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James Moorhouse (1826–1915)

by C. R. Badger

This article was published:

James Moorhouse (1826-1915), Church of England bishop, was born on 19 November 1826 at Sheffield, England, only son of James Moorhouse, master-cutler, and his wife Jane Frances, née Bowman. Educated in a private school, he entered St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1853; M.A., 1860; D.D., 1876). At Ely Cathedral he was made a deacon in 1853 and ordained priest on 12 November 1854. He was curate at St Neot's in 1853-55, Sheffield in 1855-59, Hornsey in 1859-61 and perpetual curate at St John's, Fitzroy Square, London, in 1862-67. While vicar of St James's, Paddington, in 1867-76 he was appointed chaplain in ordinary to the Queen and prebendary canon of St Paul's in 1874-76. At Cambridge he had been appointed select preacher in 1861 and Hulsean lecturer in 1864; at Lincoln's Inn he was Warburton lecturer in 1876. His distinguished record and many notable publications led to an offer of the see of Melbourne vacated by Charles Perry, and then of the see of Calcutta. Despite pressure to stay in England he accepted Melbourne. Consecrated at Westminster Abbey on 22 October, he arrived in Victoria, was installed at St James's Cathedral, William Street, on 11 January 1877 and on the 15th publicly welcomed at the Town Hall.

Almost the antithesis of his predecessor Perry, the second bishop of Melbourne had intellectual distinction, administrative skill, eloquence and leadership; he also smoked a pipe and walked with a bulldog. He accepted the challenge of a large diocese with no episcopal colleague other than at Ballarat. From arrival he loved the brash, exciting Victoria, and Melbourne responded to his lively and vocal affection. His immediate tasks were the building of a suitable cathedral and the provision of an educated clergy. At an inaugural meeting on 19 April 1877 in the Town Hall to discuss the cathedral committees were appointed for raising funds and building. In July the problem of site was debated and continued till 20 October when the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets, favoured by Moorhouse, was accepted. He also chose the architect, William Butterfield. The foundation stone was laid on 13 April 1880 and the building was completed, excepting the central and western towers, in January 1891. By then £100,000 had been raised for it. Moorhouse also wanted to recruit and train a local ministry 'so adequate in number and so approved in qualification that we shall become independent of assistance from home'. His younger clergy were so poorly qualified 'that complaints among the educated laity are loud and almost universal'. In the University of Melbourne he started a new building for Trinity College, opened in 1878, founded a new theological faculty and began theological studentships towards which he donated £1000. Despite these efforts complaints about the clergy's education continued and in his time the diocese was never wholly independent of clerical assistance from England.

Moorhouse's major contribution to the Melbourne public was a series of annual lectures, beginning with 'Messianic Prophecies' in 1877 and ending with 'The Galatian Lapse' in 1885. Large numbers attended and the last lectures filled the Town Hall. His sermons and addresses were always well received since, like Rev. Charles Strong, he was a leader of liberal religious thought. Unafraid of controversy he argued with Marcus Clarke with some success in 1879, and with the Roman Catholic archdeacon, Patrick Slattery, and other clerics and secularists on his refusal to offer special prayers to end the drought; instead he told the people of Kerang 'to agitate, combine, cry out' for water conservation and irrigation. In 1883 his permission to Canon Bromby for an exchange of pulpits with Strong sparked off another controversy. He refused to join the clamour against Judge Higinbotham for his Science and Religion (1883) but castigated Judge Williams for his Religion and Superstition (1885). Moorhouse was quick to defend what he deemed spiritual truths, the essentials of Christianity. He had no interest in denominational quarrels and little in disputed points of theology, claiming that 'Nothing will prevail to detach men from error but a candid and charitable method of proclaiming the truth', and again, 'Nothing will induce me to join in the bigoted howl' against Rome.

Moorhouse took his pastoral oversight seriously. He professed to love teaching more than administration but never neglected his duty. Each year he spent two and sometimes three months in difficult travel. He encouraged church building in country centres, concerned himself with the education and licensing of stipendary lay readers and instituted a system whereby rural deans had importance in the church's government. He recognized the need for further division of the diocese and was prepared to give generous aid to a diocese of Sandhurst for which plans were discussed in 1885. He won the respect of all kinds of men, including A. W. Howitt who could barely tolerate Perry. His correspondence with the clergy reveals a clear, decisive mind. Never afraid to exercise episcopal discipline, he was certain and sympathetic; men always knew where they stood with Moorhouse.

In education Moorhouse reversed Perry's opposition to the 1872 Act. With other denominations he fought hard for non-dogmatic, scripturally-based religious instruction in state schools and supported the Catholic claim for state aid in their separate school system. In an important address on education to the Melbourne Social Science Congress in 1880 he deprecated the narrow curriculum of the colony's state schools. He pointed to the press, theatre and political life as educational forces, to the need for science, poetry, drama, object lessons and school museums to enrich the curriculum even at primary level. He advocated citizen participation, school boards, decentralized administration and payment of fees. In 1881 he had little part in the agitation for admission of women to the University of Melbourne, where he was elected chancellor in 1884, opposed the founding of a women's college but strongly proposed an Anglican girls secondary school. He supported the opening of the Public Library and Art Gallery to the public on Sundays and patronized some stage plays to the consternation of some of his followers. Failing to introduce religious instruction into the schools, he encouraged Saturday and Sunday schools with success though recognizing their limitations.

Active in the broader aspect of church politics, Moorhouse began to work for an Australian Church Congress in 1877, saw it convened in Melbourne in 1882 and gave the inaugural address on 14 November. He was active in the negotiations to give a constitution to the whole Australian Church and with the question of the primacy. Although not a noted social reformer, he was alert to social problems. He castigated Graham Berry for dismissing civil servants in the crisis of January 1878, warmly espoused the opening of clubs for working men, welcomed the Salvation Army and formed the first Church of England Mission to the streets and lanes of Melbourne in 1885. He continued to publish on religious subjects as well as such topics as water conservation, irrigation and Federation.

News of his translation to Manchester was received in Melbourne with surprise and consternation. The only precedent for translating a colonial bishop to an English see was that of George Selwyn of New Zealand. Moorhouse said that the change was desirable because the burden in Victoria was becoming too heavy and Manchester offered some relief. He left Melbourne on 10 March 1886 and was enthroned as the third bishop of Manchester on 18 May. He ruled his new diocese wisely and well, displaying the same liberality of mind, tolerance and indifference to trifles which marked his Melbourne episcopate. He retired in 1903 to Taunton, Somerset, where he died on 9 April 1915. Predeceased in 1906 by his wife Mary Lydia, née Sale, whom he had married on 12 September 1861, he left an estate worth over £54,000, of which he bequeathed £40,000 to a niece and the rest to relations.

By nature and training Moorhouse was a broad churchman, reasonable and sceptical. His religious faith was based on an early mystical experience, about which he was reticent. His religious opinions changed little throughout his life, even though his first published lectures were an attack on Baden Powell, an author of the Essays and Reviews. He attached no label to himself but clearly belonged to the school of F. D. Maurice, Dean Stanley and Benjamin Jowett. Not an original thinker or a profound scholar he made no distinctive contribution to theology, although his Hulsean Lectures in 1865 show that he anticipated the Kenotic theory of the Lux Mundi group in 1890. His greatest talent lay in explaining the bearing of contemporary biblical scholarship on religious thought and practice. His principal guides on matters biblical were Lightfoot, Westcott, Hort and later Professor Sanday. He read no German but knew the standard German works on bible and church history in translation. He rejected the verbal infallibility of scripture and welcomed scholarly investigation into its text and history. He welcomed all scientific discovery and refused to reject any seeming conflict with biblical teaching. He held that the miracles of the New Testament were unique and divinely appointed for a sufficient reason: in the post-apostolic age natural laws held invariable sway. He held firmly to the orthodox creeds and had no wish to amend or vary the Thirty-nine Articles or the Athanasian Creed, and asserted: 'we may not change our creed, but we do change our understanding of it, as age succeeds to age'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. C. Rickards, Bishop Moorhouse of Melbourne and Manchester (Lond, 1920)
  • H. W. Nunn, A Short History of the Church of England in Victoria 1847-1947 (Melb, 1947)
  • A. de Q. Robin, Charles Perry, Bishop of Melbourne (Perth, 1967)
  • C. R. Badger, The Reverend Charles Strong (Melb, 1971)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Church of England Year-Book, 1877, 1886
  • Church of England Messenger (Victoria), 1877-1887
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Apr 1915
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870 to 1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. R. Badger, 'Moorhouse, James (1826–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 November, 1826
Sheffield, Yorkshire, England


9 April, 1915 (aged 88)
Taunton, Devon, England

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