Our goodly heritage has come down to us from men of remarkable and diverse temperaments and talents. Some were ardent evangelists, others profound theologians or gifted expositors of Scripture. The endeavours of Samuel Prideaux Tregelles were chiefly in another field, a very important one. He is to be remembered as one of the outstanding and skilled textual critics of the nineteenth century. His achievements as a scholar are all the more noteworthy considering that he was largely self-taught!
Samuel Tregelles was born in Falmouth on 30th January, 1813. His family were Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, and shared business interests in Cornwall with another old Quaker family named Fox. Together they had established the Perran Foundry for the supply of machinery to local tin mines, and in 1793 had acquired the Neath Abbey Iron Works in South Wales.
From early childhood Samuel had a retentive memory which must have been a great advantage in his later studies. He received the normal classical education of those days at Falmouth Grammar School. The headmaster wished him to proceed to a university but his upbringing made this impossible, for entrance to the universities at that time was barred to Non-Conformists. Instead, in 1828 he was sent to work in the Neath Abbey Iron Works. This continued for six years. But his inclination to academic study was by no means stifled and his spare time was used in learning Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. He also mastered the Welsh language.
The precise time and circumstance of his conversion are not now known; however, family members belonged to the evangelical wing of the Society of Friends which would have been a helpful influence. The preaching of Benjamin Wills Newton, whose first wife Hannah Abbott was a cousin of Samuel's father, was another factor leading to his conversion.¹ It was after this that he returned to Falmouth in 1835 where he supported himself by working as a private tutor. His contacts with Newton stimulated an interest in prophetic studies and his first published work in 1836 was Passages in the Revelation Connected with the Old Testament.
Tregelles resided with the Newtons for a brief period and joined the fellowship of the assembly in Plymouth. He was employed by G V Wigram to work both on the Englishman's Greek Concordance to the New Testament and on the Englishman's Hebrew and Greek Concordance to the Old Testament. In 1838 he commenced what would become his life's work, namely the critical study of the Greek text of the New Testament. His primary aim was the formation of the most accurate text of the Greek Testament possible to achieve, based entirely upon the oldest manuscripts then available. The critical reading and study of ancient uncial manuscripts² was painstaking work extending over many years. He began by collating the Codex³ Augiensis held in Trinity College, Cambridge, and then travelled widely in Europe to undertake further research. In 1845 he spent five months in Rome where, under the close supervision of priests, he studied the famous Vatican Codex. He was forbidden to copy the manuscript and the attendant priests were in general unhelpful to him. From Rome he went to Florence, Modena, Venice, Munich and Basle, reading and collating manuscripts. Returning to England in 1846 he made his home in Plymouth but spent much time in London studying manuscripts held in the British Museum. Tregelles again visited various cities and universities on the Continent, and in Leipzig he examined the Codex Sinaiticus which at the time was in the keeping of the famous Constantin Von Tischendorf. He spent much time and labour in restoring and deciphering damaged manuscripts. Such work demanded concentration, care and skill of the highest order.
As Tregelles' editions of the Gospels were published, his reputation as a scholar grew, and gained serious recognition. In 1850 the University of St. Andrews conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D. Editions of Acts, the General Epistles and the Pauline Epistles were published at intervals through the 1860s. In 1870 he was working on the last chapters of Revelation when he suffered a stroke of paralysis after which he was unable to walk. He continued to work though confined to bed, and was able to complete the task. This showed his commitment to finish what he had begun.
His critical edition of the Greek New Testament was finally published in 1879. Perhaps only scholars familiar with the original languages of the Bible can properly value and appreciate the achievements of such textual critics as Tregelles who have been imbued with reverence for divinely inspired writings along with outstanding scholarship. None the less, careful readers and students of Scripture can benefit from their work. For example various readings of the Greek Text are given in the Newberry Reference Bible (see foot of the pages of the New Testament). There are constant references to Tregelles (abbreviated Tre). These are given to inform the reader of different authorities for and against various readings, and this can help to further understanding of the meaning.
Many scholarly works came from his pen and an article in the Western Morning News in 1957 paid this tribute to him: Tregelles must rank as the most learned man ever associated with Plymouth, which was remarkable in the last century for producing several noted scholars in Divinity and Biblical literature.
But Tregelles was a man of many parts. He became well known as a hymn writer. Some of his hymns have been included in the major collections used in assemblies of Christians gathered unto the name of the Lord. He composed such fine hymns of praise and adoration as Holy Saviour we adore Thee; Son of God! With joy we praise Thee; Thy name we bless, Lord Jesus!
A hymn written for burial services commences with tenderness for bereaved hearts, but in the final verse they are pointed beyond the tomb:
'Tis sweet to think of those at rest,
Who sleep in Christ the Lord;
Whose spirits now with Him are blest,
According to His word.
We cannot linger o'er the tomb.
To faith shines bright beyond its gloom
Christ's glory to display.
In a hymn we frequently sing - Father, we, Thy children bless Thee - he anticipates the joy and rest of pilgrims when Christ returns:
Then shall countless myriads wearing
Robes made white in Jesus' blood,
Palms (like rested pilgrims) bearing,
Stand around the throne of God.
These, redeemed from every nation,
Shall in triumph bless Thy name;
Every voice shall cry, "Salvation
To our God and to the Lamb!"
These and other fine hymns reveal the spiritual aspirations of this eminent Christian scholar. They express his living and vibrant faith and hope. We gain an insight not only to his mind but to his soul. Intellect and sympathy were well combined!
He was a personally modest and gentle natured man, and the difficulties and controversies affecting the meeting at Ebrington Street in Plymouth must have had a deep and lasting effect upon him, for in later years he was no longer connected with brethren. He had married his cousin Sarah Anna Prideaux in 1839. They had no children. In 1862 he was granted a Civil List Pension of £100 p.a. and this was increased in 1870 by a further £100 by Mr Gladstone's administration. For the last five years of his life he was confined to his house at 6 Portland Square, Plymouth from where the Lord called him home on 24th April, 1875 at the comparatively early age of 62 years.
¹ A History of the Brethren Movement by Roy Coad, p.66
² UNCIAL manuscripts were written entirely in unconnected capital letters with no spaces between words. They are to be distinguished from Cursive manuscripts.
³ The word is derived from the Latin caudex meaning trunk of a tree or block of wood. A codex is a book of sheets of vellum, papyrus or paper. Codices (plural) gradually replaced scrolls and it is thought parity of numbers between the two forms was reached around AD 300.