Biographia Hibernica/John Alexander

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AN eminent dissenting minister, highly distinguished by his natural abilities, and extensive acquirements, was born in the commencement of 1736, in Ireland, to which country, his father who had been a dissenting preacher, and master of an academy at Stratford upon Avon, had retired a short period before the birth of his son. His father did not long survive this change of country, and his mother with her family, soon after his decease, returned to England, and settled at Birmingham. Here he went through the common course of grammatical instruction, and was afterwards sent to the academy, at Daventry, which was then under the superintendance of Dr. Caleb Ashworth, who had been appointed tutor on the decease of that eminent divine, Dr. Philip Doddridge. He pursued his studies in this seminary with commendable diligence, and after having finished his academical and classical education under the care of that excellent instructor, was put under the tuition of Dr. Benson. This gentleman, whose abilities as a sacred critic are generally acknowledged to be very extensive, was in the habit of receiving a few young gentlemen, who had passed through the usual course of education at the schools or in the universities, for the purpose of implanting in them a more critical acquaintance with the sacred writings. It was with this intent that young Alexander was put under his care; and so delighted was that amiable man with his pupil's literary acquirements, with his constant and eager desire for improvement, and the prudence and modesty of his personal behaviour, that he gave him his board, and introduced him, with paternal affection, to all his particular acquaintance, expressing the highest regard for him on every occasion.

During his residence in London, Mr. Alexander omitted no opportunity of adding to his stock of knowledge; and, on quitting the metropolis, he retired to Birmingham, where he resided for some time with his mother. He now preached occasionally at that place and in its neighbourhood; and afterwards with more regularity at Longdor, a small village about twelve miles distant. On Saturday, Dec. 28, 1765, he retired to rest, as usual, between eleven and twelve o'clock, with the intention of officiating the next day at Longdor, but, at six on the following morning, he was found dead in his bed; an event which was sincerely deplored by his friends, as both a private and public loss.

Shortly after his decease, some part of the produce of his studies was published in London by the Rev. John Palmer: "A Paraphrase upon the Fifteenth Chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians; with Critical Notes and Observations, and a Preliminary Dissertation. A Commentary, with Critical Remarks, upon the Sixth, Seventh, and part of the Eighth Chapters to the Romans. To which is added, A Sermon on Ecclesiastes ix. 10; composed by the author the day preceding his death. By John Alexander." It is observed by Mr. Palmer, that Mr. Alexander was no less an object of admiration to his acquaintance for the intenseness of his application, than for the native strength of his mind; by the united force of which he made those advances in knowledge and literature, which are very rarely attained by persons at so early an age. The justness of this encomium is abundantly evident from the work now mentioned, which contains indubitable proofs of great sagacity and learning. The preliminary Dissertation in particular, in which he favours the opinion of there being no state of consciousness between death and the resurrection, may be ranked with the first productions on the subject; though the same side of the question has been maintained by some of the first divines of the last century.

Yet, though the study of religion and the scriptures, as became his profession, was the principal object of Mr. Alexander's attention, he found leisure for cultivating the other departments of literature. He had a quick turn for observation on common life, and possessed no inconsiderable portion of wit and humour. He had formed his style on the more correct and chaste parts of Dr. Swift's writings, and had somewhat of the cast of that celebrated author, without his excessive severity. Of this he gave several proofs in a monthly work, "The Library," supposed to have been conducted principally by Dr. Keppis, and which was published in London in 1761 and 1762; in an ironical "Defence of Persecution," "Essays on Dullness, Common Sense, Misanthropy, the Study of Man, Controversy, the Misconduct of Parents, Modern Authorship, the Present State of Wit in Great Britain, the Index of the Mind, and the Fate of Periodical Publications." In some of these he displays a genuine humour, not inferior to that of the most celebrated of our essayists.

Had his life been spared, it has been generally believed that he would have become one of the best scholars and most able writers among the dissenters. His compositions for the pulpit were close, heartfelt, and correct; his delivery clear, distinct, and unassuming; yet, with all these abilities, he would scarcely have become a popular preacher, though his manner and doctrine might deservedly obtain the approbation and esteem of the more judicious among his hearers.

The following is an extract from the letter of an intimate friend of John Alexander's: "Indeed, his life was only a sketch, but it was a master-piece of its kind. The virtue, learning, and knowledge, which he crowded into it, would have done honour to the longest period of human existence. I think I knew him well; yet I am persuaded half his merit was unknown even to his most intimate friends. It was his talent to conceal his worth."