Conant, John (DNB00)

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CONANT, JOHN (1608–1693), rector of Exeter College, Oxford, son of Robert and Elizabeth Conant, was born at Yettington in the parish of Bicton, Devonshire, on 18 Oct. 1608. As a child he showed signs of genius, and accordingly his uncle, John Conant, rector of Limington, Somerset, put him to the free school at Ilchester, where he remained until he was eighteen, and then, on 18 Feb. 1626-7, he matriculated as a commoner of Exeter, having Lawrence Bodley, nephew of Sir Thomas Bodley, as his tutor. He was distinguished for his ability, and Dr. Prideaux, the rector of the college, used to say of him, 'Conanti nihil difficile.' He proceeded B. A. 26 May 1631, and incepted M.A. 12 Jan. 1634. Thoroughly master of Greek he disputed several times publicly in the schools in that language, and he not only understood Hebrew, but had a considerable knowledge of Arabic, Syriac, and other oriental languages. On 30 June 1632 he was chosen probationer, and was admitted actual fellow on 3 July 1633. He entered deacon's orders, and remained at the college taking pupils until 1642, when the outbreak of the civil war scattered his pupils. He left Oxford, and, as he hoped before long to be able to return, did not take his books with him ; they were of considerable value, and he never regained them. He went down to Limington, intending to remain with his uncle, who had evidently acted as a kind of guardian to him. The rector, however, appears to have already left the parish ; he was a prominent puritan, and had had some difficulties with Piers, his bishop. Conant stayed for a while at Limington and preached there every week. When in April the commons voted that an assembly of godly divines should be called to reform the church, the two ministers selected for Somerset were Samuel Crooke [q. v.] of Wrington, and Conant of Limington (A Catalogue of Names approved), and it has been asserted that this was the young fellow of Exeter (Prince, Worthies of Devon, 224, who confuses the Somerset village with the town of the same name in Hampshire ; CALAMT, i. 229 ; Chalmers, Biog. Dict. x. 131). It is certain, however, that the selected divine was Conant's uncle, the rector, for Conant himself never took the covenant (see Bliss's note to Wood's Athenæ, iv. 398). After he had for a time taken his uncle's place he was forced to flee, for on one occasion he had been seized by some soldiers, and taken some way with them in the hope of extorting ransom (Conant, Life, 6). He accordingly joined his uncle, who was then ministering at St. Botolph's Aldersgate, and acted as his assistant. Before long he was engaged as domestic chaplain to Lord Chandos, and took up his residence at Harefield, near Uxbridge. While he was there Lady Chandos paid him 80l. a year, an unusually large salary, the greater part of which he spent on enabling the poor of the neighbourhood to send their children to school, and to buy bibles. Besides performing his duties at Harefield he voluntarily undertook a week-day lecture at Uxbridge, which was thronged with hearers. This led to an offer of a living made him by a Mr. Duke, a gentleman of Devonshire. Conant, however, declined it, because he could not conscientiously agree to the doctrines of the dominant faction. For the same reason, when, in 1647, the covenant was pressed on all members of colleges, he resigned his fellowship at Exeter, by a letter dated from Harefield 27 Sept. It seems, therefore, that Wood must be in error when he says (Hist. and Antiq.) that he was one of the fellows who accused the sub-rector Tozer to the parliamentary visitors, for the inquiry was not held until 21 March 1647-8, six months after he had resigned his fellowship, and as he had not been in Oxford since he left in 1642, he could not have been acquainted with the facts of the case (Life, 8 ; Biog. Brit. iii. 1435).

On the death of Hakewill, the rector of Exeter, in 1649, the fellows of the college on 7 June elected Conant as his successor ; and, as the college had suffered greatly from the absence of the last rector, they pressed him to accept the office, knowing that if he did so he would reside among them. Conant agreed, and was admitted on the 29th of the same month (Boase, Register of Exeter). He restored the discipline of the college. He enforced regular attendance at chapel, and reached himself every Sunday morning, nee a week he held a catechetical lecture for undergraduates, in which he went over Piscator's 'Aphorisms' and Woollebius's 'Compendium;' he also taught a divinity class in his own lodgings, going through the prophetical books of the bible with more advanced students. He used to visit the chambers and studies of the young scholars, and if he found any reading a modern book would 'send him to Tally.' Exeter flourished greatly under his rule ; there were more students than could be lodged within the college walls, and many came from beyond sea to enter the college (ib. ; Life). Conant did not sign the engagement without some scruples, and when he did so he appended certain provisos which eased his conscience (Prince). With the rectorship he held the living of Kidlington, near Oxford, where he preached twice on Sundays ; he also gave lectures at the churches of All Saints, St. Michael, and St. Mary Magdalen in Oxford. In August 1651 he married Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Dr. Edward Reynolds, then rector of Braunston, Northamptonshire (afterwards bishop of Norwich). He took what answered to priest's orders at Salisbury on 28 Oct. 1652, and on 29 May 1654 he received the D.D. degree, and 'answered the doctors at the act with great applause.' In December of the same year, on the death of Dr. Hoyle, he was made professor of divinity, and read two lectures each week on the Annotations of Grotius. When the parliament expelled Dr. Sanderson from the divinity professorship, the royal endowment was taken away from the chair. In order to make up for this loss the Protector in 1657 gave Conant the impropriate rectory of Abergele, Denbighshire. On 9 Oct. of this year Conant was admitted vice-chancellor, and held the office until August 1660. He was exceedingly popular in the university. He reversed the policy of his predecessor Owen, who had tried to put down the wearing of caps and hoods, as badges of popery. He opposed Cromwell's plan of granting a charter constituting Durham College a university, and he quashed a mischievous scheme for petitioning Richard Cromwell and the parliament to appoint local visitors for the different colleges in place of the episcopal and other non-resident ex-officio visitors. In the matter of discipline he appears to have exercised proctorial authority in his own person, taking 'his rounds at late hours to ferret the young students from public and other suspected houses' (Life).

Conant advocated the restoration, and on 15 June 1660 attended the court with the proctors and others to congratulate the king, and to offer the book of verses entitled 'Britannia Rediviva,' composed for the occasion by members of the university. As Abergele rectory belonged to the bishopric of St. Asaph, he resigned it voluntarily, though he had received a grant of it from the crown, and he also lost his professorship, as the chair was again taken by its rightful occupant, Sanderson. In March 1661 the king invited him to take part in the Savoy Conference. As no change was made in the liturgy that was satisfactory to the men with whom he was used to act, he decided to refuse conformity, and accordingly on 2 Sept. 1662 he was deprived of the rectorship of the college (Boase). After staying some while in Oxford he settled at Northampton. He refused to form a separatist congregation, and applied himself to the study of the doctrines of the church of England. Finally he decided to conform, and on 20 Sept. 1670 he received priest's orders from his father-in-law. On 18 Dec. following he was elected minister of St. Mary, Aldermanbury, by the vestry, but preferring to remain at Northampton he exchanged with the vicar of All Saints, and was instituted to that church on 15 Feb. 1670–1; and, although the living was worth only 100l. a year, he refused to leave it for other preferments which were offered him. These offers were especially made when his church, together with a large part of the town, was destroyed by fire on 20 Sept. 1675, a calamity of which he has left an account in a letter printed by his son. His charities were large, and he was much beloved, being very successful in bringing over nonconformists to the church. On 8 June 1676 he was made archdeacon of Norwich in succession to his wife's uncle, and on 3 Dec. 1681, on the intercession of the earl of Radnor, he received a prebend in Worcester Cathedral. For some years his sight gradually grew weaker, and in 1686 he became totally blind. He died on 12 March 1693, at the age of eighty-six, and was buried in his church at Northampton, where there is an epitaph recording the principal events of his life (Gent. Mag. lxxv. 210).

Six volumes of Conant's sermons have been published: the first in 1693, while he was still alive, by Dr. John Williams; the second, third, fourth, and fifth, in 1697, 1698, 1703, and 1708, by the same when bishop of Chichester; and the sixth, at the request of Conant's son, Dr. John Conant, in 1722, by Digby Coates, principal of Magdalen Hall, Oxford. Besides these his only other extant piece is his copy of verses in Latin and English, printed in the ‘Biographia Britannica.’ One or two letters of his have been printed (Hutchins, Dorsetshire, iii. 25, 26). By his wife, Elizabeth, he had six sons and six daughters. His family is now represented by the Conants of Lyndon Hall, Rutlandshire, who are descended from a younger son.

John Conant (d. 1723), eldest son of John Conant, rector of Exeter, wrote a life of his father, which was published by the Rev. W. Staunton in 1823. He was elected fellow of Merton College, Oxford, in 1676, took the degree of LL.D., and became a member of Gray's Inn. He settled in London and practised successfully at Doctors' Commons. In 1693 he was one of three who were presented to the visitor of Merton for the wardenship, but was not selected. About this time he married Mary, daughter of John West, of the manor of Hampton Poyle in the county of Oxford, and widow of Henry Street of Kidlington. By the death of his father-in-law in 1696 he succeeded to the Hampton Poyle property in right of his wife, and was engaged in some lawsuits connected with the succession. When compelled by failing health to retire from practice he resided at Kidlington, and appears to have died there on 23 Aug. 1723 (Nichols, Herald and Genealogist, iii. 296–9; Brodrick, History of Merton College, 122, 295; Wood's Life, cxi; Fasti Oxon. (Bliss), ii. 387).

[J. Conant's (LL.D.) Life of John Conant; Boase's Register of Exeter College, xxx, 64, 69, 70; Wood's Fasti Oxon. ii. 183, Athenæ Oxon. iv. 397 (Bliss), Hist. and Antiq. ii. 294, pt. ii. 645, 846, Colleges and Halls, 108 (Gutch); Kennet's Historical Register, 180, 843; Calamy's Nonconf. Memorial, i. 229–34, has a hopeless confusion of persons; A Catalogue of Names approved (Somerset); Prince's Worthies of Devon (1701), 223; Bibl. Brit. (1750), iii. 1433–9; Chalmers's Biog. Dict. x. 130–4; Gent. Mag. lxxv. 210.]

W. H.