John William Burgon

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John William Burgon called "Dean" Burgon
John William Burgon called "Dean" Burgon

John William Burgon[] (August 21, 1813 - August 4, 1888) (also known as Dean Burgon), was an English Anglican divine who become the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1876. He is remembered for his passionate defense of the historicity and Mosaic authorship of Genesis and of Biblical inerrancy in general.



Burgon was born at Smyrna, the son of an English merchant trading in Turkey who was also a skilled numismatist and afterwards became an assistant in the antiquities department of the British Museum. His mother is often said to have been Greek but was in fact the daughter of the Austrian consul at Smyrna and his English wife.[2]

During his first year the family moved to London, where he was sent to school. After a few years of business life, working in his father's counting-house[3], Burgon went to Worcester College, Oxford, in 1841, and took his degree in 1845. The same year he took the Newdigate Prize for his poem Petra, referring to Petra, the inaccessible city in the present Jordan, which he had heard described but had never seen:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.

The poem is now chiefly remembered for the famous final line which quotes the phrase "half as old as time" from Samuel Rogers.[4] (This fourteen-line excerpt is often referred to as a "sonnet," but the poem is well over 350 lines long, in rhymed couplets. Burgon published it, apparently in a small pamphlet, around 1845. A "Second Edition" "To Which a Few Short Poems Are Now Added," was published in 1846;[5] the text above follows it. It contained some revisions: "sanctifies" had been "consecrates"; "call'd" had been "deemed"; "But rosy-red,—as if the blush of dawn" had been "But rose-red as if the blush of dawn", and so on. There was also an 1885 book containing the poem.)

Burgon was elected to an Oriel fellowship in 1846. He was much influenced by his brother-in-law, the scholar and theologian Henry John Rose (1800-1873), a conservative Anglican churchman with whom he used to spend his long vacations. Burgon made Oxford his headquarters, while holding a living at some distance. In 1863 he was made vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, having attracted attention by his vehement sermons against Essays and Reviews, a series of messages on biblical inspiration in which he defended against the findings of textual criticism and higher criticism the historicity and Mosaic authorship of Genesis, and Biblical inerrancy in general: "Either, with the best and wisest of all ages, you must believe the whole of Holy Scripture; or, with the narrow-minded infidel, you must disbelieve the whole. There is no middle course open to you."

In 1867 he was appointed Gresham Professor of Divinity. In 1871 he published a defence of the genuineness of the twelve last verses of the Gospel of Mark. He then began an attack on the proposal for a new lectionary for the Church of England, based largely upon his objections to the principles for determining the authority of manuscript readings in the Greek New Testament adopted by Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. Westcott and Hort led the team producing the Revised Version of the Bible. Burgon assailed Westcott & Hort in a memorable 1881 article in the Quarterly Review, and collected his Quarterly Review articles and pamphlets into books, such as "The Revision Revised", in which he denounced Westcott and Hort for elevating "one particular manuscript,--(namely the Vatican Codex (B), which, for some unexplained reason, it is just now the fashion to regard with superstitious deference". He found their primary manuscript to be "the reverse of trustworthy."

Burgon criticised all five oldest Greek manuscripts on which the Revisers relied. Burgon writes that they:

are among the most corrupt documents extant. Each of these codices (Aleph B D) clearly exhibits a fabricated text - is the result of arbitrary and reckless recension."[6]

The two most weighty of these codices, Aleph and B, he likens to the "two false witnesses" of Matthew 26:60.[7]

John Burgon, after carefully collating Vaticanus B and Sinaiticus Aleph, made this statement about these two manuscripts:

"How ready the most recent editors of the New Testament have shewn themselves to hammer the sacred text on the anvil of Codices B and Aleph... it is easier to find two consecutive verses in which the two MSS differ, the one from the other, than two consecutive verses in which they entirely agree. Now this is a plain matter of fact, of which any one who pleases may easily convince himself." (John Burgon, The Last Twelve Verses Of Mark, p 77-78)

His biographical essays on Henry Longueville Mansel and others were also collected, and published under the title of Twelve Good Men (1888). Protests against the inclusion of Dr Vance Smith among the revisers, against the nomination of Dean Stanley to be select preacher in the University of Oxford, and against the address in favour of toleration in the matter of ritual, followed in succession. In 1876 Burgon was made the Dean of Chichester.[8]

His life was written by Edward Meyrick Goulburn (1892).

Vehement and almost passionate in his convictions, Burgon nevertheless possessed a warm and kindly heart. He may be described as a high churchman of the type prevalent before the rise of the Tractarian school. His extensive collection of transcripts from the Greek Fathers, illustrating the text of the New Testament, was bequeathed to the British Museum.

Burgon Quotes

So far from "its paramount claim to the respect of future generations," being " the restitution of a more ancient and a purer Text,"—I venture to predict that the edition of the two Cambridge Professors will be hereafter remembered as indicating the furthest point ever reached by the self-evolved imaginations of English disciples of the school of Lachmann, Teschendorf, Tregelles. p. xxviii

If so, though you (Dr. Hort) may ' have no doubt' as to which is the purer manuscript ... One is reminded of a passage in p. 61: viz.— If we find in any group of documents a succession of Readings exhibiting an exceptional purity of text, that is,— Readings which the fullest consideration of Internal Evidence pronounces to be right, in opposition to formidable arrays of Documentary Evidence; the cause must be that, as far at least as these Readings are concerned, some one exceptionally pure MS. was the common ancestor of all the members of the group.' p. 253

Hort .. informs us (p. 276) that "the fullest consideration does but increase the conviction that the preeminent relative purity" of those two codices is approximately absolute,—a true approximate reproduction of the Text of the Autographs.' p. 284

Hort .. according to him those primitive Fathers have been the great falsifiers of Scripture; have proved the worst enemies of the pure Word of God .. p. 290

Hort ... how can he possibly overlook the circumstance that, unless he is able to demonstrate that those two codices, and especially the former of them, has preserved not only a very ancient Text, but a very pure line of ancient Text' also (p. 251), his entire work, (inasmuch as it reposes on that one assumption,) on being critically handled, crumbles to its base; or rather melts into thin air before the first puff of wind ? p. 305-306

Dr. Hort ... his fundamental position, viz. that Codex B is so exceptionally pure a document as to deserve to be taken as a chief guide in determining the Truth of Scripture. p. 306

Dr. Hort ...considers that his individual 'strong preference' of one set of Readings above another, is sufficient to determine whether the Manuscript which contains those Readings is pure or the contrary. p. 307

And thus, I venture to presume, the imagination has been at last effectually disposed of, that because Codices B and א are the two oldest Greek copies in existence, the Text exhibited by either must therefore be the purest Text which is anywhere to be met with. p. 328

Compromise of any sort between the two conflicting parties, is impossible also; for they simply contradict one another. Codd. B and x are either among the purest of manuscripts,—or else they are among the very foulest. The Text of Drs. Westcott and Hort is either the very best which has ever appeared,—or else it is the very worst; the nearest to the sacred Autograplis,—or the furthest from them. There is no room for both opinions; and there cannot exist any middle view. p. 365 [1]

Herman C. Hoskier said in the late 1800's:

Three and a half years ago I was in Dean Burgon's study at Chichester. It was midnight, dark and cold without; he had just extinguished the lights, and it was dark, and getting cold within. We mounted the stairs to retire to rest, and his last words of that night have often rung in my ears since :
"As surely as it is dark now, and as certainly as the sun will rise to-morrow morning, so surely will the traditional text be vindicated and the views I have striven to express be accepted. I may not live to see it. Most likely I shall not. But it will come."
Dean Burgon said: "It is suspected that we all read the Bible much too fast. We do not linger over the words as if we loved them, and were loth to pass on. ”O how sweet are Thy words unto my throat : yea, sweeter than honey unto my mouth,”—said one of old time (Psa 119:103). Truly, the man must have delighted in the words of Holy Scripture, who could so express himself! And yet, nothing knew he of the consolation of the Gospel. Now, I do not find that readers of the present day commonly feel towards Holy Scripture as he seems to have felt. Seldom is the attempt made to retain on the palate the flavour of the words of Inspiration. It follows, that we seldom notice the peculiarities of Divine expression; seldom detect covert hints or allusions, or avail ourselves of the less obvious teaching of the Spirit. Thus, we do not fully apprehend what we read ; and when we come before the world, we "therefore do err, — not knowing the Scriptures.” (Mat. 22:29) [John W. Burgon, "A Treatise on the Pastoral Office," p. 5]

Burgon in modern times

Today, the name of Burgon is known almost exclusively in connection with the Dean Burgon Society[9] and the King-James-Only Movement. Majority Text advocates are called Burgonites.


Apart from the "sonnet" Petra, Burgon's most notable work for which he is remembered today is The Revision Revised which was a critique of the then-new Revised Version of the Bible (1881),[10] The Last Twelve Verses of Mark,[11] The Traditional Text, and Causes of Corruption of the Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels.[12]

See Also

Notes and references

  • 1. The "g" in Burgon is now generally pronounced like the "g" in "Burgundy", not like the "g" in "burgeoning".
  • 2. Life of Dean Burgon, Vol. 1, pp. 8-9
  • 3. Life of Dean Burgon, Vol. 1, pp. 14-23
  • 4. Rogers, Samuel (1842). "Farewell". Italy, a Poem. London: Edward Moxon. p. 245. Retrieved 2011-06-09.
  • 5. Burgon, John William (1846). a Poem: To Which a Few Short Poems Are Now Added (Second ed.). Oxford: F. MacPherson. pp. 17–39. . Retrieved 2011-06-09.
  • 6. Burgon, Revision Revised, p. 9.
  • 7. D. Burgon, Revised Revision, p. 48.
  • 8. This is an ecclesiastical position, not an academic title. Burgon is widely known today by his ecclesiastical title, "Dean Burgon", which is often wrongly taken either to be his name or to indicate an academic deanship.
  • 9. Not the same as The Burgon Society previously mentioned.
  • 10. Books: Revision Revised
  • 11.Books: The Last Twelve Verses of Mark
  • 12. Books: The Causes of Corruption of the Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels

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