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William Binnington Boyce (1804–1889)

by S. G. Claughton

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William Binnington Boyce (1804-1889), Wesleyan minister, theologian, philologist and administrator, was born on 9 November 1804 at Beverley, Yorkshire, England. His relations on his mother's side were Wesleyans. At 6 he left his grandmother's house and came under the care of an aunt. As a youth 'he loved to sit in the corner of his uncle's fireside listening to the political debates of the day'; Abbé Fouchet, a French refugee, lent fire to his ambitions. He trained in commerce at Hull. In 1829 he felt called to the ministry, was accepted by the British Conference and appointed to Buntingvale, seventy miles (113 km) north of the Umtata River, South Africa. There his exceptional philological gifts were shown when he discovered the principle of the grammatical structure of the Kaffir language, which led to his grammar, published in 1834 at Grahamstown. After thirteen years of distinguished administration and scholarship he was recalled to England, where he served at Bolton, Lancashire, in 1843-45.

In 1846 Boyce went to Sydney as general superintendent for establishing the 'missions in Australia, Van Diemen's Land, the Friendly Islands and Feejee' as an Australian Conference. He presided at the Wesleyan District Meeting in York Street Chapel on 30 July 1846; among those present who recorded that 'the highest expectations were cherished as the result of his presence', were John McKenny, William Schofield and Daniel Draper. His conciliatory guidance overcame much of the resentment felt by Wesleyan missionaries over their local status and difficulties caused by the remote control and paternalism of the British Conference. In August 1847 he edited and published the weekly Gleaner. An omnivorous reader with wide culture, he sought 'to open the doors of learning by the circulation of good literature'. As a theologian he defined the position of Methodism as a Church, and as an administrator acquired building sites, 'properly securing those already obtained'. He was also responsible for recruiting several new ministers to serve new Wesleyan centres in the colonies.

One of the original sixteen, Boyce was a member of the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1851-59; active in 'the library committee' headed by Sir Charles Nicholson, he donated many books. Always a vigorous thinker he held his own among the ablest of his contemporaries. Sometimes he was brusque; he had little time for 'unthinking parrots who repeat without understanding the dogmas and sayings of the popularities of the day'. He valued the friendship of Henry Parkes, to whom he wrote on 10 October 1853 from New Zealand: 'be at peace with Piddington, depend upon it the new constitution for New South Wales is not worth the suspension of an old friendship … I differ from you both and thank God every day that I am a moderate conservative'.

When Rev. Robert Young arrived at Sydney on 11 June 1853 with the British Conference's proposals for consolidating the mission as a self-governing connexion, he was heartily welcomed and cared for by Boyce. On the 24th he organized an assembly of Wesleyan missionaries and laity in the York Street Chapel where Young announced that the proposals of the parent conference provided 'for the continued maintenance of Methodism in all its essential, doctrinal and disciplinary principles'. The Financial District Meeting on 29 July minuted 'gratification in being favoured with the presence and judicious counsels of the Rev. Robert Young' and acknowledged the 'long liberality' of the British Conference 'and the many benefits conferred upon us by their paternal superintendence'. Although Boyce envisaged three conferences for the Australian colonies and another for New Zealand and Polynesia, it was decided that all districts should assemble as a general conference as Young suggested. The journal of Rev. Nathaniel Turner highlights an undercurrent of difference between Young, Boyce and Walter Lawry, yet Boyce organized an itinerary which enabled Young to see at first-hand mission enterprise in the colony, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.

After Young reported to the British Conference in Birmingham, a 'Plan for forming the Wesleyan Missionary Society's Australasian and Polynesian Missions into a distinct and affiliated Connexion' was adopted. However, the British Conference reserved the right to elect the president each year. In a general letter Boyce claimed that this position was one which 'every minister of certain standing naturally aspired to fill and the desire is honourable as it is natural … I believe the brethren submitted to this proposal out of respect to the Missionary Committee and the deputation though far from approving it'. He pointed out that the reservation debarred Australian ministers from nominating a local president for appointment, a privilege common to members of the British Conference who 'whilst called to take upon themselves all the responsibilities of an independent connexion would tend to exhibit them in an unfavourable and inferior position to our people'. Although Boyce indicated that he did not seek the first presidency, he was elected by the British Conference, which thereafter allowed local nominations. The first Australian Conference met in York Street Chapel on 18 January 1855. As president Boyce 'fought strenuously for Methodism's standing-place in educational matters'. He favoured state aid for denominational schools but also advocated co-operation with the government's National schools.

In Melbourne in 1856 at the second conference Boyce was re-elected. As president he visited England and in a letter to Parkes claimed that 'no one seems to care about reform in Parliament'; he was also perturbed by 'the ignorance and injurious habits' of many and the 'absorbing selfishness of the middle classes'. However, he was sure that the heart of England was sound 'and in a time of trial would elicit talent and energy and self-sacrifice from all classes'. In London he addressed a meeting of mission secretaries and advocated a policy of assisted emigration to the Australian colonies. He also publicly 'vindicated the character of Dr. Lang', who had severely criticized Wesleyan Methodists for supporting state aid to churches. In 1860 Boyce attended the British Conference as one of the general secretaries of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. He became influential in moulding policy and in 1861 presided at the first conference of Eastern British America.

When Boyce returned to Sydney in 1871 he retained his membership in the British Conference and gave his time mainly to literary pursuits. Among his other works he edited Memoirs of the Rev. William Shaw in 1874 and in 1878 printed for private circulation Six Lectures Upon the Old Testament. In 1881 he published The Higher Criticism and the Bible, a manual for students. His major work was Introduction to the Study of History (London, 1884); this reservoir of information provides insight into Boyce's character; as a pronounced Methodist theologian, his Christian sympathy was most catholic, anticipating 'a time when all distinctions so far as they separate good men will disappear'. He presented two thousand volumes from his own library to the Stanmore Wesleyan Theological Institute and in retirement regularly conducted services in the Toxteth Park Chapel near the Glebe. He died at the Glebe on 8 March 1889. On the Thursday before his death he had spent the day as usual in his study and the evening in a vigorous discussion of the political situation with those around him. He was buried in the Wesleyan section of Rookwood cemetery.

Boyce was married first in 1834 to Maria, daughter of James Bowden, merchant of Hull; they had four daughters. His second marriage was in 1873 to Jane Elizabeth Pitman, eldest daughter of Hon. George Allen.

A portrait in oils is in the Great Hall, University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Colwell, The Illustrated History of Methodism (Syd, 1904)
  • J. Colwell (ed), A Century in the Pacific (Syd, 1914)
  • Weekly Advocate (Sydney), 16 Mar 1889
  • Nathaniel Turner journal, 1853 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Wesleyan Methodist Australian District minutes, 1851-54 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Wesleyan Methodist Conference, New South Wales and Queensland, 1890 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

S. G. Claughton, 'Boyce, William Binnington (1804–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 November, 1804
Beverley, Yorkshire, England


8 March, 1889 (aged 84)
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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