Milner, Joseph an eminent Anglican divine and ecclesiastical historian, the elder brother of Isaac, was born near Leeds, Yorkshire, January 2, 1744. He was sent to the grammar school at Leeds, where, by his industry and talents, among which a memory of most extraordinary power was conspicuous, he gained the warm regard of his master. Milner's father had always been in very narrow circumstances; his death only made the task greater; but, by the assistance of some gentlemen in Leeds, whose children Milner had lately engaged in teaching, and by the offer of the office of chapel-clerk at Catharine Hall, Cambridge, he was enabled to enter that hall at the age of eighteen. In the year 1766 he took his degree of B.A., and gained the chancellor's second gold medal for classical knowledge. He was made assistant in the school, and afterwards the curate of the Reverend Mr. Atkinson, of Thorp Arch, near Tadcaster. While in this place he undertook the completion of an epic poem, entitled Davideis, which he had commenced at Cambridge. It was submitted to Dr. (afterwards bishop) Hurd, who highly complimented the author on the talent it displayed, but advised him to defer its publication. On entering into deacon's orders, Mihier was elected head-master of the grammar school, and afternoon lecturer of the principal church of Hull. In this position he succeeded beyond the most ardent expectations of his dearest friends, especially in the capacity of an instructor, and the school. increased under his care. About the year 1770 Joseph Milner embraced the sentiments of the evangelical party in the Church of England. This change in his religious views brought upon him neglect, and in some cases open opposition from many among the upper classes who had once been his admirers and friends; but his church was soon crowded with others, chiefly from the lower orders of the people, in whose sentiments and manners his preaching produced a striking change; and at length he not only recovered the esteem of his fellow- townsmen, but lived to see his own religious sentiments become so popular in the town that many of the pulpits of the churches were filled by his friends and pupils, and he himself was chosen vicar of Hull by the mayor and corporation. Mr. Milner had been appointed vicar of North Ferriby, near Hull;. subsequently he had been appointed to the vicarship of the Holy Trinity, Cambridge. His election as vicar of Hull occurred only a few weeks before his death, which took place on the 15th of November, 1797.
A monument, executed by Bacon. was erected to his memory in the high church of Hull by several of his friends and former pupils. The excellences of Mr. Milner's personal character were of the highest order. He was deeply pious, upright in all his conduct, singularly open and sincere, and kind, cheerful, and amusing in social life. In his political principles he was strongly attached to the established order of things in Church and State.
His principal works are Gibbon's Account of Christianity considered (1781, 8vo), in which he not only exposes the sophistry of that infidel theologian, but gives the true character of the religion which he had attempted to undermine: — Some Passages in the Life of Wm. Howard (1785, 8vo): — Essays on the Influence of the Holy Spirit (1789, 12mo): — Practical Sermons (1801, 2 volumes, 8vo; 2d edit. revised, corrected, and enlarged by Reverend Isaac Milner, D.D., dean of Carlisle, 1801-23, 3 volumes, 8vo): — The Way of Salvation, or the Christian Doctrine of Justification explained (Lond. 1814, 24mo); and, lastly, a History of the Church of Christ — a work by which Dr. Joseph Milner is principally known. He lived to complete only four volumes; but the task was taken up by his brother Isaac, who completed it by the addition of another volume, in which he was largely aided by the MS. left at his command. The work extends from the rise of Christianity to the Reformation. The first edition appeared in 5 volumes, 8vo, 1794 to 1812, and a second edition in 1810. The latest edition was published at London in 1847, 8vo. It was also translated into French (1836-8, 3 volumes, 12mo) and German (1804). At it omits nearly all discussion of ecclesiastical controversies, as well as of rites, ceremonies, and forms of Church government in fact, whatever did not agree with the writer's own opinions — Milner's work cannot be well termed a Church history, but its value as a contribution to ecclesiastical history is very considerable; only it should be read with much caution, and constant reference to Dr. Maitland's Strictures on Milner's Church History, and his Notes on Milner's History, etc. Dr. Milner's historical work certainly surpasses most other Church histories previously produced in the use made of the writings of the fathers, though the reverence which the author professes for those venerable men has led him to trust them too much. Most modern critics speak only in derogatory terms of this work. and an English writer of recent times thus comments upon it: "The principles on which the History of the Church of Christ is written are of the narrowest kind; the scholarship is poor, the literary merit still poorer, and the critical insight poorest of all. It deserves mention only for the estimation in which it was formerly held." The author of the Natural History of Enthusiasm, in commenting upon the characteristic defects of Mosheim and Milner as historians of Christianity, observes that "Mosheim gives us the mere husk of history, and Milner nothing but some separated particles of pure farina." A collection of Dr. Joseph Milner's works was published by his brother Isaac (Lond. 1810, 8 volumes, 8vo). See Isaac Milner, Life of Joseph Milner, prefixed to his "Sermons;" Perry, Ecclesiastical History (see Index in volume 4); Bibliotheca Sacra, January 1850, page 65; North Brit. Rev. November 1858, page 186; Bickersteth, Christian Student, page 320; English Cyclop. s.v.; Darling, Cyclop. Bibliog. 2:2771; Hook, Eccles. Biog. s.v.; Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Authors, s.v.