Molesworth, John Edward Nassau (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 38
Molesworth, John Edward Nassau

by Henry Charles Beeching

MOLESWORTH, JOHN EDWARD NASSAU (1790–1877), vicar of Rochdale, only son of John Molesworth, by his wife Frances, daughter of Matthew Hill, esq., and great-grandson of Robert, first viscount Molesworth [q. v.], was born in London on 4 Feb. 1790, and educated under Dr. Alexander Crombie [q. v.] of Greenwich. Passing to Trinity College, Oxford, he graduated B. A. in 1812, M.A. in 1817, B.D. and D.D. in 1838. For sixteen years he was curate of Millbrook, Hampshire, and while there wrote, at the instigation of Dr. Rennell, dean of Winchester, a reply to Davison's Inquiry into the Origin and Intent of Primitive Sacrifice' (1826), awork which procured him the friendship of Dr. Howley, then bishop of London, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury [q. v.] Howley presented him in succession to the livings of Wirksworth, Derbyshire (1828), and St. Martin's, Canterbury (1829); appointed him one of the 'six preachers' at Canterbury; recommended him unsuccessfully for the vicarage of Leeds when Hook was elected, and in 1839 presented him to the vicarage of Minster-in-Thanet, and a few months later (3 March 1840) to Rochdale. The last preferment he held for thirty-eight years. At Canterbury, during the stormy period of the Reform Bill, his talents, which were allied with a combative temperament, found abundant occupation, and both by voice and pen he became recognised as the leader of the church party in the diocese. But he was no less a zealous parish priest, and to him is due the first venture in cheap church periodical literature. The 'Penny Sunday Reader' which he edited and very largely wrote for five years, is said to have enjoyed an extraordinary popularity among the working men of many large towns. At Rochdale Molesworth had an ample field for all his activities. He succeeded an Erastian and absentee vicar, and found church life and work in the town at the last gasp. Dissenters at this time were agitating for abolition of church rates, and in Rochdale they had a doughty leader in the quaker John Bright, who fleshed his virgin sword in this controversy. Each party started a magazine, in which their case was defended and their opponents ridiculed. Molesworth fought in behalf of the rates, with a vigour and determination which, according to Bright (Speeches, ii. 517), was not 'surpassed in any other parish in the kingdom,' but his cause was a lost one, and defeat for his party inevitable.

The vicar was able to augment largely the value of the living by calling to account the leaseholders of its property, who had neglected to build upon the land according to their covenant; and with the increased means at his disposal he promoted church building, giving 1,000l. to each new church for which the parishioners raised an equal sum. Four churches so endowed were added to the original fourteen. He also rebuilt the grammar school founded by Archbishop Parker, and built parish schools, which were long celebrated for their efficiency. The value of the living, which was 1,800l. when Molesworth went to Rochdale, was meanwhile rapidly increasing with the spread of factories over the vicarage estate and the erection upon it of the railway station and canal terminus. In 1866, when his income had reached 5,000l., Molesworth, following twenty years later Hook's example at Leeds, promoted the Rochdale Vicarage Act. by which the thirteen chapels of ease were converted into parish churches, and their endowments raised, some to 200l., some to 300l., and one to 600l. By this act his own income was limited to 4,000l., while his successor was to receive 1,500l.

With very many persons and societies in his parish did the vicar continue to wage war with published letters and tracts. An unfortunate difference between him and his bishop, James Prince Lee [q. v.], was the subject of many pamphlets. Molesworth had protested against Lee's appointment in 1847, on the ground that a charge of drunkenness had been brought against him and remained unrebutted. But after a libel action had proved the falsity of the accusation, Molesworth and the bishop maintained for some two years very friendly relations. A dispute, however, subsequently arose over a church-building question, and the bishop was determinedly hostile to the vicar during the last twenty years of his episcopate.

The closing years of Molesworth's life were spent in comparative peace. He died on 21 April 1877, and was buried at St. Martin's, Castleton Moor, Lancashire. He was twice married, first, in 1825, to Harriet, daughter of W. Mackinnon, esq., of Newton Park, by whom he had six sons and three daughters, among whom were William Nassau Molesworth [q. v.], the historian, and Sir Guilford Molesworth, K.C.I.E., the distinguished engineer; secondly, in 1854, to Harriett Elizabeth, daughter of the Rev. Sir Robert Affleck, bart., and widow of J. T. Bridges, esq., of St. Nicholas Court, Thanet, and Walmer.

Molesworth was a high churchman before tractarianism, and, like W. F. Hook, whom in many points of character and circumstance he resembled, found himself sometimes in agreement, sometimes in disagreement, with the leaders of the Oxford movement. He was a friend of Hugh James Rose [q. v.], and contributed to the 'British Magazine' and 'Encyclopaedia Metropolitana,' of which Rose was editor. The courage and zeal with which he advocated unpopular opinions could not fail to arouse opposition and resentment, but his good temper and generosity disarmed many an adversary, and it was characteristic of him that he never allowed public quarrels to be carried into private life. Besides his sermons and pamphlets he published ' The Rick-burners,' a tale which enjoyed a large circulation at the time of the chartist riots. There is an engraved portrait by H. Cook.

[The Vicars of Rochdale, by the Rev. Canon Raines (Chetham Soc.); Foster's Peerage; private information.]

H. C. B.