Peirce, James (DNB00)
|←Peile, Thomas Williamson||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 44
PEIRCE, JAMES (1674?–1726), dissenting divine, son of John Peirce, was born at Wapping about 1674. His parents, who were in easy circumstances, were members of the congregational church at Stepney, under Matthew Mead [q. v.] Left an orphan about 1680, he was placed, with a brother and sister, in charge of Mead as guardian. Mead took him into his own house, and educated him with his son, Richard Mead, M.D. [q. v.], under John Nesbitt [q. v.] and Thomas Singleton, also at Utrecht (from 1689) and Leyden (from 1692). At Utrecht he formed a lasting friendship with his fellow-student, Adrian Reland, the orientalist; and he made valuable friendships among his class-mates at Leyden, then the resort of the aristocracy of English dissent. He travelled a little in Flanders and Germany before returning home in 1695.
After spending some time in Oxford, for the purpose of study at the Bodleian Library, he returned to London, was admitted (11 Feb. 1697) a member of Mead's church, and preached the evening lecture at Miles Lane congregational church, of which Matthew Clarke the younger [q. v.] was minister. He, however, ‘did not interest himself in the disputes then on foot between presbyterians and independents,’ and was ordained in 1699 by four London presbyterians, headed by Matthew Sylvester, the literary executor of Baxter. His own ideal of church government was based on Baxter's rectoral theory; he had no theoretical objection to a modified episcopacy. Early in 1701 Peirce's presbyterian friends urged his acceptance of a charge in Green Street, Cambridge, where there was a mixed congregation of independents and presbyterians. Agreeing to take it for three years, he was duly ‘dismissed’ to it by the Stepney church. He held it for six years (probably 1701–6), and received ‘a handsome allowance.’ He evidently still ranked as an independent, for he was made a trustee of the Hog Hill chapel on 23 Jan. 1702. At Cambridge he was intimate with William Whiston, who describes him as ‘the most learned of all the dissenting teachers I have known.’ He read much, especially in the topics of nonconformist controversy. John Fox (1693–1763) [q. v.] says that when he began to write in vindication of dissent, he usually sat in his study from nine at night till four or five next morning.
His removal to the presbyterian congregation at Toomer's Court, Newbury, Berkshire, was probably coincident with his first controversial publication (end of 1706) in defence of nonconformist positions against Edward Wells, D.D. [q. v.] The appearance of his ‘Vindiciæ’ (1710) in reply to the ‘Defensio’ (1707) of William Nicholls, D.D. [q. v.] brought him into prominence as a polemic; ‘he was looked upon as the first man of the party’ (Fox). Latin was employed on both sides, to gain the ear of the foreign protestants. According to Fox the latinity of the ‘Vindiciæ’ was ‘corrected very accurately by the then master of Westminster School,’ Thomas Knipe [q. v.] The work, which is dedicated to the clergy of the church of Scotland, contains a very able digest of nonconformist history and nonconformist argument, marked by acuteness and dignity. The theology of the ‘second part’ is strongly calvinistic. Peirce was sensible of the distinction which his book brought him, and this gained him enemies.
Early in 1713 he received a unanimous call to succeed George Trosse [q. v.] as one of the ministers of James's Meeting, Exeter, having to preach also in rotation at the Little Meeting. Against his removal his Newbury flock appealed to the ‘Exeter Assembly,’ a coalition of presbyterian and independent divines of Devonshire and Cornwall, on the model of the London Union of 1690 [see Howe, John, (1630–1705)]. Peirce was not sure of his health at Newbury; an opinion was asked of Dr. Mead, who said that if he ‘did study less and divert himself more, and had more help, he might have his health tolerably well.’ The Newbury people were willing to provide an assistant, and Peirce was willing to stay on these terms. The ‘Exeter Assembly’ sought advice from the Salters' Hall lecturers, who were equally divided; their report was presented to the assembly on 6 May 1713 by Edmund Calamy, D.D. [q. v.], who describes the excessive eagerness of the Exeter dissenters to secure Peirce; Calamy thought the circumstance ominous of future trouble. The assembly decided for the removal, and Peirce settled in Exeter before the end of 1713; his congregation numbered eleven hundred hearers.
He had subscribed (1697) the doctrinal part of the Anglican articles as the condition of toleration. But the theology in which he had been bred was really Sabellian, as he afterwards discovered when introduced to the ‘odd notions’ of orthodoxy by reading St. Basil. In fact, the theological tone of the less cultivated dissenters was, in his judgment, largely patripassian. On hearing of Whiston's change of views, he wrote to him from Newbury (10 July 1708) expressing amazement that he should ‘fall in with the unitarians,’ and referring to the ‘very melancholy instance’ of Thomas Emlyn [q. v.]. Whiston's books, and the more important ‘Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity’ (1712) by Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) [q. v.], he did not read till 1713, moved by Whiston's importunity. He became convinced that error on this topic was not fundamental, and that it was ‘the safest way’ to adhere closely to the letter of scripture. Hence, before going to Exeter, he disused the ordinary doxology. Whiston claims him as a unitarian; he held (with Clarke) a subordination of the Son, but he constantly emphasises his rejection of ‘the distinctive opinion of Arius,’ and defends himself (as Clarke had done) by citing the authority of Bull and Pearson. The difficulties of theology impressed him greatly, and made him an advocate of latitude; but his own views were critical to a fault rather than positively heterodox.
Peirce's first controversy at Exeter was on the question of ordination. On 5 May 1714 he preached to the ‘united ministers’ a sermon with the title ‘An Useful Ministry a Valid One.’ It was at once supposed that he abandoned the defence of dissenting ordination. Preaching again at the ordination (19 Oct. 1715) of John Lavington [q. v.], as one of the ministers of Bow Meeting, Exeter, he distinguished between a valid and a regular ministry, asserting the irregularity of existing episcopal ordination, and maintaining, against the independents, that not the people, but the ministers, and they only, may judge the qualifications of candidates and ordain. This he defined, improperly, as ‘presbyterian ordination,’ for he excluded, with Baxter, the function of the lay eldership. His high views of the ministerial office were consonant with his character, and were acceptable to a section of his brethren; his positions were criticised by Samuel Chandler [q. v.], as well as by Anglican writers.
The controversy which wrecked Peirce's reputation, and severed the doctrinal accord of the old dissent, began at the end of 1716, when Lavington impugned the orthodoxy of Hubert Stogdon [q. v.] In April or May 1717 Henry Atkins of Puddington, Devonshire, preaching for Peirce during his absence in London, sounded an alarm of heresy. Peirce was asked (30 May) to preach on the atonement, and did so (2 June) in a somewhat guarded strain, and on principles which differed from those of Trosse, his predecessor. On 15 July he joined Joseph Hallett (1656–1722) [q. v.] and John Withers in giving a testimonial to Stogdon. At the ‘assembly’ in September he piloted Fox through his examination for license, refusing to require ‘explications’ of scriptural terms. An expression in his Christmas sermon renewed the doubts of his soundness. In fact the danger of Arianism was a burning topic at the time. Sir Robert Price [q. v.] ‘had spent most of his charge at the Exeter assizes against those errors.’
At Exeter a self-elected body of thirteen laymen managed the finance of the three congregations. Early in 1718 a deputation from this body waited on Peirce and his colleagues, asking them to ‘assert the eternity of the Son of God.’ Peirce complied; for a time complaint ceased, but it was revived during his absence in London (July and August). In September the ‘Exeter assembly’ resolved, after much debate, that each minister should make a personal declaration on the subject of the Trinity. All complied except Samuel Carkeet [q. v.] and two others, and all the declarations were accepted except that of John Parr of Okehampton, who merely quoted Eph. iv. 4–6. Lavington then drew up, as ‘the general sense’ of the assembly, a short formula, which was carried by a very large majority.
The body of thirteen, not satisfied with a ‘general sense,’ appealed to the Exeter ministers for individual assurances. Failing in this, they sought advice from five London ministers, including Calamy, who deprecated London interference, and suggested a consultation with neighbouring divines. Seven Devonshire ministers, headed by John Ball (1665?–1745) [q. v.], were called in (19 Jan. 1719). They corresponded on the case with their London brethren. Peirce also wrote to his London friends, among whom the most influential was John Shute Barrington, afterwards first Viscount Barrington [q. v.] Barrington, an independent, was the parliamentary leader of the dissenting interest. He had defeated a presbyterian amendment to the bill for repealing the ‘Schism Act,’ which would have introduced a new test in regard to the Trinity, on the express ground of Peirce's alleged heresies. He now brought the Exeter dispute before the London committee, representing the civil interests of dissenters. The committee agreed (5 Feb.) to lay a draft of ‘advices for peace’ before the whole body of London ministers of the three denominations; hence the Salters' Hall conferences, which began on 19 Feb., and came to a rupture on 3 March [see Bradbury, Thomas]. The rupture was in reference, not to the ‘advices’ themselves, but to the spirit in which they should be tendered. Both sections endorsed the principle of uncompromising independency, namely, that each congregation is sole judge of the errors which disqualify its ministers. The non-subscribing section sent its ‘advices,’ with an orthodox letter, on 17 March; the ‘advices’ of the subscribing section, with an orthodox preamble, followed on 7 April; but the Exeter affair had already come to an issue, without any appeal to the congregation.
On 4 March the clerical council of seven gave judgment in writing, to the effect that denial of Christ's ‘true and proper divinity’ is a disqualifying error. On 5 March the ‘thirteen’ asked for an explicit statement on this head from the Exeter ministers. Peirce urged that the advices from London should be waited for; but the ‘thirteen’ declined to recognise ‘advices’ in which ‘anabaptists’ took part. Peirce then declined to subscribe to any proposition not in scripture (not even ‘that three and two make five’). Hallett declined also; Withers faltered, and ultimately offered to subscribe the Nicene creed; Lavington alone gave complete satisfaction. On 6 March the four ‘proprietors’ of James's Meeting closed it against Peirce and Hallett; they were permitted, however, on the following Sunday (8 March) to preach at the Little Meeting. But on 10 March the ‘proprietors’ of the several meeting-houses held a joint meeting, and agreed, ‘without consulting the people,’ to exclude Peirce and Hallett from them all. They were excluded also from their share in the income of the Elwill trust for dissenting ministers of Exeter (unpublished letter of Peirce, 11 Sept. 1721). They still remained members of the ‘Exeter assembly.’ A temporary meeting-place was secured by 15 March, and a new building, the Mint Meeting, was soon erected (opened 27 Dec.) The congregation, which numbered about three hundred, was classed as presbyterian in the lists of the London fund of that name; but Peirce declined any designation except Christian. In May 1719 the ‘Exeter assembly’ called for a subscription from its members, identical with that adopted by the London subscribers. Peirce, with eighteen others, declined and seceded. The seceders subscribed a paper (6 May) repudiating the charge of Arianism, and making a confession in biblical terms. Peirce was not readmitted as a member, but was present as a visitor in September 1723. The ministers of Mint Meeting were admitted in 1753; the succession of ministers was maintained till 1810; subsequently (before 1817) the building was sold to Wesleyan methodists, who erected another on its site.
Peirce never rose above the mortification inflicted on him by his summary ejection. Friends of position, such as Peter King, first lord King [q. v.], stood by him; but he deeply felt the loss of leadership and popularity. His numerous pamphlets in self-defence are written with a strong pen; the ‘Letter’ to Eveleigh is an admirable piece of satire. He moved out of Exeter to a country house at St. Leonard's, in the suburbs, and lived much among his books, busying himself with paraphrases of St. Paul's Epistles, in continuation of the series begun by Locke. Fox has left a very graphic account of him. He seems to have been a moody man, of dignified and polished manners, with much reserve, yet humorous and even jocose when the ice was broken. His theological writing is scholastic and unimpassioned, but when moved he preached with great fervour, using few notes. His means were ample, but he is said to have been remiss in the duty of returning hospitality. He had ancient notions of domestic strictness, and ‘condescended to the discipline of the horsewhip.’ Fox asserts that, having written against the ring in marriage, he refused to attend his daughter's wedding; but this is improbable, for Peirce maintains that the ring is ‘a civil rite, and not unlawful in itself,’ and therefore to be used so long as it is prescribed by law. Nor, according to Fox, would he sit for his portrait, since ‘pictures originally were the occasion of worshipping images.’ His disuse of exercise led to ‘the swelling of his legs and other disorders.’ At length he broke a blood-vessel in his lungs, lingered a few days in great composure, and died on 30 March 1726. He was buried in the church- yard of St. Leonard's, near Exeter. His funeral sermon was preached by Joseph Hallett (1691?–1744) [q. v.], who had followed his father as Peirce's colleague. Thomas Emlyn was invited to succeed him, but declined. He left a widow and family.
Avery gives a long Latin inscription (reprinted by Murch) which was intended for his tombstone. The cutting of it was nearly finished when Richard Gay (Avery misspells the name Gey), rector of St. Leonard's, interposed with a prohibition. It was proposed to substitute the words, ‘Here lies the reverend, learned and pious Mr. James Peirce.’ Gay objected that Peirce could not be ‘reverend,’ because not lawfully ordained; nor ‘pious,’ since he taught errors. Finally the inscription took this form: ‘Mr. James Peirce's Tomb, 1726.’ A mural monument, erected to his memory in the Mint Meeting, is now in the vestry of George's Meeting, Exeter.
He published, besides single sermons (1714–23); 1. ‘Exercitatio Philosophica de Homœomeria Anaxagorea,’ Utrecht, 1692, 4to. 2. ‘Remarks on Dr. Wells's Letters,’ &c., 1706–8, 8vo, eight parts; 3rd edition, 1711, 8vo. 3. ‘Some Considerations on … a Vindication of the Office of Baptism, and … the Sign of the Cross,’ &c., 1708, 8vo. 4. ‘Vindiciæ Fratrum Dissentientium in Anglia adversus … Nicholsii … Defensionem Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ,’ &c. 1710, 8vo; in English, ‘A Vindication of the Dissenters,’ &c., 1717, 8vo; the translation, though otherwise augmented, omits a considerable portion of the ‘second part,’ among the omissions being a chapter on the charge of Socinianism brought against Anglican divines, in which Peirce contends that dissenters are free from this taint; 2nd edition, 1718, 8vo; pt. iii. chapter 3 of the English edition, was reprinted as ‘A Tractate on Church Music,’ &c., 1786, 8vo. 5. ‘An Enquiry into the present Duty of a Low-Churchman,’ &c., 1711, 8vo; anon. 1712, 8vo. 6. ‘A Letter to Dr. Bennet … concerning the Nonjurors' Separation,’ &c., 1717, 8vo; two editions same year [see Bennet, Thomas, D.D.]. 7. ‘A Defence of the Dissenting Ministry and Presbyterian Ordination,’ &c. 1717, 8vo (two parts). 8. ‘The Dissenters' Reasons for not Writing in the behalf of Persecution,’ &c., 1718, 8vo; three editions same year, addressed to Andrew Snape, D.D. 9. ‘Some Reflections upon Dean Sherlock's Vindication of the Corporation and Test Acts,’ &c., 1718, 8vo; two editions same year. 10. ‘The Interest of the Whigs with relation to the Test Act,’ &c., 1718, 8vo (anon.); two editions same year. 11. ‘The Loyalty … of High Church and the Dissenters compar'd,’ &c., 1719, 8vo (in reply to J. Jackman). 12. ‘The Case of the Ministers Ejected at Exon,’ &c., 1719, 8vo; four editions same year. 13. ‘The Charge of Misrepresentations maintain'd against … Sherlock,’ &c., 1719, 8vo. 14. ‘A Defence of the Case of the Ministers,’ &c., 1719, 8vo. 15. ‘A Justification of the Case of the Ministers,’ &c., 1719, 8vo. 16. ‘A Letter to Mr. Josiah Eveleigh,’ &c., Exeter, 1719, 8vo (Eveleigh was minister at Crediton, Devonshire, from 1702, and died on 9 Sept. 1736). 17. ‘Animadversions upon … A True Relation of … Proceedings at Salters-Hall,’ &c., 1719, 8vo; another edition, same year, has reprint of No. 16 appended. 18. ‘A Letter … in Defence of the Animadversions,’ &c., 1719, 8vo. 19. ‘A Second Letter to … Eveleigh,’ &c., Exeter, 1719, 8vo. 20. ‘Remarks upon the Account of what was transacted in the Assembly at Exon,’ &c., 1719, 8vo; second edition, same year, has a ‘Postscript.’ 21. ‘An Answer to Mr. Enty's Defence … of the Assembly,’ &c., 1719, 8vo [see Enty, John]. 22. ‘The Western Inquisition,’ &c., 1720, 8vo. 23. ‘The Security of Truth without … Persecution,’ &c., 1721, 8vo (against Enty). 24. ‘Inquisition Honesty display'd,’ &c. 1722, 8vo (a defence of No. 22). 25. ‘A Paraphrase and Notes on … Colossians,’ &c., 1725, 4to (anon.); reprinted, with name, 1727, 4to; 1733, 4to. 26. ‘A Paraphrase and Notes on … Philippians,’ &c., 1725, 4to (anon.); reprinted, with name, 1727, 4to; 1733, 4to. Posthumous were: 27. ‘A Paraphrase and Notes on … Hebrews,’ &c., 1727, 4to (edited by Hallett, his successor); also in Latin, ‘J. Peircii Paraphrasis et Notæ … in Epistolam ad Hebræos,’ &c., 1747, 4to. 28. ‘Dissertations on Six Texts,’ &c., 1727, 4to. 29. ‘An Essay in favour of … giving the Eucharist to Children,’ &c., 1728, 8vo. 30. ‘Fifteen Sermons … To which is added A Scripture Catechism,’ &c., 1728, 8vo (edited, with a memorial preface, by Benjamin Avery, LL.D. [q. v.]; contains all the single sermons printed in his lifetime, and eight others. His funeral sermon for Mrs. Hallett is reprinted in the ‘Practical Preacher,’ 1762, 8vo, vol. iii.). Nos. 5 and 10 above are doubtful. Several anonymous pamphlets in the paper war at Exeter were freely ascribed to Peirce, and have been catalogued and referred to as his, apparently without ground; of these the most important is ‘The Innocent vindicated,’ &c., 1718; 2nd edition, 1719, 8vo, which, Peirce says, he never read, and supposed to be by a lay hand (West. Inquis. pp. 143–46); an appendix to the second edition has ‘Thirteen Queries’ on the Trinity, which are defended as Peirce's in ‘The Truth and Importance of the Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity,’ &c., 1736, 8vo, a publication against Waterland, which has been ascribed to Hallett.[Funeral Sermon by Hallett, 1726; Avery's Preface, 1728; Calamy's Continuation, 1727, ii. 289, Own Life, 1830, ii. 263, 403 seq.; Whiston's Memoirs, 1753, pp. 121 seq.; Memoir in Protestant Dissenters' Magazine, 1795, pp. 441 seq. (probably by Joshua Toulmin); Account of Cambridge Dissent in Monthly Repository, 1810, p. 626 (with additional information supplied from manuscript records at Cambridge); Fox's Memoirs, and Fox's Character of Peirce, in Monthly Repository, 1821, pp. 197 seq., 329 seq.; Murch's Hist. Presb. and Gen. Bapt. Cong. in West of England, 1835, pp. 386 seq., 421 seq.; Turner's Lives of Eminent Unitarians, 1840, i. 89 seq. (an excellent account; but Turner, though he insists, erroneously, that Peirce discarded the worship of Christ, is puzzled to rank him as a unitarian); Newbury Weekly News, 29 March and 12 July 1888 (articles by W. Money, F.S.A.); Christian Life, 16 and 23 June 1888 (articles on the Salters' Hall Fiasco); Peirce's pamphlets, especially the autobiographical postscript to Remarks, 1719, The Case, 1719, and Western Inquisition, 1720, manuscript records of Stepney Meeting; manuscript records of Exeter Assembly in Dr. Williams's Library.]