Henson’s letters to newspapers and weekly journals and periodicals

Julia Stapleton and Philip Williamson

Henson was a prolific contributor to the correspondence columns of national newspapers and weekly journals and periodicals, offering his distinctive views on the leading issues and events of the day from 1887 until the year before his death. In doing so, he sought to shape clerical, political, and public opinion, to defend himself against his critics, and to influence policy-makers.

He addressed most of his letters to The Times, even when during the late 1930s it favoured appeasement, a policy he vehemently opposed.[1] In his view, the correspondence columns of that newspaper occupied an unrivalled position in public debate. When, as bishop of Durham, distance and pressing duties prevented him from attending the debate in the House of Lords on the division of the Shrewsbury diocese, he consoled himself with the thought that ‘a letter to The Times might be quite as effective as a speech, to say nothing of the discomfort and expense of the journey’.[2]

Through All Souls and his membership of the Athenaeum, he was friendly with Geoffrey Dawson (Robinson before 1917), the editor of The Times from 1912 to 1919 and again from 1923 to 1941. On one occasion, he handed a letter he had just written in the Athenaeum directly to Dawson.[3] In 1929, he asked Dawson for the return of all his letters to the newspaper over forty years. This was to assist him in writing an ‘apologia’ for what appeared to be his volte-face on the issue of disestablishment. In the same way, he had requested Sir William Anson’s letters to The Times when writing his memoir of the Warden a decade earlier.[4]

More sparingly, Henson also wrote to other national newspapers. During his years at Westminster, he contributed letters to the Liberal evening newspaper The Westminster Gazette, particularly on the issues of religion in education, the reunion of English Protestant churches, and the role of the clergy in politics. In addition, he wrote letters to prominent weekly reviews such as The Spectator and The Nation, and, earlier on, The Saturday Review. He addressed Church and religious issues mainly in The Times rather than in Church newspapers such as The Guardian (as distinct from The Manchester Guardian), although he also sent letters to that section of the press when the occasion demanded.

As more of his public letters are found, the information will be incorporated into the following list. The list is most complete for his letters to The Times. However, while further letters to that newspaper may be added, the total is unlikely to exceed five hundred, the estimate of one Henson scholar.[5]

The letters included in the list so far make clear the vigour, pertinence, and interest of his writing. From as early as the 1890s, they frequently appeared first among several on the same topic, sometimes taking precedence even over those of influential politicians. In keeping with his individualism, he was a co-signatory to few letters. The length of some of his letters is also striking, approximating that of short articles in some cases, and occasionally taking the place of articles.[6] He often recorded with satisfaction the private letters of agreement he received from readers of these letters, most notably, his condemnation of the Nazis for incarcerating Pastor Niemöller in a concentration camp for resisting state control of the German Protestant churches.[7] According to Owen Chadwick, his best-known letter appeared two years earlier, castigating representatives of British universities for attending the 550th anniversary celebrations of the University of Heidelberg, a leading institution in the persecution of Jewish scholars at the behest of the Nazi regime.[8]

See the consolidated list of letters to newspapers and weekly journals and periodicals.

[1] Journal, 21 Oct. 1938.
[2] Journal, 11 Dec. 1925.
[3] Henson, Journal, 27 Nov. 1918.
[4] Henson to Dawson (copy), 13 Jan. 1929, HHH109/54; the ‘apologia’ was his book, Disestablishment (1929); Henson, A memoir of the Right Honourable Sir William Anson, baronet: Warden of All Souls college, Burgess for the University of Oxford (1920). Neither Henson’s nor Anson’s letters to The Times are preserved in the Henson papers at Durham.
[5] Peart-Binns, Henson, 11.
[6] For example, ‘Reunion’, Times, 17 Aug. 1918, which became the Saturday religious column that day; see Journal, 17 Aug. 1918.
[7] Journal, 13, 18 Aug. 1938.
[8] Chadwick, Henson, 259; Times, 4 Feb. 1936.