“The Gloomy Dean” William Ralph Inge was born 6 June 1860 in Crayke, Yorkshire, England. He garnered his nickname “The Gloomy Dean” from the often-disapproving and barbed responses to mainstream culture he expressed in his regular column in the Evening Standard from 1921-1946.
From his earliest life, Inge was no stranger to Anglican holy orders: his mother, Susanna Mary Churton, was the daughter of the Archdeacon of Cleveland, and his father, William Inge, was curate of Crayke and provost of Worcester College, Oxford. After thirteen years of education from his parents—which was ardently high-church and Anglo-Catholic, and much of which Inge himself eventually rejected in favor of liberal modernism—Inge received his education from Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. He returned to Eton as Assistant Master in 1884 and taught classics. He was ordained deacon in the Church of England in 1888, but, harboring doubts, chose to delay his own ordination to the priesthood a few more years. In the same year he was elected Fellow and Tutor at Hertford College, Oxford, a post he strongly preferred to his former position at Eton College. His early scholarship at Oxford focused on Christian mysticism, as did his 1899 Bampton Lecturers.
In 1904, Inge married Mary Catharine (Kitty) Spooner, with whom he had three children. Spooner also came from an Anglican ecclesiastical dynasty, a fact that might seem coincidental, but for Inge’s “interest in the inheritance of intelligence” and consequent “strong belief in eugenics” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Inge left Oxford the following year to become vicar of All Saints’ Church, Knightsbridge. In 1907, Inge became Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Fellow of Jesus College, both at Cambridge. In 1911, however, he left his academic posts and All Saints’ Church to become Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1917-1918, Inge delivered two Gifford lectures, each on the philosophy of the pagan Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (c. 203-270 CE). He served a number of lectureships in the United Kingdom and the United States and received honorary degrees from the universities of Aberdeen, Durham, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Oxford and St. Andrews.
To label Inge as an elitist would not be to descend to the level of ad hominem jabs, but simply to diagnose the strength of his unabashed Platonism. In his weekly columns, he criticized democracy in favor of rule by an educated elite (per Plato’s Republic) and opposed welfare “on the grounds that it penalized the successful while subsidizing the weak and feckless” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Here again one notices his belief in eugenics, a field that, while harshly criticized by many, was unfortunately at no want of prominent supporters.
It was not until the Hitler utilized a form of eugenics to sanction his purge of non-Arian people that eugenics fell out of vogue, having been finally unmasked as disastrous and unethical. Inge himself considered Nazism an illegitimate usage of eugenics, however, and only tyrannical for other reasons. He even opposed Britain’s entrance into the war, as he felt England had no quarrel with Germany.
In other matters, Inge was something of an erratic gadfly. He strongly opposed socialism, believed that the Bible offered nothing in the way of social teaching (only personal, spiritual teaching), and therefore insisted on a staunch individualism and non-interventionism. That he denounced intervention so strongly may come as a surprise, however, given how highly he favored authoritarian state control of some things, such as which married couples among the lower classes ought to be allowed to reproduce. He was, according his preference for a more genteel, sanitized society, unmarred by what he believed were petty social ills, a paragon of Victorian sensibility.
He is best remembered for the sharp-witted and controversialist positions he expressed in his Evening Standard columns—thus earning him the nickname “The Gloomy Dean”. As a scholar, however, he is remembered for his work on Plotinus, Christian Platonism, and mysticism.
Inge enjoyed domestic happiness throughout his career, but the last decades of his life were marked by tragedy. In 1923, his daughter Paula died of diabetes at the age of eleven, due to the unavailability of insulin in that time. In 1941, his youngest son Richard, also in the ministry, died during a RAF training flight. Inge retired from church ministry in 1934 to a life of writing and study. In 1949, his wife passed away, and he himself died on 26 February 1954.
Inge wrote over thirty-five books in the areas of mysticism, Christianity, Platonism, ethics and contemporary issues, insisting in them to the church of his day that union of God is a deeply personal, contemplative, and mystical experience that must not be reduced to a mere abstraction or body of teachings.
His most famous works are Christian Mysticism (Bampton Lectures) (1899); The Religious Philosophy of Plotinus and some Modern Philosophies of Religion (1914); The Philosophy of Plotinus (Gifford Lectures, 2 vols.) (1918); Outspoken Essays (2 vols., 1919, 1922); The Idea of Progress (Romanes Lecture) (1920); The Victorian Age: the Rede Lecture for 1922 (1922); Personal Religion and the Life of Devotion (1924).