Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Emlyn, Thomas
EMLYN, THOMAS (1663–1741), first unitarian minister in England, was born at Stamford, Lincolnshire, 27 May 1663. The register of St. Michael's, Stamford, has the entry ‘June 11th, Thomas, son of Silvester Embling and Mildred his wife baptzd.’ The family surname, which is spelled in thirteen different ways, is said to come from the tything of Embley, in the parish of East Wellow, Hampshire; but the Embleys or Emblins had been long settled as yeomen in the parish of Tinwell, Rutlandshire. Silvester, who originally spelled his name Emley, afterwards Emlyn, was admitted as a yeoman to scot and lot in Stamford, 28 Aug. 1651. He became a municipal councillor on 26 Aug. 1652, but was removed for nonconformity on 29 Aug. 1662. Though a nonconformist, and ‘inclined to the puritan way,’ he was a churchman in practice, and intimate with Richard Cumberland (1631–1718) [q. v.] , then (1667–91) beneficed in Stamford. He was thrice married. His first wife, Katherine, was buried 25 April 1658; his second wife, Agnes (baptised 8 Nov. 1632), sister of the poet Dryden, died in childbirth, and was buried 13 Sept. 1660. On 26 Dec. 1661 he married Mildred (died 3 Dec. 1701), daughter of John Dering of Wicking, in Charing, Kent. He became a prosperous shopkeeper, acquired a small estate, and is entered as ‘gentleman’ in the record of his burial (15 March 1693). The family name is still preserved in Emblyn's Fields, Stamford.
Thomas, the only son who reached manhood, was sent in his twelfth year (August 1674) to a boarding-school at Walcot, Lincolnshire, kept by an ejected minister of foreign birth, George Boheme, younger brother of Mauritius Bohemus [q. v.] Here he attended the ministry of Richard Brocklesby (1636–1714) [q. v.], at the neighbouring church of Folkingham; if Brocklesby preached as he wrote, Emlyn was early initiated into strange doctrine.
Emlyn was placed in 1678 at the academy of an ejected minister, John Shuttlewood, then held in secret at Sulby, near Welford, Northamptonshire. He was dissatisfied with the few opportunities for reading presented by his tutor's scanty library, and paid a visit to Cambridge, where on 20 May 1679 he was entered (as ‘Thomas Emlin’) at Emmanuel, of which Dr. Holbech was then master. But he never came into residence, and remained with Shuttlewood till 1682. In August of that year he was transferred to the academy of Thomas Doolittle [q. v.], then held at Islington. In London he acquired a distaste for ‘narrow schemes of systematic divinity.’ He preached his first sermon in Doolittle's meeting-house on 19 Dec. 1682.
On 15 May 1683 he became domestic chaplain to a presbyterian lady, the widowed Countess of Donegall (Letitia, daughter of Sir William Hicks), who had a London house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. From her windows he witnessed the execution (18 July) of Lord William Russell. Next year he accompanied his patroness to Belfast, and continued to act as her chaplain after her marriage to Sir William Franklin. The presbyterian congregation of Belfast, of Scottish origin, had displeased the countess by the removal of an English minister and the appointment of Patrick Adair [q. v.] With this body Emlyn held no communion. He attended the parish church twice a day; when he preached at the castle in the evening, the vicar, Claudius Gilbert [q. v.] came to hear him. Bishop Hackett gave him, without ordination or subscription, a preaching license, ‘facultatis exercendæ gratia;’ he wore a clergyman's habit, and often officiated in the parish church. Franklin offered him a living on his estate in the west of England, but he objected to the terms of conformity. His engagement lasted till 1688, when the household was broken up by ‘domestic differences,’ as well as by the troubles which caused many protestant families to hurry from Ireland. It is stated that Emlyn preached with ‘pistols in his pocket.’ Overtures were made to him (1 May) from the presbyterian congregation of Wood Street, Dublin, for whom he had once preached. In reply, Emlyn disposed of a rumour that he was ‘intirely addicted to the church,’ but declined to go to Dublin on the plea of business in England.
In the autumn of 1688 he left Belfast for London. Passing through Liverpool, he preached at St. Nicholas's for Robert Hunter, the incumbent, who took him for a clergyman, as he stood at the door of his inn. A second sermon at Liverpool (in August or September, just after Hunter's death) made the parishioners anxious to get him the living. He preached in other parish churches on his way, and reached London in December.
In May 1689 Emlyn became chaplain to Sir Robert Rich at Rose Hall, near Beccles, Suffolk. Rich, a lord of the admiralty, was a leading member of a presbyterian congregation meeting in a barn in Blue Anchor Lane, Lowestoft. At his desire Emlyn ministered at Lowestoft for about a year and a half, without accepting any pastoral charge. He was on good terms with John Hudson, the vicar, and took his people to charity sermons in the parish church. He was intimate with an old independent minister, William Manning, ejected from Middleton, Suffolk, and subsequently preaching at his own licensed house in Peasenhall. William Sherlock's ‘Vindication’ of the Trinity (1690) was read and discussed by Emlyn and Manning, with the result that Manning became a Socinian. He tried to convert Emlyn, keeping up a correspondence with him till his death (buried 15 Feb. 1711, aged 80). Emlyn's mind was not of the rationalistic order. He had supplied Baxter with circumstantial narratives of a ghost-story and of a case of witchcraft. Manning's influence brought him to a semi-Arian position, but no further. At what date he thus broke with established views is not clear; probably not till 1697, for on 18 Jan. 1697–8 he writes to Manning that he cannot hope to retain his charge, and is waiting for ‘a fair occasion’ to speak out.
The Dublin invitation had been renewed on 23 Sept. 1690, through Nathaniel Taylor of Salters' Hall, and accepted. In May 1691 Emlyn reached Dublin, and was ordained as colleague to Joseph Boyse [q. v.] His preaching was popular, avoiding controverted subjects, but puritanical in tone. On 4 Oct. 1698 he delivered a discourse before the societies for the reformation of manners, in which, while deprecating the ‘prosecuting any for differences of judgment in religion,’ he strongly advocated severe measures against vice and profanity, including sabbath-breaking. Among those attracted to his ministry was a churchwoman, Esther or Hester, younger daughter and coheiress of David Sollom, a quondam Jewish merchant, who had purchased (16 May 1678) the estate of Syddan and Woodstown in the barony of Slane, co. Meath. She had become, in her twentieth year, the widow of Richard Cromleholme Bury, a landed proprietor near Limerick, who left her a good jointure at his death (23 Nov. 1691). Emlyn married her in 1694 (license dated 10 July). On 13 Oct. 1701 she died, aged 29.
The ‘fair occasion’ for disclosing his views was brought about by the suspicions of Duncan Cumyng, M.D. (d. 8 Sept. 1724), an elder in his congregation who had been educated for the ministry. Cumyng noticed omissions in Emlyn's preaching, and interviewed him with Boyse in June 1702. Emlyn at once owned his heresy and wished to resign his charge. Boyse thought the matter must be laid before the Dublin presbytery, a body formed out of a coalition of presbyterians and independents. The ministers immediately resolved to dismiss Emlyn and silence him; subsequently, at the instance of his congregation, they agreed that he should withdraw to England for a time, but not preach. To this galling condition Emlyn would not bind himself. Next day he left for London, where he found friends, in spite of angry letters from Dublin. The Dublin divines engaged John Howe [q. v.] to talk him over, but without effect. Emlyn drew up and printed a paper containing his ‘case,’ which was met by a reply from Dublin, drafted by Boyse. A private letter from Boyse (3 Sept. 1702), very kindly written, advised Emlyn to seek some other engagement. On 16 Sept., at Cork, the Munster presbytery testified against his errors. After ten weeks' absence he returned to Dublin to settle his affairs, sold his books, and prepared to depart. Before doing so he put to press ‘An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ.’ It was printed off, and the dissenters were anxious to hinder it from getting abroad. Alarm had been excited by a Socinian tract, ‘The Scandal and Folly of the Cross removed’ (1699), with which Emlyn had nothing to do, though it seems to have been reprinted in Dublin. Two dissenters on the grand jury were eager to present the ‘Inquiry;’ one of them, Caleb Thomas, a baptist deacon, got a warrant from Chief-justice Pyne and seized the author with a part of the impression. There was some demur about accepting bail; the attorney-general (Rochford) was appealed to and gave his consent.
At the end of Easter term 1703 the grand jury found a true bill against him for publishing a blasphemous libel. The trial came on in the queen's bench on 14 June. Publication was not proved, and there was nothing in a tract ‘fairly and temperately written’ (Reid) to support the charge of blasphemy. But the two primates and four or five other bishops had seats on the bench; Emlyn's counsel were browbeaten, and he was not permitted to speak for himself. Pyne in charging the jury told them ‘if they acquitted him my lords the bishops were there;’ the deliberations of the jury were cut short, and they brought in a verdict of guilty. Emlyn was committed to gaol, and ordered to be brought up on the 16th for sentence. In the interim the foreman of the jury (Sir Humphrey Jervis) visited him to express sympathy, as did Wetenhall, bishop of Kilmore. Rochford was for placing him in the pillory, but Boyse, who had proved his own orthodoxy in an answer to Emlyn's ‘Inquiry,’ made strenuous efforts to obtain a milder sentence, and got Emlyn to address a supplicatory letter to the chief justice. On the 16th, when Emlyn appeared, the solicitor-general (Brodrick) moved that he should be allowed to retract, but this he would not do. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, to be extended until he had paid a fine of 1,000l. and found security for good behaviour during life. Hoadly thus sums up the case: ‘The nonconformists accused him, the conformists condemned him, the secular power was called in, and the cause ended in an imprisonment and a very great fine, two methods of conviction of which the gospel is silent.’
Emlyn was at first allowed to remain a prisoner in the sub-sheriff's house at his own cost. On 6 Oct. the chief justice ordered his removal to the common gaol, where he lay five weeks, in a close room with five others, till his health failed. On petition he was transferred to the Marshalsea by habeas corpus. Here he ‘hired a pretty large room’ to himself, and preached on Sundays to the debtors and a few of ‘the lower sort’ of his Wood Street flock. He employed himself in writing a couple of treatises, and publishing the funeral sermon which he had preached on the death of his wife. None of his dissenting brethren came near him except Boyse, who made repeated attempts to obtain a reduction of his fine. On the other hand, there was a clerical petition for a grant of it, to rebuild a parish church, and a petition from Trinity College to apply it in additions and repairs. At length one of his friends, Thomas Medlicote, got the ear of Ormonde, the lord-lieutenant, and the fine was reduced to 70l. Yet the primate of Armagh (Narcissus Marsh) demanded, as queen's almoner, a shilling in the pound of the original fine, and was not easily satisfied with 20l., which was paid in addition to the 70l. Emlyn was released on Saturday, 21 July 1705. Next day he preached a farewell sermon (printed Works, iii. 115 sq.) to the debtors discharged with him by an act of grace. Immediately before his release the Ulster general synod (June 1705) for the first time made subscription to the Westminster Confession imperative upon all entrants to the ministry. On the other hand, the spirit of theological inquiry led to the formation of a ministers' club, known as the ‘Belfast Society’ (1705), which ultimately became the parent of the non-subscribing body. Emlyn usually visited Ireland at intervals of two or three years, and found ‘the odium of his opinions beginning to wear off apace.’
He fixed his permanent abode in London. A small congregation of his sympathisers collected at Cutlers' Hall, formerly occupied by Thomas Beverley, ‘the prophet.’ Leslie, the nonjuror, protested vehemently against the toleration of this new sect. Complaint was made to Archbishop Tenison by Francis Higgins, a Dublin clergyman, but Tenison would not interfere. In June 1711 the lower house of convocation represented to the queen that weekly sermons were preached in defence of unitarian principles. After a few years the congregation died out, and Emlyn found all pulpits closed against him except at the general baptist church in the Barbican (Paul's Alley), for whose ministers, James Foster, D.D. [q. v.], and Joseph Burroughs [q. v.], he preached once or twice. Their liberality is the more remarkable, as Emlyn in his ‘Previous Question’ (1710) had made a radical onslaught on baptism. At length in 1726, on the death of the Exeter heretic, James Peirce [q. v.], his people looked towards Emlyn as his successor. But age was creeping over him, and he would not entertain the proposal.
With the doubtful exception of John Cooper at Cheltenham (d. 1682) Emlyn was the first preacher who described himself as a unitarian, a term introduced by Thomas Firmin [q. v.] . He maintains, however, that he ‘never once’ preached unitarianism, advocating his theology only through the press. His treatises are, as he says, ‘dry speculations,’ but his controversy with David Martin of Utrecht, on the authenticity of 1 John v. 7, has still some interest. Whiston revered him as ‘the first and principal confessor’ of ‘old christianity.’ He was chairman at the weekly meetings of Whiston's ‘Society for Promoting Primitive Christianity’ (started 1715) from 4 Jan. to 28 June 1717 (the final meeting). Robert Cannon [q. v.] introduced him to Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) [q. v.], with whom he became intimate. In 1731 he wrote some ‘Memoirs’ of Clarke, chiefly dealing with his opinions as brought out in conversation.
Emlyn's ‘Meditations’ and his manuscript remains convey the impression of strong domestic affections and unaffected piety. He lived at Islington, and was admitted to the communion at the parish church until Stonehouse, the rector, excluded him. Emlyn wrote to the Bishop of London (Gibson) desiring readmission, but without effect. After 1739 he removed to Hackney. A curious story is told by Archbishop Secker of Emlyn's paying a visit to Matthew Henry at Hackney, and taking up his hat and gloves on hearing what he considered cant.
Gradually disabled by annual returns of gout, Emlyn succumbed to a feverish attack on 30 July 1741. He was buried on 8 Aug. in Bunhill Fields; the inscribed tombstone has disappeared; the epitaph is given in the ‘Memoirs’ by his son, and (with slight variations) in the commonplace book mentioned below. James Foster preached the funeral sermon on 16 Aug.
Emlyn's will, dated 5 Sept. 1739, contains few legacies, and the residue of his small property he left to his sole surviving son, Sollom [q. v.], who had already, on his mother's death, come in for her estate. His eldest son had died very young in August or September 1701.
The portrait of Emlyn by Highmore came into the possession of the Streatfeild family (to whom Emlyn's grandson left property), and for nearly fifty years lay in a loft over offices at Limpsfield, Surrey. When it came to light again (1843) it was in a very bad state, and nothing is now known of it. It was engraved by Van der Gucht; the original plate is in the possession of Mrs. H. Linwood Strong.
Emlyn's ‘Works’ were collected by his son in 1746, 3 vols. 8vo, called the ‘fourth edition,’ but this refers only to the included ‘Collection of Tracts’ (1719, 8vo; 1731, 2 vols. 8vo; 1742, 2 vols. 8vo). His first publication was 1. ‘The Suppression of Public Vice,’ Dublin, 1698, 8vo (sermon on 1 Sam. ii. 30; see above). Among his other pieces are: 2. ‘The Case of Mr. E—— in relation to the Difference between him and some Dissenting Ministers of the City of Dublin,’ &c., London [August] 1702, 4to, Dublin, 1703. 3. ‘An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ,’ &c., 4to, Dublin, 1702 (anon.; the printer, Laurence, swore ‘he knew not whose writing it was’). 4. ‘A Vindication of the Worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, on Unitarian Principles,’ &c., 4to, 1706 (anon.; written 1704). 5. ‘General Remarks on Mr. Boyse's Vindication of the True Deity of our Blessed Saviour,’ &c. (written 1704; sent to England and mislaid; first printed in ‘Works’). 6. ‘Remarks on Mr. Charles Leslie's First Dialogue,’ &c., 4to, 1708 (anon.; in this, anticipating Clarke, he calls himself ‘a true scriptural trinitarian;’ he wrote two other tracts against Leslie in the same year). 7. ‘The Previous Question to the Several Questions about … Baptism,’ &c., 4to, 1710 (anon.; answered by Grantham Killingworth [q. v.] and Caleb Fleming [q. v.]). 8. ‘A Full Inquiry into the Original Authority of that Text, 1 John v. 7,’ &c., 8vo, 1715 (the controversy with Martin lasted till 1722; each wrote three pieces). 9. ‘A True Narrative of the Proceedings … against Mr. Thomas Emlyn; and of his Prosecution,’ &c., 8vo, 1719 (dated September 1718); latest edition 12mo, 1829. 10. ‘Sermons,’ 8vo, 1742 (with new title-page, forms vol. iii. of ‘Works’). 11. ‘Memoirs of the Life and Sentiments of the Reverend Dr. Samuel Clarke’ (written 1731; first printed in ‘Works’). Also controversial tracts against Willis (1705), Sherlock (1707), Bennet (1718), Tong and others (1719), Trosse (1719), and Waterland (1731). In 1823 Jared Sparks published at Boston, U.S., a selection from Emlyn's works, with memoir. Answers to Emlyn's positions were furnished by Stephen Nye (1715), J. Abbadie [q. v.] (1719), C. Alexander (1791), and Aaron Burr, president of the college in New Jersey (1791), on occasion of an American edition (1790) of extracts from the ‘Humble Inquiry.’
In Dr. Williams's library, Grafton Street, Gower Street, London, is a small manuscript volume, originally the note-book of some unknown pupil of Doolittle's academy, and used by Emlyn and his son Sollom as a kind of commonplace book; it had been in the possession of Colonel Clement W. Strong (d. 1869). Portions of Emlyn's correspondence with Manning (1703–10) were preserved by the great-grandson of the latter, William Manning (d. 1825) of Ormesby, Norfolk, and were printed in the ‘Monthly Repository,’ 1817, p. 387 sq., 1825, p. 705 sq., 1826, pp. 33 sq., 87 sq., 203 sq., 333 sq.; the originals, which passed into the hands of the Rev. H. R. Bowles of Great Yarmouth (d. 1 Jan. 1830), have since disappeared.[Emlyn's works, letters, and commonplace book, above; Foster's funeral sermon, 1741; Memoirs by Sollom Emlyn, prefixed to Works, also separately, 1746; Biog. Brit. (Kippis), 1793, gives no new particulars; Wallace's Antitrin. Biog. 1860, iii. 503 sq. is better (see also p. 495 sq.); Baxter's Certainty of the World of Spirits, 1691 (edition of 1834), pp. 33 sq., 83 sq.; Steele's Account of the State of the Roman Catholic Religion, 1715, pref. (see Hoadly's Works, 1773, i. 537); Whiston's Mem. of Clarke, 1741, p. 58; Whiston's Memoirs, 1753, pp. 121, 215, 318, &c.; Toulmin's Hist. View, 1814, p. 238; Secker's Letters to John Fox in Monthly Repository, 1821, p. 571; Christian Moderator, 1827, p. 69, &c. (corrected by Campbell's manuscript Sketches of the Hist. of Presbyterians in Ireland, 1803); Armstrong's Appendix to Martineau's Ordination Service, 1829, p. 70; Reid's Hist. Presb. Ch. in Ireland (Killen), 1867, ii. 476; Browne's Hist. Cong. Norf. and Suff. 1877, p. 528 sq.; The Reliquary, xvi. 75, &c. (gives extracts from various parish registers, by Justin Simpson); Picton's Extracts from Liverpool Municipal Archives, 1883–6; Hist. Mem. First Presb. Ch. Belfast, 1887, p. 108; extracts from marriage and baptismal registers of St. Michael's, Stamford, per the Rev. H. Macdougall; registers of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, per the Rev. G. Phear, D.D., Master; parish register of Lowestoft, per the rector; Irish Record Rolls, Chas. II, 2, 44, and marriage licenses, Dublin Prerogative Court, per Sir J. Bernard Burke; Emlyn's will and other family papers, kindly laid before the present writer by the late H. L. Strong, esq.; letter (7 Feb. 1843) of the Rev. Thomas Streatfeild, per G. Strong, M.D.; information from the Rev. C. W. Empson, Wellow, Hampshire, the Rev. J. G. Burton, Bewdley, Worcestershire, and Joseph Phillips, esq., Stamford.]