Bell, William (1731-1816) (DNB00)

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BELL, WILLIAM, D.D. (1731–1816), divine, was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he took the degree of B.A. in 1753 with considerable distinction, being the eighth wrangler of his year. In 1755 he gained one of the members' prizes, and proceeded M.A. in 1756, in which year he obtained one of Lord Townshend's prizes by a dissertation on the causes of the populousness of nations, and the effect of populousness on trade. The dissertation was translated into German in 1762, under the title of ‘Quellen und Folgen einer starken Bevölkerung,’ and was replied to by ‘A Vindication of Commerce and the Arts,’ proving them the source of the greatness, power, riches, and populousness of a state, wherein ‘Mr. Bell's calumnies on trade are answered, his arguments refuted, his system exploded, and the principal causes of populosity assigned,’ by I—— B——, M.D., 1758. A fancy that he had detected an argument of the divine origin of christianity in the evangelic writings, in a circumstance hitherto overlooked or slightly mentioned, produced in 1761 Bell's ‘Enquiry into the Divine Mission.’

After remaining for some time at Magdalen, he became domestic chaplain and secretary to the Princess Amelia, daughter of George III, with whom he became domesticated at Gunnersbury House. By her interest he obtained a prebend of Westminster in 1765, and in 1767 he proceeded S.T.P. per literas regias. In 1776 he was presented by the dean and chapter of Westminster to the vicarage of St. Bridget's, London, but vacated it in 1780. It was in this year that he dedicated to the princess an elaborate essay upon the sacrament. Dr. Lewis Bagot, dean of Christ Church, controverted Bell's argument in his Warburtonian lectures in an excellent note, pp. 210–13, and published in 1781 a letter addressed to the author on the subject. Bell's opinions on this question agreed with those of Hoadly and John Taylor of Norwich. A second edition of Bell's tract appeared, and he continued the discussion in another tract published in 1790. Bell also published his ‘Attempt to ascertain the Nature of the Communion,’ including only the main argument, in the simple form of question and answer. After quitting St. Bridget's, Bell was presented to the rectory of Christ Church, London, which he resigned in 1799. He also enjoyed the treasurer's valuable stall in St. Paul's Cathedral, and administered the office with becoming disinterestedness. He, in fact, rendered himself conspicuous through life for acts of discerning liberality.

In 1787 Bell published a curious tract, entitled ‘Déclaration de mes derniers Sentimens sur les différens Dogmes de la Religion,’ by Pierre François le Courayer, D.D., the courageous, learned, and intelligent champion of English ordinations to a French public bent upon questioning their validity. The manuscript of this work had been given by Dr. Courayer himself to the Princess Amelia, with a request that it might not be published till after his death. It proved, says Bell, that its author was firmly convinced that the doctrine of the Roman religion, in nearly all wherein it differs from the protestant, is contrary to truth and the word of God. This manuscript, together with the 'Traité où l'on expose ce que l'Ecriture nous apprend de la Divinité de Jésus-Christ,' also by Dr. Courayer, were bequeathed to Bell by the princess. Soon after the 'Déclaration' was published a translation of the 'Traité' appeared, with an account of Dr. Courayer prefixed. The writer of this anonymous work was the Rev. Dr. John Calder, and with it Bell was not concerned. A strong dislike to being the editor of a controversial work such as the 'Traité où l'on expose,' &c., in which the doctrine concluded upon is very widely different from that adopted by the church of England, was the cause, according to his own written confession, of Bell's not publishing this work immediately. Till 1810 he therefore withheld it from the world, when be published it, thinking it might be 'a highly blameable presumption' to suppress it longer. In the same year Bell, with great munificence, transferred 15,200l. 3 per cent, consols to the university of Cambridge, in trust to found eight new scholarships for the sons or the orphans of clergymen of the church of England, whose circumstances were such as not to enable them to bear the whole expense of sending their sons to the university. The particulars of the benefaction will be found in the 'Gentleman's Magazine,' lxxx., ii, 490. It was especially provided that no scholar was ever to be elected from King's College or Trinity Hall. These provisions have been subsequently altered. Bell, in the course of his life, held several parochial benefices besides those already mentioned, but long before his death he had resigned all such preferment. He died at his prebendel house in Little Dean's Yard, Westminster, on 29 Sept., aged 85. Of Bell's posthumous works the sermons have been highly praised. Lowndes says, as a compendium of Christian ethics they deserve a place among the best writers of our language. Bishop Watson recommends them as 'of excellent instruction.'

The full titles of Bell's works, in the order of their publication, are: 1. 'A Dissertation on "What Causes principally contribute to reader a Nation Populous, and what Effect has the Populousness of a Nation on its Trade,"' Cambridge, 1756. 2. 'An Enquiry into the Divine Missions of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, so far as they can be proved from the circumstances of their births and their connection with each other,' London, 1761. 3. A second edition to which are prefixed 'Arguments in proof of the Authenticity of the Narratives of the Births of John and Jesus contained in the two first chapters of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke,' 1810. 4. 'A Defence of Revelation in general and the Gospel in particular; in answer to the objections advanced in a late book entitled "The Morality of the New Testament, digested under various heads," &c., and subscribed, a Rational Christian,' 1765. 5. 'A Sermon preached in Lambeth Chapel at the consecration of Dr. Thomas, Bishop of Rochester,' 1774. 6. 'An Attempt to ascertain and illustrate the Authority, Nature, and Design of the Institution of Christ, commonly called the Communion and the Lord's Supper,' 1780; a second edition, 1781. 7. 'An Enquiry whether any Doctrine relating to the Nature and Effects of the Lord's Supper can be justly founded on the Discourse of our Lord recorded in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John,' 1790. This is a supplement to the preceding 'Attempt,' &c.

[Gent. Mag. lxxxvi. pt. ii. 371; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Lowndes's Bib. Man. i. 150; Watt's Bibl. Brit.]

J. M.