Dawson, Benjamin (DNB00)

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DAWSON, BENJAMIN, LL.D. (1729–1814), divine and philologist, sixth son of Eli Dawson, presbyterian minister, and brother of Abraham Dawson [q. v.], was born at Halifax in 1729. In 1746 he and his elder brother Thomas entered the nonconformist academy at Kendal, under Caleb Rotheram, D.D., as exhibitioners of the London Presbyterian Board. From Kendal in 1749 they went to Glasgow, remaining there four years as scholars on Dr. Williams's foundation. Benjamin defended a thesis de summo bono, on taking his M.A. degree. In 1754 he succeeded Gaskell as presbyterian minister at Leek, Staffordshire, but soon removed to Congleton, Cheshire, probably to assist in the school of Edward Harwood, D.D. [q. v.] Shortly afterwards he followed his brother Thomas to London, and in 1757 was assistant to Henry Read, presbyterian minister at St. Thomas's, Southwark. Thomas conformed in 1758, and Benjamin followed his example. In 1760 he was instituted to the rectory of Burgh, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, which he held for the long period of fifty-four years. He still kept up relations with dissenters. In 1763, being now LL.D., he accompanied a young Yorkshire baronet, Sir James Ibbetson of Leeds, to the Warrington Academy as his private tutor, and joined the literary coterie of which John Aikin, D.D. [q. v.], was the head. In 1764 he was Lady Moyer's lecturer, and defended the doctrine of the Trinity ‘in a manner perfectly new,’ to use his own expression. As against Arianism his argument left nothing to be desired, but the Socinians have reckoned him on their side. Dawson's position makes it a fair conjecture that his conformity was a protest against the somewhat pedantic Arian orthodoxy much in vogue with the liberal presbyterians of his day. That he was not satisfied with the terms of conformity is evident from the strenuous efforts he made in support of the Feathers' petition (1771–2) for relaxation of the conditions of subscription. He had previously signalised himself as a pamphleteer in defence of Blackburne's ‘Confessional’ [see Blackburne, Francis (1705–1787)]. Blackburne styles him ‘an incomparable writer.’ There can be little doubt that his theological tendency was towards the Priestley school. In 1764 he followed Bishop Law in reducing the intermediate state to the sleep of the soul, and in 1783 he wrote strongly in refutation of the moral objections to the doctrine of necessity, censuring the language of the articles. Personally he was not on good terms with Priestley, who gave him no credit for high principle; but other dissenters were glad of his help towards an enlargement of the Toleration Act, which they obtained in 1779.

In later life Dawson turned his attention to English philology, issuing in 1806 a learned prolepsis of a new English dictionary, and a very laborious specimen of the dictionary itself. Its execution is not without merit, but the design was on too great a scale for Dawson to hope to complete it, and the public did not encourage the attempt. As a parochial clergyman Dawson showed exemplary diligence. His memory is preserved at Burgh in the name of a sheltered pathway, near the rectory, known as ‘the doctor's walk.’ He died at Burgh on 15 June 1814, aged 85, and was buried in his chancel on 21 June. The entry of burial, by F. Clarke, his curate, describes him as ‘eruditus, pius, dilectus, defletus.’ His wife, Mary, died on 22 June 1803, aged 80. A ground slab in the chancel has inscriptions to their memories.

Dawson issued at least eighteen publications, of which the following are the chief: 1. ‘Some Assistance offered to Parents with respect to the Religious Education of their Children,’ 1759, 4to. 2. ‘An Illustration of several Texts of Scripture, particularly those in which the Logos occurs,’ &c., 1765, 8vo (substance of Lady Moyer's lecture, 1764–1765). 3. Seven separate pamphlets, 1766–1769, all 8vo, in defence of the ‘Confessional,’ against Rutherforth, J. Rotheram, Ridley, Balguy, &c. 4. Three separate pamphlets, 1771–3, all 8vo, in support of the Feathers' petition, the most notable being ‘Free Thoughts on the subject of a farther Reformation of the Church of England,’ 1771, 8vo. 5. ‘The Necessitarian, or the Question concerning Liberty and Necessity stated, in XIX Letters,’ 1783, 8vo. 6. Three separate sermons, Ipswich, 1780–95, all 4to. 7. ‘Prolepsis Philologiæ Anglicanæ,’ &c., Ipswich, 1806, large 4to. 8. ‘Philologia Anglicana; or a Philological and Synonymical Dictionary of the English Language,’ &c., Ipswich, 1806, pt. i. large 4to (all published; includes A– Adornment). The British Museum Catalogue ascribes to him a pamphlet against necessity which belongs to John Dawson (1734–1820) [q. v.]

[Monthly Repos. 1810, pp. 324, 474, 1814, pp. 264, 506; Rutt's Memoirs of Priestley, 1831–1832, i. 140, 167, 174, ii. 209; Pickford's Brief Hist. of Congleton Unit. Chapel, 1883, p. 8; Yates's Manuscript Account of Students on Dr. Williams's Foundation, in Dr. Williams's library; extracts from records of Presbyterian Board, per W. D. Jeremy; information from the Rev. A. Maude, rector of Burgh.]

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