Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dell, William
DELL, WILLIAM (d. 1664), master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, was originally a member of Emmanuel College, in the same university, and fellow of that society. He proceeded B.A. 1627–8, M.A. 1631. Soon after (or possibly before) taking his master's degree he was appointed secretary to Archbishop Laud; we find Laud writing (29 Sept. 1631) to Viscount Dorchester for the purpose of conveying the royal mandate ‘for a grant in reversion to Robert Reade and William Dell, gentlemen of the office of his majesty's signet, to be held by them to the only use and behoof of one Thomas Windebank’ (Laud, Works, Ang.-Cath. Lib., vii. 42). Laud's petition to the House of Lords is described by Prynne as ‘written with Mr. Dell's hand, and subscribed with his own’ (Canterburie's Doome, p. 44).
Subsequently, but under what influences does not appear, Dell abandoned the tenets of the church of England and became, by reputation at least, an antinomian. He attended Fairfax as a ‘preacher of the army’ in the campaign of 1645–6, from the battle of Naseby to the siege of Oxford; and was the officiating minister at the marriage of General Ireton and Bridget Cromwell, which took place at Holton in Oxfordshire on 15 Jan. 1646, Holton being at that time the headquarters of Fairfax's army. On 7 June 1646 he preached before Fairfax and the officers at Marston a sermon entitled ‘The Building and the Glory of the truly Spiritual and Christian Church;’ this he printed and published in the following year, and from it we derive some facts in his personal history. He represents himself as having been exposed to most unsparing attacks from those who disliked his doctrine. His position, so far as it is discernible, was already of that character which seems to have earned for him so much severe censure from writers of very different schools throughout his later career. He aimed, apparently, at a kind of eclecticism, for he refuses to ‘allow any such distinction of christians as presbyterians and independents, this being only a distinction of man's making, tending to the division of the church.’ This sermon may be looked upon as giving the keynote of his peculiar doctrinal teaching. On 25 Nov. following he preached before the House of Commons on Hebrews ix. 10. His discourse was printed under the title, ‘Right Reformation; or the Reformation of the Church of the New Testament represented in Gospel Light.’ In 1719 this sermon was reprinted with an anonymous dedication to Bishop Hoadly, in which it is described as especially relevant to the celebrated Bangorian controversy, and as an exposition of the views of ‘one who not only taught the very same doctrines which your lordship now teaches, but defended them with the very same arguments with which your lordship has defended them.’
Cole says that ‘on the surrender of the garrison at Oxford,’ Dell, ‘among others of his tribe, was sent down there to poison the principles of that university; and on the morning of the martyrdom of King Charles, he, with other bold and insolent fanatical ministers, went with all the solemnity becoming a better cause, and all the confidence and assurance peculiar to the fanatical tribe, to offer their unhallowed services to the blessed martyr, whom they had just brought to the scaffold’ (Addit. MS. 5834, p. 271).
On 15 April 1649 Dr. Batchcroft was ejected from the mastership of Caius College, and on 4 May following, on the petition of the fellows of the society, Dell was appointed by parliament to succeed him. During his tenure of the office (which lasted to 11 May 1660) he excluded from fellowships all who were suspected of royalist leanings. In 1653 he preached at St. Mary's, in reply to a sermon delivered from the same pulpit in the previous year by Sydrach Simpson, master of Pembroke College. Simpson, in a commencement sermon, had maintained the value of classical learning and university culture generally in the training of a clergyman for his vocation. Dell, in his reply, vehemently denounced the notion that such attainments were of any value as a means towards the better understanding of scripture, declaring that ‘the gospel of Christ, understood according to Aristotle, hath begun, continued, and perfected the mysterie of iniquity in the outward church.’ Hoods, caps, ‘scarlet robes,’ ‘the doctoral ring,’ and other academic attire of dignitaries, were inveighed against with equal warmth, while the assumption on the part of the university of the power to confer degrees in divinity was declared by him to be ‘a power received from Antichrist.’ Dell was answered by Joseph Sedgwick of Christ's College, in a sermon entitled ‘An Essay to the Discovery of the Spirit of Enthusiasm and pretended Inspiration, that disturbs and strikes at the Universities,’ &c., London, 1653.
His conduct during his mastership appears to have met with the approval of the government, for we find in 1654, and again in 1656, an order in council ‘to pay to Mr. Dell, master of Gonville and Caius College, his half-year's augmentation of 60l. a year, any order of restraint notwithstanding’ (State Papers, Dom., lxxi. No. 50, cxxvii. No. 41). Herbert Thorndike, in a letter appended to his ‘Just Weights and Measures’ (ed. 1662), p. 213, speaks of him as so strongly inclined to the Calvinistic theory of predestination, ‘that he is thought to have written the book called the “Doctrine of Baptism,” against baptism itself;’ ‘he is now,’ Thorndike goes on to say, ‘and is acknowledged by those commissioners, master of a college in the university (whereof several fellows have been notorious preachers of this hæresie), who cannot be acknowledged a member of this church by any good christian.’
Conjointly with his mastership Dell held the living of Yelden (not Yeldon) in Bedfordshire, from which he was ejected in 1662. He survived his ejection only two years, and was buried at his own desire in unconsecrated ground, the site being a ‘spinny,’ or small copse, on his own estate ‘at Samsill in the parish of Westoning, near Harlington.’ John Pomfret, writing to Zachary Grey (18 March 1738), describes the spot as then ‘grown over with thorns and briers.’ ‘But I cannot learn,’ he goes on to say, ‘that his wife lies there too. The close goes by the name of “Graves,” and was part of the Dells' estate at that time, though sold by the son of the old man. Which son married a great-aunt of mine, by my mother's side. I have heard Mr. Bedford say that old Dell was rector of Yeilden in those precious times of iniquity, I suppose presented by the then Earl of Bolingbroke, who was deep in those confusions. I myself have heard the doctor's father say, pointing to the close as we rode by, “There lyes my old rogue of a grandfather,” which was no small concern to him’ (Baker MS. A 127).
Dell seems to have definitely associated himself with no party; he is described by Calamy as ‘a very peculiar and unsettled man,’ and ‘challenged for three contradictions:’ (1) for being professedly against pædobaptism, and yet he had his own children baptised; (2) for preaching against universities, when yet he held the leadership of a college; (3) for being against tithes, and yet taking 200l. per annum at his living in Yelden.’ ‘But it was not for these things,’ continues the writer, ‘but for his nonconformity that he was ejected. To these a fourth may be added, that he gave his parishioners christian burial, and he himself is buried in the fields’ (Calamy, Nonconformist's Memorial (Palmer), i. 201).
One of his pamphlets, entitled ‘The Right Reformation of Learning, Schools, and Universities, according to the state of the Gospel,’ first printed during his tenure of his mastership, is notable as developing the idea that university culture ought to be placed within the immediate reach of the inhabitants of all the larger towns, where its acquisition might be blended with the ordinary avocations of life, a view much resembling, if not identical with, that which has given rise to the university extension movement of the present day.
The registers of births and burials ‘in the toune of Yelden’ supply the following information with respect to Dell's family: 16 Dec. 1653, Anna Dell, the daughter of William Dell and Martha his wife, born; 16 May 1655, Nathanael Dell, ‘sonne of Willim Dell, rector, and Martha his wife, was borne;’ 16 Feb. 1656, Mary Dell born; 6 July 1655, Nathanael Dell buried; 12 Jan. 1656, Samuel Dell, ‘sonne of William Dell and Matthew (sic) his wife, was buryed’ (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 221–2).
Dell's works commanded a certain popularity, especially among the quakers, and have twice been reprinted in a collected form: ‘Select Works of William Dell, master of Gonvil and Caius College in Cambridge,’ London, printed for John Kendall in Colchester, 1773, and in 2 vols. 8vo, London, 1817. His receipt for 7l. 10s., in part payment of his allowance of 70l. per annum, was sold at Puttick's on 2 March 1867, art. 100. Extracts from his writings are given in Wesley's ‘Christian Library’ (ed. 1827), vol. vii.[Baker MS. A 127 (Camb.), iv. 116 (Brit. Mus.); Cole MSS. (Add. MS. 5834, p. 271); Neal's History of the Puritans (ed. 1822), v. 191; Monthly Magazine, xv. 426; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 75–6, 6th ser. vii. 229, 574; Rutherfurd's Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist, London, 1647; Voss's Epist. 260, 283; Baxter's Life, vol. i. pt. i. p. 64, § 99.]