Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kennicott, Benjamin
KENNICOTT, BENJAMIN (1718–1783), biblical scholar, was son of Benjamin Kennicott, barber and parish clerk of Totnes, Devonshire, buried 28 March 1770, and of his wife Elizabeth, buried 13 Jan. 1749–50, over whose remains their son in after years erected a large table-tomb in Totnes churchyard. He was born at Totnes on 4 April 1718, and spent seven years as a foundation boy at the grammar school, under the Rev. Nicholas Roe. When young he was very fond of books and of music. The regulations which he drew up for the practice of the Totnes ringers, and dated 8 Nov. 1742, are quoted in Polwhele's ‘Devonshire,’ i. 320, and he gave a brass eight-light candlestick for the use of the ringers in the belfry. His first appointment was that of master of the bluecoat or charity school at Totnes, where he attracted attention by some short poems, the chief of which was ‘On the Recovery of the Hon. Mrs. Eliz. Courtenay from her late dangerous Illness.’ This was printed in 1743 and 1747, and the manuscripts of several others are in the possession of Mr. E. Windeatt of Totnes (Western Antiq. iii. 249). Subscriptions were opened for his support at Oxford, and, mainly through the Courtenays, Ralph Allen, and the Rev. William Daddo, master of Blundell's school at Tiverton, he matriculated as servitor at Wadham College, Oxford, 6 March 1743–4, whence he wrote a warm letter of thanks to Daddo on 30 March 1744 (Harding, Tiverton, bk. iv. pp. 89–90; Gent. Mag. 1791, p. 222). He was Pigott exhibitioner 1744 and 1745, Hody (i.e. Hebrew) exhibitioner 1745–7, and bible clerk 3 May 1746. In order that he might be eligible for a fellowship at Exeter College, and as he had not resided long enough to qualify in the usual way, he was made (in accordance with the recommendation of Lord Arran, chancellor of the university) B.A. by decree and without ‘examination, determination at Lent, or fees,’ 20 June 1747, and was duly elected to a fellowship, which he retained until 1771. His subsequent degrees were M.A. 4 May 1750, B.D. 6 Dec. 1761, and D.D. 10 Dec. 1761, and in 1764 he was elected F.R.S. Kennicott was instructed in Hebrew by Professor Thomas Hunt (1696–1774) [q. v.], and the greater part of his life was spent in the collation of Hebrew manuscripts. His preferments were for many years inconsiderable. He was Whitehall preacher about 1753, vicar of Culham, Oxfordshire, from 21 Sept. 1753 to 1783, chaplain to the new bishop of Oxford in 1766, and Radcliffe librarian at Oxford from November 1767 to 1783. In July 1770 he was appointed to a canonry at Westminster Abbey, but soon resigned it for the fourth stall at Christ Church, Oxford (1 Nov. 1770). From 1771 to 1781 Kennicott held the vicarage of Menheniot, Cornwall, which was given to him as a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, by the dean and chapter of Exeter, on the recommendation of his steady friend Bishop Lowth. This preferment he voluntarily resigned in 1781 in consequence of his inability to reside there. After a lingering illness Kennicott died at Oxford, 18 Aug. 1783, and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, close to Bishop Berkeley's grave, on 21 Aug.
He married, on 3 Jan. 1771, Ann, sister of Edward Chamberlayne (afterwards secretary of the treasury). Another of Chamberlayne's sisters was wife of William Hayward Roberts [q. v.], provost of Eton. Mrs. Kennicott was very friendly with Richard Owen Cambridge, Mrs. Garrick, Hannah More, and Miss Burney, the last of whom made her acquaintance in 1786, and praised her as ‘famous by having studied Hebrew after marriage in order to assist her husband in his edition of the bible; she learnt it so well as to enable herself to aid him very essentially in copying, examining, and revising’ (Diary of Madame d'Arblay, iii. 237). Bishop Barrington left her an annuity of 100l., and from Bishop Porteus she received a legacy of 500l. 3l. per cent. stock as his ‘dear and pleasant friend Mrs. Kennicott.’ In memory of her husband and for the promotion of the study of Hebrew she founded two scholarships at Oxford, which took effect on her death at Windsor, 25 Feb. 1830, and her name is perpetuated in the bidding prayer among the benefactors of the university. Numerous letters to and from her are in Roberts's ‘Memoirs of Hannah More.’
Kennicott's great work was his ‘Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum cum Variis Lectionibus,’ 1st vol. Oxford, 1776, fol.; 2nd vol. 1780, fol. To the second volume was annexed a ‘Dissertatio Generalis’ on the manuscripts of the Old Testament, which was published separately at Oxford in the same year and reprinted at Brunswick in 1783 by Paul James Bruns, a native of Lübeck, who was employed by Kennicott in collating manuscripts at Rome and elsewhere. A copy of the entire work, the result of many years' assiduous labour, was presented by Kennicott in person to George III. In 1753 he issued ‘The State of the printed Hebrew Text of the Old Testament considered, a Dissertation,’ and in 1759 he brought out a second dissertation on the same subject. These volumes were translated into Latin by W. A. Teller, and published at Leipzig, the first in 1756, the second with additions in 1765. Bishop Lowth inspired him with a desire to test the accuracy of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. His critical examination of the manuscripts began in 1751, and when Secker, then bishop of Oxford, urged him in March 1758 to undertake their regular collation, he yielded to the request. His labours met with much support. The subscriptions made in England for his aid amounted to 9,119l. 7s. 6d. In France the Duc de Nivernois encouraged his design, and he was permitted to examine certain manuscripts at Paris in 1767. By the king of Denmark's order the use of six very ancient manuscripts was offered, four quarto volumes of various readings were sent to him by the command of the king of Sardinia, and the stadtholder of Holland gave a yearly donation of thirty guineas. His first report ‘On the Collation of the Hebrew Manuscripts of the Old Testament’ was forwarded to the subscribers in December 1760, and a similar statement appeared each year until 1769. The complete series was issued in one volume at Oxford in 1770, and the reports to 1768 were translated into Latin and included in the ‘Bibliotheca Hagana … a Nicolao Barkey.’ Kennicott was twice (1758 and 1769) refused permission to borrow manuscripts from the Bodleian Library, but he sent to it on 17 Dec. 1760 the manuscript collations which he had then made. The rest of his collations, with his correspondence and miscellaneous codices, were at first deposited in the Radcliffe Library, transferred to the Bodleian Library on 10 May 1872, and now rest in the new museum. Bishop Barrington gave in 1820 to the Bodleian Library a mass of Arabic tracts and papers which belonged to Kennicott.
Johnson said of these investigations that ‘although the text should not be much mended thereby, yet it was no small advantage to know that we had as good a text as the most consummate industry and diligence could procure;’ but they were censured by some critics for inaccuracy, and by the Hutchinsonians through the feeling that they might lead men to value the letter rather than the spirit of the bible. A volume called ‘The printed Hebrew Text of the Old Testament vindicated. An Answer to Mr. Kennicott's “Dissertation,”’ was written by Fowler Comings in 1753 (Mrs. Delany, Autobiography, iii. 526), and Julius Bate [q. v.] published ‘The Integrity of the Hebrew Text vindicated from the Objections and Misconstructions of Mr. Kennicott,’ 1754. An anonymous pamphlet, ‘A Word to the Hutchinsonians, or Remarks on three Sermons lately preached before the University of Oxford,’ 1756, was written by Kennicott, and George Horne [q. v.] retaliated with ‘An Apology for certain Gentlemen in the University of Oxford,’ 1756. Horne subsequently issued ‘A View of Mr. Kennicott's Method of Correcting the Hebrew Text,’ 1760; but in the end they became attached friends. Thomas Rutherforth, D.D., King's professor of divinity in Cambridge, issued in 1761 a letter to Kennicott on his ‘Dissertation,’ to which he at once replied, whereupon Rutherforth published a second letter, and the Rev. Richard Parry came out with ‘Remarks on Dr. Kennicott's Letters,’ 1763.
Kennicott met with great opposition abroad. There appeared in 1771 ‘Lettres de M. l'Abbé de * * * ex-professeur en Hebreu … au Sr Kennicott,’ purporting to be printed at Rome and sold at Paris, and an English translation was struck off in 1772. In reply to this work Kennicott at once wrote ‘A Letter to a Friend occasioned by a French Pamphlet [anon.],’ 1772, stating that it was the composition of six Capuchins in the convent of St. Honoré at Paris; but it is said by Jones to have been inspired by a Jew called Dumay, who had been an assistant to Kennicott (Jones, Life of Horne, pp. x–xi, 84–109). Bruns published at Rome in 1782 a Latin version of this letter by Kennicott, and added some letters of his own. Another defence in reply to this attack was written in 1775 by the Rev. George Sheldon, vicar of Edwardston, Suffolk. In Italy there appeared a censure upon Kennicott's letters in ‘Des titres primitifs de la Revelation par Gabr. Fabricy, Romæ,’ 1772, 2 vols.; but his chief opponents were in Germany. O. G. Tychsen pronounced his work ‘ingens, cui lumen ademptum,’ and in the ‘Bibliotheca Orientalis’ of J. D. Michaelis, pt. xi., there appeared a severe criticism on his first volume. Kennicott then sent out a long Latin epistle to Michaelis, which was printed at Oxford in 1777, reprinted in the same year at Leipzig, and inserted in the twelfth part of the ‘Bibliotheca Orientalis’ with the criticisms of Michaelis. After the publication of his second volume Kennicott drew up a brief defence in Latin, ‘Contra ephemeridum Goettigensium criminationes,’ 1782. A full list of the pieces against Kennicott is said to have appeared in the ‘Catalogue of English Divinity,’ sold by the Dyers of Exeter in 1829.
The four volumes of De Rossi, published at Parma, 1784–7, with an appendix in 1798, form a supplement to the ‘Collations of Kennicott.’ On them are based the editions of Doederlein and Meisner (Leipzig, 1793), Jahn (Vienna, 1806), and Boothroyd (Pontefract, 1810–16). Parkhurst, in his ‘Hebrew Lexicon,’ made much use of Kennicott's inquiries, and J. L. Schulze translated into Latin and published at Halle in 1782 the Hebrew interpretation of the books of Daniel and Ezra, which Kennicott had first edited.
His other works were: 1. ‘Poem on the Recovery of the Hon. Mrs. Elizabeth Courtenay’ [anon.], Exeter, 1743; 2nd edit. [Oxford], 1747. Only a few copies were printed of the first edition. The lady was the Hon. Elizabeth Montagu, who had married Kellond Courtenay of Painsford, near Totnes, and contributed to Kennicott's maintenance at Oxford. Kennicott's sister was her lady's-maid. 2. ‘On the Tree of Life in Paradise: a Critical Dissertation on Genesis ii. 8–24,’ 1747, 8vo. This provoked an anonymous answer called ‘An Enquiry into the Meaning of that Text Genesis i. 26, with an Answer to Mr. Kennicott's Interpretation of the same,’ 1748, and ‘Remarks on Mr. Kennicott's Dissertation,’ by Richard Gifford [q. v.], 1748. 3. ‘On the Oblation of Cain and Abel,’ 1747; 2nd edit. of this and preceding volume, 1747 also. 4. ‘Duty of Thanksgiving for Peace,’ 1749. 5. ‘A Letter to Dr. King, occasion'd by his late Apology, and in particular by such parts of it as are meant to defame Mr. Kennicott,’ 1755; a caustic attack. [See King, William, 1685–1763.] 6. ‘Christian Fortitude. A Sermon preached before the University at St. Mary's, Oxford, 25 Jan. 1757.’ It was much criticised, and was attacked in ‘Remarks on Dr. Kennicott's Sermon,’ n.d. , and in ‘A Critical Dissertation on Isaiah vii. 13–16, in which the sentiments of Dr. Kennicott are cordially and impartially examined,’ 1757. A second edition of the sermon, ‘with a list of the falsehoods in the Remarks,’ came out in 1757. 7. ‘Sermon before the University of Oxford,’ 1765. 8. ‘Remarks on a Printed Paper entitled “A Catalogue of the Sacred Vessels restored by Cyrus,”’ 1765, attributed to him by Watt. 9. ‘Remarks on the 42 and 43 Psalms’ [anon.], n.d. . This was soon followed by a similar treatise on Psalms 48 and 89. These, when translated into Latin with an appendix by Bruns, were published by J. C. F. Schulz at Leipzig in 1772. In 1791 the Rev. Henry Dimock published ‘Notes on the Psalms,’ to correct the errors of the text in grammar, from the collations by Kennicott and De Rossi. 10. ‘Observations on First Book of Samuel, chap. xvi. verse 19,’ 1768; translated into French. 11. ‘Critica Sacra, or a Short Introduction to Hebrew Criticism’ [anon.], 1774. 12. ‘Observations on Several Passages in Proverbs. With two Sermons. By Thomas Hunt,’ 1775; they were edited by Kennicott. 13. ‘The Sabbath. A Sermon preached at Whitehall and before the University of Oxford,’ 1781. 14. ‘Remarks on Select Passages in the Old Testament. With Eight Sermons, by the late Benjamin Kennicott,’ 1787. Published in consequence of directions in his will. Kennicott also contributed to the Oxford verses on the death of Frederick, prince of Wales. His library was sold by Tom Payne in 1784.
[Gent. Mag. 1747 pp. 471–2, 605, 1768 pp. 147–9, 203–5, 251–3, 366–8, 1771 p. 520, 1783 pt. ii. pp. 718, 744, 1789 pt. i. p. 289, 1830 pt. i. pp. 282, 374; Macray's Bodleian Library, 2nd ed. pp. 118, 260, 263, 306, 372; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. iv. 656, v. 627; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, passim; Boswell's Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, ii. 128, iv. 288; Diary of Madame d'Arblay, iii. 237; Miscell. Geneal. et Herald. 2nd ser. i. 146; Trans. Devon. Assoc. 1878; information from Mr. E. Windeatt of Totnes, Mr. T. M. Davenport of Oxford, and Mr. R. B. Gardiner of St. Paul's School.]