Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burton, John (1696-1771)

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BURTON, JOHN, D.D. (1696–1771), theological and classical scholar, was born at Wembworthy, Devonshire, of which parish his father, Samuel Burton, was rector, in 1696, and was educated partly at Okehampton and Tiverton in his native county and partly at Ely, where he was placed on his father's death by the Rev. Samuel Bentham, the first cousin of his mother. In 1713 he was elected as a scholar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and took his degree of B. A. on 27 June 1717, shortly after which he became the college tutor. He proceeded M.A. 24 March 1720-1, was elected probationary fellow 6 April following, and admitted actual fellow 4 April 1723. As college tutor he acted with great zeal, and acquired a greater reputation than any of the Oxford 'dons' of his day, but in consequence of an incurable recklessness in money matters he was little richer at the end than at the beginning of his collegiate career. The particulars of his teaching are set out in his friend Edward Bentham's 'De Vita et Moribus Johannis Burtoni . . . epistola ad Robertum Lowth,' 1771. In logic and metaphysics he passed from Sanderson and Le Clerc to Locke; in ethics from Aristotle to Puffendorf's abridgment and Sanderson's lectures. Twice a week he lectured on Xenophon and Demosthenes, and occasionally he taught on some Latin author. It was through Burton that the study of Locke was introduced into the schools, and he printed for the use of the younger students a double series of philosophical questions, with references to the authors to be consulted under each head. This is probably lost, but a set of exercises which he gave the undergraduates of his college for employment during the long vacation was printed under the title of 'Sacræ Scripturæ locorum quorundam versio metrica,' 1736, and a copy is at the British Museum. In the progress of the university press he took great interest, and obtained for it a gift of 100l. from Mr. (afterwards Lord) Rolle, and a legacy of 200l. from Dr. Hodges, the provost of Oriel. Through the circumstance that Burton had been tutor to a son of Dr. Bland, a fellowship at Eton College was bestowed upon him on 17 Aug. 1733, and when the valuable vicarage of Mapledurham, on the Oxfordshire bank of the Thames, became vacant by the death of Dr. Edward Littleton on 16 Nov. 1733, Burton was nominated thereto by the college and inducted on 9 March 1734. Dr. Littleton had married a daughter of Barnham Goode, under-master of Eton School, and left her a widow 'with three infant daughters, without a home, without a fortune.' The new vicar, in his pity for their destitute condition, allowed the family to remain for a time in their old home, and the story runs that 'some time after a neighbouring clergyman happened to call and found Mrs. Littleton shaving John Burton.' At this sight the visitor remonstrated with his clerical friend, and the result was that 'Burton proposed marriage and was accepted.' In this delicious retreat Burton characteristically sacrificed much of his income in improving the parsonage and the glebe lands. When the settling of Georgia was in agitation he took an active part in furtherance of the colony's interests, and published in 1764 'An Account of the Designs of the late Dr. Bray, with an Account of their Proceedings,' a tract often reprinted [see Bray, Thomas, 1656–1730]. His other university degrees were M.A. in 1720, B.D. in 1729, and D.D. in 1752. On 1 Feb. 1766, towards the close of his life, he quitted the vicarage of Mapledurham for the rectory of Worplesdon in Surrey, and here he was instrumental in the formation of a causeway over the Wey, so that his parishioners might travel to Guildford at all seasons. A year or two later he was seized by fever, but he still lingered on. His death occurred on 11 Feb. 1771, and he was buried at the entrance to the inner chapel at Eton, precisely in the centre under the organ-loft. His epitaph styles him: 'Vir inter primos doctus, ingeniosus, pius, opum contemptor, ingenuæ juventutis fautor eximius.' Among the manuscripts which Burton left behind him was 'An Essay on Projected Improvements in Eton School,' but it was never printed and has since been lost. His mother took as her second husband Dr. John Bear, rector of Shermanbury, Sussex. She died on 23 April 1755, aged 80; her husband on 9 March 1762, aged 88; and in 1767 her son erected a monument to their memory. Dr. Burton's wife died in 1748.

Throughout his life Burton poured forth a vast number of tracts and sermons. His reading was varied, and he composed with remarkable facility, but the possession of this latter quality led to his wasting his efforts in productions of ephemeral interest. Most of his sermons are reprinted in 'Occasional Sermons preached before the University of Oxford,' 1764–6. Many of his Latin tracts and addresses are embodied in his 'Opuscula Miscellanea Theologica,' 1748–61, or in the kindred volume 'Opuscula Miscellanea Metrico-Prosaica,' 1771. He contributed to the 'Weekly Miscellany' a series of papers on 'The Genuineness of Lord Clarendon's History of the Rebellion—Mr. Oldmixon's Slander confuted,' which was subsequently enlarged and printed separately at Oxford in 1744. The circumstances which led to their production are set out in Johnson's 'Poets' in the life of Edward Smith. A Latin letter by Burton to a friend, or a 'commentariolus' of Archbishop Secker, attracted much attention, and was severely criticised by Archdeacon Blackburne on behalf of the latitudinarians (Works, ii. 92–9), and by Dr. Philip Furneaux for the nonconformists in his 'Letters to Blackstone,' pp. 190–7. In 1758 he issued a volume, 'Πενταλογία, sive tragœdiarum Græcarum Delectus,' which was reissued with additional observations by Thomas (afterwards Bishop) Burgess in 1779. Two copies of this latter edition, now in the library of the British Museum, contain copious manuscript notes by Dr. Charles Burney. Burton made frequent visits to his mother in Sussex, and in 1752 described his journey thither in an amusing tract, 'Όδοιποροῦντος Μελεθήματα, sive iter Surriense et Sussexiense.' Numerous extracts from this tour were printed in the 'Sussex Archæological Collections,' viii. 250–65. His Latin poem, 'Sacerdos Parœcialis Rusticus,' was issued in 1757, and a translation by Dawson Warren of Edmonton came out in 1800. Though Burton was a tory in politics, he was not so strict in his views as Dr. William King of St. Mary Hall, and he criticised, under the disguise of 'Phileleutherus Londinensis,' the celebrated speech which King delivered at the dedication of the Radcliffe Library, 13 April 1749. King thereupon retorted with a fierce 'Elogium famæ inserviens Jacci Etonensis; or the praises of Jack of Eton, commonly called Jack the Giant,' with a dissertation on 'the Burtonic style,' and left behind him in his 'Anecdotes of his own Times' several stinging references to Burton. An oration which Burton delivered at Oxford in 1763 gave him the opportunity for an attack on Wilkes, whereupon Churchill, in the 'Candidate' (verse 716 et seq.), retaliated with sneers at his 'new Latin and new Greek,' and his 'pantomime thoughts and style so full of trick.' Burton was fond of jests. One or two of them can be found in [S. Pegge's] 'Anonymiana' (1809, pp. 384–5), and an unlucky jocose allusion to Ralph Allen provoked Warburton to insert in the 1749 edition of the 'Dunciad' (book iv., verse 443) a caustic note on Burton, which was subsequently omitted at the request of Bishop Hayter. While at Mapledurham he wrote 'The present State of the Navigation of the River Thames considered, with certain regulations proposed,' 1765; second edition 1767. Several of his letters are in 'Addit. MS.' British Museum, 21428.

[Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes and his Illustrations of Lit. passim; Manning and Bray's Surrey, iii. 100-102, where is portrait; Gent. Mag. (1771), pp. 95, 305-8; Bentham, De Vitâ J.Burtoni; Biog. Brit. (Kippis); Lyte's Eton College, 308-309; Rawlinson MSS. fol. 16348.]

W. P. C.