Ernest William Barnes FRS[1] (1 April 1874 – 29 November 1953) was a British mathematician and scientist who later became a liberal theologian and bishop.[2][3][4]

He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and Trinity College, Cambridge.[5] He was Master of the Temple from 1915 to 1919. He was made Bishop of Birmingham in 1924, the only bishop appointed during Ramsay MacDonald's first term in office. His modernist views, in particular objection to Reservation, led to conflict with the Anglo-Catholics in his diocese.[6] A biography by his son, Sir John Barnes, Ahead of His Age: Bishop Barnes of Birmingham, was published in 1979.

Birth and education

Barnes was the eldest of four sons of John Starkie Barnes and Jane Elizabeth Kerry, both elementary school head-teachers. In 1883 Barnes' father was appointed Inspector of Schools in Birmingham, a position that he occupied throughout the rest of his working life. Barnes was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and in 1893 went up to Cambridge as a Scholar of Trinity College. He was bracketed Second Wrangler in 1896 and was placed in the first division of the first class in Part II of the Mathematical Tripos in 1897. In the following year he was awarded the first Smith's Prize and was duly elected to a Trinity Fellowship. During his time as a Fellow he served on the committee of Cambridge University Liberal Club from 1899 to 1901.[7] He was appointed a lecturer in mathematics in 1902, junior dean in 1906–1908 and a tutor in 1908. He graduated ScD of the University of Cambridge in 1907 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1909.[1] In the years that followed, Barnes was assigned to be Ramanujan's tutor and agreed with G. H. Hardy's assessment of his brilliance.[8]


In the same year he became a lecturer in mathematics, Barnes was made deacon by the Bishop of London and from 1906 to 1908 was Junior Dean of Trinity. In 1915, Barnes left Cambridge, and his career as a professional mathematician, upon his appointment as Master of the Temple in London. This was followed in 1918 by a canonry of Westminster Abbey and finally, in 1924, by consecration to the Bishopric of Birmingham, an office he held until April 1953, when he had to retire on account of ill-health. He died at his home in Sussex at the age of 79, survived by his wife and two sons. A bronze memorial tablet to him, as the third bishop of Birmingham, was erected in the south aisle of Birmingham Cathedral, near where his ashes, together with those of his wife, are placed under the pavement marked by a slab with the initials "EWB".


Barnes was perhaps the best known liberal bishop of his time, identified with the modernist or broad church movement. His episcopate was marked by continual controversy.[9]

His book The Rise of Christianity (1947) attacked many Christian claims, including the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ.[10] This led to calls that he should resign as a bishop. This Barnes refused to do. Earlier he had written Should Such a Faith Offend? (1927) and Scientific Theory and Religion (1933), and he was a contributor to 18 other books. His attack on Francis of Assisi as "probably verminous" drew a rebuke in verse from G. K. Chesterton.

He was also politically active. In 1940, he lost a libel case in which he had attacked the Cement Makers' Federation for allegedly holding up the supply of cement, for their own profit at a time of great national need, in the construction of air-raid shelters.[11] Undaunted by this set-back, Barnes returned to his accusations on the cement ring in a speech he delivered in the House of Lords the following year.

Pacifism and eugenics

He was an uncompromising pacifist,[12] and spoke out against British participation in the Second World War. He also expressed eugenic views.[13] Though a member of the Eugenic Society from 1924 until his death in 1953, it was not until after the Second World War that he openly argued in favour of voluntary sterilisation as a means to overcome the apparent prevalence of "mental deficiency" in society. Several of these eugenic-themed lectures gained significant newspaper coverage in The Times and The Manchester Guardian, sparking a fervent public debate in which inevitable – if not entirely justifiable – parallels were drawn between Barnes' arguments and Nazi ideology. In his latter years Barnes was thus a pacifist, religious leader and campaigner for the perceived declining cause of eugenics.[14]

Personal life

In 1916, Barnes married Adelaide Caroline Theresa Ward, daughter of Sir Adolphus Ward.[15] Together they had two sons: John was a diplomat, who served as ambassador to Israel and the Netherlands; and William, a public servant and philanthropist.[16]

See also


  1. ^ a b Whittaker, E. T. (1954). "Ernest William Barnes. 1874-1953". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 9 (1): 14–25. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1954.0002. JSTOR 769195. S2CID 162229868.
  2. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Ernest Barnes", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews
  3. ^ Weisstein, Eric Wolfgang (ed.). "Barnes, Ernest (1874–1953)". ScienceWorld.
  4. ^ Obituary in The Times, Monday, 30 November 1953; p. 10; Issue 52792; col D: "Dr. E. W. Barnes The Christian Faith And Science"
  5. ^ "Barnes, Ernest William (BNS892EW)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  6. ^ The Times, Thursday, 18 December 1924; p. 15; Issue 43838; col F: "Dr. Barnes And His Critics. An Expression of Confidence". Letter of support, to the Editor, signed by W. R. INGE ; E. A. BURROUGHS; W. L. PAIGE COX; J. H. THORPE; R. H. CHARLES; H. LOWTHER CLARKE; V. F. STORR,; T. GUY ROGERS; R. H. KENNETT,; J. F. BETHUNE-BAKER,.
  7. ^ About us « Keynes Society. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  8. ^ K. Srinivasa Rao (28 March 2000). "Life and work of the mathemagician Srinivasa Ramanujan". arXiv:math/0003184.
  9. ^ The Times, 31 August 1925; p. 7; Issue 44054; col D: "Magical Views of the Eucharist. Dr Barnes at Oxford." (Conference of Modern Churchmen).
  10. ^ David Hein, "Geoffrey Fisher: Archbishop of Canterbury", p.lxvii ff.
  11. ^ The Times, 10 May 1941; p. 2; Issue 48922; col F: "High Court of Justice King's Bench Division, Slander Action Against A Bishop: £1,600 Awarded, Alpha Cement, Limited, And Others v. Bishop Of Birmingham"
  12. ^ In 1936, his sermon Blessed are the peacemakers was published as a pamphlet by the Council of Christian Pacifist Groups, 1936 (Copy in British Library)
  13. ^ The Times, Tuesday, 22 May 1951; p. 2; Issue 52007; col C: "Menace of Excessive Populations Dr. Barnes on Inferior Human Strains" – report of the Cavendish lecture, 1951, to the Medico-chirurical Society of West London.
  14. ^ P. T. Merricks, God and the Gene:' E.W. Barnes on Eugenics and Religion,' Politics, Religion and Ideology, 13, 3 (September 2012): 353–374.
  15. ^ "Barnes, Rt Rev. Ernest William, (1 April 1874–29 Nov. 1953)". Who Was Who. Oxford University Press. 1 December 2007. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  16. ^ Corley, T. A. B. "Barnes, William Peter Ward (1919–2011)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/106489. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)