How St Neots man change history of the church

GEORGE Gorham died 155 years ago this week, on June 19, 1857.

Never heard of him? Nor has anyone else. But for a few years in the 19th century his name was on everyone’s lips. This Huntingdonshire man split the Church of England from top to bottom.

He was born in St Neots in 1787, in a house on the Market Square now marked with a plaque by the St Neots Local History Society.

In 1847, towards the end of his life, Gorham was a vicar in Cornwall. He wanted to move to another parish, but the bishop of Exeter was suspicious of his religious ideas. Rev Gorham was summoned to the bishop’s palace and subjected to several days of interrogation about his views on baptism.

As a result Bishop Phillpotts refused to institute Mr Gorham in his new parish. He appealed against the bishop’s decision and when the church courts turned him down he appealed again to the Privy Council.

After three years of arguments the Privy Council accepted his appeal and ordered his institution to go ahead. He stayed in his new parish until his death a few years later.

But the “Gorham Controversy” continued to rage. Many people were shocked that the laymen on the Privy Council should decide a dispute about religious beliefs.

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Bishop Phillpotts even threatened to excommunicate the archbishop of Canterbury and 14 high-ranking clergymen left the Church of England to become Roman Catholics. Among them was Henry Manning, later made a cardinal and the head of the Catholic Church in England.

A blizzard of books and pamphlets whirled about the controversy. In the Norris Museum Library we’ve got a set of 300 pamphlets densely packed with theology and invective.

The collection is especially interesting because it was put together by Rev William Maskell, the bishop of Exeter’s chaplain and a key figure in the controversy.

Some people at the time thought that the whole affair had been his idea in the first place and that Bishop Phillpotts wasn’t bright enough to understand the theological arguments.

Rev Maskell wrote notes in some of the pamphlets in our collection and one of them is rather charming: “I remember reading this in a stage coach in Cornwall, which will account for the up and downishness of the marginal notes.”

Just like using your laptop on the train!