Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cecil, Richard

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CECIL, RICHARD (1748–1810), divine, one of the leaders of the evangelical revival, was born at his father's house of business in Chiswell Street, in the parish of St. Luke's, Old Street, London, 8 Nov. 1748, and was baptised in the parish church on the 30th of the same month. His father, Thomas Cecil, a descendant of Cecil, lord Burghley, was scarlet-dyer to the East India Company, a lucrative calling in which he had been preceded by his father and grandfather, who established their dye-works on their freehold property in Chiswell Street. His mother's maiden name was Tabitha Grosvenor. She was the only child of a London merchant, a pious dissenter. Richard was the youngest child of his parents, and was born after his mother was fifty years old. He was allowed to relinquish business for literature and the fine arts. He wrote poetry and cultivated music, becoming a proficient on the violin, but his chief passion was for painting, which he pursued insatiably, attending all the picture sales in London and practising at home. He made a clandestine visit to the continent to see the pictures of the best masters, and would have gone to Rome if his funds had proved sufficient. He acquired great influence among his youthful associates, and gloried in being an apostle of infidelity and a leader in every kind of profligacy. Like Augustine he was brought back to faith and purity by the prayers and holy example of his mother. On his conversion he resolved to devote himself to the work of the christian ministry. To this his father made no serious objection, only insisting that he should not leave the church of England. If he connected himself with ‘dissenters or sectaries,’ his father would ‘do nothing for him living or dying.’ Cecil commenced residence at Queen's College, Oxford, 19 May 1773, and took his B.A. degree, we are told, ‘with great credit’ in the Lent term of 1777. His ordination, both to the diaconate and priesthood, preceded his B.A. degree, the former taking place in the chapel of Buckden Palace at the hands of Bishop Green 22 Sept. 1776, and the latter 23 Feb. 1777. His title was given him by the Rev. John Pugh, the incumbent of Rauceby and Cranwell, near Sleaford, Lincolnshire, at that time one of the most influential members of the evangelical party in the church, and one of the originators of the Church Missionary Society; his stipend was 40l. From Lincolnshire he was speedily removed to Leicestershire, then also comprised within the diocese of Lincoln, to take temporary charge of the parishes of Thornton-cum-Bagworth and Markfield, then vacant through the incumbent's decease. Early in 1777, through the interest of powerful evangelical friends, he was offered the two small livings of All Saints and St. Thomas of Canterbury at Cliffe in the town of Lewes in Sussex, to the former of which he was instituted 27 Feb. of that year, the combined income of the two rectories being only about 80l. per annum. Here he took up his residence and fulfilled the duties of his ministry with great zeal and earnestness until the dampness of his rectory produced a severe rheumatic affection in his head, when he returned to London, making his home at Islington. Cecil held his two Lewes livings for twenty years, and certainly did not reside upon them or perform the duty personally for more than half that period. He resigned St. Thomas's early in 1797 to the curate who had done his work, and All Saints at the end of 1798. His fame as an earnest evangelical preacher had preceded him in the metropolis, and he was speedily engaged to undertake various lectureships, one at St. Margaret's, Lothbury, at 6 a.m., an evening lecture at Orange Street Chapel, which subsequently became a nonconformist place of worship, and others. He shared the charge of Long Acre Chapel with the Rev. Henry Foster, another of the fathers of the evangelical movement, a friend of Newton and Scott, and in 1787 he undertook the evening lecture at Christ Church, Spitalfields, which he held alternately with Mr. Foster, the lectureship being only tenable for three years consecutively, till 1801. The sphere of duty with which Cecil's name is most prominently connected is St. John's Chapel, Bedford Row, in the parish of St. Andrew's, Holborn, now pulled down, which continued to the middle of the present century a stronghold of the evangelical doctrines first introduced by him there. To this chapel he was appointed in March 1780 by Sir Eardley Wilmot, acting for the trustees of Rugby School, the patrons thereof, on the recommendation of Archbishop Cornwallis. He was secured from any personal risk by a bond given by Mrs. Wilberforce, the aunt of William Wilberforce, which, the speculation proving successful, she was never called upon to fulfil. Cecil continued minister of St. John's Chapel till his death. Two years after his resignation of his Lewes livings he was presented by Mr. Samuel Thornton on behalf of the trustees, in whom the presentation had been vested by his father, Mr. John Thornton of Clapham, with the united benefice of Chobham and Bisley in Surrey. Here he spent three months in the summer of each year, to the great moral and religious benefit of the people, until his health, which was enfeebled by incessant ministerial labours, after one or two serious illnesses and a paralytic seizure, entirely broke down in February 1808. Visits to Bath, Clifton, Tunbridge Wells, and other places afforded him temporary relief, but no permanent benefit resulted, and he died at Belle Vue, Hampstead, after a fit of apoplexy, 15 Aug. 1810, in the sixty-third year of his age. Cecil was married to a woman whom her admirable memoir of her husband proves to have been in every way worthy of him, and left behind him a large family of sons and daughters. Of the remarkable body of evangelical preachers who were his contemporaries in London Cecil may safely be pronounced the intellectual chief. He preached from notes, and wrote but little for the press, and his few printed sermons, though characterised by great originality of thought and vigour of style, can give no adequate idea of his pre-eminence as a preacher. He was ‘capable,’ we are told, ‘of rivetting the attention of a congregation by the originality of his conceptions, the plain, straightforward force of his language, the firm grasp of his subject, and by a happy power of illustration which gave freshness and novelty to the most familiar subjects’ (Jerram, Memoir, p. 267). ‘Nature,’ writes Canon Overton, ‘had endowed him with an elegant mind, and he had improved his natural gifts by steady application. … There is a stately dignity both in his character and in his style of writing which is very impressive’ (The English Church in the Eighteenth Century, ii. 207). His ‘Original Thoughts on Holy Scripture,’ a posthumous publication of notes of his extempore sermons taken down by some of his hearers, fully deserve the title given to them. The truest estimate of the originality of Cecil's mind is gained from his ‘Remains,’ which might more properly be called his ‘Table Talk,’ being a collection of reminiscences of his conversation made by his friend and the editor of his writings, the Rev. Josiah Pratt. Of these Canon Overton justly remarks they ‘show traces of a scholarly habit of mind, a sense of humour, a grasp of leading principles, a liberality of thought, and capacity of appreciating good wherever it might be found, which render them, short though they are, a valuable contribution to evangelical literature’ (ib.) The same may be said of his contributions to the discussions of the ‘Eclectic Society,’ which met in the vestry room of St. John's Chapel, the notes of which were published in 1856 by Archdeacon Pratt, under the title of ‘Eclectic Notes.’ In his breadth of view and freedom from prejudice he shows himself in advance of his age. His ministry, we are told, was everywhere popular, and in the best sense successful. Both at St. John's and at Chobham he had to encounter a large amount of prejudice. He lived down this opposition, and in both spheres of duty he speedily gathered large and deeply attached congregations. His person and bearing were dignified, and his sermons were delivered with a conscious authority which silenced opposition. His decision of character and self-mastery is shown by his cutting the strings of his violin when at Oxford, and never replacing them, lest it should divert him from his studies, and by his resolve never again to visit an exhibition of paintings on discovering that his attention had been unduly diverted from a sick person he was visiting by a picture hanging in the room. The works of Cecil were collected and published after his death by the Rev. Josiah Pratt, and have gone through several editions. They include ‘Memoirs of the Hon. and Rev. W. B. Cadogan,’ ‘Memoir of John Bacon, the Sculptor,’ and of the ‘Rev. John Newton,’ a collection of ‘Miscellanies,’ comprising ‘A Friendly Visit to a House of Mourning,’ one of the best known of Cecil's works, ‘Short Hints to a Soldier,’ ‘A Word on the Peace,’ written in 1801, and other minor pieces. These are followed by the only sermons, six in number, prepared by the author for publication, thirty-three sermons taken in shorthand, and, by far the most remarkable of the whole collection, the ‘Remains’ already mentioned. To these may be added the ‘Original Thoughts on Holy Scripture,’ published in 1848, also from shorthand notes, under the editorship of his daughter.

[Memoir of Rev. Richard Cecil, by his widow; A View of the Character of the Rev. R. Cecil, by the Rev. Josiah Pratt; Memoir of the Rev. Charles Jerram.]

E. V.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.59
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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399 i 32 Cecil, Richard: for third read second