Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Foster, John (1770-1843)

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FOSTER, JOHN (1770–1843), essayist, eldest son of John Foster, a small farmer and weaver, living at Wadsworth Lane in the parish of Halifax, Yorkshire, who found time for a good deal of theological reading and took a leading part in the baptist congregation in his neighbourhood, was born 17 Sept. 1770, and at a very early age displayed what he afterwards called ‘an awkward but entire individuality.’ At twelve he had the sedateness of an old man. Nervous, gloomy, and sensitive, his intensest pleasures were reading and the study of nature. He received but little schooling, being set, when a mere child, to assist his parents in spinning and weaving wool. He had far greater delight in shutting himself up alone in the barn with ‘Young's Night Thoughts.’ At seventeen he became a member of the baptist congregation at Hebden Bridge, and soon after was ‘set apart’ as minister by a special religious service, and went to reside at Brearley Hall with John Fawcett, D.D. [q. v.], who at that time directed the studies of a few baptist students. After three years here he entered the Baptist College, Bristol, in September 1791, remaining there till May 1792, and then entering on the regular work of a preacher. He first took charge of a small baptist society at Newcastle-on-Tyne for three months in 1792. In the beginning of 1793 he went to Dublin to minister at a meeting-house in Swift's Alley. ‘The congregation,’ he tells us, ‘was very small when I commenced, and almost nothing when I voluntarily closed.’ This was the usual history, to the end of his life, of all congregations of which he had the care. After living little more than a year in Ireland, he went home, but returned to Dublin in 1795 to take charge of a classical and mathematical school, which after eight or nine months he gave up as a failure. His intimacy with some of the violent Dublin democrats exposed him to the imminent danger of imprisonment. In February 1796 he returned once more to Wadsworth Lane, and remained there until early in 1797 he became minister of a general baptist congregation at Chichester. About midsummer 1799 he removed to the house of an early friend, the Rev. Joseph Hughes, at Battersea, where he spent several months in preaching, and teaching twenty black boys whom Zachary Macaulay was training for mission work. In 1800 he took charge of a small congregation at Downend, near Bristol, and in February 1804 of one at Sheppard's Barton, Frome. During his residence here his ‘Essays’ were published in 1805. They originated in conversations with Miss Maria Snooke, whom he had first met at Battersea, and who afterwards became his wife, and were addressed to her. An introductory letter, dated ‘Near Bristol, 30 Aug. 1804,’ mentions, among his reasons for writing them, the relief of ‘the coldness and languor incident to solitary speculations,’ and the desire to save his mind from aimless wandering. The book contained four essays, viz. ‘On a Man's Writing Memoirs of Himself,’ ‘On Decision of Character,’ ‘On the Application of the Epithet Romantic,’ and ‘On Some of the Causes by which Evangelical Religion has been rendered less acceptable to Persons of Cultivated Taste.’ In about four months a second edition was called for, and a third was published in 1806. In the summer of that year he resigned the charge of the Sheppard's Barton congregation, an affection of the thyroid gland rendering preaching painful, and gave himself up entirely to literature. He now became a regular contributor to the ‘Eclectic Review,’ his first article, a review of Carr's ‘Stranger in Ireland,’ appearing in November 1806, and he continued to write for it till 1839, his last paper being published in July of that year. Altogether he contributed to it 184 articles, a number of which have been republished in his ‘Contributions, Biographical, Literary, and Philosophical, to the “Eclectic Review”’ (2 vols. 8vo, London, 1844). In May 1808 he married Miss Snooke, and went to reside at Bourton, a village in Gloucestershire. He has left a vivid description of ‘the long garret’ in his house here, ‘crowded and loaded with papers and books,’ with a gangway between them in which he walked while composing. About a year after his marriage his throat so far recovered as to allow him to resume occasional preaching, and towards the end of 1817 he again took charge of the congregation at Downend. In 1821 he gave it up and went to live at Stapleton, Gloucestershire. In 1818, while at Downend, he had published his ‘Discourse on Missions.’ In 1822 he began to lecture fortnightly in Broadmead Chapel, Bristol, ‘to a congregation quite miscellaneous, and, in the most perfect sense of the word, voluntary’ (letter, 3 July 1822). At the end of two years bad health forced him to make the lectures monthly, and in 1825, on Robert Hall's commencing his ministry in Bristol, he felt himself eclipsed, and ceased them altogether. Two volumes of these lectures were published. Meanwhile, in 1820, he had published his essay ‘On the Evils of Popular Ignorance,’ the germ of which was a sermon preached on behalf of the British and Foreign School Society in 1818. It speedily went into a second edition, being revised with merciless particularity. In 1825 he completed his introductory essay to Doddridge's ‘Rise and Progress of Religion’ for the series of ‘Select Christian Authors’ published by William Collins of Glasgow.

His only son died, after a lingering illness, in 1826. His wife fell into consumption, and after years of declining health died in 1832. Then he became involved in a controversy between the Serampore missionaries, Carey, Marshman, and Ward, and the committee of the Baptist Missionary Society, strongly siding with the missionaries. In consequence of these distractions he gave nothing to the press for about nine years, with the exception of ‘Introductory Observations to Dr. Marshman's Statement’ (London, 1828), a ninth edition of the ‘Essays,’ a paper entitled ‘Observations on Mr. Hall as a Preacher,’ prefixed to an edition of Hall's ‘Works’ (London, 1832), two letters on ‘The Church and the Voluntary Principle,’ which appeared in the ‘Morning Chronicle’ in 1834, and five letters on ‘The Ballot,’ which were published in the same journal in 1835. A number of letters to friends and half a dozen more articles for the ‘Eclectic’ sum up all that he wrote from this time till his death. In 1836 his usually fine health began to give way. For fifty years he had not lain a day in bed. Now his lungs became diseased. On 24 Sept. 1843 he took to his room, and on Sunday morning, 15 Oct., he was found dead in bed. He was buried in the burial-ground attached to the Downend baptist chapel.

Foster held not a few peculiar opinions. He believed that ‘churches are useless and mischievous institutions, and the sooner they are dissolved the better,’ his wish being that ‘religion might be set free as a grand spiritual and moral element, no longer clogged, perverted, and prostituted by corporation forms and principles’ (letter, 10 Sept. 1828). Ordination he regarded as a lingering superstition. Though a baptist minister, he never once administered baptism, and was believed to entertain doubts regarding its perpetuity. Politically, he was a republican in early life, but though he ‘never ceased to regard royalty and all its gaudy paraphernalia as a sad satire on human nature’ (letter, 22 Feb. 1842), his attachment to republicanism became less ardent in his later years.

[Foster's Life and Correspondence, edited by J. E. Ryland, 1846, London, 2 vols. 8vo.]

T. H.