Samuel Prideaux Tregelles - Biblical Scholar
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the biblical scholar S. P. Tregelles. He was born in Falmouth in Cornwall on 30 January 1813. His father was a merchant, and both his parents were Quakers, although there is no indication to suggest that he ever joined the Society of Friends.1 From childhood he possessed almost a photographic memory, and, from the age of twelve, he spent three years at Falmouth Classical School, where he excelled in his studies. Since Quaker families did not believe in university education, Tregelles left his academic studies at the age of fifteen. Then, what may to us seem a somewhat curious decision, he found employment between 1828 and 1834 at the Neath Abbey Iron Works in South Wales, where he learnt a trade. There is evidence that Quakers from the Duchy of Cornwall were associated with the ancient ironworks at CwmyFelin, Neath Abbey. A number of relatives of Tregelles, including the Foxe family, were engaged in a tin-smelting business at Par in Cornwall, so the link with South Wales is not in fact surprising.2 One can see a parallel here between Tregelles and the apostle Paul. There is some doubt as to what he actually did at the iron-works, but according to D. Rhys Phillips, he was there apprenticed as an engineer and assisted in lighting the morning fires for the craftsmen.3 During this period of manual labour, Tregelles also laboured in and mastered Hebrew, Chaldee, Greek and Welsh. From a number of local accounts, he regularly preached in Welsh in the Neath area, and was secretary of Neath Cymmrodorin, a literary society dedicated to the preservation of the Welsh language. He was a great friend of the Welsh poet Eben Fardd who taught him the rules of cynghanedd – the basic concept in Welsh language poetry of sound-arrangement within one line, using stress, alliteration and rhyme. Tregelles would later put this skill to good use in his own hymn writing and poetry.4
Unhappy with his situation at Neath, and with his aptitude for academic study, Tregelles returned to Falmouth in 1835. At this time he supported himself by being a private tutor, but his main work lay before him. For over thirty years he dedicated himself to the study of biblical manuscripts. His conversion to Christ seems to have taken place a few years earlier on a visit to Plymouth around 1832. According to Harold Rowden, ‘Tregelles visited B. W. Newton, and was fascinated by his views on prophecy. He was converted through hearing Newton preach, and threw in his lot with the Brethren, to the great annoyance of members of his family who belonged to the Society of Friends’.5
Tregelles appears to have then lived in London after 1837, where he found employment with a firm of publishers. It was whilst in London that he took up biblical studies, and concentrated on producing a critical text of the Greek New Testament. In this respect, he had already been involved earlier with George Wigram in the design of an exhaustive concordance for the Greek New Testament that would be of benefit to believers who possessed no Greek. His ability was also put to good use in making a major contribution to an Old Testament concordance, again edited and funded by Wigram. Johathan Burnham states that, ‘This activity enhanced the movement’s scholarly reputation, and placed Tregelles at the forefront of biblical textual critics’.6 Such was Tregelles’ knowledge that J. Brooking Rowe once said that, ‘He was able to shed light upon any topic that might be introduced; it was dangerous to ask him a question; doing so was like reaching to take a book and having the whole shelf-full precipitated upon your head’.7 But it was Tregelles’ single ambition to produce his own unaided critical Greek text that marked him out as a scholar par excellence. He spent a considerable amount of time in Europe examining and collating Greek manuscripts, which included a detailed examination of Codex Vaticanus in Rome. According to one source, when examining manuscripts in Rome, he was prevented from copying any of them other than what he could surreptitiously note on his fingernails! In 1857 he produced the first part of his Greek New Testament (the Gospels of Matthew and Mark), but, because of ill health, he was unable to produce the Greek text for Luke’s and John’s Gospels until 1861. By this time he had also examined Codex Sinaiticus, which was still in the possession of Tischendorf. Most of the other New Testament books were published by 1869, but, again, ill health prevented him from completing the whole of the New Testament. Others helped to complete this task and the final book, Revelation, was made available in 1872. It has been suggested that Tregelles’ collation and his edition of a Greek New Testament were remarkable achievements, and they paved the way for the Greek edition of Westcott and Hort in 1881 and for the Revised Version of the English Bible in the same year.8 Some have also suggested that if Tregelles had been able to sit on the revisers committee of 1881, Westcott And Hort would have been prevented from outvoting Scrivener, and their so called ‘Neutral Text’ theory may never have got off the ground!9
In addition to his textual criticism, Tregelles wrote extensively on prophecy, and his reputation in this area seems to have been made following the publication of a book printed in Plymouth in 1836 entitled Passages in the Book of Revelation Connected with the Old Testament Scripture. He also received considerable acclaim from Charles Spurgeon for his book on Daniel, Remarks on the Prophetic Visions of Daniel.10
Tregelles married Sarah Anna Prideaux in 1839, and, apart from his visits to London and the Continent, he lived in Plymouth from 1846 to his death in 1875.11 He was awarded the degree of LL.D. from St. Andrews University in 1850, and a civil-list pension in 1862 – starting at £100 and then rising to £200 per annum – for his outstanding work. Although he eventually left the assemblies, his contribution towards biblical scholarship was immense, and still remains of value today.12 A modern transcription of Tregelles Greek New Testament and its corrected edition is held in digital form at Tyndale Hall. These can be accessed by logging on to the website www.tyndalehouse.com/tregelles. It is interesting to note that in assessing the value of Tregelles’ Greek New Testament, this prestigious centre for biblical research states that ‘The Greek New Testament of Tregelles remains valuable, despite its shortcomings. With his heavy emphasis on evidence and dislike of speculation Tregelles provides a healthy counter-weight to some more speculative approaches found in the history of the textual criticism of the New Testament’.
Tregelles died in Plymouth in 1875 and is buried in the city. In an article in The Western Morning News (a paper then published in Plymouth) dated 17th January, 1957, the following is stated of Tregelles, ‘Largely self-taught, personally modest and gentle-natured, Tregelles must rank as the most learned man ever to be associated with Plymouth; which was remarkable in the last century for producing several noted scholars in Divinity and Biblical literature, notably the celebrated deaf workhouse lad, John Kitto; Dr. R. F. Weymouth, best known for his New Testament in Modern Speech; and more recently the erudite Dr. Rendle Harris’. Perhaps Hebrews chapter 11 verse 38a is a fitting testament to this worthy scholar.
- One Quaker link was that his cousin was the first wife of B. W. Newton.
- ‘The History of the Vale of Neath’ (Swansea 1925) by D. Rhys Phillips.
- The National Biography of Wales: Dictionary of Welsh Biography.
- Perhaps the hymn that shows this Welsh influence on his literary style most is entitled, ‘In Thee, O Lord, believing, we now have peace with God, Eternal life receiving, the purchase of thy blood’.
- The Origins of the Brethren pg. 159/160. Timothy Stunt (From Awakening to Succession pg. 295/296) suggests that Tregelles was first involved with the Plymouth meeting in 1835. This may, however, simply mean that he enjoyed fellowship as a believer in the assembly in Plymouth three years after his conversion.
- A Story of Conflict – The Controversial Relationship between Benjamin Wills Newton and John Nelson Darby, pg. 79.
- Brooking Rowe (In Teachers of the Faith and the Future, Ed by George H. Fromow, pg. 31).
- Oxford DNB.
- See the comments of F. F. Bruce at pg. 138 et seq in History of the Bible in English.
- Tregelles is deservedly regarded as a great authority upon prophetical subjects’. Spurgeon (Commenting and Commentaries, pg. 130).
- His large mansion in Portland Place, Plymouth, was later demolished following the expansion of Plymouth Technical College. Tregelles would, no doubt, have been more than pleased to make way for this seat of learning. A memorial tablet was unveiled outside Tregelles’ house in 1914 by the Biblical scholar Dr. Rendel Harris.
- There is some doubt as to where Tregelles’ eventually ended up after leaving the assembly in Plymouth. Some suggest he became a Presbyterian, whilst others, including the biblical critic F. H. A. Scrivener, suggest he became a lay member of the Church of England, and worshipped at Charles Church – the bombed ruins of this church can still be seen in the city today. In all probability, Tregelles remained unattached – see f1 on pg. 28 In Teachers of the Faith and the Future, Ed by George H. Fromow.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.