« PreviousContinue »
DR. JOSEPH BUTLER, a prelate of the most distinguished character and abilities, was born at Wantage, in Berkshire, in the year 1692. His father, Mr. Thomas Butler, who was a substantial and reputable shopkeeper in that town, observing in his son Joseph* an excellent genius and inclination for learning, determined to educate him for the ministry, among the Protestant dissenters of the presbyterian denomination. For this purpose, after he had gone through a proper course of grammatical literature, at the free-grammar school of his native plaoe, under the care of the Rev. Mr. Philip Barton, a clergyman of the church of England, he was sent to a dis. senting academy, then kept at Gloucester, but which was soon afterwards removed to Tewkesbury. The principal tutor of this academy was Mr. Jones, a man of uncommon abilities and knowledge, who had the honor of training up several scholars, who became of great eminence, both in the established church and among the dissenters. At Tewkesbury, Mr. Butler made an extraordinary progress in the study of divinity; of which he gave a remarkable proof, in the letters addressed by him, while he resided at Tewkesbury, to Dr. Samuel Clarke, laying before him the doubts, that had arisen in his mind, concerning the conclusiveness of some arguments in the Doctor's demonstration of the being and attributes of God. The first of these letters was dated the 4th November, 1713; and the sagacity and depth of thought displayed in it, immediately excited Dr. Clarke's particular notice. This condescension encouraged Mr. Butler to address the Doctor again upon the same subject, which likewise was answered by him; and the correspondence being carried on in three other letters, the whole was annexed to the celebrated treatise before mentioned, and the collection has been retained in all the subsequent editions of that work. The management of this correspondence was intrusted by Mr. Butler, to his friend and fellow-pupil, Mr. Secker, who, in order to conceal the affair, undertook to convey the letters to the post-office at Gloucester, and to bring back Dr. Clarke's answers. When Mr. Butler's name was discovered to the Doctor, the candor, modesty, and good sense with, which he had written, immediately procured him the friendship of that eminent and excellent man. Our
* He was the youngest of eight children.
young student was not, however, during his continuance at Tewkesbury, solely employed in metaphysical speculations and inquiries. Another subject of his serious consideration was, the propriety of his becoming a dissenting minister. Accordingly, he entered into an examination of the principles of non-conformity; the result of which was, such a dissatisfaction with them, as determined him to conform to the established church. This intention was, at first, disagreeable to his father, who endeavored to divert him from his purpose; and, with that view, called in the assistance of some eminent presbyterian divines; but finding his son's resolution to be fixed, he at length suffered him to be removed to Oxford, where he was admitted a commoner of Oriel college on the 17th March, 1714. At what time he took orders doth not appear, nor who the bishop was by whom he was ordained; but it is certain that he entered into the church soon after his admission at Oxford, if it be true, as is asserted, that he sometimes assisted Mr. Edward Talbot in the divine service, at his living of Hendred, near Wantage. With this gentleman, who was the second son of Dr. William Talbot, successively bishop of Oxford, Salisbury, and Durham, Mr. Butler formed an intimate friendship at Oriel college; which friendship laid the foundation of all his subsequent preferments, and procured for him a very honorable situation when he was only twenty-six years of age. For it was in 1718, that, at the recommendation of Mr. Talbot, in conjunction with that of Dr. Clarke, he was appointed by Sir Joseph Jekyll to be preacher at the Rolls. This was three years before he had taken any degree at the university, where he did not go out bachelor-of-law till the 10th June, 1721, which, however, was as soon as that degree could suitably be conferred upon him. Mr. Butler continued at the Rolls till 1726; in the beginning of which year he published, in one volume octavo, “ Fifteen Sermons preached at that Chapel.” In the meanwhile, by the patronage of Dr. Talbot, bishop of Durham, to whose notice he had been recommended (together with Mr. Benson and Mr. Secker) by Mr. Edward Talbot, on his death-bed, our author had been presented first to the rectory of Haughton, near Darlington, and afterwards to that of Stanhope, in the same diocese. The benefice of Haughton was given to him in 1722, and that of Stanhope in 1725. At Haughton, there was a necessity for rebuilding a great part of the parsonage-house, and Air. Butler bad neither money nor talents for that work. Mr. Secker, therefore, who had always the interest of his friends at heart, and acquired a very consiterable influence with Bishop Talbot, persuaded that prelate to give Mr. Butler, in exchange for Haughton, the rectory of Stanhope, which was not only free from any such incumbrance, but was likewise of much superior value, being indeed one of the richest parsonages in England. Whilst our author continued preacher at the Rolls-chapel, he divided his time between his duty in town and country; but when he quitted the Rolls, he resided, during seven years, wholly at Stanhope, in the conscientious discharge of every obligation appertaining to a good parish priest. This retirement, however, was too solitary for his disposition, which had in it a natural cast of gloominess. And though his recluse hours were by no mearis losi, either to private improvement or public utility, yet he felt at times, very painfully, the want of that select society
af friends to which he had been accustomed, and which could inspire him with the greatest cheerfulness. Mr. Secker, therefore, who knew this, was extremely anxious to draw him out into a more active and conspicuous scene, and omitted no opportunity of expressing this desire to such as he thought capable of promoting it. Having himself been appointed king's chaplain in 1732 he took occasion, in a conversation which he had the honor of holding with queen Caroline, to mention to her his friend Mr. Butler. The queen said she thought he had been dead. Mr. Secker assured her he was not. Yet, her majesty afterwards asked Archbishop Blackburn if he was not dead; his answer was, “ No, madam; but he is buried.” Mr. Secker continuing his purpose of endeavoring to bring his friend out of his retirement, found means, upon Mr. Charles Talbot's being made lordchancellor, to have Mr. Butler recommended to him for his chaplain. His lordship accepted, and sent for him; and this promotion calling him to town, he took Oxford in his way, and was admitted there to the degree of doctor-of-law, on the 8th December, 1733. The lordchancellor, who gave bim also a prebend in the church of Rochester, had consented that he should reside at his parish of Stanhope one half of the year.
Dr. Butler being thus brought back into the world, his merit and his talents soon introduced him to particular potice, and paved the way for his rising to those high dignities which he afterwards enjoyed. In 1736, he was appointed clerk-of-the-closet to queen Caroline; and, in the same year, he presented to her majesty a copy of his excellent treatise, entitled, “ The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature.” His attendance upon his royal mistress, by her especial command. was from seven to nine in the evening every day: and though this particular relation to that excellent and learned queen was soon determined by her death in 1737, yet he had been so effectually recommended by her, as well as by the late lord-chancellor Talbot, to his majesty's favor, that, in the next year, he was raised to the highest order of the church, by a nomination to the bishopric of Bristol; to which see he was consecrated on the third of December, 1738. King George II. not being satisfied with this proof of his regard to Dr. Butler, promoted him, in 1740, to the deanry of St. Paul's, London; into which he was installed on the 24th of May in that year. Finding the demands of this dignity to be incompatible with his parish-duty
at Stanhope, he immediately resigned that rich benefice. Besides our prelate's unremitted attention to his peculiar obligations, he was called upon to preach several discourses on public occasions, which were afterwards separately printed, and have since been annexed to the latter editions of the Sermons at the Rolls-chapel.
In 1746, upon the death of Dr. Egerton, bishop of Hereford, Dr. Butler was made clerk-of-the-closet to the king; and on the 16th October, 1750, he received another distinguished mark of his majesty's favor, by being translated to the see of Durham. This was on the 16th of October; in that year, upon the decease of Dr. Edward Chandler, our prelate, being thus appointed to preside over a diocese with which he had long been connected, delivered his first, and indeed his last charge to his clergy, at his primary visitation in 1751. The
principal object of it was, “ External Religion.” The bishop having observed, with deep concern, the great and growing neglect of serious piety in the kingdom, insisted strongly on the usefulness of outward forms and institutions, in fixing and preserving a sense of devotion and duty in the minds of men. In doing this, he was thought by several persons to speak too favorably of Pagad and Popish ceremonies, and to countenance, in a certain degree, the cause of superstition. Under that apprehension, an able and spirited writer, who was understood to be a clergyman of the church of England, published in 1752, a pamphlet, entitled, “A serious Enquiry into the Use and Importance of External Religion: occasioned by some passages in the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop
of Durham's Charge to the Clergy of that Dio. cese; Humbly addressed to his Lordship.” Many persons, however, and we believe the greater part of the clergy of the diocese, did not think our prelate's charge so exceptionable as it appeared to this author. The charge, being printed at Durbam, and having never been annexed to any of Dr. Butler's other works, is now become extremely scarce; and it is observable, that it is the only one of his publications which ever produced him a direct literary antagonist.
By this promotion, our worthy bishop was furnished with ample means of exerting the virtue of charity; a virtue which eminently abounded in him, and the exercise of which was his highest delight. But this gratification he did not long enjoy. He had been but a short time seated in his new bishopric, when his health began visibly to decline; and having been complimented, during his indisposition, upon account of his great resignation to the Divine will, he is said to have expressed some regret, that he should be taken from the present world so soon after he had been rendered capable of becoming much more useful in it. In his last illness, he was carried to Bristol, to try the waters of that place; but these proving ineffectual, he removed to Bath, where, being past recovery, he died on the 16th of June, 1752. His corpse was conveyed to Bristol, and interred in the cathedral there, where a monument, with an inscription, is erected to his memory.
On the greatness of Bishop Butler's character we need not enlarge; for, his profound knowledge, and the prodigious strength of his mind, are amply displayed in his incomparable writings. His piety was of the most serious and fervent, and, perhaps, somewhat of the ascetic kind. His benevolence was warm, generous, and diffusive.. Whilst he was bishop of Bristol, he expended, in repairing and improving the episcopal palace, four thousand pounds, which is said to have been more than the whole revenues of the bishopric amounted to, during his continuance in that see. Besides his private benefactions, he was a contributor to the infirmary at Bristol, and a subscriber to three of the hospitals at London. He was likewise a principal promoter, though not the first founder, of the infirmary at Newcastle, in Northumberland. In supporting the hospitality and dignity of the rich and powerful diocese of Durham, he was desirous of imitating the spirit of his patron, Bishop Talbot. In this spirit, he set apart three days every week for the reception and entertainment of the principal gentry of the country. Nor were even the clergy who had the poorest benefices, neglected by him. He not only occasionally invited