Henry Alford

Henry Alford (1810-1871). Photo from 1902 Encyclopedia Britannica. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Alford
Born October 7 1810(1810-Template:MONTHNUMBER-07)
London, England
Died January 12 1871(1871-Template:MONTHNUMBER-12) (aged 60)
Nationality English
Occupation churchman, scholar, poet and writer
Religion Anglican Christian

Rev. Henry Alford (10 October 1810 - 12 January 1871) was an English poet, churchman, theologian, and hymnist, who served as dean of Canterbury.



Alford, son of a clergyman, was born in London. After passing through various private schools, he proceeded to Cambridge, where he had a distinguished career, and after entering the Church and filling various preferments in the country, became minister of Quebec Chapel, London, whence he was promoted to be Dean of Canterbury. His great work was his Greek Testament in 4 volumes, of which the first was publihed in 1849 and the last in 1861. In this work he largely followed the German critics, maintaining, however, a moderate liberal position; and it was for long the standard work on the subject in this country. Alford was one of the most versatile men, and prolific authors, of his day, his works consisting of nearly 50 volumes, including poetry (School of the Heart, Abbot of Munchelnaye, and a translation of The Odyssey, criticism, and sermons. In addition to the works above mentioned he wrote Chapters on the Greek Poets (1841), The Queen's English (1863), and many well-known hymns, and he was the first editor of the Contemporary Review. He was also an accomplished artist and musician. His industry was incessant and induced a premature breakdown in health, which terminated in his death in 1871. He was the friend of most of his eminent contemporaries, and was much beloved for his amiable character.[1]

Youth and educationEdit

Alford was the son of Rev. Henry Alford, vicar of Ampton, near Bury St. Edmunds, and later of of Aston Sandford, near Thame. He was born in London, 10 Oct. 1810. His mother died at his birth, and he was during his early life thrown much upon his relations, and was constantly in the family of his uncle, the Rev. Samuel Alford, of Heale House, in the parish of Curry Rivell, near Taunton.[2]

At the age of 9 Henry Alford was sent to a school kept by the Rev. B. Jeanes, congregationalist minister at Charmouth, and was successively at a private school at Hammersmith, at Ilminster grammar school, and at Aston in Suffolk as a private pupil of the Rev. John Bickersteth, with whose sons (afterwards dean of Lichfield and bishop of Ripon) he formed a close friendship.

As a child he was delicate, and never took much part in athletic exercises;[2] but his religious development was precocious. At 10 years old he wrote a short sermon. At 15 he wrote a long and serious letter to his cousin (afterwards his wife), who was then about to be confirmed.[3]

He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1829, gained the Bell scholarship in 1831, and graduated 8th classic and 34th wrangler in January 1832.[2]

He was naturally of a poetical temperament, and his talents were drawn out by the society in which he mixed when at Cambridge, which included the Tennysons, Arthur Hallam, Trench, Blakesley, Charles Merivale, Spedding, Brookfield, Thompson (afterwards master of Trinity), and Christopher Wordsworth. His first publication was a volume of poems published before he was 22, which was afterwards republished with additions, together with a longer poem, "The School of the Heart," in 1835, and later another small volume (1841) called The Abbot of Muchelnaye, with sonnets, &c.[3]

Vicar of WymeswoldEdit

He was ordained in 1833 as curate to his father's parish of Ampton, and began at once to take pupils. He was elected to a fellowship at Trinity in 1834, but early in the next year accepted from the college the post of vicar of Wymeswold, and was immediately afterwards married to his cousin, Fanny Alford, daughter of Rev. Alford.[2] His early marriage brought him only 4 children, 2 of whom, his only sons, died in childhood. His daughters were both married in his lifetime.[3]

From his earliest days he had looked forward to ordination, and his letters and journals show that this purpose was always before him. When ordained he threw himself earnestly into the work of his parish, where he built schools and restored the church in a manner which at that time was quite uncommon. He had great facility in preaching, and adopted various styles, from the serious treatise to the extempore address, in all of which he was successful, his clear baritone voice aiding a good delivery.[3]

His early training was in the evangelical school; he was to some extent carried away by the clericalist movement of the years 1835–42, but shook himself clear of this, and adopted distinctly the protestant basis for his religious and ecclesiastical convictions, and took pains to recognise the leading nonconformist ministers (not excepting the unitarians), by whom his generous feeling was fully reciprocated.[3]

He edited the works of John Donne, in 7 volumes, for J.W. Parker, in 1839. He was editor of Dearden's Magazine, published at Nottingham at the same time.[4] He was also for the years 1841–2 Hulsean lecturer at Cambridge, and published lectures on The Consistency of the Divine Conduct in revealing the Doctrines of Redemption, in 2 volumes.[3]

He remained at Wymeswold for 18 years, engaged in parish work and in tuition; and there he published the first volume of the Greek Testament in 1849 (the last was published in 1861).[2]

Later careerEdit

In 1853 he moved to London, and became minister of Quebec Chapel in Marylebone. In 1857 he was appointed to the deanery of Canterbury, which he held till his death in 1871.[2]

He began to publish sermons while at Wymeswold; at Quebec Chapel he published as many as 7 volumes.[3]

As a man he had extraordinary powers of mental work, and also travelled a great deal both in England and on the Continent. He had little or no fortune, and made his way by his own exertions.[3]

At Canterbury he instituted a sermon on Sunday afternoons, and lectured and preached continually there and in London; he founded a choral society for the cultivation of music, and especially for the execution of oratorios in the cathedral. He also took great interest in the restoration of the cathedral and its adjoining buildings. The new King's School, the exposure to view of the infirmary arches, the rehabilitation of the south Norman tower and the porch, were executed under his direction; the statues in the porch and west front were obtained by subscriptions raised by him, and the curious Roman columns from Reculver were placed by him in the baptistery garden.[3]

Towards the close of his life he purchased a house, Vine's Gate, near Sevenoaks, as a summer home for the time of his absence from Canterbury. His domestic life was one of peculiar happiness, and he had a large circle of friends, among whom the most intimate were the Rev. E.T. Vaughan, of Harpenden, Herts, and the Rev. J.H. Hamilton, vicar of St. Michael's, Chester Square, in London, and afterwards canon of Rochester.[3]

He was a man of various accomplishments. He composed pieces for the piano and organ and vocal music; he both sang and played himself. He had considerable mechanical skill, and he carved in wood. He also was a water-colour painter. A book which he wrote about the Riviera, with coloured lithographs from water-colour drawings of his own, was one of his last publications.[3]

In later life he was the first editor of the Contemporary Review, and to this and Good Words and the Sunday Magazine he was a constant contributor.[4]

His activity and powers of sustained intellectual work were very remarkable. He passed rapidly and without rest from one employment to another. When he commenced his New Testament he was working 7 hours a day with pupils, besides having the charge of a parish and the cares of a family; and throughout life his standard of work was on a similar scale.[4]

He had extraordinary buoyancy; but the effects of overstrain began to tell upon him some 10 years before his death, and he was obliged to take frequent intervals of repose, mostly in the shape of foreign tours, which became longer and more frequent. His death, in his 61st year, was sudden, and appears to have had no other cause than the exhaustion of the vital energy.[4]


His works were very miscellaneous, comprising a book on the Greek poets, selections of English prose and verse for translation into the classical languages and vice versâ, a volume entitled The Queen's English, lectures on English descriptive poetry, and many other subjects.[4]

Indeed, he was one of the most voluminous writers of our age. The list of his works, with a short statement of their subjects, occupies an appendix to his Life of 15 pages 8vo. They comprise 48 volumes, some of which are slight, but others, like the Poems and the Greek Testament, exceedingly laborious; 104 articles in reviews, and 21 short separate pieces, hymns, sermons, or tracts.[4]

Later in life he published a translation of the Odyssey in blank verse. His poems were highly commended by William Wordsworth, with whom he had some acquaintance, and were favourably noticed in the Edinburgh and other reviews. He also wrote many hymns, 2 of which, the harvest hymn, "Come, ye thankful people, come," and the baptismal hymn, "In token that thou shalt not fear," have won a very high position.[3]

His Greek Testament and other biblical works, however, constitute his chief claim to gratitude and fame. His design of editing the Greek Testament was conceived in 1845; the first volume was published in 1849, the last in 1861. He recognised from the first the superiority of the German critics, and went to Bonn in 1847 for three months to make himself master of the language. He adopted a text mainly taken from Buttmann and Lachmann, but corrected later by the aid of the works of Tregelles and Tischendorf. The various readings are given minutely. The references to passages illustrating the use of words in Hellenistic Greek are original and important. The notes display throughout an independent and sound judgment, occasionally hasty and peremptory, but giving the student the means of forming his own opinion.[4]

His theological standpoint is that of a liberal belief in inspiration; he separates himself distinctly from the mechanical and verbal theory, and on the other hand from the freer handling of the New Testament by writers such as Professor Jowett. His work forms an epoch in biblical studies in England; and, though separate portions of the Greek Testament have since been more fully dealt with by others, it is as yet unapproached as a whole.[4]

His New Testament for English readers, an adaptation of the notes in the Greek Testament to the use of those who do not read Greek, was begun immediately the Greek Testament was finished. He also undertook, during the progress of the Greek Testament, a revised English version, begun in company with three others but finished by himself alone. He was naturally, at a later date, one of the leaders of the company for the revision of the English New Testament until his death. In the last year of his life he undertook a commentary on the Old Testament, which was only carried to the 25th chapter of Exodus at the time of his death.[4]

Alfred H. Miles: "Dean Alford’s general poems were never popular, nor do they possess the qualities which secure the 'audience fit, though few,' which is the consolation of so many who miss wider recognition. His translations show the scholar rather than the poet, and his other poems lack originality of thought and poetic felicity of diction."[5]


His Life, written by his widow, appeared in 1873 (Rivington).

His poem "The Bride" was included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[6]





  • The Greek Testament: With a critically revised text, a digest of various readings, marginal references to verbal and idiomatic usage, prolegomena, and a critical and exegetical commentary. London: Francis & John Rivington, 1849. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV
  • The Odyssey of Homer: In English hendecasyllable verse; Part I: Books I.-XII. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861.

Letters and journalsEdit

  • Life, Journals and Letters (edited by Fanny Alford). London: Rivingtons, 1873; Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1873.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[7]

See alsoEdit

Henry Alford - The Poetry - A Sample

Henry Alford - The Poetry - A Sample



  1. John William Cousin, "Alford, Henry," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 8.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Fremantle, 282.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 Fremantle, 283.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Fremantle, 284.
  5. from Alfred H. Miles, Critical and Biographical Essay: Henry Alford (1810–1871), Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century (London: George Routledge / New York: E.P. Dutton, 1907),, 2011. Web, Feb. 2, 2017.
  6. "The Bride". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 4, 2012.
  7. Search results = au:Henry Alford, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Dec. 30, 2015.

External linksEdit

Audio / video

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Alford, Henry

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