Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Farmer, Hugh
FARMER, HUGH (1714–1787), independent minister and theological writer, younger son of William and Mary Farmer, was born on 20 Jan. 1714 at the Isle Gate farm in a hamlet called the Isle, within the parish of St. Chad, Shrewsbury. His mother was a daughter of Hugh Owen of Bronycludwr, Merionethshire, one of the nonconformists of 1662. Farmer was at school at Llanegryn, Merionethshire, and under Charles Owen, D.D., at Warrington. In 1731 he entered Doddridge's academy at Northampton. His paper of religious experience, on seeking admission to the communion in Doddridge's church, has been preserved. To his tutor's preaching and his reading of the sermons of Joseph Boyse [q. v.] he attributes his permanent religious impressions. On leaving the academy (1736) he became assistant to David Some of Market Harborough (d. May 1737).
Early in 1737 he took charge of a struggling cause at Walthamstow, founded by Samuel Slater, ejected from St. James's, Bury St. Edmunds. He seems at first to have lodged in London, but was soon (between 14 Feb. and 14 July) received into the family of William Snell, a chancery solicitor, and great friend of Doddridge. Farmer's ‘general acceptance’ at once led to a ‘great increase’ in the congregation. In July, Doddridge, who had been asked to find a minister for the independent congregation at Taunton, applied to Farmer, who declined the overture. He explains that he was not Calvinistic enough for Taunton, the liberal element in the congregation having seceded with Thomas Amory, D.D. (1701–1774) [q. v.] At Walthamstow the most considerable dissenter was William Coward (d. 1738) [q. v.], a man of benevolence and wealth, who in extreme old age developed some eccentricities. Doddridge, who was anxious to secure from Coward a benefaction for his academy, learned from Farmer that the old man was cooling towards moderate theologians, and merely civil to himself, but had engaged him ‘to preach for him next winter.’ This is the basis of Kippis's statement that Farmer was Coward's chaplain. There may be some foundation for the ‘pleasant story’ that one evening, when Coward's house was closed, according to rule, at six o'clock, Farmer was shut out; but the story, as told by Kippis, requires some adjustment. Humphreys tells it somewhat differently. Both make it the occasion of Farmer's introduction to the Snells, but this is incorrect.
In 1740 a new meeting-house was built for Farmer on a piece of ground given by Snell. Farmer's preaching drew a rather distinguished congregation; Kippis remembered seeing ‘between thirty and forty coaches’ in attendance at the meeting-house door. He continued to reside with the Snells as a permanent guest, and spent most of his professional income (never large) in books. In 1759 his congregation relieved him of some duties by appointing as afternoon preacher Ebenezer Radcliffe, who remained his colleague till 1777. Thomas Belsham [q. v.] was invited to succeed him, but declined.
The first use which Farmer made of his leisure was to prepare his treatise on the temptation (preface dated 23 June 1761). Immediately afterwards he accepted the post of afternoon preacher at Salters' Hall, vacated by the promotion of Francis Spilsbury to the pastorate; this was a presbyterian congregation, but Farmer never ceased to be an independent. Except that of James Fordyce [q. v.] of Monkwell Street, his auditory was the largest afternoon congregation among the presbyterians of London. In 1762 he was elected a trustee of Dr. Williams's foundations, a rare honour for an independent; he was also elected a trustee of the Coward trust. About the same time he was chosen one of the preachers at the ‘merchants' lecture’ on Tuesday mornings at Salters' Hall.
Farmer's pulpit power depended upon the instructiveness of his expositions of scripture, and the excellence and freshness of his delivery. ‘Never raise a difficulty without being able to solve it’ was his frequent advice to young preachers. He censured the rashness of Priestley's publications. Strongly conservative in his religious feelings, he was keenly alive to the thorny places of doctrinal systems, and avoided them. Kippis observes that ‘there was a swell in his language that looked as if he was rising to a greater degree of orthodoxy in expression than some persons might approve; but it never came to that point.’ The nearest approach to a definition of his own position is given in his recommendation, ‘Sell all your commentators and buy Grotius.’ Here he echoes the remark which he had heard in Doddridge's classroom, but without Doddridge's qualification.
Farmer's disquisitions have the merits of considerable learning, great acuteness, and a plain and vigorous style. He exercised a decisive influence on the current of opinion in liberal dissent. He is the champion of the divine sovereignty, both as excluding from the physical world the operation of any other invisible agents, and as authorising the production of ‘new phænomena’ which remove ‘the inconveniences of governing by fixed and general laws.’ Farmer maintains that the proof of the divinity of a doctrine is the fact that its enunciation has been followed by a miracle. Farmer's positions were eagerly adopted by the rationalising section of dissenters; but in the long run his strong assertions of the fixity of natural law overcame his argument for miracle, and his disciples soon denied the existence of invisible agents, whose operation he had banished from the phenomenal world.
Farmer resigned his Sunday lectureship at Salters' Hall in 1772; he delivered the charge at the ordination of Thomas Tayler at Carter Lane in 1778, but declined to print it; he resigned the merchants' lectureship in 1780. At the same time he resigned the pastorate at Walthamstow, but continued to preach in the morning until a successor was appointed. In 1782 he resigned his place on the Coward trust, but was re-elected later. His health was failing, and he usually wintered at Bath. He overcame two severe attacks of stone, but in 1785 was threatened with blindness (his father had been blind for six years before his death). An operation restored to him the use of his eyes, and his last days were devoted to study. He died on 5 Feb. 1787, and was buried in the parish churchyard at Walthamstow, in the same grave with his friend Snell.
No portrait of Farmer was ever taken; he is described as tall, spare, and dark-complexioned, with small, near-sighted eyes, and a prominent nose and chin, which gave him a nutcracker face when he lost his teeth. In conversation he was brilliant and vivacious, apt in paying compliments, and highly sensitive. He never married. His elder brother, John, a strict Calvinist and a good scholar, became (30 Dec. 1730) assistant to Richard Rawlin at Fetter Lane, and afterwards (28 March 1739) colleague with Edward Bentley at Coggeshall, Essex; he published a volume of sermons (1756), and succeeded Priestley at Needham Market, Suffolk (1758). Latterly he became deranged; his brother, with whom he was not on good terms, secretly provided for his wants.
Farmer published: 1. ‘The Duty of Thanksgiving,’ &c. 1746, 8vo (a sermon, 9 Oct., on the victory at Culloden). 2. ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Design of Christ's Temptation,’ &c., 1761, 8vo. This went through three editions in Farmer's lifetime; the fourth (1805) was edited by Jeremiah Joyce [q. v.]; a fifth appeared in 1822, 12mo. John Mason of Cheshunt claimed Farmer's theory as his own, but Farmer had no difficulty in showing (in his 2nd edit. 1764) a radical distinction between them. 3. ‘A Dissertation on Miracles,’ &c., 1771, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1804, 12mo, edited by Joyce; 3rd edit. 1810, 12mo. A German translation appeared at Berlin, 1777, 8vo. 4. ‘An Examination of the late Mr. Le Moine's Treatise on Miracles,’ 1772, 8vo (occasioned by a series of attacks in the ‘London Magazine,’ charging him with plagiarising from Abraham Le Moine). 5. ‘An Essay on the Demoniacs,’ &c., 1775, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1779, 8vo; 3rd edit. 1805, 12mo, edited by Joyce, with No. 2; 4th edit. (called the third), 1818, 12mo. A German translation appeared at Berlin, 1776, 8vo. 6. ‘Letters to the Rev. Dr. Worthington,’ &c., 1778, 8vo (in reply to ‘An Impartial Inquiry into the case of the Gospel Demoniacs,’ 1777, 8vo, by Richard Worthington, M.D.). 7. ‘The General Prevalence of the Worship of Human Spirits in the Antient Heathen Nations,’ &c., 1783, 8vo. Posthumously (with the ‘Memoirs,’ 1804, 8vo) were printed: 8. ‘A Reply’ to John Fell (1735–1797) [q.v.] , on the subject of No. 7, and nine extracts from ‘An Essay on the Case of Balaam,’ from a transcript made by Michael Dodson [q. v.] Farmer's will enjoined his executors, on pain of losing their legacies, to burn all his manuscripts; he had nearly completed a volume on the demonology of the ancients. He supplied Palmer with some additional particulars of Hugh Owen for the ‘Nonconformist's Memorial’ (1775). Six of his letters to Isaac Toms of Hadleigh, Suffolk, are printed with the ‘Memoirs.’[Funeral Sermon, by Urwick, 1787 (preached 18 Feb., gives 5 Feb. as the date of his death; Kippis corrects it to 6 Feb. from the probate of his will, but Belsham's Diary also gives 5 Feb.); Biogr. Brit. (Kippis), 1793, v. 664 sq.; Palmer's Nonconformist's Memorial, 1803, iii. 492 sq.; Memoirs, 1804, anonymous, but by Samuel Palmer, and acknowledged as his in Orton's Letters to Diss. Ministers, 1806, ii. 244; Wilson's Diss. Churches, 1808, i. 104, ii. 60, iii. 457; Monthly Repository, 1809, p. 708, 1815, p. 686, 1818, p. 561; Humphrey's Corresp. of P. Doddridge, 1830, iii. 231, 251, 297 sq., iv. 77, 463; Rutt's Mem. of Priestley, 1831, i. 334; Williams's Mem. of Belsham, 1833, pp. 128 sq., 239, 337; Davids's Evang. Nonconf. in Essex, 1863, pp. 364, 628; Hunt's Rel. Thought in Engl. 1873, iii. 249 sq.; Browne's Hist. Congr. Norf. and Suff. 1877, p. 501; Rees's Hist. Prot. Nonconf. in Wales, 1883, p. 281 sq.; Jeremy's Presb. Fund, 1885, pp. 138, 153 sq.; extract from ‘A Register for Births of the Dessenters’ at St. Chad's, Shrewsbury, per the Rev. C. R. Durham.]