Pope, Dr William Burt
1822-1903; e.m. 1841

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WM theologian, born in Nova Scotia on 19 February 1822, the son of John Pope (1791-1836), WM missionary. He was educated in England. He became the outstanding WM theologian of the nineteenth century, whose 3-volume Compendium of Christian Theology (1875; 2nd edition, 1880) remained a standard text for over a generation. (In his own view, however, the shorter Higher Catechism of Theology (1883) was a more balanced and felicitous statement of his position.) He succeeded John Hannah as tutor in systematic theology at Didsbury College 1867-86, was President of the Conference in 1877 and served as Chairman of the Manchester District, 1877-85. He received a DD from Wesleyan University, Connecticut in 1865 and from Edinburgh in 1877. He gave the Fernley Lecture in 1871 on The Person of Christ. Stressing the Methodist contribution to theology, he wrote an important essay (1873) on its particular ethos and contributed a classic chapter to the Wesley Memorial Volume (1881).

In his own theological work, however, he also drew widely from patristic, reformed and eastern traditions. He laid particular emphasis on the inner trinitarian dynamics of salvation, on the eternal sonship and what he called 'the great obedience' of the incarnate Son; and he stressed the inner witness of the Spirit and the doctrine of perfect love. From 1883 he edited the London Quarterly Review. A meticulous textual scholar, he was, like many of his generation in the WM ministry, suspicious of the 'higher criticism' and of the notion of 'evolution'. His work thus marks the end of an era, though his encouragement of J.S. Lidgett undoubtedly contributed to new and important developments in Methodist theology. He died at Willesden Green, London on 5 July 1903.


' [His library] is a revelation of the width of his reading. He seemed to move with ease in the Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and Italian languages... His learning was astonishingly wide. He was a hungry scholar, with a passion for knowledge. He rose each morning at five. He was the greatest theologian that the Wesleyan Church has ever known, and yet he said, "I am a Mathematician first; a Theologian second."... He was a man of rich mystical experience, and even a swift survey of his library will reveal how well he was versed in the literature of mysticism.'

W. Bardsley Brash, The Story of our Colleges (1935), p.61

'Pope's scholarly credentials were impressive. He was a thorough student of biblical and classical languages, he read widely in British and German literature, he was disciplined in his thought and achieved a remarkable clarity and succinctness in his theological writing. Descriptions of his character reflect the integrity of his life and thought; he exhibited what he expressed.

'At the same time, Pope represented the limitations of a self-restricting tradition, one which stays within its own confines and does not seek interaction with other contemporary intellectual movements… He was indifferent to current philosophy and hostile to the scientific developments of his day… Pope was a tower of strength within an enclosed tradition. He gave impressive expression to the themes that had formed Methodist theology and to the influences that other Christian traditions had upon Methodism. But his statement was a restatement; he did not bring theology into engagement with current issues, questions, or challenges.'

Thomas A. Langford, in Randy L. Maddox (ed.), Rethinking Wesley's Theology for Contemporary Methodism (1998) pp.42-3

'I have good cause to remember him, as it was under his ministry that I was converted. He was rather nervous, and while preaching used often to button and unbuitton his coat, which seemed to help him a bit. On weekday evenings he gave us a course of sermons on the epistle to the Philippians, and on another week evening led a class through the Acts of the Apostles... He had a dog who on weeknights frequently followed hm to chapel, trotted up the aisle and was admitted into the pulpit, where he lay very quiet during the service.'

Mrs. E. Sackett, mother of Mr. A.B. Sackett, quoted by Hubert A Pitts I More Fragments of Methodist History (Hythe, 1970) p.4

  • George J. Stevenson, Methodist Worthies (1884-86), 3, pp.434-37
  • Methodist Recorder, 9 July 1903
  • Methodist Recorder, Winter Number, 1903, p.80; 1906 pp.92-100
  • R. Waddy Moss, The Rev. W.B. Pope DD, theologian and saint [1909]
  • F.W. Macdonald, Reminiscences of my Early Ministry (1910) pp.208-12
  • Alan P.F. Sell, in Scottish Journal of Theology, 38 (1985) pp.41-83
  • G. Slater in Epworth Review, May 1988
  • Thomas A. Langford, in Thomas A. Langford, in Randy L. Maddox (ed.), Rethinking Wesley's Theology for Contemporary Methodism (1998) pp.42-43
  • David N. Field, 'Prevenient grace and universal atonement in the theology of William Burt Pope' (Aldersgate Papers, vol. 11, June 2015, pp.33-52
  • Oxford DNB