Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Norris, John (1657-1711)

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NORRIS, JOHN (1657–1711), divine, was the son of John Norris, incumbent of Collingbourne-Kingston, Wiltshire, where the son was born in 1657. The elder Norris afterwards became rector of Ashbourne, Wiltshire, and died on 16 March 1681. A tract written by him against conventicles was published by the son in 1685. The younger Norris was educated at Winchester, and in 1676 entered Exeter College, Oxford. He graduated B.A. on 16 June 1680. A dispute was going on at this time between the warden and the fellows of All Souls', the fellows refusing to take an oath which would prevent them from disposing of their offices for money. The warden forbade an election, and the appointment thereupon lapsed to the visitor, Archbishop Sancroft, who at the warden's suggestion appointed Norris to one of the vacant places. The warden described him as an ‘excellent scholar,’ and he soon became a prolific author. His earliest writings (see below) show that he was already of mystical tendencies, and was a student of Platonism. In 1683–4 he had a correspondence with the famous Platonist, Henry More [q. v.], upon metaphysical problems (appended to his ‘Theory of Love’). A sermon on the ‘Root of Liberty,’ published in 1685, is dedicated to More, with whom he had discussed the theory of the freedom of the will contained in it. Other early writings show that he was a decided churchman, opposed both to whigs and nonconformists. On 22 April 1684 he took his M.A. degree, and was soon afterwards ordained. In 1687 he published his most popular book, the ‘Miscellanies.’ It includes some poems characteristic of his religious views, one of which (‘The Parting’) contains a line about ‘angels' visits, short and bright,’ afterwards adopted in Blair's ‘Grave’ and Campbell's ‘Pleasures of Hope.’ In 1689 he accepted the living of Newton St. Loe, Somerset, and married. In the following year he published his ‘Christian Blessedness,’ the appendix to which contains his criticism upon Locke's recently published ‘Essay.’ In 1692 he became rector of Bemerton, near Salisbury—the former home of George Herbert. The income, we are told, was 200l. or 300l. a year, and welcome to a man with a growing family. He says, however, himself in 1707 that his clear income was little more than 70l. a year, and that the world ran ‘strait and hard with him.’ He remarks also that he had no chance of preferment in the diocese, of which Burnet was then bishop (Aubrey, Letters, &c., 1813, pp. 156–8, and see anecdote in Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 640). Some of his books were popular, and went through many editions, but apparently brought him little profit. According to John Dunton [q. v.] he supplied many hints to the ‘Athenian Gazette,’ and would take no reward, though his strong memory and wide reading made him very useful. His theories led him into various controversies. He attacked the quakers for what he held to be their ‘gross notion’ of the inner light as compared with his philosophy, and he replied to Toland's attack upon Christian mysteries. He corresponded with the learned ladies, Mary Astell and Locke's friend, Lady Masham, with the last of whom he had a controversy upon the exclusive love of God. He then devoted his time to his chief performance, the ‘Essay towards the Theory of an Ideal and Intelligible World,’ which appeared in two parts in 1701 and 1704. Norris was a disciple of Malebranche, and expounds his master's doctrine of the vision of all things in God, in opposition to the philosophy of Locke. He is interesting as the last offshoot from the school of Cambridge Platonists, except so far as the same tendency is represented by Shaftesbury. His Platonism was radically opposed to the methods which became dominant in Locke's exposition, and Locke made some remarks, first published in the ‘Collection’ of 1720, upon Norris's earlier criticisms (Locke, Works, 1824, ix. 247–58). Locke and Molyneux refer rather contemptuously to Norris, ‘an obscure, enthusiastic man,’ in their correspondence (ib. viii. 400, 404; see also Locke's ‘Examination of Malebranche,’ ib. pp. 211–55). Norris, though an able writer, is chiefly valuable as a solitary representative of Malebranche's theories in England.

In other respects he seems to have been a very amiable and pious man, with much enthusiasm, whether in the good or the bad sense, and of pure and affectionate character. He published one or two other works of a practical and devotional kind, and died at Bemerton in 1711. He is commemorated by a marble tablet, bearing the words ‘Bene latuit,’ on the south side of Bemerton Church. He left a widow, two sons, both afterwards clergymen, and a daughter, who married Bowyer, vicar of Martock, Somerset. A bust was placed in the library, built by the bequest of Christopher Codrington [q. v.], at All Souls.

Norris's works are: 1. ‘The Picture of Love unveiled,’ 1682 (translated from the Latin of Robert Waring's ‘Effigies Amoris’). 2. ‘Hierocles upon the Golden Verses of the Pythagoreans’ (translation), 1682. 3. ‘An Idea of Happiness, in a Letter to a Friend,’ 1683 (reprinted in ‘Miscellanies’). 4. ‘A Murnival of Knaves, or Whiggism planely displayed and laughed out of Countenance,’ 1683 (refers to Rye House plot). 5. ‘Tractatus adversus Reprobationis absolutæ Decretum … in duos libros digestus,’ 1683 (includes a declamation in the schools). 6. ‘Poems and Discourses occasionally written,’ 1684 (reprinted in the ‘Miscellanies of the Fuller Worthies Library’ edited by Dr. Grosart in 1871). 7. ‘The Root of Liberty,’ 1685 (a sermon dedicated to H. More). 8. ‘Pastoral Poem on Death of Charles II,’ 1685 (reprinted in ‘Miscellanies’). 9. ‘A Collection of Miscellanies, consisting of Poems, Essays, Discourses, and Letters,’ 1687 (5th edit., revised by author in 1705). 10. ‘The Theory and Regulation of Love, a Moral Essay, to which are added Letters Philosophical and Moral between the Author and Dr. Henry More,’ 1688. 11. ‘Reason and Religion, or the Grounds and Measures of Devotion … in several Contemplations, with Exercises of Devotion applied to every Contemplation,’ 1689. 12. ‘Christian Blessedness, or Discourses upon the Beatitudes, to which is added Reflections upon a late [Locke's] Essay concerning the Human Understanding,’ 1690. To a second edition, 1692, is added a reply to some remarks by the ‘Athenian Society.’ 13. ‘Reflections upon the Conduct of Human Life, with reference to the Study of Learning and Knowledge, in a Letter to an excellent Lady’ [Masham], 1690. [Lady Masham's name given in the 2nd edit. 1691.] 14. ‘The Charge of Schism continued, being a Justification of the Author of “Christian Blessedness”’ (in which nonconformists were accused of schism), 1691. 15. ‘Practical Discourses on several Divine Subjects,’ first vol. 1691, second, 1692, third, 1693. In 1707 these appeared with ‘Christian Blessedness,’ now entitled ‘Practical Discourses on the Beatitudes,’ and forming the first of the four volumes. 16. ‘Two Treatises concerning the Divine Light; the first an Answer to a Letter of a learned Quaker [Vickriss] … the second a Discourse concerning the Grossness of the Quakers' notion of the Light within … 1692’ [refers to an attack upon the ‘Reflections’]. 17. ‘Spiritual Counsel, or the Father's Advice to his Children,’ 1694. 18. ‘Letters concerning the Love of God, between the author of the “Proposal to the Ladies” [Mary Astell [q. v.],] and Mr. John Norris, wherein his late Discourse (i.e. in “Practical Discourses”), showing that it ought to be entire and exclusive of all other loves, is further cleared and justified,’ 1695 (replies to criticisms by Lady Masham and others printed in appendix to fourth volume of ‘Practical Discourses’ in later editions). 19. ‘An Account of Reason and Faith in relation to the Mysteries of Christianity,’ 1697, 13th edit. in 1728, and 14th in 1790 (in answer to Toland's ‘Christianity not Mysterious’). 20. ‘Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal and Intelligible World, design'd for two parts. The first considering it in itself absolutely, and the second in relation to the human understanding, part i. 1701. The Second Part, being the relative part of it, wherein the intelligible World is considered in relation to the Human Understanding. …’ 1704. 21. ‘A Practical Treatise concerning Humility …’ 1707. 22. ‘A Philosophical Discourse concerning the Natural Immortality of the Soul. …’ 1708, in answer to Henry Dodwell the elder [q. v.], who replied in ‘The Natural Mortality of the Human Soul clearly demonstrated,’ &c. 23. ‘A Treatise concerning Christian Prudence …’ 1710. He translated Xenophon's ‘Cyropædia’ in 1685 with Francis Digby.

[Wood's Athenæ (Bliss), iv. 583–6; Biogr. Britannia; Locke's Letters, 1708; Burrows's All Souls, p. 267; Boase's Register of Exeter Coll. p. 213; Hearne's Collections (Doble), ii. 62, 104; iii. 455; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 137, 640; Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology; Pylades and Corinna, 1732, ii. 199–216, gives some letters from Norris to Mrs. Thomas.]

L. S.