Thomas Rawson Birks

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Thomas Rawson Birks

Watton-at-Stone church and graveyard.jpg

Watton-at-Stone church where Rawson worked with Edward Bickersteth
Born 28 September 1810
Staveley, Derbyshire
Died 19 July 1883
Cambridge
Education Trinity College, Cambridge
Occupation theologian and controversialist
Spouse(s) two [1]
Children eight
Parent(s) Thomas and Sarah (nee Fletcher)

Thomas Rawson Birks (28 September 1810 – 19 July 1883) was an English theologian and controversialist, who figured in the debate to try to resolve theology and science. He rose to be Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His discussions led to much controversy: in one book he proposed that stars cannot have planets as this would reduce the importance of Christ's appearance on this planet. [2]

The Knightbridge Professorship of Philosophy is the senior professorship in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. There have been 22 Knightbridge professors, the incumbent being Rae Langton.

University of Cambridge University in Cambridge, England, United Kingdom

The University of Cambridge is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Founded in 1209 and granted a Royal Charter by King Henry III in 1231, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world's fourth-oldest surviving university. The university grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford after a dispute with the townspeople. The two 'ancient universities' share many common features and are often referred to jointly as 'Oxbridge'. The history and influence of the University of Cambridge has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Contents

Biography

Birks was born on 28 September 1810 in Staveley in Derbyshire, England, where his father was a tenant farmer under the Duke of Devonshire. The family being nonconformists, Birks was educated at Chesterfield and then at the Dissenting College at Mill Hill. He won a sizarship and a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in his third year gained the chief English declamation prize. As the holder of this prize he delivered the customary oration in the college hall. The subject chosen was Mathematical and Moral Certainty and Dr William Whewell spoke very highly of this oration. [1] In 1834, like Whewell before him, Birks became second wrangler and second Smith's prizeman. [3] [4]

Staveley, Derbyshire town in Derbyshire, England, United Kingdom

Staveley is a town within the borough of Chesterfield, in Derbyshire, England. The town is situated alongside the River Rother, adjacent to Eckington to the north, Barlborough to the east, Sutton cum Duckmanton civil parish to the south and Brimington to the west.

Derbyshire ceremonial county in East Midlands, England

Derbyshire is a county in the East Midlands of England. A substantial portion of the Peak District National Park lies within Derbyshire, containing the southern extremity of the Pennine range of hills which extend into the north of the county. The county contains part of the National Forest, and borders on Greater Manchester to the northwest, West Yorkshire to the north, South Yorkshire to the northeast, Nottinghamshire to the east, Leicestershire to the southeast, Staffordshire to the west and southwest and Cheshire also to the west. Kinder Scout, at 636 metres (2,087 ft), is the highest point in the county, whilst Trent Meadows, where the River Trent leaves Derbyshire, is its lowest point at 27 metres (89 ft). The River Derwent is the county's longest river at 66 miles (106 km), and runs roughly north to south through the county. In 2003 the Ordnance Survey placed Church Flatts Farm at Coton in the Elms as the furthest point from the sea in Great Britain.

Duke of Devonshire title in the Peerage of England

Duke of Devonshire is a title in the Peerage of England held by members of the Cavendish family. This branch of the Cavendish family has been one of the wealthiest British aristocratic families since the 16th century and has been rivalled in political influence perhaps only by the Marquesses of Salisbury and the Earls of Derby.

The church

Having joined the Church of England on leaving the university, Birks settled at Watton-at-Stone as tutor and then curate to the Reverend Edward Bickersteth. During his stay there he studied the prophetic scriptures, and took the affirmative side in the warm controversy which arose on the subject of the premillennial theory of the Lord's return. In 1843-4 Birks won the Seatonian prize for the best English poem at Trinity College. Some years before he had been elected a fellow of this college. He engaged in many religious controversies, and one of these, on the future of the Lost, led to the severance of private friendships and religious connections. In his views on this subject he was equally opposed to the universalists and the annihilationists. In 1844 Birks married Bickersteth's daughter, Elizabeth, and accepted the living of Kelshall in Hertfordshire.

Church of England Anglican state church of England

The Church of England is the established church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the most senior cleric, although the monarch is the supreme governor. The Church of England is also the mother church of the international Anglican Communion. It traces its history to the Christian church recorded as existing in the Roman province of Britain by the third century, and to the 6th-century Gregorian mission to Kent led by Augustine of Canterbury.

Watton-at-Stone farm village in the United Kingdom

Watton-at-Stone is a village in the English county of Hertfordshire, situated midway between the towns of Stevenage and Hertford in the valley of the River Beane. The 2011 census showed a population of 2,272 living in 946 households. Watton-at-Stone is also a civil parish in East Hertfordshire District Council.

Premillennialism, in Christian eschatology, is the belief that Jesus will physically return to the earth before the Millennium, a literal thousand-year golden age of peace. The doctrine is called "premillennialism" because it holds that Jesus' physical return to earth will occur prior to the inauguration of the Millennium. Premillennialism is based upon a literal interpretation of Revelation 20:1–6 in the New Testament, which describes Jesus' reign in a period of a thousand years.

Birks published Modern Astronomy in 1830 to demonstrate a harmony between science and religion; in it he attempts to join together theology and a modern understanding of astronomy. He deals with such subjects as the insignificance of man, if we are but one race alone in the universe except for the angels. How can Christ's importance be squared with the unimportance of the human race in a large universe with a multitude of stars and planets? Birks' solution was to decide that the existence of planets around other stars is only conjecture. [2]

In 1850 he published his edition of William Paley's Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul with notes and a supplementary treatise entitled Horae Apostolicae.

William Paley Christian apologist, natural theologian, utilitarian

William Paley was an English clergyman, Christian apologist, philosopher, and utilitarian. He is best known for his natural theology exposition of the teleological argument for the existence of God in his work Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which made use of the watchmaker analogy.

Widower

In 1856 Birks' wife, Elizabeth, died at the age of 46. [5] His widowhood led to the suspension of his writing for several years. Nevertheless, The Bible and Modern Thought was published in 1861 at the request of the committee of the Religious Tract Society. Birks subsequently enlarged his work by a series of notes on the evidential school of theology, the limits of religious thought, the Bible and ancient Egypt, the human element in Scripture, and Genesis and geology. In 1862 he published On Matter and Ether, Or, The Secret Laws of Physical Change which dealt with issues of physics. [6]

Religious Tract Society British publisher of Christian literature

The Religious Tract Society, founded 1799, 56 Paternoster Row and 65 St. Paul's Chuchyard and 164 Piccadilly, was the original name of a major British publisher of Christian literature intended initially for evangelism, and including literature aimed at children, women, and the poor.

Cambridge and second marriage

Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge (in 2004) where Birks served as vicar from 1866 to 1877 Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge.jpg
Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge (in 2004) where Birks served as vicar from 1866 to 1877

Birks left Kelshall in 1864. In 1866 he accepted the important charge of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge; and on 17 May 1866 married his second wife, Georgina Agnes Beresford, widow of Major James Douglas. [7]

At the time of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, Birks came forward with a lengthy treatise on Church and State which was an elaboration of a treatise written thirty years before, and was now republished as bearing upon the ecclesiastical change proposed by William Ewart Gladstone and carried into effect by Parliament. Birks was installed honorary canon of Ely Cathedral in 1871, [8] and in 1872, on the death of the Rev. Frederick Maurice, he was elected Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy. This appointment led to a stormy controversy. It was regarded as a retrograde step by the large body of liberal thinkers who sympathised with the views of Frederick Maurice. [9] As pastor at Cambridge, Birks gave religious instruction to the undergraduates, to older members of the university, and also to the residents in the town. In the year of his appointment he published his Scripture Doctrine of Creation and The Philosophy of Human Responsibility. His inaugural lecture as professor of moral philosophy was on The Present Importance of Moral Science(1872).

In 1873 Birks published his First Principles of Moral Science which was a course of lectures delivered during his professorship. This work was followed in 1874 by Modern Utilitarianism in which the systems of William Paley, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were examined and compared. In 1876 he delivered the annual address to the Victoria Institute, his subject being The Uncertainties of Modern Physical Science.

In 1876 he published his work on Modern Physical Fatalism and the Doctrine of Evolution. It contained the substance of a course of lectures devoted to the examination of the philosophy unfolded in Herbert Spencer's First Principles. Birks held the views expressed by Spencer to be unsound and opposed to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and even the existence of moral science. To the strictures upon his First Principles Spencer replied at length, and this led to the re-publication, in 1882, of Birks's treatise, with an introduction by Charles Pritchard, Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford, in which Spencer's rejoinder was dealt with, and the original arguments of Birks illustrated and further explained.

Birks resigned the vicarage of Trinity in 1877, and in the same year published a volume on Manuscript Evidence in the Text of the New Testament, which was an endeavour to bring "mathematical reasoning to bear on the probable value of the manuscripts of different ages, with a general inference in favour of the high value of the cursive manuscripts as a class". In the same year Birks issued his Supernatural Revelation, being an answer to a work on Supernatural Religion which had given rise to much criticism. Birks's treatise was again republished at a later period by Pritchard, with a reply to objections that had been urged against it.

Other activities

For twenty-one years Birks served as honorary secretary to the Evangelical Alliance, but he resigned when the committee failed to agree with his views on eternal punishment. [4] He was an examiner for the theological examination at Cambridge in 1867 and 1868, and was a member of the board of theological studies. He took an active part in all university affairs during his connection with Cambridge, was appointed to preach the Ramsden sermon in 1867, and was frequently a select preacher before the university.

Illness and death

Early in 1875 Birks suffered from a paralytic seizure, and this was followed by a second stroke in 1877. He still took a deep interest in questions of the day, and was able to dictate various works, pamphlets, and letters bearing upon these questions.

In April 1880, while residing in the New Forest, he was paralysed for a week, [10] his third attack. He was conveyed home to Cambridge, where he lingered for three years incapable of intellectual effort. He died on 19 July 1883.

Family

By his first marriage to Elizabeth Bickersteth, Birks had eight children. His eldest son, Edward Bickersteth Birks, also became a theologian and succeeded him as a fellow of Trinity. [7]

Works

In addition to the works named in the course of this article, Birks was the author of a considerable number of treatises on prophecy and other subjects connected with the older revelation, as well as his Memoir of the Rev. Edward Bickersteth. [1]

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References

  1. 1 2 3 Dictionary of National Biography now in the public domain
  2. 1 2 Crowe, Michael J. (1999). The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900: the idea of a plurality of worlds from Kant to Lowell (2nd ed.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. pp. 196–7. ISBN   0-486-40675-X.
  3. "Birks, Thomas Rawson (BRKS829TR)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. 1 2 New York Times obituary July 1883, accessed 24 March 2008
  5. Papers of Elizabeth Birks
  6. On Matter and Ether, Or, The Secret Laws of Physical Change, by Thomas Rawson Birks, 1862, MacMillan, London. Accessed 24 March 2008
  7. 1 2 Gregory, Stephen (2004). "Birks, Thomas Rawson (1810–1883)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2458.(subscription required)
  8. Guide to Ely Cathedral, Anon., 1880, accessed 24 March 2008
  9. A recent study considered Birks and Maurice to have "significant parallels": Brown, Ralph (2007). "Victorian Anglican Evangelicalism: the radical legacy of Edward Irving". Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 58: 675–704.
  10. New York Times, 1880, accessed 24 March 2008

Further reading