Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fry, John (1609-1657)

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FRY, JOHN (1609–1657), theological writer, son of William Fry of Iwerne Minster, Dorsetshire, by Milicent, daughter of Robert Swaine of Tarrant Gunville, Dorsetshire, was born in 1609, being fourteen years of age at the herald's visitation of Dorset in 1623. Wood's account, to be received with caution, is that he ‘had ran through most, if not all, religions, even to Rantisme.’ In October 1640 he was elected a member for Shaftesbury in the Long parliament, but his election was declared void. Somewhat later (probably after the order of 6 Sept. 1643) he was placed on the county committee for Wiltshire, which acted in conjunction with the committee for plundered ministers. Dugdale calls him a colonel, but there is no evidence that he was in the parliamentary army. After Pride's purge (6 Dec. 1648) he was called to the parliament, put on the committee for plundered ministers, and on 6 Jan. 1649 was included in the commission for the trial of the king. He owed his appointment to his having severed himself from the ‘rigid presbyterians,’ though it does not appear that he joined any other religious body.

Fry is commonly called a regicide, but he attended only the early sittings of the high court. He was one of seven commissioners whose places had been filled by others, before 27 Jan., the date when sentence was passed; nor did he sign the warrant for the king's execution. It may be doubted whether his absence is to be explained by his having to meet a charge of blasphemy, or whether, as is more probable, that charge was brought against him in consequence of some reluctance on his part to proceed to extreme measures against the king.

For a number of years, according to his own account, Fry had been ‘a searcher of the scriptures,’ and his conversation had given the impression, a twelvemonth back, that he denied the deity of Christ, an impression which he declares to be groundless. But he was willing to extend toleration to antitrinitarians. On or about 15 Jan. 1649 he was in the committee-room of the House of Commons when Cornelius Holland [q. v.] asked him to give his aid in the committee for plundered ministers towards the liberation of a minister who had lain two or three years in prison for ‘denying the personality of Christ.’ This prisoner was almost certainly John Biddle [q. v.] Fry readily agreed to the request. Hereupon Colonel John Downes [q. v.], who was present, broke into passionate language on the subject of Fry's own opinions. Two or three days later Fry had a discussion with Downes in the painted chamber, where the high court was about to hold its sitting, and heard soon after that Downes had sought the Speaker's advice in framing a charge of blasphemy against him. The house suspended him till he should clear himself. He sent in a written paper declaring the sacred three to be ‘equally God,’ but objecting to the terms ‘person’ and ‘subsistence.’ This was accepted as satisfactory, and Fry was restored.

Next month he published a narrative of the case (‘The Accuser Sham'd’), appending his exculpatory paper, with an offensive heading. This publication brought out several pamphlets in reply. One of them, in allusion to Fry's title-page, bore the title, ‘M. Fry his Blasphemy and Error blown up and down the Kingdome with his owne Bellowes,’ &c., 1649. Fry's most considerable opponent was Francis Cheynell [q. v.], who published his ‘Divine Trinunity,’ 1650, to meet the charge of tritheism preferred by Fry against some theological writers. Cheynell affirms that Fry was the first who had employed in English the expression ‘Trinity of the Godhead.’ His suspicion that Fry had been acquainted with ‘the deified atheists of the Family of Love’ is probably the foundation of Wood's accusation of ‘rantisme.’ Fry retorted in ‘The Clergy in their Colours,’ in which he disparaged the assembly's catechism, attacked the doctrine of free-will, argued against ‘believing things above reason,’ assumed the attitude of a critical free-lance (‘my aym is not to write positive but negative things’), and satirised the ‘wrye mouths, squint eyes, and screw'd faces’ of popular divines.

Downes brought both of Fry's books under the notice of parliament. The house on 24 Feb. 1651 voted the publication of the narrative and paper a breach of privilege, condemned certain of Fry's statements as ‘erroneous, prophane, and highly scandalous,’ ordered the books to be burned in the New Palace Yard and the Old Exchange, and disabled Fry from sitting in parliament. Soon afterwards appeared an anonymous and undated pamphlet, ‘A Discussion of Mr. Frye's Tenets lately condemned in Parliament,’ &c., which Wood assigns to Cheynell without much ground. A more temperate reply was ‘Theios. Divine Beames of Glorious Light,’ &c., 1651 (1 March). Wood says that Fry, after his expulsion, consorted with Biddle, but there is no evidence of his adoption of Biddle's views; his tendency was rather in a Sabellian direction.

He died at the end of 1656 or beginning of 1657. His will is dated 29 Dec. 1656, and was proved on 15 June 1657. He married Anna, probably daughter of Lindsay of Poole, and had five sons and three daughters, one of his sons being Stephen Fry, M.D., of Trinity College, Oxford. At the Restoration Fry's property was forfeited for the part he had taken in the trial of the king.

He published: 1. ‘The Accuser Sham'd; or, a Pair of Bellows to blow off that Dust cast … by Col. Jo. Downs,’ &c., February 1648 [i.e. 17 Feb. 1649], 8vo; prefixed is ‘A Word to the Priests, Lawyers, Royalists, Self-Seekers, and Rigid-Presbyterians;’ appended is ‘A Brief Ventilation of that chaffie and absurd opinion of three Persons or Subsistences in the Godhead,’ being his paper sent in to the house. 2. ‘The Clergy in their Colours; or, a Brief Character of them,’ &c., 1650, 8vo (published 28 or 29 Nov.)

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 705 sq.; Rushworth's Hist. Coll. (abridged), 1798, vi. 563, 574, 594, 603; Noble's Lives of the English Regicides, 1798, i. 247; Wallace's Antitrin. Biog. 1850, iii. 206; works cited above; information from E. A. Fry.]

A. G.