Bonnell, James (DNB00)

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BONNELL, JAMES (1653–1699), accountant-general of Ireland, a man eminent for his saintly life, was descended from one of the many families of protestant refugees who fled to England from the Low Countries in the reign of Elizabeth to escape from the cruel persecution of the Spaniards under the Duke of Alva. The family settled at Norwich, and Bonnell’s mother was a Norwich lady, the daughter of T. Sayer, esq. But Samuel Bonnell went into Italy, and lived for many years at Leghorn, and for a few at Genoa: at the latter place James was born. Samuel Bonnell, being a wealthy man and a stout royalist, rendered considerable peclmiary assistance to King Charles in his exile. Upon the Restoration the king did not repay his benefactor, but conferred upon him the accountant-generalship of Ireland, worth 8001. a year, his son’s life being included in the patent with his own. James Bonnell’s course was thus marked out for him. But from his earliest years he had shown a dee sense of religion, taking especial pleasure in devotional books. He lost his father when he was only eleven years of age, but he had the advantage of being trained by an excellent mother, who educated him with his sister in Dublin until he was old enough to be sent to Trim school, then under the direction of Dr. Tenison, afterwards bishop of Meath. He always retained a grateful remembrance of Dr. Tenison’s religious care. From Trim he was removed to ‘a private philosophy school’ at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire, his friends fearing lest his piety should be corrupted in a university. The schoolmaster was a Mr. Cole, who had been principal of St. Mary’s Hall, Oxford, but had been ejected for nonconformity. Samuel Wesley the elder accuses Cole of encouraging immorality in his house, but Bonnell distinctly exonerates him, by anticipation, from this charge. Cole’s religious training seems to have consisted simply in preaching twice every Sunday to the family, and he exercised no efficient moral supervision over his pupils, who, according to Bonnell, were a vicious set. Bonnell also complains that there was ‘no practice of receiving the sacrament in the place.’ But his pure and well-trained nature was proof against temptation, After two years and a half he was removed to St. Catharine's Hall, Cambridge, being entered by his friend and kinsman, Mr. Strype, ‘then of that house.’ At Cambridge he passed a blameless course, pursuing his methods of devotion more strictly, and making many friends of a kindred spirit with his own, among others, Offspring Blackhall, afterwards bishop of Exeter, and James Calamy, brother of Dr. Calamy, his college tutor, to whom he was deeply attached. From Cambridge he re-moved into the family of Ralph Freeman, esq., of Aspeden Hall, Hertfordshire, us governor to his eldest son, for whose use he composed many of his ‘Pious Meditations.’ Bonnell continued in the family until 1678, when he accompanied his pupil into Holland, and spent nearly a year in the household of Sir Leoline Jenkins at Nimeguen. Sir Leoline was so impressed with his character that he offered to use his powerful interest in his behalf. He went in the ambassadors company through Flanders and Holland, and so back to England. There he remained with his pupil until 1683, when young Mr. Freeman was sent into Italy and France. Bonnell joined him the next year at Lyons, and thc two travelled together through several parts of France. On his return he undertook personally the official duties which, since his father's death, he had performed by deputy. The office of accountant-general of the Irish revenues was one of great trust, requiring a thorough knowledge of business. But he was quite equal to the post, and managed his work so well that he soon gained the esteem of the government and the love of all concerned with him. One thing alone troubled him-had he not a call to the sacred ministry ? So he strove to find a man to whom he could entrust his responsible office while he himself became a christian clergyman. The man he sought was found, but the revolution of 1688 put a stop to the scheme. His substitute could not submit to the new régime, and Bonnell, not being able to find another to his mind, was forced to remain at his post. Mr. Freeman offered, in case he should take holy orders, to buy him a living; but this was quite contrary to Bonnell's principles. ‘I will desire,' he writes, ‘no place to please myself, especially in the church, but, indeed. nowhere else, hut to serve God.' Bonnell anticipated the dangers which occurred during the reign of James II, and wrote to his friend and kinsman, Mr. Strype, about them. He resolved not to attempt to leave Dublin during the war. Whatever he received from his employment he gave to needy protestants. He was bitterly disappointed when he found there was so little reformation of manners after the troubles ceased, and, that he might assist more directly in the good work, he again determined to seek ordination: for which purpose be again arranged with a substitute to take his duties as accountant-general, but again the negotiation fell through, this time owing to his own failing health. In 1693 he married Jane, daughter of Sir Albert Conyngham, who had been a noted royalist, and after six years of happy union, in which he was blessed with two sons and one daughter, he passed to his rest. He was buried in St. John's Church, Dublin, and his funeral sermon was preached by the Bishop of Killaloe (Edward Wetehall), who uses these remarkable words in his preface to the sermon: ‘I am truly of opinion that in the best age of the church, had he lived therein, he would have passed for a Saint.’ His life was written by the Archdeacon of Armagh (William Hamilton), who fully bears out this encomium. Archdeacon Hamilton has wisely fortified himself by attaching to his ‘Life’ letters from several bishops who fully endorse all that he has written, and there does not appear to be a hint from any other source which would lead us to doubt the truthfulness of the account. Bonnell's piety was of the strictly church of England type, though he was tolerant of those who differed from him. During; the greater part of his life he attended church twice every day, and made a point of communicating every Lord's day. He was a careful observer of all the festivals and fasts of the church, and made it a rule to repeat on his knees every Friday the fifty-first Psalm. He took a deep interest both in the ‘religious societies’ and the ‘societies for the reformation of manners,’ which form so interesting a feature in the church history of his day. Of the former, which flourished greatly at Dublin, we are told that ‘he pleaded their cause, wrote in their defence, and was one of their most diligent and prudent directors;’ of the latter ‘he was a zealous promoter, was always present at their meetings, and contributed liberally to their expenses.’ He gave one-eighth of his income to the poor, and his probity was so highly esteemed that the fortunes of many orphans were committed to his care. Bonnell was a man of great and varied accomplishments. ‘He understood French perfectly, and had made great progress in Hebrew, while in philosophy and oratory he exceeded most of his contemporaries in the university, and he applied himself with success to mathematics and music.’ Divinity was, however, of course his favourite study. He was a great reader of the early fathers, and translated some parts of Synesius into English. He also reformed and improved for his own use a harmony of the Gospels. His favourite writers were Richard Hooker and Thomas à Kempis. Many of his ‘Meditations’ (a vast number of which, on a great variety of subjects, are still extant) remind one slightly of the latter author.

[Hamilton's Exemplary Life and Character of James Bonnell, &c.; Christian Biography, published by Religious Tract Society.]

J. H. O.