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The Colenso Affair: a reflection on religion and science


Bishop John Colenso, as caricatured in Punch magazine.



One of the saddest stories I have read in recent years concerned the resignation of Swedish climate scientist Lennart Bengtsson from an advisory role to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The story filled me with dismay.


Professor Bengtsson is an experienced meteorologist with a distinguished record in climate and meteorological research. His CV reveals that he was Head of Research at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting from 1975-1981 and Director of the Centre from 1982-1990. In 1991 he was appointed Director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg. Since 2008 he has been the Director of the International Space Science Institute in Bern, Switzerland. He has published over 200 papers in the fields of climatology and meteorology. Until recently he was a hero in the field of climate science.


But professional difficulties arose for Bengtsson when he decided he would provide scientific advice (on a voluntary basis) to the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), an organisation that is anathema to the world’s pro-global warming fraternity, the academics, bureaucrats and retired fire chiefs who form the “consensus on climate science”.  Bengtsson’s intention was not to “side with” or promote the views of the GWPF, but to provide it with scientific advice, based on his experience in climatology and meteorology. However, his fellow climate scientists saw his decision as heresy, as ‘selling out to the enemy’. They mounted a vitriolic attack on Bengtsson, and made such serious threats to his professional career, that he was forced to resign only two weeks into his new role.


I quote from Bengtsson’s resignation letter:


I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that has become virtually unbearable to me. If this is going to continue I will be unable to conduct my normal work and will even start to worry about my health and safety. I see therefore no other way out therefore than resigning from GWPF. I had not expected such an enormous world-wide pressure put at me from a community that I have been close to all my active life. Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship….


Climate scientist Lennart Bengtsson


By coincidence, just as all this was going on, I was reading Heaven’s Command – an imperial progress. This is the first volume in Jan Morris’ wonderful trilogy on the history of the British Empire. At one point in her narrative Morris describes the famous 19th century controversy surrounding the Church of England Bishop John William Colenso. It became known as ‘The Colenso Affair’ and is a story with which poor Professor Bengtsson would identify.


The parallels with Bengtssson are palpable, but the Colenso story is also interesting in its own right. It deals not just with the way the establishment can persecute someone who is seen to have ‘lost the faith’, but also with the way in which religion and government can become intertwined. In the 19th century it was the British imperial government intertwined with the Church of England. Today it is the governments of many western countries (including Australia), and the United Nations who have become intertwined with the passions of environmentalism and fears of “Global Boiling” (as the head of the UN’s climate body describes it).


The backstory


Colenso (the name is Cornish) was a brilliant mathematician and scholar who, after leaving Cambridge in 1846 joined the Church of England and became the rector of a country parish in Norfolk. Seven years later he was appointed the Bishop of Natal in South Africa. He took with him to South Africa his own printing press, with whose operation he was expert.



John Colenso at the time of his appointment as Bishop of Natal in 1853



Colenso was a very active prelate. Once established in Natal he travelled widely, including safaris into lands held by the Zulus, who were feared and mistrusted by the English in South Africa at that time, but whom Colenso befriended. He learned their language and was the first to develop a Zulu dictionary and a written language. He tolerated the Zulu practice of polygamy and refused to insist that Zulu men converted to Christianity must divorce all but one of their wives. This was a standard demand of Christian missionaries at the time. Its effect was to leave the divorced wives destitute. 


In another break with Church tradition, Colenso refused to accept the doctrine that Holy Communion was a precondition of entry to Heaven and eternal life. The implication of this doctrine, he said, was that all the ancestors of his newly converted Christians were, by definition, suffering eternal punishment in Hell because they had not been confirmed in the Church of England.  


Colenso also preached that all men, irrespective of race or colour, were created equal and stood upon the same level before the eyes of God. This was political as well as religious dynamite. And it was especially unpopular in South Africa ... or anywhere in the British colonies at the time, where whites invariably ruled non-whites and considered themselves superior. Thus, Colenso was regarded with alarm and suspicion by the English settlers in South Africa, by God-fearing Christians at home, and by the colonial service and imperial establishment who saw him as a threat to their rule by God’s order.



The cover of Colenso’s 1861 Zulu-English dictionary


The trouble begins


But the trouble really started for Colenso when he began translating the Bible into Zulu. As he began the translation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), he baulked at the contents. To quote from Morris’ account in Heaven’s Command:


He was confronted on every page, as he later said, by the question, 'Is all that true?' 'My heart answered in the words the Prophet, "shall a man speak lies in the name of the Lord? I dare not do so".' From doubting the literal truth of the words of Genesis, he went on to question the authorship of the entire Pentateuch ….. Much of their content, he decided, was not historical at all: much more was really centuries newer than was thought. Then he discovered that the Mosaic law never existed before the captivity in Babylon, and that the book of Deuteronomy was a fake, and that the books of Chronicles were falsified for the aggrandisement of priests and Levites. All these shattering doubts he freely made public….


The doctrine at that time, accepted by most literate people and promoted by the Church of England, was that the Christian Bible was the Word of God and that everything in it was the absolute truth. Colenso no longer accepted this and in doing so (and saying so) he was confronting a very big consensus. A good example was his take on the story of Noah and the great flood. He recommended this be regarded as an allegory, a cautionary tale, rather than historical fact. He said the Bible should be regarded as a sacred text and a guide to religious life, but it was not literally true in every sentence and word. Nor was it written by God, but by numerous scholars, religious leaders and poets over many centuries.

The attack


As word of Colenso’s teachings began to become widely known, all hell broke loose. There was a veritable frenzy of outrage from the religious establishment, the issue was debated with passion by biblical scholars, and there were letters to the newspapers. Ripostes to Colenso’s ideas poured out of pulpits all over the British Empire.


Even the humorous magazine Punch entered the fray, publishing a satirical poem as if written to Colenso by Archbishop Longley, the Church’s Primate of All England:


My dear Colenso,

              With regret,

We hierachs in conclave met,

Beg you, you disturbing writer,

To take off your colonial mitre.

This course we press upon you strongly,

Believe me, yours most truly,



Colenso was snubbed by civic dignitaries and government officials, was the subject of innumerable critical sermons, theological papers, and (according to Morris) “insulting diatribes and maidenly odes”. But the outrage was not confined to mere personal attack. He was sacked as Bishop of Natal and ex-communicated from the Church of England by his fellow prelate, the Bishop of South Africa. Funds for his missionary work were withdrawn and he was forbidden to preach in England or South Africa. There was an attempt in England to cancel payment of his stipend.


In short, Colenso was accused of heresy, of denying a core doctrine of the Church of England, i.e., that every word in the Bible was the truth. Heresy was the worst crime in the Church’s book, and having been accused and proved guilty of it, Colenso was dis-owned by his Church and his colleagues.


All of which brings me back to the Swedish climate scientist Lennart Bengtsson. He was similarly charged and found guilty of heresy from the “scientific consensus” surrounding climate change. He similarly suffered abuse and professional threats.


However, unlike Bengtsson, Colenso refused to be intimidated or excommunicated. He went to England and challenged his sacking, claiming that the Church of England was part of the Constitution of England, not of South Africa. He appealed to the Crown, and his appeal was upheld by the Privy Council in London; the Council confirmed that the Bishop of South Africa did not have the jurisdiction to sack the Bishop of Natal.


Nevertheless, Colenso’s career in the Church of England was finished. When he returned to Natal, it was to find that a rival Bishop had been appointed while he was away. He was banned from his own Cathedral by his own Dean, who ordered him before a full congregation “Depart! Go away from the House of God!”


Denied a church, Colenso did continue to preach to a small group of supporters, but he was forced to change his life’s direction completely. He subsequently devoted himself to the well-being of the native peoples of South Africa rather than to Church affairs. He played a major role in peace-making after the British-Zulu wars.




An intriguing aspect of the Colenso Affair is that today it simply would never arise, not as a religious controversy anyway. Few people any longer believe that every word in the Christian Bible is literally true, especially the words in the Old Testament, and this is certainly no longer a tenet of the Church of England. The advance of science and of biblical scholarship has rendered the concept irrelevant. In fact, Colenso’s concept of the Bible as a sacred text and a guide to spiritual life is (as far as I can see) the one most widely accepted by Christian churches these days.


On the other hand, as the Bengtsson incident demonstrates, the way in which “the consensus” deals with what they regard as heresy has not changed.  For another modern example, there is no need to look any further than the sacking of marine scientist Peter Ridd by James Cook University because he would not toe the line on the idea that climate change was destroying the Great Barrier Reef. People who are unconvinced by the computer projections of cataclysmic global warming, or who (like me) consider that damaging bushfires are the result of mismanagement rather than human emissions of CO2, are castigated as “denialists”. This pejorative label was once only applied to those who denied the undeniable fact of the Holocaust during World War II.


The doctrine that every word of the Bible was the absolute truth was once widely accepted. But it has not survived. Drawing a parallel, it is possible to imagine a similar erosion over time of belief in “global boiling” resulting from CO2 emissions, and that people will realise that droughts, floods and bushfires are natural events that have occurred over millenia. They are not “caused by climate change” and the degree which they cause damage is directly related to the way in which we prepare for them and mitigate their predictable outcomes. 


I believe that there will be an erosion of the ‘CO2 causes global boiling’ doctrine. But it will take at least another two or three decades, as the theory is so deeply entrenched in our education and political systems, in the media and in the bureaucracies … and even in the corporate world, international sport and (most wonderfully ironic, remembering the Colenso affair) the Church of England and the Catholic Church.


The most diabolical heretic of today, condemned by the consensus, is not someone who questions the literal truth of the Bible, but one who questions the likelihood that “net-zero” emissions of CO2 will have a significant impact on the world’s summer temperatures.


And if climate change anxiety goes the same way as 19th century religious intolerance, I wonder if sometime in the next century or so somebody will bring up the name of Lennart Bengtsson, and recall the way he was persecuted and intimidated by his scientific colleagues for opposing a ‘consensus’ that later was completely discarded? Unfortunately, I will not be around in 100 years-time to find out.




Perhaps I spoke too soon regarding a new tolerance in religious circles. A friend has recently (December 2023) passed on this report from Tasmania:


An extraordinary event was reported recently of an Anglican parishioner in Tasmania who has been banned from entering any Anglican church upon pain of police action because of a view she holds which goes against a church “orthodoxy”. She had the temerity to question an interpretation of scripture and has been told she would need to publicly repent for expressing her views before being allowed to return to the fold.


No doubt the lady in question would have an interesting conversation with John Colenso if ever they meet in another place …

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4 comentários

5 days ago

Taking on religion and climate change is akin to skating on thin ice with a gorilla on your back. Intolerance and persecution are hallmarks of a belief in the superiority and exclusivity of one view of the world. The Age of Enlightenment opened us to diversity and tolerance, a lesson we are still learning.

In your examples though I think there is a world of difference between opinions based on belief and blind faith and those at least guided by evidence and logic. Moreover for our community nothing can be demonstrated to hang on a religious belief (at least in this world) whereas there is a demonstrable concern of a threat to humanity from climate change.

In both cases though…


7 days ago

Thanks Roger for highlighting the false group think associated with a government-controlled consensus in science aka the human causes of climate change comparable to the historical influence of the church. Both sought to control the lives of its "disciples" in a way that is not only pernicious but also damaging to the freedom of the individual.

The strength of a capitalist society with democratic values we used to enjoy is the ability of the individual to make choices free of interference and take responsibilty for those choices.


04 de jul.

Roger, Thank you for your thoughtful opinion pieces in Forest Leaves. I have been reading them with interest since Jill introduced me to Forest Leaves. Regards, Margot Lang


03 de jul.


I hold very similar beliefs as you do regarding the 'climate change crisis' caused by a gas that is only a minute proportion of the earth's atmosphere. The vast billions of dollars aimed at reducing the CO2 concentration is having no impact at all so far on the CO2 ppm which continues to rise - a massive waste. I wonder if the clear movement to the 'political right' in Europe is at least partly due to people questioning the dominant 'climate change crisis' theory, which is largely responsible for the upheaval of agriculture that is happening in Europe.

Poor Prof B - appreciated the Colenso story which I had never heard of before. Regards, Peter Fagg

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