If you go for a walk through the woods at Abinger Roughs along one of the many bridleways you will find a monument. It is a memorial to Samuel Wilberforce who at that place was thrown from his horse and killed. You may wonder what caused his horse to rear and to throw him to the ground.
Wilberforce is a famous name with William famous for his work against slavery, as an MP and for social reform. Samuel, his son, was born in 1805, educated at Oxford and later entered the priesthood to become eventually the Bishop of Oxford and later Lord Bishop of Oxford . He was known as an exceptional speaker in lectures and public debate and a prolific letter writer. He published collections of hymns, sermons and short stories – always with a moral message. In public debate, mainly over conflicts in religious issues he maintained a diplomatic middle approach that earned him the nickname ‘Soapy Sam’.
A famous incident followed the publication by Charles Darwin of ‘The Origin of Species’ and the challenge the church saw it made to the Bible account in the book of Genesis of Creation. At an Oxford conference in 1860 Wilberforce was to speak in a debate with Thomas Huxley, the eminent biologist. It was a crowded meeting and Wilberforce opened the debate and presented his case – ‘The principle of natural selection is absolutely incompatible with the word of God’. In a scoffing tone Samuel assured the audience that there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been.
He then went on to ask a question that became famous – ‘Was Huxley descended from an ape on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side of the family?’
Huxley rose to deliver his speech and replied that he was not ashamed of his ancestry, but that he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. Huxley’s suggestion that ‘he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a bishop’ caused an uproar. People in the audience even fainted and others waved Bibles at the speaker. It was an historic encounter and had the effect of allowing others to challenge accepted religious doctrine.
Samuel Wilberforce was killed by his fall in 1873 and it was reported that Thomas Huxley very unkindly commented that Wilberforce’s brains had at last come into contact with reality, and the result had been fatal.