Romaine, William (1714-1795) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49
Romaine, William (1714-1795)

by Henry Leigh Bennett
1904 Errata appended.

ROMAINE, WILLIAM (1714–1795), divine, born at Hartlepool on 25 Sept. 1714, was younger son of William Romaine, a French protestant, who came to England at the revocation of the edict of Nantes, and settled at Hartlepool, where he carried on the trade of a corn-dealer. He became a loyal member of the church of England, and died in 1757. Romaine's letters attest the deep piety of his mother, who died in 1771.

When about ten years old William was sent to the school founded by Bernard Gilpin at Houghton-le-Spring, Durham, and matriculated on 10 April 1731 at Hart Hall (afterwards Hertford College), Oxford, where he was noted as much for his untidy and slovenly dress as for his ability. Migrating to Christ Church he graduated B.A. in 1734 and M.A. in 1737. He was ordained deacon the year before, and became curate of Lew-Trenchard, Devonshire. While still a deacon, he had the audacity to break a lance with Warburton, in a series of letters about the ‘Divine Legation’—a subject which he pursued in his first two sermons before the university of Oxford (1739, 1741). He was ordained priest by Hoadly (1738), probably to the curacy of Banstead, Surrey, which he held for some years with that of Horton in Middlesex. At Banstead he became acquainted with Sir Daniel Lambert, who made him his chaplain during his office as lord mayor of London (1741).

His theological views had not then taken their ultimate shape. His earliest published works attest a settlement of belief on orthodox lines and a lively interest in the apologetic and critical branches of theology. To critical study Romaine soon made a solid contribution by editing a new edition of the Hebrew concordance of Marius de Calasio, 1748. The evangelical revival, which had not touched him in his Oxford days, changed the current of his thought. At first he was attracted by Wesley's view of the Atonement, as made for all men and open freely to all that would accept it, and the righteousness of Christ as an inherent and not only an imputed righteousness (see Works, viii. 193). But in 1755 he had passed entirely to the side of Whitefield (see Sermons on the 107th Psalm,’ Works, vol. iv.), and from that time to the end of his life he remained the ablest exponent among the evangelicals of the highest Calvinistic doctrine, holding Wesley's views, especially in the matter of free will and perfection, as a subtle reproduction of the Romish theory of justification by works (see Works, viii. 125—letter to his sister; ‘Dialogue concerning Justification,’ ii. 260 seq.). In a letter written in 1766 Romaine has drawn the portrait of ‘a very, very vain, proud young man,’ who ‘knew almost everything but himself, and therefore was mighty fond of himself,’ and ‘met with many disappointments to his pride, till the Lord was pleased to let him see and feel the plague of his own heart’ (Works, viii. 188). It has been thought that the portrait was his own (ib. vii. 19). In 1748 he was appointed to a lectureship at the united parishes of St. George's, Botolph Lane, and St. Botolph's, Billingsgate, and entered on the career of a London clergyman. In 1749 he was instituted to a double lectureship at St. Dunstan's-in-the-West. In 1750 he became in addition morning preacher at St. George's, Hanover Square. About this time also he held for a little while the professorship of astronomy in Gresham College. His lectures must have been original; he used to ‘attack some part of the Newtonian philosophy with boldness and banter.’ In 1753 he published a pamphlet against the bill for naturalising the Jews.

Romaine was now an ardent follower of Whitefield, proclaiming his belief not only to the citizens of St. Dunstan's, but to the fashionable world of St. George's. Persecution followed. The fashionable people of Hanover Square could not tolerate the poor folk that crowded to his preaching, although the old Earl of Northampton defended him, dryly remarking that no complaint was made of crowds in the ballroom or in the playhouse. Romaine consequently, at the request of the vicar, resigned his morning lectureship at St. George's. Trouble next arose at St. Dunstan's; the parishioners complained that they had to force their way to their pews through a ‘ragged, unsavoury multitude,’ ‘squeezing,’ ‘shoving,’ ‘panting,’ ‘riding on one another's backs.’ The rector sat in the pulpit to prevent Romaine from occupying it (Monthly Review, xxi. 271). The matter was carried to the king's bench, and that court deprived him of one parish lectureship, supported by voluntary contributions, but confirmed him in the other, which was endowed with 18l. a year (1762), and granted him the use of the church at seven o'clock in the evening. The churchwardens, however, refused to open the church until the exact hour, and declined to light it. Romaine had frequently to perform his office by the light of a single candle, which he held in his hand; until Terrick, the bishop of London (a predecessor of Romaine's in the lectureship) happening on one occasion to observe the crowd at the closed door, interfered, and obtained fair and decent arrangements for the service.

Romaine stood almost alone. The university of Oxford refused him the pulpit of St. Mary's in consequence of two sermons (1757) preached before it, in which he declaimed against moral rectitude being put in the place of justification by faith. The ‘Monthly Review’ treated his sermons and treatises with pitiless ridicule. A sermon, ‘The Self-existence of Jesus,’ 1755, on the divinity of Christ, was called an ‘amazing rhapsody.’ ‘The Life of Faith’ (1763) was ‘a silly treatise, a stupid treatise, a nonsensical treatise, a fanatical treatise.’ But Romaine reiterated his views and retracted nothing (Preface to ‘Sermon on 107th Psalm,’ Works, 1758, iv. p. xx). If men called the plain doctrines of scripture and the church ‘enthusiasm,’ he hoped, he said, to live and die ‘a church of England enthusiast’ (ib. iv. p. cclxii).

After his dismissal from St. George's he was appointed chaplain by Lady Huntingdon, preaching both in her kitchen and in her drawing-room. In 1756 he became curate and morning preacher at St. Olave's, Southwark; in 1759 he removed to the same post at St. Bartholomew the Great; and nearly two years afterwards to Westminster chapel, a chapel-of-ease to St. Margaret's, from which he was driven in six months by the hostility of the dean and chapter. The outlook in London seemed hopeless. Lord Dartmouth offered him a living in the country, and Whitefield wished him to take charge of a great church at Philadelphia at a salary of 600l. a year. But he declined to leave St. Dunstan's. He found occupation in preaching charity sermons, and assisted Archbishop Secker at Lambeth. He also preached to Ingham's societies at Leeds, with Grimshaw at Haworth, in the new chapel at Brighton, and in Lady Huntingdon's chapel at Bath, where his learning made him not wholly unequal to his temporary colleague, Whitefield.

In 1764 Romaine became a candidate for the living of St. Anne's, Blackfriars, with St. Andrew of the Wardrobe, which was in the gift of the parishioners, and preached before them a straightforward and characteristic sermon. The poll of the parish issued in his favour, but was disputed; and it was not till 1766 that the court of chancery confirmed his right to the benefice. There, at last, he had an assured position and a satisfied congregation: the communicants on his first Good Friday rose to the unprecedented number of five hundred, and on Easter-day there were as many as three hundred. A gallery had soon to be erected for the crowded congregations. Romaine stayed at Blackfriars for the remaining twenty-nine years of his life. Until John Newton's arrival in 1780, Romaine was the sole incumbent preaching the doctrines of the revival; and his learning made him always the central figure in it in London. He died on 26 July 1795, and his body was borne to Blackfriars through a dense crowd, the city marshals preceding it on horseback, and nearly fifty private coaches following.

In 1755 he married Miss Price, by whom he had two sons and a daughter. A son, captain in the army, died in 1783 at Trincomalee.

Romaine was by nature reserved. He possessed little of those varied sympathies which made John Newton excellent as a spiritual counsellor. He was capable, too, of displays of hot temper. When he saw people talking in church, he would not only tap them on the shoulder, but sometimes knock their heads together.

As a preacher he exercised great power. His theology and his conception of the spiritual life are most fully exhibited in three treatises, ‘The Life of Faith’ (1763), ‘The Walk of Faith’ (1771), and ‘The Triumph of Faith’ (1795), which contain many passages full of tender and passionate devotion. The idea of a spiritual progress, which the titles convey, is not realised. The same field of religious ideas is surveyed in each treatise. The form which the doctrine of election took in his creed was too extreme for some even of his religious friends. Newton confessed to Wilberforce that Romaine had made many antinomians (Abbey and Overton, Hist. of the English Church in the Eighteenth Century, p. 374). He was strongly opposed to dissenters, holding the Calvinist side of the articles as the essence of the church of England. In the bitter Calvinist controversy he was free from bitterness. When Whitefield's opposition was fiercest, John Wesley wrote to Lady Huntingdon that Romaine had shown ‘a truly sympathising spirit.’ He adhered to the metrical psalms against the hymns of Watts and Wesley; his revival of the old nicknames of ‘Watts's whims’ and ‘Watts's jingle,’ in his strenuous defence of psalmody (1775), gave offence to Lady Huntingdon.

A portrait of Romaine, painted in 1758 by F. Cotes, was engraved by Houston, who also engraved another by J. Russell; an engraving of Romaine in the ‘Gospel Magazine’ (i. 121) in wig and gown shows a keen and animated face.

[Works and Life, by Rev. W. B. Cadogan, 8 vols. 1809; Christian Leaders of the Last Century, by Rev. J. C. Ryle, bishop of Liverpool, 1871; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 42.]

H. L. B.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.238
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
176 i 10f.e. Romaine, William: after London insert (a predecessor of Romaine in the lectureship) and omit happened
9f.e.  omit to precede him in the pulpit