Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fox, John (1693-1763)

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586323Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 20 — Fox, John (1693-1763)1889Alexander Gordon

FOX, JOHN (1693–1763), biographer, was born at Plymouth on 10 May 1693. His father, a zealous presbyterian, 'devoted' him 'to the ministry, from an infant.' His mother was the daughter of a Plymouth tradesman named Brett. After an education at Tavistock grammar school, and under ' old Mr. Bedford ' at Plymouth, he read the Greek Testament and Virgil for a few months with Nicodemus Harding, son of Nathaniel Harding, independent minister at Plymouth. The two young men were preparing for entrance at the Exeter academy, under Joseph Hallet (d. 1722) [q. v.] In May 1708 he entered the academy, where he soon quarrelled with Harding, and formed an intimacy with his tutor's son, Joseph Hallet (d. 1744) [q. v.], who put doubts into his mind respecting the Trinity.

When he left the academy in 1711 he had 'no great disposition of being a minister.' His reluctance to comply with the Toleration Act, by subscribing the doctrinal articles, produced a coolness with his father. After some months, Isaac Gilling, minister at Newton Abbot, Devonshire, came to Plymouth in disguise; a process was out against him for illegally keeping a Latin school. He was a first cousin of the elder Fox, who allowed his son to accompany Gilling on his flight from Devonshire, on a promise that Gilling would do all in his power to remove young Fox's aversion to the ministry. At Salisbury Fox was introduced to Sir Peter King, then re- corder of London, an old friend of Gilling. Arrived in London, he slipped out of Gilling's hands, and stayed with another relative. He was not favourably impressed with John Shower, the only London minister he met, and spent his time in getting glimpses of great people and visiting the theatres. At the end of a fortnight in town, Gilling was able to return to Newton Abbot, and took Fox with him. The accidental sight of a letter from his father to Gilling ' determined [him] to be a minister at all events.' With this view he remained with Gilling three-quarters of a year (1712-13), the pleasantest part of his life. Gilling directed his studies, and he fell in love with Gilling's daughter. In May 1713 Edmund Calamy, D.D. [q. v.], visited the west of England, and, hearing of Fox's scruples, made him easy by telling him confidentially that he himself had never subscribed, and that if Fox 'kept himself to himself' the omission would never be suspected.

In October 1714 Fox went to London, where he remained till April 1716. He lodged with four young ministers in Austin Friars; it is probable that he attended the classes of John Eames [q. v.] He became intimate with Seeker and Samuel Chandler [q. v.] (who lived in Calamy's house); to both of whom, and especially to Seeker (who kept up a correspondence with him till 1718), he ascribes his progress in freedom of opinion. His father wished him to be licensed as a preacher before he returned to Plymouth. This implied an examination, from which he shrank. After interviews with Williams and Calamy, he abandoned the idea of passing his trials in London. His friend Jeremy Burroughs (a young minister who afterwards became collector of the customs at Bristol) came to his relief, by advising him simply to take the oath of allegiance, as if he had been licensed. He chose a time when, in consequence of the rebellion of 1745, all ministers were ordered to take the oath afresh. As he was signing his name in the court of exchequer with the rest, Calamy 'looked very hard at' his rather advanced pupil.

Returning to Plymouth it occurred to Fox that he was not yet a communicant. Harding admitted him without question, but at once guessed that he had not been licensed. He preached his first sermon at Chumleigh, Devonshire, whereupon there was 'a whispering and grumbling among the ministers,' who suspected him of being an intruder. He preached elsewhere, but soon found that without a license the Exeter assembly would not recognise him. Accordingly he applied for leave to choose his own examiners. After some manoeuvring between parties in the assembly, he got what he wanted, dealt cleverly with the test questions, and was licensed on 17 Oct. 1717. In the assembly of May 1719 he threw in his lot with Peirce, the leader of the heterodox party, and the result was that he got no preaching engagements except to 'the poor remains of a few broken congregations.' It does not appear that he was ever ordained.

On 12 May 1723 his father died, and Fox at once abandoned the ministry. He was now master of 'a humble competence,' which enabled him to marry (23 Dec. 1723) Miss Gilling (b. 11 Dec. 1695); and henceforth he lived in obscure comfort, 'between the sunshine of life and the clouds and darkness of it.' His health was good, and he took pleasure in his books and the society of a few friends. In 1736 he writes to Seeker that for some years past he had conformed' out of regard to public peace and . . . respect to the public.' The ailments of his wife, to whom he was strongly attached, were his only trouble. On her death, 19 Dec. 1762, he lost heart. He died on 25 Oct. (according to Hazlitt 22 Oct.) 1763, aged 70. A daughter, Mary (b 26 Dec. 1725), married John Cleather, 3 Sept. 1747.

It was some time after 1744 that Fox penned his own very entertaining ‘Memoirs’ and the ‘Characters’ of some of his contemporaries. They throw much light on dissenting history. Fox writes with great freedom and pungency, and his estimates of men are valuable, though sometimes hasty, and always coloured by his dislikes, and by his contempt for the surroundings of his early life. In 1814 some use was made of the ‘Characters’ by Toulmin, to whom the manuscript had been lent by Fox's grandson, George Cleather of Stonehouse, near Plymouth; Toulmin had evidently not seen the ‘Memoirs.’ In 1821 the ‘Memoirs’ and nine ‘Characters’ were published in the ‘Monthly Repository,’ with nine letters from Secker to Fox, one from Fox to Secker, and two from Chandler to Fox. Notes were added by John Towill Rutt. The editor, Robert Aspland [q. v.], speaks of the manuscripts as having come into his possession through a descendant of Fox. Aspland thought of reprinting the papers, and promised to deposit the originals in Dr. Williams's Library; unfortunately neither intention was carried out. In 1822 an additional letter from Fox to Secker was supplied by Clifford, of the Theatre Royal, Norwich, who reported that he possessed other memoirs by Fox. Northcote's transcript of Fox's papers (containing some addition to the ‘Memoirs’) is now in the public library at Plymouth.

Monthly Repository, 1821, p. 128 sq., 1822, p. 219 sq.; Toulmin's Hist. View, 1814, p. 568 sq.; Worth's Hist. Nonconf. in Plymouth, 1876, p. 16; Northcote's Conversations (Hazlitt), 1881, p. 287 sq.; MS. Minutes of Exeter Assembly, 1691–1717, in Dr. Williams's Library; Northcote's MS. Worthies of Devon in Plymouth Libr.]

A. G.