Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skelton, Philip

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SKELTON, PHILIP (1707–1787), divine, son of Richard Skelton, a farmer, who was also a gunsmith and a tanner, and grandson of one of the English settlers in Ireland of the reign of Charles I, was born at Derriaghy, co. Antrim, in February 1707. His mother, Arabella Cathcart, was daughter of a farmer, and the tenancy, under Lord Conway, of the farm at Derriaghy was her marriage portion. Philip, who had five brothers and four sisters, was sent in 1717 to a Latin school at Lisburn. He was idle at first, and his father, hearing of this from the Rev. Mr. Clarke, the master, sent him out to carry stones on a hand-barrow, and to work and live with the labourers on the farm. After a few days, when asked if he liked to be a labourer or a scholar, he chose the latter, and was ever after diligent. His father died before he was eleven, and it was only by severe economy that his mother could educate her ten children. Candles were beyond his means, so Philip used to read after dark by the blaze made by throwing bits of dry furze on the turf fire, by which he sat on a low stool. In June 1724 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a sizar, Dr. Patrick Delany [q. v.] being his tutor, and in 1726 was elected a scholar. He graduated B.A. in July 1728, and, after teaching in the endowed school of Dundalk, was nominated curate to Dr. Samuel Madden [q. v.] of Drummilly, co. Fermanagh, and ordained deacon by Bishop Sterne of Clogher in 1729. He lived with Dr. Madden as private tutor to his sons, and their tuition taxed his energies so much that he was not able to devote much time to sermons, but he gave away half his salary in alms. Once, when he found a burnt child in a cottage, he took off his own shirt and tore it into shreds to dress the child's burns. His first publication was an anonymous pamphlet in favour of Dr. Madden's scheme for premiums in Trinity College. In 1732 he became curate at Monaghan, where the rector paid him 40l. a year, of which he gave 10l. to his mother and much of the rest in charity. He rode up to Dublin, and, appearing before the privy council, obtained the pardon of a condemned man unjustly convicted. He studied physic and prescribed for the poor, argued successfully with profligates and sectaries, persuaded lunatics out of their delusions, fought and trounced a company of profane travelling tinkers, and chastised a military officer who persisted in swearing. He published several anonymous discourses against Socinians, and in 1736 an attack on Benjamin Hoadly's views of the Lord's Supper, entitled ‘A Vindication of the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of Winchester,’ whom he ironically supposes incapable of having written the book attributed to him. His next publication, ‘Some Proposals for the Revival of Christianity’ (1736), was again ironical. Swift, who was at first suspected of the authorship, complained that ‘the author of this has not continued the irony to the end.’ In 1737 Skelton published ‘A Dissertation on the Constitution and Effects of a Petty Jury,’ endeavouring to show that such juries led to false swearing, and in 1741 ‘The Necessity of Tillage and Granaries,’ as well as an account in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of an extraordinary development of caterpillars seen in Ireland in 1737. He became for a short time in 1742 tutor to James Caulfeild, first earl of Charlemont [q. v.], and in 1743 dedicated ‘Truth in a Mask’ to his pupil. A difference with Mr. Adderley, Lord Charlemont's stepfather, led to his return to his curacy in Monaghan, and in 1744 he published ‘The Candid Reader,’ a satire on the verse-making of Hill the mathematician, on the ‘Rhapsody of Lord Shaftesbury,’ and the Hurlothrumbo of Samuel Johnson (1691–1773) [q. v.] In the same year he issued ‘A Letter to the Authors of the Divine Analogy and the Minute Philosopher,’ and in 1745 ‘The Chevalier's Hopes,’ a paper in which he displays whig principles. He went to London in 1748 to publish ‘Ophiomaches, or Deism Revealed.’ Andrew Millar, the bookseller, showed the manuscript to David Hume, who advised him to print it, which he did, giving Skelton about 200l., most of which the author spent on books in London. A second edition appeared in 1751, and the book was generously commended by Bishop Thomas Sherlock. It contains eight conversations between Dechaine and Cunningham, deists; Shepherd, a clergyman, and Templeton, a layman, uncertain in his belief, but inclined to Christianity. Collins and Toland, Chubb and Shaftesbury, are sharply dealt with; but the work lacks continuity, and much is sacrificed to the dialogue form.

In 1750 Skelton was given the living of Templecarn, a large parish in the counties of Donegal and Fermanagh, consisting of wild moorland surrounding the Lough Derg, in which is St. Patrick's Purgatory, the most famous place of pilgrimage in Ireland. There was no rectory house, and the emolument was about 200l. a year. The district is still wild, and in 1750 the Scottish and English settlers were ignorant, and the only remains of intellectual culture were to be found among the native Irish, who, though generally unfamiliar with the English tongue, were acquainted with the Christian religion and with numerous traditional poetical romances. The theology of Skelton's parishioners consisted of little more than the doctrine of the absolute and invariable fallibility of the pope, and their religious observances scarcely went further than the eating of meat on Fridays when it was obtainable. By much exertion he taught them the existence of a Creator and the chief doctrines of Christianity. In 1751 he published ‘The Dignity of the Christian Ministry: a Sermon.’ He often suffered from a form of hypochondriasis resembling that of Dr. Johnson, and more than once assembled his people to see him die, till one parishioner said, ‘Make a day, sir, and keep it, and don't be always disappointing us thus,’ a remark which cured him of his disorder. Many entertaining stories are still extant near Pettigo of the incidents of his residence in Templecarn. He again visited London in 1754, and published ‘Discourses Controversial and Practical on various subjects.’ There was a famine in 1757, and he sold all his books to buy meal for the people. Lady Barrymore and Miss Leslie sent him 50l., hoping he might keep his books, but he said the poor needed more than their price, and devoted the gift to their sustenance. It is not astonishing that his name and the memory of his goodness are still preserved by the peasantry in that wild region. In 1759 he published, as a reply to an Arian pamphlet, ‘An Appeal to the Common Sense of all Christian People,’ and soon after a ‘Description of Lough Derg.’ In 1759 he was given the living of Devenish, co. Fermanagh, and was able to live in Enniskillen, which is contiguous. Here he had a large congregation, as there were many protestants and few presbyterians in Fermanagh. In 1766 he was presented to the living of Fintona, or Donacavey, co. Tyrone, and went to reside there. The people were intemperate and ignorant, and he reformed and instructed them. In 1770 he published his collected works by subscription, in five volumes octavo, for the benefit of the Magdalen charity in Dublin, which thus gained 500l. There was a famine in 1773, and he again sustained the poor; and in 1778 another famine at Fintona, attended by smallpox and typhus, caused him to sell his library, which he had renewed. In 1780 he came to live in Dublin, and in 1784 published ‘An Appeal to Common Sense on the subject of Christianity,’ thirteen hymns and a Latin poem, and in 1786 ‘Senilia,’ and a short account of ‘Watson's Catechism.’ He died on 4 May 1787, and was buried near the west door of St. Peter's Church in Dublin. Skelton was perhaps the most diligent and the most charitable divine which the church of Ireland produced before its disestablishment, yet in remote districts there were many clergymen who emulated his example in kindness to their neighbours of all creeds.

[Samuel Burdy's Life of the late Rev. Philip Skelton, 1792, a veracious record by a devoted friend; information from the late Bishop Reeves and from the Rev. W. Reynell; local information and personal knowledge.]

N. M.