Samuel Henley, born in 1745 in England, was ordained in the Church of England after being educated as a Dissenter. Henley was recruited to be Professor of Moral Philosophy at the College of William and Mary (1770-1775), but returned to England in May 1775 because of the widening rift between England and Virginia. While at the College, Henley was refused the Rectorship of Bruton Parish Church when his Socinian and deist leanings became a public issue pursued by the powerful and religiously conservative Robert Carter Nicholas.
At William and Mary, Henley also lectured on poetry and published in the Virginia Gazette, both occasional poems and letters, often on disputatious topics.
On his return to England, Henley taught at Harrow and pursued antiquarian interests with frequent periodical contributions, about Shakespeare’s language in particular. In 1805, Henley was appointed principal of the East India College at Haileybury, but was not notably successful in that post. He died on December 29 1815. He and Thomas Jefferson had been regular correspondents.
Henley’s translation of William Beckford’s Vathek (1786), admired by Byron and Poe, appeared without Beckford’s approval, a point of continuing controversy among scholars.
Though Henley moved within Beckford’s voluptuous circle for a time, there seems little evidence to support a claim by André Parreaux of any supposed "dark beginnings of Henley's career" in Virginia.
Thompson’s labeling Henley "a mediocrity and an unimaginative laborer in the vineyards of literature" should be balanced by the more sympathetic treatment of him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
A portrait supposed to be of Henley is printed by Robert J. Gemmett in The Episodes of Vathek by William Beckford (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1975), [p. xvii].
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- Samuel Henley in the SCRC database.
- Guide for conducting research related to the College of William & Mary
- See too Mellen Chamberlain, “Sketch of Life of Rev. Sameul Henley,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 15(1877), 230-242; Fraser Neiman, “The Letters of William Gilpin to Samuel Henley,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 35: 2 (February 1972), 159-169; George Morrow, Of Heretics, Traitors and True Believers: The War for the Soul of Williamsburg (Williamsburg: Telford, 2011); and Terry L. Meyers, "Samuel Henley's 'Dark Beginnings" in Virginia, Notes and Queries, 59 (2012), 347-350.
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