Samuel Horsley was born on 15 September 1733 at St Martin's Place by St Martin's in the Fields, London. He was the son of John Horsley who was for many years Lecturer at St Martin's, and his first wife, Ann, the daughter of William Hamilton, the Principal of the College of Edinburgh, which was to become the University of Edinburgh in 1858.
Ann died in the prime of life, on 19 February 1735, and John then married Mary, daughter of George Leslie of Kincraigie, Scotland. They had seven children Ann (1740-1806), John (born in 1741), Sarah (1742-1820), George (1745-1792), Mary (1747-1824), Elizabeth (1748-1811) and Francis (1751-1826).
In 1745 John Horsley, whilst still Lecturer at St Martin's, was instituted as Rector of Thorley, where he moved with his family and resided until his death in 1777.
Samuel was taught at home by his father, learning Latin without the assistance of a master. He entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1751, and in 1758 was awarded the degree of LL.B. He was ordained Deacon on 16 July 1758 and Priest on 24 September of the same year, and was appointed by his father as Curate of St Mary's, Newington Butts, then in the county of Surrey, but now in the London Borough of Southwark. This living was in the gift of Isaac Maddox, Bishop of Worcester. John and Isaac had become friends when both were studying at the College of Edinburgh, and Isaac had appointed John to the Rectory of Newington Butts in 1754. Samuel was Curate for only a matter of months, his father resigning from St Mary's in his favour, and Samuel being instituted as Rector on 18 January 1759.
Samuel was a skilled mathematician and scientist, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 9 April 1767. He served as its Secretary from 1773-1778. In November 1767 Samuel was incorporated at Christ Church, Oxford, that is his Cambridge degree was formally recognised as if it had been taken at the University of Oxford. This enabled Samuel to take up the position of private tutor at Oxford to Heneage Finch, the son of the third Earl of Aylesford, and personally to proceed to the degree of Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) at the University, which he was awarded on 18 January 1774. In that same month Heneage Finch's father presented Samuel to the Rectory of Albury in Surrey. Samuel held this Rectory along with that of St Mary's, Newington Butts. Later that year Samuel married Mary, the daughter of John Botham, his predecessor at Albury. They had a son, Heneage who was born on 23 February 1776, and a daughter, Harriett, who was to die as a baby.
In 1775 Samuel made a proposal to edit and print a complete edition of the works of Isaac Newton. This project was delayed by the illness and death of his wife in 1777, but came to fruition with the publication of Isaaci Newtoni Opera Quae Exstant Omnia in five volumes between 1779 and 1785. Whilst editing the works of Isaac Newton, Samuel must have found that the great natural philosopher was a secret Arian, and as such did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity. Samuel, who was to become the champion of the Trinity, suppressed those of Newton's papers that would have betrayed the unorthodox nature of his religious beliefs.
Samuel's learning brought him to the attention of Robert Lowth. In 1777, on his translation from the Bishopric of Oxford to that of London, Lowth appointed Samuel as his Domestic Chaplain and collated him to a prebendal stall in St Paul's Cathedral. On the death of his father, John Horsley, in November 1777, Samuel succeeded him as Lecturer at St Martin's in the Fields. In 1779 Lowth presented Samuel to the Rectory of Thorley, at which time he resigned that of Albury. Whilst at Thorley Samuel was installed, on 8 September 1781, as Archdeacon of St Alban's. Samuel resigned as Rector of Thorley in 1782, on his appointment by Lowth to the Vicarage of South Weald in Essex.
Samuel was a member of the Literary Club founded by Samuel Johnson in 1783, and attended his funeral the following year.
In 1783 Samuel delivered a charge to the clergy in his Archdeaconry, in which he began a protracted and fierce public debate with Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen. Priestley denied that early Christians had held the doctrine of the Trinity. Samuel's detailed rebuttal of this claim brought him the patronage of Edward Thurlow, Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. Setting out from a friend's house for a solitary journey, Edward Thurlow had asked for a book to read, and had been given a copy of Samuel's Letters to Priestley that happened to be lying on a table. He found in Samuel a kindred spirit, and in 1787 procured his collation to a prebendal stall in Gloucester Cathedral, and the following year his elevation to the Bishopric of St Davids in South Wales. From St Davids Samuel was successively translated, first to Rochester (1793), when he also became Dean of Westminster, and finally to St Asaph (1802) in North Wales.
In 1783 and 1784, Samuel took a prominent part against Sir Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, in an acrimonious dispute about the management of the Society. It is frequently said that Samuel withdrew from the Society as a result of this dispute, but its records show this to be incorrect.
Samuel was the ablest Bishop in the House of Lords in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He was a master of English prose and a most eloquent speaker, and was extremely well regarded by those of widely differing views. John Jebb, the Irish Churchman and writer who became Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe, called him “our ablest modern prelate”. Isaac Milner, President of Queen's College Cambridge, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and Dean of Carlisle, said he was “the first Episcopal authority (if learning, wisdom, and knowledge of the Scriptures be any foundation for authority)”. John Milner, the English Roman Catholic Bishop and writer thought him “the light and glory of the Established Church”, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet, literary critic and philosopher “the one red leaf, the last of its clan, with relation to the learned teachers of our Church.”
On 30 January 1793 Samuel preached before the members of the Houses of Lords and Commons assembled in Westminster Abbey at the annual Martyrdom Day service in remembrance of the execution of Charles I. His sermon had a heightened importance on this occasion because of the execution, nine days earlier, of the French King Louis XVI. Samuel took as his subject the dangers of the revolutionary spirit. His preaching clearly resonated with those present, and at the start of his concluding summary, all those assembled spontaneously rose to their feet.
Samuel's name became synonymous with his assertion in the House of Lords on 13 November 1795, in defence of a maxim that he had used previoulsy in committee, that 'In this country, my Lords…the individual subject … has nothing to do with the laws but to obey them.’ This assertion was used by Isaac Cruikshank to identify Samuel in an engraving that he published in 1797 that was entitled The victorious procession to St Pauls. or Billy's grand triumphal entry a prelude, a satirical anticipation of the procession to St. Paul's Cathedral for the national thanksgiving for the naval victories against the French at the battles of the First of June, Cape St. Vincent and Camperdown.
Samuel was an ardent opponent of the slave trade, despite a personal antipathy towards William Willberforce. On 4 April 1796, the political cartoonist James Gillray published an engraving entitled Philanthropic Consolations, after the loss of the Slave-Bill, characaturing William and Samuel cavorting with two black women to console themselves on the rejection of a reforming measure by Parliament. Samuel made two particularly significant and powerful anti slavery speeches in the House of Lords, the first on 5 July 1799 and the second on 24 June 1806. Given his strength of feelings on the subject, it is interesting that his half brother George 'owned' a slave, who was baptised at St James the Great, Thorley on 9 April 1773.
Following the death of his first wife, Samuel married Sarah Wright in 1778. She had been the protégé of his first wife and in her service. Sarah died on 2 April 1805, aged 53, having suffered from a protracted sickness for some nineteen years. Samuel died eighteen months later on 4 October 1806, aged 73. Samuel and Sarah were initially buried, together with his infant daughter by his first wife, under the altar of St Mary’s, Newington Butts. On the demolition of this church to enable the widening of the adjacent roadway, their remains were removed to Thorley and reinterred, on 18 July 1876, in a vault in the churchyard adjacent to the north wall of the chancel. The mural memorial slab, originally located over the family vault in the chancel of Newington Church, was also moved to the outside north wall of the chancel at St James'. However, on showing signs of decay, it was relocated to its present position on the inside wall.
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