His family were in embarrassed circumstances, and he was indebted to relatives for the means of university education. In 1836 he was second wrangler and Smith's prizeman at Cambridge, and in 1837 he became fellow of St John's. Two years later he went to Harrow as mathematical tutor, but the step proved an unfortunate one. The school was just then at the lowest ebb, and Colenso not only had few pupils, but lost most of his property by a fire. He went back to Cambridge, and in a short time paid off heavy debts by diligent tutoring and the proceeds of his series of manuals of algebra (1841) and arithmetic (1843), which were adopted all over England.
In 1846 he became rector of Forncett St Mary, Norfolk, and in 1853 he was appointed bishop of Natal. He at once devoted himself to acquiring the Zulu language, of which he compiled a grammar and a dictionary, and into which he translated the New Testament and other portions of Scripture. He had already given evidence, in a volume of sermons dedicated to Maurice, that he was not satisfied with the traditional views about the Bible. The puzzling questions put to him by the Zulus strengthened him in this attitude and led him to make a critical examination of the Pentateuch. His conclusions, positive and negative, were published in a series of treatises on the Pentateuch, extending from 1862 to 1879, and, being in advance of his time, were naturally disputed in England with a fervour of conviction equal to his own. On the continent they attracted the notice of Abraham Kuenen, and furthered that scholar's investigations.
While the controversy raged in England, the South African bishops, whose suspicions Colenso had already incurred by the liberality of his views respecting polygamy among native converts and by a commentary upon the Epistle to the Romans (1861), in which he combated the doctrine of eternal punishment, met in conclave to condemn him, and pronounced his deposition (December 1863). Colenso, who had refused to appear before their tribunal otherwise than as sending a protest by proxy, appealed to the privy council, which pronounced that the metropolitan of Cape Town (Robert Gray) had no coercive jurisdiction and no authority to interfere with the bishop of Natal. No decision, therefore, was given upon the merits of the case.
His adversaries, though unable to obtain his condemnation, succeeded in causing him to be generally inhibited from preaching in England, and Bishop Gray not only excommunicated him but consecrated a rival bishop for Natal (WK Macrorie), who, however, took his title from Maritzburg. The contributions of the missionary societies were withdrawn, but an attempt to deprive him of his episcopal income was frustrated by a decision of the courts. Colenso, encouraged by a handsome testimonial raised in England, to which many clergymen subscribed, returned to his diocese, and devoted the latter years of his life to furtherlaboursasa biblical commentator and translator. He also championed the cause of the natives against Boer oppression and official encroachments, a course by which he made more enemies among the colonists than he had ever made among the clergy. He died at Durban on June 20 1883. His daughter Frances Ellen Colenso (1849-1887) published two books on the relations of the Zulus to the British (1880 and 1885), taking a pro-Zulu view; and an elder daughter, Harriette E Colenso (b. 1847), became prominent as an advocate of the Zulus in opposition to their treatment by Natal, especially in the case of Dinizulu in 1888—1889 and in 1908—1909.
See his Life by Sir GW Cox (2 vols., London, 1888).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.