Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Blackburne, Francis (1705-1787)

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BLACKBURNE, FRANCIS (1705–1787), divine, was born at Richmond, Yorkshire, on 9 June 1705. He was educated at Kendal, Hawkshead, and Sedbergh, and was admitted (May 1722) at Catherine Hall, Cambridge, where he seems to have already shown his liberal principles. ‘Young man,’ said a worthy old lay gentleman to him, ‘let the first book thou readest at Cambridge be Locke upon government.’ Blackburne thoroughly assimilated Locke's politics and theology, and, though the only qualified candidate, was refused a fellowship in consequence. He was ordained deacon 17 March 1728, and became ‘conduct’ of his college. He left it on being refused a fellowship, and lived with an uncle in Yorkshire till 1739, when he was ordained priest to take the rectory of Richmond in Yorkshire, which had been promised to him on the first vacancy. He resided there till his death. In 1744 he married a widow, Hannah, formerly Hotham, who had (in 1737) married Joshua Elsworth. He was collated to the archdeaconry of Cleveland in July 1750, and in August 1750 to the prebend of Bilton, by Archbishop Hutton of York; but his principles prevented any further preferment, and he early made up his mind never again to subscribe the Thirty-nine Articles. In 1749 John Jones, vicar of Alconbury, published his ‘Free and Candid Disquisitions relating to the Church of England,’ which made some noise at the time, by proposing modifications of the church services and ritual with a view to meeting difficulties of the latitudinarian party. Blackburne had read the book in manuscript, but denied that he had any share in the composition. Its phraseology was too ‘milky’ for his taste. He defended it in an apology (1750). In 1752 he published anonymously an attack upon Bishop Butler's well-known charge (1751), called ‘A Serious Inquiry into the Use and Importance of External Religion,’ and accusing Butler of deficient protestantism. This was first printed with his name in 1767 in the ‘Pillars of Priestcraft and Orthodoxy shaken,’ a collection by R. Baron. He supported the semi-materialist theory of the ‘sleep of the soul’ of his college friend Bishop Law, in a tract called ‘No Proof in the Scriptures of an Intermediate State,’ &c., 1755; and in 1758 he argued against the casuistry which would permit subscription to the articles to be made with considerable latitude of meaning, in ‘Remarks on the Rev. Dr. Powell's Sermon in Defence of Subscriptions.’ This controversy led to his best known work. He had reconciled himself with some difficulty to the subscriptions necessary for his later preferments, but his doubts had increased when the prospect of a further appointment led to a fresh consideration. He then studied the history of the tests imposed by protestant churches, and his studies resulted in the composition of ‘The Confessional, or a full and free inquiry into the right, utility, and success of establishing confessions of faith and doctrine in protestant churches.’ The manuscript remained unpublished for some years, when the one confidential friend who had seen it mentioned it to the republican Thomas Hollis, through whom Millar, the well-known bookseller, was introduced to the author, and published the book anonymously in May 1766; a second edition appeared in June 1767. The ‘Confessional’ argues, as a corollary from Chillingworth's principle—‘The Bible is the religion of protestants’—that a profession of belief in the scriptures as the word of God, and a promise to teach the people from the scriptures, should be the sole pledges demanded from protestant pastors. This is supported by historical considerations, and the device of lax interpretation of the articles is denounced as a casuistical artifice of Laud's in defence of Arminianism. A lively controversy arose. A list of the pamphlets is given in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ xli. 405, xlii. 263, and in a ‘Short View of the Controversy’ (by Dr. Disney), 1773. A third edition of the ‘Confessional’ appeared in 1770. In 1772 a meeting was held at the Feathers Tavern, and a petition signed by 200 persons for giving effect to Blackburne's proposal. It was rejected by 217 to 71 after a speech in condemnation by Burke, published in his Works.

Theophilus Lindsey, who married a stepdaughter of Blackburne's, and Dr. Disney, who married his eldest daughter, joined in this agitation, and both of them afterwards left the church of England to become unitarians. Blackburne was naturally supposed to sympathise with their views. On Disney's secession he drew up a paper called ‘An Answer to the Question, Why are you not a Socinian?’ He declares his belief in the divinity of Christ, though he confesses to certain doubts and guards his assertions. He had qualified for his preferment by subscribing tests to which he would not again submit, but we are told that his preferments produced only 150l. a year, and that he declined an offer to succeed S. Chandler at the Old Jewry at a salary of 400l.

He had made some preparations for a life of Luther, but abandoned his plan in order to write the memoirs of his friend Thomas Hollis [see Hollis, Thomas]. These appeared in 1780. In 1787 he performed his thirty-eighth visitation in Cleveland, and died, 7 Aug. 1787, a few weeks later. He left a widow (died 20 Aug. 1799) and four children: Jane, married to Dr. Disney; Francis, vicar of Brignal; Sarah, married to the Rev. John Hall, vicar of Chew Magna; and William, a physician in London. A son, Thomas, a physician, died, aged thirty-three, in 1782. His ‘Works, Theological and Miscellaneous, including some pieces not before printed,’ with a memoir, were published by his son Francis in 1804, in seven volumes. The ‘Confessional’ occupies the fifth volume. The third volume contains ‘A Historical View of the Controversy concerning an Intermediate State,’ of which the first edition appeared in 1765, and the second, much enlarged, in 1772. It brought him into collision with Bishop Warburton. His ‘Remarks on Dr. Warburton's Account of the Sentiments of the Jews concerning the Soul’ is said to be his masterpiece. The fourth volume of the Works contains his charges, as archdeacon, in 1765, 1766, 1767, 1769, 1771, and 1773. They show that he was not prepared to extend full toleration to catholics. The other volumes contain miscellaneous pamphlets.

[Life by himself and his son, prefixed to Works.]

L. S.