Henry Alford, biblical scholar and polymath (1810-1871)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Henry Alford was born in the city of London on 10 October 1810. Sadly, his mother died giving birth to him, and so he spent much of his formative years living with relations in Somerset. His father, who was an evangelical clergyman, came from a long line of evangelical ministers. At the time of Henry’s birth, Britain was still engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, and much of the population found itself in financial difficulties.
Henry was somewhat delicate as a child, but as a man he exhibited considerable mental ability and travelled extensively both in England and in other parts of the world. He was educated at a number of private schools, and Betjeman wrote of Alford that, ‘he was another very clever man – in fact, he wrote Latin odes and a history of the Jews before he was ten’. 1 He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1829, and because of his impoverished state he secured the Bell Scholarship in 1831. 2 He graduated in classics and as a wrangler 3 in January 1832, and was ordained in 1833, serving as a curate in his father’s parish near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk. The following year he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, and then in 1835 he accepted the incumbency of Wymeswold in Leicestershire. It was at this time that he married his cousin Fanny Alford whom he had known from his stay with her family in Somerset. They had four children, two boys and two girls, but both boys died in childbirth. He spent eighteen years at Wymeswold, and apart from his demanding parish duties and giving private tuition for seven hours a day, he still found time to produce a new edition of the Greek New Testament with a critical commentary on the Greek text, about which Spurgeon wrote, ‘He [Alford] is, for the present at any rate, indispensable to the student of the original’. 4
His first volume was published in 1849 and the fourth and final instalment in 1861. According to Moyer, the edition was ‘made distinguished by introducing English readers to German learning of Olshausen, Stier, Meyer and Tischendorf. 5 His digest of German New Testament exegesis has permanent value’. 6 The commentary marked a change in approach to biblical exegesis in that it moved away from the typical homiletic commentary of the past, and gave greater insight into the nuances of the language and historical development of the New Testament. The commentary can be downloaded free of charge today from the Internet and is well worth mining for helpful insights into the Greek text.
Later, in 1869, Alford issued a revision of the English Authorised Version (KJV) of the Bible with the express ‘hope that his work might speedily be rendered useless by the setting up of a Royal Commission to revise the AV’. 7 That hope came more quickly than he anticipated and resulted in the Revised Version of 1881 and 1885.
Not only was Alford a biblical scholar but he was an accomplished poet, having spent time at Cambridge in the company of, among others, Alfred (later Lord) Tennyson, and Christopher Wordsworth. His first collection of poems was published before he was twenty-two years of age, and later he edited the works of the metaphysical poet John Donne. He wrote hymns, including his most famous and enduring hymn, ‘Come, Ye Thankful People, Come’, which he based on two parables, one recorded in Matthew chapter 13 verses 24 to 30, and the other in Mark chapter 4 verses 26 to 29. Even more remarkable was the fact that despite all his other commitments he found time to illustrate picture-books, including ‘The Riviera’ which he published in 1870. The book shows what a talented artist he was and includes pen and pencil sketches from Cannes to Genoa. 8 In March 1857, Lord Palmerston advanced him to the deanery of Canterbury, where he lived until his death in 1871.
We have no record of a conversion, but most historians describe Henry Alford as having a strong evangelical faith, who had shaken off the clericalist movement holding firmly to a fundamental Protestant position. He was much revered by his contemporaries, not only because of his erudition, but also on account of his amiable character. The later discovery of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament would mean further revisions to the Greek New Testament by many others, including his great friend and fellow scholar S. P. Tregelles. Nevertheless, his contribution as a textual scholar should not be underestimated. Others continue to enter into his labours, John 4. 37.
1 Sweet Songs of Zion, pg. 141
2 The Bell Scholarship was created to assist impoverished clergymen of the Church of England to meet the costs of sending their sons to Cambridge University.
3 A ‘Wrangler’ at Cambridge University is an undergraduate who gains a first-class honours degree in Mathematics.
4 Commenting and Commentaries, pg. 141
5 Tischendorf was the man who discovered the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus in 1849.
6 The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church, pg. 9.
7 F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English, Lutterworth Press, pg. 131.
8 The book has been digitized by Google from the library of New York Public Library and uploaded to the Internet Archive.
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.