Wills, Thomas (DNB00)

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WILLS, THOMAS (1740–1802), evangelical preacher, born at Truro, Cornwall, on 26 July 1740, was the son of Thomas Wills of St. Issey (a descendant of Jonathan Wills, ejected minister in 1662 from Lanteglos-juxta-Camelford), who married Mary Spry. The mother and twin-sister, both of whom were buried in Truro church, died at his birth. The father died a year or two later, and was also buried there. The two surviving sons were adopted by the eldest aunt, Lucy Spry of Truro, who died in 1755, leaving most of her fortune to Thomas. The elder boy, John Wills (d. 11 Oct. 1764), became a lieutenant in the navy under his relative, Admiral Spry. The younger son, after his aunt's death, was put under the care of her brother-in-law, Thomas Michell of Croft West, near Truro, and placed at Truro grammar school, where he attended the ministry of Samuel Walker [q. v.]

Wills matriculated from Magdalen Hall, Oxford, on 28 March 1757, and graduated B.A. 11 Dec. 1760. While at the university he became friendly with Thomas Haweis [q. v.], a brother Cornishman and pupil at Truro school, and was numbered among his religious associates. He was ordained deacon by the bishop of Oxford in 1762, and priest by the bishop of Exeter on Trinity Sunday 1764. In 1764 he was appointed to the curacy of Perranzabuloe and St. Agnes, two parishes on the north coast of Cornwall, of which James Walker, a brother of Samuel Walker, was vicar. His connection with Perranzabuloe ceased in 1765, but he remained at St. Agnes until January 1778.

In the autumn of 1772 Wills made the acquaintance of the Countess of Huntingdon at Bath and frequently preached in her chapel. In the autumn of 1774 he was again in that city, and on 6 Oct. 1774 he married Selina Margaretta, third daughter of the Rev. Granville Wheler of Otterden Place, near Faversham, Kent, by his wife, Lady Catherine Maria Hastings. Lady Huntingdon, his wife's aunt, visited them at St. Agnes in the autumn of 1775, and established her chapels in Cornwall. Wills was appointed her chaplain in January 1778, and thereupon resigned his curacy.

Wills next proceeded to Lady Huntingdon's college at Trevecca, and then to Brighton. For his irregular conduct in preaching at the Spa Fields chapel in 1781 he was served with a citation by the Rev. William Sellon of St. James's, Clerkenwell. Next year he took the oath of allegiance as a dissenting minister, and was appointed minister of Spa Fields chapel. He officiated there and in the several chapels of Lady Huntingdon's connexion throughout England for several years, and on 9 March 1783 he and another minister held ‘the primary ordination’ of Lady Huntingdon's connexion in Spa Fields chapel. He took temporary leave of that congregation on 12 Aug. 1787. Differences ensued between him and Lady Huntingdon, and he did not minister there again until 30 March 1788. He preached his last sermon in the chapel on 6 July 1788, and a few days later was dismissed by her.

After preaching occasionally at Surrey chapel and elsewhere Wills was engaged by the proprietors of Dr. Peckwell's chapel, in the Great Almonry at Westminster, and also by those of Orange Street chapel, Leicester Square, to officiate in their respective buildings. The chapel at Silver Street, near Aldersgate Street, was let to him from Michaelmas 1789 for a lecture on Thursday evenings, and at the following Christmas he took the building on lease. Its interior was then altered, and the liturgy of the English church, an organ, and the hymns of the Countess of Huntingdon were introduced. He ceased in 1789 to preach in Orange Street chapel, and in 1791 he gave up Westminster chapel; but in 1793 he began preaching in Islington chapel. There and at Silver Street chapel he remained preaching the doctrines of Calvinism with unabated popularity for several years. About 1797 his congregation dwindled, through the popularity of an Antinomian preacher in Grub Street, and his own health began to decline. His mental faculties gave way, and in 1799 a stroke of paralysis incapacitated him from preaching. He took leave of his congregation at Silver Street on 23 Feb. 1800, and retired to Boskenna in the parish of St. Buryan, Cornwall, the seat of James Paynter. He died there on 12 May 1802, and was buried on the north side of Buryan churchyard in a vaulted grave which he had constructed for himself and his wife. A monument to his memory was placed in the church by his widow, who died at Boskenna on 3 April 1814.

As a popular preacher Wills was second only to George Whitefield, and his preaching in the open air, especially on Tower Hill, attracted great crowds. He was the author of: 1. ‘Remarks on Polygamy in answer to Madan's “Thelyphthora,”’ 1781. 2. ‘Authentic Narrative of the Primary Ordination in Lady Huntingdon's Chapel, 9 March 1783;’ 2nd ed. 1786. 3. ‘The Spiritual Register,’ 1784–95, 3 vols.; he had previously sent some of the cases to the ‘Protestant Magazine.’ 4. ‘A Farewell Address to the Countess of Huntingdon's Chapels, and especially Spa Fields,’ 1788. He also published some single sermons, and edited several religious works, including ‘Letters from the late Rev. William Romaine to a Friend,’ which passed through many editions.

A portrait, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, of Wills was engraved by H. R. Cook, and on a larger scale by Fittler. A print of him, drawn and engraved by Goldar, is prefixed to the ‘Spiritual Register’ and the ‘New Spiritual Magazine,’ vol. i. Another print, by Ridley, published by T. Chapman on 1 May 1799, is in the ‘Evangelical Magazine.’

[Memoir of the Rev. T. Wills, by a friend, 1804; Life of the Countess of Huntingdon, i. 310, 393–394, ii. 53–9, 76, 203–4, 310–15, 414–33, 479–81; Life of S. E. Pierce, pp. 59–62, 92–9; Wilson's Dissenting Churches, iii. 116–23; Nelson's Islington, pp. 273–5; Bennett's Silver Street Church, pp. 21–2; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Gent. Mag. 1774 p. 494, 1802 i. 585, 1814 i. 515; Parochial Hist. of Cornwall, i. 162; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub. ii. 890–1; Willcocks's Spa Fields Chapel, pp. 34, 38.]

W. P. C.