Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pearson, John (1613-1686)

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PEARSON, JOHN (1613–1686), bishop of Chester, was born at Great Snoring in Norfolk on 28 Feb. 1612–13, and was baptised on 12 March. His father, Robert Pearson, Person, or Pierson, a native of Whinfell, near Kendal, entered at Queens' College, Cambridge, as a sizar in 1587, and was elected fellow in 1592. In 1607 he was presented to the rectory of North Creake in Norfolk, and in 1610 to the neighbouring rectory of Great Snoring. Bishop John Jegon [q. v.] appointed him archdeacon of Suffolk on 6 Oct. 1613. That office he retained till his death in 1639, zealously aiding Bishops Wren and Montague in their enforcement of ecclesiastical order in the diocese. Archdeacon Pearson married Joanna, daughter of Richard Vaughan [q. v.], successively bishop of Bangor, Chester, and London, by whom he had a large family.

John, the eldest child, seems to have received his early training under his father's eye. In after life he ‘took occasion very often and publicly to bless God that he was born and bred in a family in which God was worshipped daily’ (Wilson, Parochialia). From 1623 till 1631 he was at Eton. Sir Henry Wotton [q. v.] was provost, and John Hales (1584–1656) [q. v.] was one of the fellows, and while at Eton Pearson was thus able to lay the foundation of the erudition which distinguished him in an age of great scholars. One of his school contemporaries alleges that he spent all his money in books, and scarcely allowed himself natural rest, so intent was he in the acquisition of learning. Before he left school he had read many of the Greek and Latin fathers, and other books outside the ordinary study of schoolboys. Pearson's gratitude to Eton found expression in his ‘Vindiciæ Ignatianæ’ (cui ego literarum primitias debeo).

He was admitted at Queens' College, Cambridge, on 10 June 1631; but, within a year, in April 1632, he was elected scholar of King's. Here he was made fellow in 1634, graduated B.A. in 1635, and M.A. in 1639. In the last year he took holy orders.

Pearson's earliest extant literary production are some Latin verses, composed in 1632, on the king's recovery from smallpox (‘Anthologia Cantabrigiensis in Exanthemata Regia’). A few years later he wrote other verses to commemorate the death of Edward King (1612–1637) [q. v.], the Lycidas of Milton's elegy, who was drowned on the passage to Ireland on 10 Aug. 1637 (‘Justa Edovardo King, naufrago ab amicis mœrentibus, amoris et Mneias Charin, Cantabr.’, 1638, p. 14). Pearson's verses, while displaying accurate scholarship, are quite destitute of poetic fire.

In 1640 Pearson paid his firstfruits for the prebend of Netherhaven in the cathedral of Salisbury, to which he had been collated by his father's friend, Bishop John Davenant [q. v.] He thereupon resigned his fellowship on 2 Aug. 1640, though he continued to reside at King's as a fellow-commoner. In the same year he was appointed chaplain to Lord-keeper Finch [see Finch, Sir John, Baron Finch of Fordwich], but that unfortunate statesman went into exile before the end of the year. The loss of his chaplaincy was in some degree made up to Pearson by his presentation to the rectory of Thorington in Suffolk on 27 Oct. 1640.

In the troubled years which ensued Pearson cannot have resided much at Thorington. He certainly spent a portion of his time at Cambridge up to 1643. In that year, just before the opening of the Westminster Assembly, he preached a remarkable university sermon on ‘The Excellency of Forms of Prayer.’ He boldly declared his theological and political views, and with undisguised passion—from which his other published writings are wholly free—lamented the risk to which the cherished institutions of the church were being subjected by men who had little regard for learning and tradition. Subsequently Pearson joined the last remnant of Charles I's party in the west, acting as chaplain in 1645 to Goring's forces at Exeter (Sherman, Hist. MS. Coll. Jesu, Cantabr. p. 407). On the collapse of the royal cause he withdrew to London, where he seems to have remained till the Restoration, devoting the greater part of his time to his studies. He had lost the revenue of his prebend as early as 1642, and had resigned or been deprived of his rectory four years later; but the possession of a small patrimony in Norfolk freed him from extreme privations, and enabled him to maintain two younger brothers at Eton. Moreover, patrons gave him pecuniary assistance. He is said to have been for a time chaplain to Sir Robert, the eldest son of Sir Edward Coke, and subsequently to George, lord Berkeley, and his son of the same name and title, afterwards first Earl of Berkeley. In 1654 he accepted an invitation from the inhabitants of St. Clement's, Eastcheap, to deliver a weekly sermon in their parish church. This he appears to have regularly continued up to the Restoration, without receiving any pecuniary recompense. It was at St. Clement's that he preached in substance the series of discourses which he published in 1659 under the title of ‘An Exposition of the Creed,’ a work which is, within its limits, the most perfect and complete production of English dogmatic theology. Evelyn writes in his ‘Diary,’ 15 April 1655: ‘In the afternoon Mr. Pierson (since bishop of Chester) preached at East Cheap, but was disturbed by an alarm of fire, which about this time was very frequent in the city.’

While debarred from the full exercise of his ministry, Pearson defended the church with his pen against both Romanist and puritan assailants. In a preface to Lord Falkland's ‘Infallibility of the Church of Rome,’ he pointed out some singular admissions made by Hugh Paulinus Cressy [q. v.], a recent convert to the Roman catholic communion; and in 1649 he published a short tract, entitled ‘Christ's Birth not mistimed,’ in refutation of an attempt made by some of the church's opponents to throw discredit on the calculation by which Christ's nativity is observed on 25 Dec. He also interested himself in promoting the polyglot Bible, which appeared in 1654–7, under the editorship of Brian Walton [q. v.] (see Evelyn, Diary, 22 Nov. 1652). It does not, however, appear that Pearson had any literary share in this undertaking. He only gave or obtained for it pecuniary aid.

Pearson's reputation as a scholar was soon established, and his commendation was considered sufficient evidence of the value of a work. Prefaces by him were published with Meric Casaubon's edition of Hierocles, Stokes's ‘Explication of the Minor Prophets,’ and John Hales's ‘Remains.’ In 1657 Pearson, with his friend Peter Gunning [q. v.], engaged in a conference with two Roman catholics on the question whether England or Rome was guilty of schism at the Reformation. A garbled account of this controversy, under the title of ‘Schism Unmaskt,’ appeared in the following year.

After the Restoration, Pearson was collated by Juxon to the rectory of St. Christopher-le-Stocks in the city of London on 17 Aug. 1660, and in the same month Bishop Wren made him a prebendary of Ely. On 26 Sept. Brian Duppa, bishop of Winchester, conferred upon him the archdeaconry of Surrey, which he retained till his death. About this time he proceeded to the degree of D.D., and was appointed a royal chaplain, and on 30 Nov. he received from the patron, Bishop Wren, the mastership of Jesus College, Cambridge.

In February 1661 Pearson was one of the Lent preachers at court, and three months later one of the posers at the annual examination of the Westminster scholars (Evelyn, Diary, 13 May). In the spring and summer of this year he took an active part in the Savoy conference, where his courtesy and forbearance won the respect of his opponents. He was the only champion of episcopacy whom Baxter notices favourably. ‘Dr. Pierson,’ he says, ‘was their true logician and disputant. … He disputed accurately, soberly, and calmly, being but once in any passion, breeding in us a great respect for him, and a persuasion that if he had been independent he would have been for peace, and that if all were in his power it would have gone well.’

Pearson sat in the convocation which met in May 1661, when he was chosen, with John Earle, to superintend a version into Latin of the amended Book of Common Prayer; he also took part in drawing up the service for 29 May, and the prayer for parliament, and was one of three to whom the revision of all the additions and amendments of the prayer-book was committed prior to its acceptation by both houses. By order of the upper house he prepared in 1664 a Latin and Greek grammar to be used in all the schools of England.

Meanwhile, in June 1661, he succeeded Gunning as Margaret professor of theology at Cambridge, and hereupon he resigned his stall at Salisbury and his London living. As professor he at once delivered an important series of lectures ‘On the Being and Attributes of God,’ forming the first portion of a scholastic treatise on the chief heads of Christian theology. A later course of lectures was on the Acts of the Apostles.

On the appointment of Henry Ferne [q. v.] to the bishopric of Chester, Pearson was chosen to succeed him as master of Trinity College, 14 April 1662. This position, which he probably owed to the discernment of Clarendon, he held for nearly eleven years. He proved a popular ruler, and during his reign the college was free from all intestine divisions and disorders, but he probably deferred too much to the seniors (Jebb, Bentley, p. 93). He firmly resisted, however, an attempt of the crown to encroach upon the rights of the master and fellows in the exercise of their patronage.

In 1667 Pearson was elected a fellow of the newly founded Royal Society, though he seems to have shared little in its proceedings. In the same year he pronounced a noble oration at the funeral of his friend and patron Bishop Wren.

During his stay at Trinity, Pearson made several important contributions to learning. In 1664 he wrote a preface to Ménage's edition of ‘Diogenes Laertius,’ and in the following year he prefixed a critical essay to a Cambridge edition of the ‘Septuagint.’ But the great work which employed his learned leisure was his ‘Vindiciæ Epistolarum S. Ignatii,’ on which, with his ‘Exposition of the Creed,’ his reputation mainly rests. This profoundly learned work appeared in 1672, the last year of his residence at Cambridge.

Early in the following year (9 Feb. 1673) Pearson was consecrated bishop of Chester, in the place of John Wilkins [q. v.] His elevation to the episcopate had been long delayed by the influence of the Cabal ministry; but Archbishop Sheldon at length succeeded in bringing about the well-earned promotion. Pearson took little or no part in state affairs, and seems to have resided seldom in London, spending most of his time in his diocese, either at Chester or Wigan, the rectory of which town he held in commendam. He occasionally preached at Whitehall, but there is only one of his sermons extant preached after he became a bishop. Burnet asserts that ‘he was not active in his diocese, but too remiss and easy in his episcopal functions; and was a much better divine than bishop.’ This charge is not borne out by facts. The act-books of the diocese prove his painstaking care, and he was certainly wise in the choice of those he preferred. The testimony of Laurence Echard, that ‘he filled the bishopric of Chester with great honour and reputation,’ is probably entirely true. During his episcopate he continued to employ the hours spared from public duties in the service of sacred learning. The fruit of those labours was displayed in the ‘Annales Cyprianici,’ prefixed to Bishop Fell's edition of St. Cyprian, which appeared in 1682, and in two dissertations on the ‘Succession and Times of the first Bishops of Rome,’ which were not published till after his death.

Pearson died at Chester on 16 July 1686. The common report that he was disqualified from all public service by his infirmities, and especially by a total loss of memory, for some years before his death is groundless. He held an ordination service so late as 21 Dec. 1684, and six months later he added to his will a codicil which showed him in full possession of his mental faculties. In the last year of his life he certainly suffered from decay of mind as well as body; and Henry Dodwell has left an affecting account of the great scholar, led by his nurse, stretching his hands to his books, and crying ‘O sad, whose books are all these!’ (Brydges, Restituta, i. 53).

The bishop's body was laid in his cathedral at the east end of the choir, but no monument was raised to his memory till 1860, when a stately tomb, designed by Sir A. Blomfield, was placed in the north transept, at the expense of admirers of Pearson both in Great Britain and America (Howson, Handbook to Chester Cathedral).

It seems all but certain that Pearson died unmarried. The only reference to a wife occurs in a reported conversation with a nonagenarian fellow of Trinity, in which either the old man's memory or the reporter's statement appears to have been at fault.

Pearson was a man of spotless life and of an excellent temper. His equanimity perplexed his nonconformist opponents. This absence of passion, while it proved a most valuable quality in controversy, rendered him ‘more instructive than affective’ as a preacher. Pearson strongly supported the Restoration settlement of the church, and would give no support to any schemes of comprehension which did not insist on uniformity.

Among Englishmen of the seventeenth century, Pearson was probably the ablest scholar and systematic theologian. Burnet pronounces him ‘in all respects the greatest divine of the age,’ Ménage ‘le plus savant des Anglais,’ and Bentley writes of ‘the most excellent Bishop Pearson, the very dust of whose writings is gold’ (Dissertation on Phalaris, pp. 424–5, ed. 1699). ‘Probably no other Englishman,’ says Archdeacon Cheetham, ‘few of any nation, had the same accurate knowledge of antiquity which Pearson possessed, and the same power of using it with skill and judgment. If he had not been a theologian, he might have been known simply as the best English scholar before Bentley; he was a theologian, but he was none the less a great scholar. … No English theologian has less claim to originality or imagination; he proceeds always upon authorities, and his distinctive skill is in the discrimination and use of authorities.’

The ‘Exposition of the Creed,’ on which Pearson's reputation still mainly rests, has long been a standard book in English divinity. It has won the highest praise, not only from Anglican theologians, but from such men as Dr. Johnson, Dean Milman, and Hallam. The last-mentioned writer says: ‘It expands beyond the literal purport of the Creed itself to most articles of orthodox belief, and is a valuable summary of arguments and authorities on that side. The closeness of Pearson and his judicious selection of proofs distinguish him from many, especially the earlier, theologians’ (Lit. Hist. Eur. pt. iv. ch. ii.) ‘Pearson's preference for the scholastic method of theology appears in the book; it is the work of one accustomed to vigorous definition and exact deduction, and might easily be thrown into a form similar to that in which the schoolmen have treated the same subjects. The style is singularly unambitious, and seems to aim at nothing beyond the careful and accurate statement of propositions and arguments.’ The notes to the ‘Exposition’—a rich mine of patristic and general learning—are at least as remarkable as the text, and form a complete catena of the best authorities upon doctrinal points.

The first edition of the book (which is dedicated to the parishioners of St. Clement's, Eastcheap) appeared in quarto in 1659; all the subsequent editions down to 1723 were folios. The latest in which the author made any alterations was the third, 1669. The famous ninth edition, ‘by W. Bowyer’ the elder, appeared in 1710. The earliest octavo edition was published at Oxford in 1797. Numerous editions of the work have appeared in the present century under the editorship of W. S. Dobson, E. Burton, Temple Chevallier, J. Nichols, and E. Walford; the latest and best is Chevallier's, revised by R. Sinker, Cambridge, 1882. Numerous abridgments have been made, the best known being those of Basil Kennett, Charles Burney, and C. Bradley. There are also several analyses, that by William H. Mill (London, 1843) being a masterly performance. The ‘Exposition’ has been translated into many languages; a Latin version, by S. J. Arnold, appeared as early as 1691.

The other great work of Pearson, the ‘Vindiciæ Epistolarum S. Ignatii,’ was an elaborate answer to Daillé's attack on the authenticity of the letters ascribed to Ignatius of Antioch. It was probably Pearson's veneration for episcopacy which induced him to undertake this work. The letters everywhere recognised it as an institution essential to the completeness of a church, and, if their early date could be proved, the opponents of episcopacy recognised the untenableness of their position. Daillé therefore sought to show that all the so-called Ignatian writings were not much earlier than Constantine. On this point Pearson gained an easy victory over him, and went a great way in proving the authorship of the letters. ‘It was incomparably the most valuable contribution to the subject which had hitherto appeared, with the exception of Ussher's work. Pearson's learning, critical ability, clearness of statement, and moderation of tone, nowhere appear to greater advantage than in this work. If here and there an argument is overstrained, this was the almost inevitable consequence of the writer's position as the champion of a cause which had been recklessly and violently assailed on all sides. … Compared with Daillé's attack, Pearson's reply was as light to darkness’ (Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii. vol. i. p. 333). Till the discovery of Cureton's ‘Syrian Recension of the Epistles,’ in 1845, Pearson was considered to have practically settled the question of their genuineness. Cureton's discovery reopened the dispute, and for a while three only of the seven letters defended by Pearson were allowed to be of Ignatian origin. The recent labours of Zahn and Lightfoot have, however, vindicated the authenticity of the suspected letters, and Pearson's position is therefore once more generally accepted by scholars.

The first edition of the ‘Vindiciæ’ appeared in 1672, later editions in 1698 and 1724. The work was included in the Anglo-Catholic Library, edited by Archdeacon Churton.

The following is a list of Pearson's minor works: 1. ‘A Sermon preached before the University of Cambridge at St. Mary's on St. Luke xi. 2, A.D. 1643.’ This sermon is said to have been first printed in 1644, 4to, but no copy of this edition is known to exist. It was, however, published in 1711 in 8vo, with the statement that it had never before been printed. 2. ‘Christ's Birth not mistimed; or a clear refutation of a resolution to a question about the time of Christ's Nativity by R. S., pretending to evidence by Scripture that Iesvs Christ was not born in December,’ London, 1649. 3. Preface to Lord Viscount Falkland's ‘Discourse on the Infallibility of the Church of Rome.’ This preface appears to have been first prefixed to a London edition of the treatise, published in 1647. Subsequent editions were issued in 1651 and 1660. The attack on De Cressy's views elicited from him a new edition of his ‘Exomologesis,’ with a long appendix, ‘wherein certain misconstructions of the book by J. P. are cleared,’ &c., 1653, 12mo. 4. ‘Prolegomena in Hieroclem,’ first printed at London 1655 as a preface to Meric Casaubon's edition of the ‘Opuscula of Hierocles.’ They were reprinted with an edition in 8vo, 1673; and again by Needham in his edition of 1709. Pearson's essay is a singular proof of the many strange untrodden paths of learning which he had explored, and with much curious illustrative criticism combines some notice of the last efforts of Gentile philosophy againt Christianity. 5. ‘Papers in Schism unmasked; or a late conference between Mr. Peter Gunning and Mr. John Pierson, Ministers, on the one part, and two Disputants of the Roman Profession on the other; wherein is defined both what Schism is and to whom it belongs,’ Paris, 1658, 12mo. There are some tokens of the hand of Pearson in this work, particularly in a vindication of the character of Firmilian; but the argument on the Anglican side was mainly sustained by Gunning. 6. ‘The Patriarchal Funeral; a sermon on the death of George, Lord Berkeley,’ London, 1658. This was preached in Lord Berkeley's private chapel. 7. Preface to the ‘Explication of the Minor Prophets’ of Dr. David Stokes [q. v.], 1659. 8. Preface to the ‘Golden Remains of the ever memorable Mr. John Hales of Eton College,’ London, 1659; 2nd edit. 1673; 3rd edit. 1688. 9. ‘No Necessity of Reformation of the Publick Doctrine of the Church of England,’ London, 1660. 10. ‘An Answer to Dr. Burges his Word, by way of Postscript, in vindication of No Necessity of Reformation of the Public Doctrine of the Church of England,’ London, 1660. These tracts, written by Pearson, in controversy with Dr. Cornelius Burges, under all the provocations which the character and style of his opponent could occasion, are a model for Christian controversy. 11. ‘Præfatio ad Criticos Sacros,’ 9 vols. London, 1660. The ‘Critici Sacri’ was an undertaking of some of the deprived clergy, and embraced a commentary on holy scripture. The selection of commentators and the collection of tracts in the last two volumes were probably the work of Pearson, who also contributed the preface. 12. ‘Dedicatio et Præfatio ad Diogenem Laertium Menagii,’ London, 1664. An English edition of the author, as published by Gilles Ménage, was preceded by a short dedication to Charles II, and a preface by Pearson. 13. ‘Præfatio Parænetica ad Vetus Testamentum Græcum ex Versione LXX interpretum,’ Cambridge, 1665. This essay is mainly a defence of the old translators against some censures of St. Jerome; it was reprinted by Grabe with his LXX. 14. ‘Oratio ad Exsequias Matthæi Wrenn, Episc. Eliensis,’ 1667. 15. ‘Promiscuous Ordinations are destructive to the Honour and Safety of the Church of England, if they should be allowed in it. Written in a Letter to a Person of Quality,’ 1668. 16. ‘Lectiones de Deo et Attributis,’ about 1661. These were some of Pearson's professorial lectures, which were first printed in Churton's edition of the ‘Minor Theological Works.’ 17. ‘Orationes in Comitiis Cantabrigiens. 1661–71.’ Seven orations first printed by Churton. 18. ‘Conciones ad Clerum sex, eodem decennio habitæ’ First printed by Churton. 19. ‘Determinationes Theologicæ Sex.’ First printed by Churton. 20. ‘A Sermon [on Ps. cxi. 4] preached Nov. 5, 1673, at the Abbey Church in Westminster,’ London, 1673. 21. ‘Annales Cyprianici.’ In 1682 Bishop Fell brought out an excellent edition of ‘St. Cyprian,’ to which Pearson prefixed the ‘Annales,’ which display his usual untiring research, sifting of historical testimonies, and well-weighed decision of disputed points. Schönemann published an abridgment of the ‘Annales’ in 1792, declaring that ‘they have ever been and ever will be esteemed among the learned as of the highest value.’ 22. ‘Annales Paulini.’ 23. ‘Lectiones in Acta Apostolorum.’ 24. ‘Dissertationes de Serie et Successione Primorum Romæ Episcoporum.’ These three works were edited by Dodwell, and included in Pearson's ‘Posthumous Works,’ 1688. The ‘Annals of St. Paul’ were translated into English by J. M. Williams in 1825, and again, together with the ‘Lectures on the Acts,’ by J. R. Crowfoot in 1851. 25. ‘Various Letters, Epistolæ Latinæ, Fragments,’ &c., collected by Churton in Pearson's ‘Minor Theological Works,’ Oxford, 1844. 26. ‘Adversaria Hesychiana,’ 2 vols. Oxford, 1844. Under this title Pearson's ‘Notes on Hesychius’ were edited by Dean Gaisford. Alberti had previously tried to get them (Fabricii Vita, p. 215). There is a copy of Hesychius's lexicon in the cathedral library at Chester, on the title-page of which Pearson has written: ‘Hesychium integrum primo perlegi mdclv. Oct. xv—Iterum mdclxvii. Mart. xxvi (Burgon, Twelve Good Men, ii. 277–8). 27. ‘Notes on St. Ignatius,’ published in Smith's edition, Oxford, 1709. 28. ‘Notes on St. Justin,’ published by Thirlby in his edition, London, 1722. 29. ‘Notes on Æschylus,’ Bibl. Bodl. Rawl. MS. 193. On Pearson's ‘Emendations on Æschylus,’ see Butler's ‘Æschylus,’ vol. iv. (4to edit.), pp. xx, xxi. 30. ‘Marginalia,’ from certain of Pearson's books preserved in Trinity College Library, published by Dr. Hort in the ‘Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology,’ i. 98 ff. 399 ff.

Among the works of Pearson which have been lost are a sermon preached at the funeral of the poet John Cleveland [q. v.], and one mentioned by Evelyn on Hebrews ix. 14; ‘Lectiones Theologicæ quamplures—Adversaria Sacra;’ ‘Vita S. Justini;’ ‘Epistolæ ad Vir. Rev. Geo. Bull;’ ‘Liber Grammaticalis.’

The whole of Pearson's theological works, with the exception of the ‘Exposition of the Creed’ and the ‘Annales Cyprianici,’ were collected and admirably edited by Archdeacon Churton in 1844.

There is an original portrait of Pearson in the hall of Trinity College, Cambridge, which has been engraved for Churton's work. In the older folio editions of the ‘Exposition of the Creed’ there is an engraving from a portrait, by W. Sonman, representing the bishop with a lean, attenuated face. The sixth and later editions contain a well-executed engraving from a drawing by Loggan, taken when Pearson was in his seventieth year; here he appears ‘fair and comely.’

Pearson bore for his arms: argent, a chevron erminois between three leaves vert (Blazon of Episcopacy).

[Life of Pearson, by Archdeacon E. Churton, prefixed to the Minor Theological Works, Oxford, 1844. This is by far the best account of the bishop, and is a most painstaking and accurate piece of work. ‘History of the Church and Manor of Wigan,’ by G. T. O. Bridgeman, in Publications of Chetham Society; John Pearson, by Archdeacon Cheetham in Masters in English Theology, edited by Bishop Barry; D'Oyly's Life of Archbishop Sancroft; Walker's Sufferings of the Clergy; Burnet's History of His Own Times; Evelyn's Diary; Dean Howson's Handbook to Chester Cathedral; Baxter's Life and Times; Bishop Lightfoot's Ignatius; Wake on Convocations; Brydges's Restituta; Boswell's Johnson; Nelson's Life of Bull; Bentley's Works; Life of J. Milles; Birch's Hist. Royal Society; Blomefield's Norfolk; Le Neve's Fasti; Wills and Administrations in P. C. C.; Bishop's Certificates in dioc. Norwich; First Fruits Composition Books; Graduati Cantabrigienses; No. 13 Publications of Cambr. Antiq. Soc.; Wood's Athenæ; the ‘Old Parchment Register,’ Queens' College, Cambridge.]

F. S.