably his articles on "Canon,” "Maccabees," "Vulgate," entailed most careful and thorough preparation, and led to the composition of his subsequent popular books, The Bible in the Church (1864) and a History of the English Bible (1869). To the same period belongs The Gospel of the Resurrection (1866). As a piece of consecutive reasoning upon a fundamental Christian doctrine, it attracted great attention. Its width of view and its recognition of the claims of historical science and pure reason were thoroughly characteristic of Westcott's mode of discussing a theological question. At the time when the book appeared, his method of apologetic showed both courage and originality, but the excellence of the work is impaired by the difficulty of the style.

In 1865, he took his B.D., and in 1870, his D.D. Later, he received honorary degrees of DC.L. from Oxford (1881) and of D.D. from Edinburgh (1883). In 1868, Westcott was appointed examining chaplain by Bishop Connor Magee (of Peterborough); and in the following year he accepted a canonry at Peterborough, which forced him to leave Harrow.

Regius Professorship of Divinity, Cambridge

For a time he was enthusiastic about a cathedral life, devoted to the pursuit of learning and to the development of opportunities for the religious and intellectual benefit of the diocese. But the Regius Professorship of Divinity at Cambridge fell vacant, and J. B. Lightfoot, who was then Hulsean Professor, refused it in favour of Westcott. It was due to Lightfoot's support almost as much as to his own great merits that Westcott was elected to the chair on 1 November 1870.

He now occupied a position for which he was supremely fitted, at a point in the reform of university studies when a theologian of liberal views, but universally respected for his massive learning and his devout and single-minded character, had a unique opportunity to contribute. Supported by his friends Lightfoot and Hort, he threw himself into the new work with extraordinary energy, sacrificing many of the privileges of a university career in order that his studies might be more continuous and that he might see more of the younger men.


His lectures were generally on Biblical subjects. His Commentaries on St John's Gospel (1881), on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1889), and the Epistles of St John (1883), resulted from his public lectures.

One of his most valuable works, The Gospel of Life (1892), a study of Christian doctrine, incorporated the materials upon which he was delivered a series of more private and esoteric lectures on week-day evenings. Lecturing was an intense strain to him, but his influence was immense: to attend one of Westcott's lectures was an experience which encouraged those to whom the references to Origen or Rupert of Deutz were unintelligible.

New Testament textual studies

Between 1870 and 1881, Westcott was also continually engaged in text critical work for an edition of the New Testament and, simultaneously, in the preparation of a new text in conjunction with Hort. The years in which Westcott, Lightfoot and Hort could thus meet frequently and naturally for the discussion of the work in which they were all three so deeply engrossed formed a happy and privileged period in their lives.

In the year 1881, there appeared the famous Westcott and Hort text of the New Testament, upon which had been expended nearly thirty years of incessant labour.

Educational reformer

The reforms in the regulations for degrees in divinity, the formation and first revision of the new theological tripos, the inauguration of the Cambridge Christian mission to Delhi and the subsequent founding of St. Stephen's College, Delhi, the institution of the Church Society (for the discussion of theological and ecclesiastical questions by the younger men), the meetings for the divinity faculty, the organization of the new Divinity School and Library and, later, the institution of the Cambridge Clergy Training School (renamed Westcott House in 1901 in his honour), were all, in a very real degree, the result of Westcott's energy and influence as Regius professor.[4] To this list should also be added the Oxford and Cambridge preliminary examination for candidates for holy orders, with which he was from the first most closely identified.

The departure of Lightfoot to become Bishop of Durham in 1879 was a great blow to Westcott. Nevertheless, it resulted in bringing him into still greater prominence. He was compelled to take the lead in matters where Lightfoot's more practical nature had previously been predominant.

Canonry at Westminster

In 1883, Westcott was elected to a professorial fellowship at King's. Shortly afterwards, having previously resigned his canonry at Peterborough, he was appointed by the crown to a canonry at Westminster, and accepted the position of examining chaplain to Archbishop Benson.

His little edition of the Paragraph Psalter (1879), arranged for the use of choirs, and his admirable lectures on the Apostles' Creed, entitled Historic Faith (1883), are reminiscences of his vacations spent at Peterborough. He held his canonry at Westminster in conjunction with the regius professorship.

The strain of the joint work was very heavy, and the intensity of the interest and study which he brought to bear upon his share in the labours of the Ecclesiastical Courts Commission, of which he had been appointed a member, added to his burden.

Preaching at Westminster Abbey gave him a valued opportunity of dealing with social questions. His sermons were generally portions of a series; and to this period belong the volumes Christus Consummator (1886) and Social Aspects of Christianity (1887). Westcott's presidency of the Christian Social Union from 1889 did much to draw mainstream, respectable churchgoers into calling for justice for the poor and unemployed in the face of the predominant laissez-faire economic policies.[5]

Bishop of Durham

In March 1890, he was nominated to follow in the steps of his beloved friend Lightfoot, who had died in December 1889. He was consecrated on 1 May at Westminster Abbey by Archbishop Thompson (of York), Hort being the preacher, and enthroned at Durham Cathedral on 15 May. The change of work and surroundings could hardly have been greater.

He surprised the world, which had supposed him to be a recluse and a mystic, by the practical interest he took in the mining population of Durham and in the great shipping and artisan industries of Sunderland and Gateshead. Upon one famous occasion in 1892 he succeeded in bringing to a peaceful solution a long and bitter strike which had divided the masters and men in the Durham collieries; and his success was due to the confidence which he inspired by the extraordinary moral energy of his strangely "prophetic" personality, at once thoughtful, vehement and affectionate.

He was a staunch supporter of the co-operative movement. He was practically the founder of the Christian Social Union. He continually insisted upon the necessity of promoting the cause of foreign missions, and he gladly gave four of his sons for the work of the Church in India.

His energy was remarkable to the very end. But during the last two or three years of his life he aged considerably. His wife died rather suddenly in May 1901, and he dedicated to her memory his last book, Lessons from Work (1901). He preached a farewell sermon to the miners in Durham cathedral at their annual festival on 20 July. Then came a short, sudden and fatal illness.


Westcott married, in 1852, Sarah Louisa Mary Whithard (ca 1830-1901), daughter of Thomas Middlemore Whithard, of Bristol. Mrs Westcott was for many years deeply interested in foreign missionary work. She became an invalid in her later years, and died on 28 May 1901.[6] They had seven sons and three daughters.

Legacy and influence

Westcott was no narrow specialist. He had the keenest love of poetry, music and art. He was himself no mean draughtsman, and used often to say that if he had not taken orders he would have become an architect. His literary sympathies were wide. He would never tire of praising Euripides, and studied the writings of Robert Browning. He followed with delight the development of natural science studies at Cambridge. He spared no pains to be accurate, or to widen the basis of his thought. Thus he devoted one summer vacation to the careful analysis of Auguste Comte's Politique positive.

He studied assiduously The Sacred Books of the East, and earnestly contended that no systematic view of Christianity could afford to ignore the philosophy of other religions. The outside world was wont to regard him as a mystic; and the mystical, or sacramental, view of life enters, it is true, very largely into his teaching. He had in this respect many points of similarity with the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century, and with F.D. Maurice, for whom he had profound regard. An amusing instance of his unworldliness was his observation that, "I never went to the Derby. Once, though, I nearly did: I happened to be passing through Derby, that very day".[7]

But in other respects he was very practical; and his strength of will, his learning and his force of character made him really masterful in influence wherever the subject under discussion was of serious moment. He was a strong supporter of Church reform, especially in the direction of obtaining larger powers for the laity.

He kept himself aloof from all party strife. He describes himself when he says:

"The student of Christian doctrine, because he strives after exactness of phrase, because he is conscious of the inadequacy of any one human formula to exhaust the truth, will be filled with sympathy for every genuine endeavour towards the embodiment of right opinion. Partial views attract and exist in virtue of the fragment of truth--be it great or small--which they include; and it is the work of the theologian to seize this no less than to detect the first spring of error. It is easier and, in one sense, it is more impressive to make a peremptory and exclusive statement, and to refuse to allow any place beside it to divergent expositions; but this show of clearness and power is dearly purchased at the cost of the ennobling conviction that the whole truth is far greater than our individual minds. He who believes that every judgement on the highest matters different from his own is simply a heresy must have a mean idea of the faith; and while the qualifications, the reserve, the lingering sympathies of the real student make him in many cases a poor controversialist, it may be said that a mere controversialist cannot be a real theologian" (Lessons from Work, pp. 84-85).

His theological work was always distinguished by the place which he assigned to Divine Revelation in Holy Scripture and in the teaching of history. His own studies have largely contributed in England to their current understanding of the doctrines of the Resurrection and the Incarnation. His work in conjunction with Hort upon the Greek text of the New Testament will endure as what is thought to be one of the greatest achievements of English Biblical criticism. The principles which are explained in Hort's introduction to the text had been arrived at after years of elaborate investigation and continual correspondence and discussion between the two friends. The place which it almost at once took among scientific scholars in Britain and throughout Europe was a recognition of the great advance which it represented in the use and classification of ancient authorities. His commentaries rank with Lightfoot's as the best type of Biblical exegesis produced by the English Church in the 19th century.

The Birmingham Civic Society plans to erect a Blue Plaque to mark where he was born in Birmingham. This is scheduled for 2026 to coincide with the 125th anniversary of his death..

His son, Frederick Brooke Wescott became headmaster of Sherborne School in 1892.


While a number of conservative Bible scholars disagree with Westcott's praise for the Alexandrian text, the most vocal opponents have been American fundamentalists, who have denounced Westcott's and Hort's Greek translation of the Bible as corrupt. Some of these critics subscribe to the KJVO Movement. Gail Riplinger quotes them in her book New Age Versions. In it, she accuses Westcott of being involved in the occult. She produces substantial evidence for the claim. Rather, Westcott himself wrote,

"Many years ago I had occasion to investigate “spiritualistic” phenomena with some care, and I came to a clear conclusion, which I feel bound to express in answer to your circular. It appears to me that in this, as in all spiritual questions, Holy Scripture is our supreme guide. I observe, then, that while spiritual ministries are constantly recorded in the Bible, there is not the faintest encouragement to seek them. The case, indeed, is far otherwise. I cannot, therefore, but regard every voluntary approach to beings such as those who are supposed to hold communication with men through mediums as unlawful and perilous. I find in the fact of the Incarnation all that man (so far as I can see) requires for life and hope."[8]

While some of Westcott's critics are defenders of the traditional King James translation, the debate among scholars centers on textual criticism. Opponents of Westcott and Hort typically fall into proponents of the Textus Receptus or the Byzantine text-type.

Since controversy was "un-Christian," he refused to answer John Burgon's arguments concerning the Local Text of Alexandria which Westcott helped exalt. He simply said, "I cannot read Mr. Burgon yet. A glance at one or two sentences leads me to think that his violence answers himself."



The following is a bibliography of Westcott's more important writings, giving the date of the first editions:

  • Elements of the Gospel Harmony (1851)
  • (1855; revised 1875)
  • (1859)
  • (1860; revised 1866)
  • (1864)
  • (1866; revised 1879)
  • (1868; revised by W A Wright 1905)
  • (1869)
  • (1873)
  • (1879)
  • (1881)
  • (1883)
  • (1882)
  • (1885)
  • (1884)
  • Some Thoughts from the Ordinal (1884)
  • (1886)
  • (1887)
  • (1888)
  • (1889)
  • (1890)
  • (1891)
  • (1892)
  • (1893)
  • (1897)
  • (1897)
  • (1901)
  • (1906)
  • (1909)

Lives by his son Arthur Westcott, in two volumes (1903), and by J. (1906).

See also


External links

  • Internet Archive
Academic offices
Preceded by
James Amiraux Jeremie
Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge
Succeeded by
Henry Barclay Swete
Church of England titles
Preceded by
Joseph Barber Lightfoot
Bishop of Durham
Succeeded by
Handley Moule

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