Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Morton, Charles (1627-1698)

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MORTON, CHARLES (1627–1698), puritan divine, born at Pendavy, Egloshayle, in Cornwall, and baptised at Egloshayle on 15 Feb. 1626–7, was the eldest son of Nicholas Morton, who married, on 11 May 1616, Frances, only daughter of Thomas Kestell of Pendavy. He was probably the Charles Morton, undergraduate of New Inn Hall, Oxford, who submitted on 4 May 1648 to the jurisdiction of the parliamentary visitors (Burrows, Register of Visitors, Camden Soc., 1881, p. 569). On 7 Sept. 1649 he was elected a scholar of Wadham College, Oxford, and he graduated B.A. 6 Nov. 1649, M.A. 24 June 1652, being also incorporated at Cambridge in 1653. His antiquarian tastes developed early, for about 1647 an urn of ancient coins found near Stanton St. John, Oxfordshire, was purchased by him and another student (Wood, Life and Times, Oxford Hist. Soc., i. 265). At Oxford he was conspicuous for knowledge of mathematics, and he was much esteemed by Dr. Wilkins, the head of his college. His sympathies were at first with the royalist views of his grandfather, but when he found that the laxest members of the university were attracted to that side he examined the question more seriously, and became a puritan. In 1655 Morton was appointed to the rectory of Blisland in his native county, but he was ejected by the Act of Uniformity in 1662, whereupon he retired to a small tenement, his own property, in St. Ive. He lost much property through the fire of London, and was driven to London to support himself.

Morton was probably the ‘Charles Morton, presbyterian,’ who in 1672 was licensed for ‘a room in his dwelling-house, Kennington, Lambeth’ (Waddington, Surrey Congreg. Hist. p. 70). A few years later he carried on at Stoke Newington, near London, the chief school of the dissenters. His object was to give an education not inferior to that afforded by the universities, and his labours proved very successful (cf. Calamy, Continuation of Ejected Ministers, 1727, i. 177–97). Defoe was a pupil, and spoke well of the school, and many of the principal dissenting ministers—John Shower, Samuel Lawrence, Thomas Reynolds, and William Hocker—were educated by him. The names of some of them are printed in Toulmin's ‘Protestant Dissenters,’ pp. 570–574. In 1703 Samuel Wesley attacked the dissenting academies in his ‘Letter from a Country Divine,’ and among them the establishment of Morton, in which he himself had been educated. They were thereupon defended by the Rev. Samuel Palmer in ‘A Defence of the Dissenters' Education in their Private Academies,’ to which Wesley replied in ‘A Defence of a Letter on the Education of Dissenters,’ 1704, and Palmer retorted with ‘A Vindication of the Learning, Loyalty, Morals of the Dissenters. In answer to Mr. Wesley,’ 1705 (Tyerman, Life and Times of S. Wesley, pp. 66–76, 270–94).

Morton was so harried by processes from the bishop's court that he determined upon leaving the country. He arrived at New England in July 1686 with his wife, his pupil, Samuel Penhallow [q. v.], and his nephew, Charles Morton, M.D. Another nephew had preceded them in 1685. It had been proposed that Morton should become the principal of Harvard College, but through fear of displeasing the authorities another was appointed before his arrival. He was, however, made a member of the corporation of the college and its first vice-president, and he drew up a system of logic and a compendium of physics, which were for many years two of its text-books. Some lectures on philosophy which he read in his own rooms were attended by several students from the college, and one or two discontented scholars desired to become inmates of his house, but these proceedings gave offence to the governing body. The letter of request to him to refrain from receiving these persons is printed in the ‘Mather Papers’ (Massachusetts Hist. Soc. Collections, 4th ser. viii. 111–12). Morton was solemnly inducted as minister of the first church in Charlestown, New England, on 5 Nov. 1686, and was the first clergyman of the town who solemnised marriages. He was prosecuted for ‘several seditious expressions’ in a sermon preached on 2 Sept. 1687, but was acquitted. His name is the second of the petitioners to the council on 2 Oct. 1693 for some encouragement to a system of propagating Christianity among the Indians, and his was the senior signature to an association for mutual assistance among the ministers of New England (ib. 3rd ser. i. 134, and New England Hist. Reg. iv. 186). Numerous extracts from the record books of his church are in the ‘New England Historical Register,’ vols. xxv. xxvii. and xxviii.

About 1694 Morton's health began to fail, but no assistant could be found for him. He died at Charlestown on 11 April 1698, and was buried on 14 April, his funeral being attended by the officers of Harvard College and its students. By his will, dated November 1697, he left 50l. for the benefit of the college, and gave his executors power to dispose of ‘his philo- sophical writings, sermon notes, pamphlets, mathematical instruments, and other rarities.’ His houses and lands at Charlestown and in Cornwall with the rest of his property passed to his two nephews, Charles and John Morton, and his niece in equal shares. An epitaph was written for him by the Rev. Simon Bradstreet, his successor in the ministry.

Morton held the Greek maxim that a great book was a great evil. He published many small volumes on social and theological questions (see Bibl. Cornub. and Calamy's Contin. i. 210–211). A paper by him on ‘The Improvement of Cornwall by Seasand’ is in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ x. 293–6, and his ‘Enquiry into the Physical and Literal Sense of Jeremiah viii. 7—the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times,’ is reprinted in the ‘Harleian Miscellany,’ 1744 ii. 558–567, 1809 ii. 578–88. It is a blot on his character that he acted with those who urged the prosecutions for witchcraft at Salem. John Dunton, the bookseller, lauds him as ‘the very soul of philosophy, the repository of all arts and sciences, and of the graces too,’ and describes his discourses as ‘not stale, or studied, but always new and occasional. His sermons were high, but not soaring; practical, but not low. His memory was as vast as his knowledge’ (Life and Errors, i. 123–4).

[Drake's Dict. American Biog.; Allen's American Biog. Dict.; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Calamy's Account of Ejected Ministers, ed. 1713, ii. 144–145; Lee's Memoir of Defoe, i. 7–10, 89; J. Browne's Congregationalism, Norfolk and Suffolk, p. 239; Maclean's Trigg Minor, i. 53, 461; Savage's Geneal. Register, iii. 243; Frothingham's Charlestown, pp. 193–240; Massachusetts Hist. Soc. 2nd ser. i. 158–62; Sprague's Annals American Pulpit, i. 211–13; Budington's First Church, Charlestown, pp. 99–113, 184–5, 221–6, 250; Quincy's Harvard Univ. i. 69–92, 495–7, 599–600; Toulmin's Protestant Dissenters, pp. 232–5.]

W. P. C.