Secker, Thomas (DNB00)

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SECKER, THOMAS (1693–1768), archbishop of Canterbury, was born at Sibthorpe, a village in Nottinghamshire, in 1693. Thomas Secker, his father, who was a pious dissenter, lived on a small estate that he owned there. His mother was a daughter of George Brough, a gentleman-farmer at Shelton, also a village in Nottinghamshire. Having been educated at the dissenting academy of Timothy Jollie [q. v.] at Attercliffe, the son was sent in 1710, partly, it would seem, at the expense of Dr. Isaac Watts, to study divinity, with a view to entering the dissenting ministry, under Samuel Jones (1680?–1719) [q. v.], who kept an academy, first at Gloucester, and then at Tewkesbury. Here he met some fellow-students who distinguished themselves in after life, notably Joseph Butler, afterwards bishop of Durham; Isaac Maddox, who became bishop of Worcester; and Samuel Chandler [q. v.], the nonconformist writer. There were sixteen pupils, and Secker, in a letter to Dr. Watts, gives an interesting account of their studies. Unable to make up his mind to which religious community to attach himself, he abandoned for the time the intention of entering the ministry, and in 1716 began to study medicine. He went to London and attended the best lectures there, and went over in 1718–19 to Paris, where he first met his lifelong friend and future brother-in-law, Martin Benson [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Gloucester. He kept up a correspondence with Butler, who extracted from his powerful friend, the Rev. Edward Talbot, a promise that he would persuade his father, William Talbot, bishop of Salisbury, to provide for Secker, if the latter would take orders in the church of England. Secker had already written to a friend intimating that he was not satisfied with the dissenters. In the summer of 1720 he returned to England, and was introduced to Talbot, who died of small-pox in the following December, having recommended Secker, Butler, and Benson to the notice of his father. The bishop attended to the wishes of his dying son, and provided for all three. Secker, under the influence of Butler, Benson, and S. Clarke, was won over to the church. He had no university degree, but at Leyden, on 7 March 1720–1, he received his M.D. degree, having written for the occasion a theme of unusual excellence, ‘De Medicinâ Staticâ’ (Leyden, 1721). He then entered as a gentleman-commoner at Exeter College, Oxford, and graduated by virtue of special letters from the chancellor. In December 1722 he was ordained deacon, and on 28 March 1723 was ordained priest by Dr. Talbot, now bishop of Durham, at St. James's, Westminster, where he preached his first sermon. He was in high favour with the bishop, who in 1724 gave him the valuable living of Houghton-le-Spring. On 28 Oct. 1725 he married Catharine, the sister of his friend Benson. She had been living since Edward Talbot's death with his widow and daughter, and Mrs. and Miss Talbot continued to live with the Seckers after the marriage. Secker was an active parish priest at Houghton, where his knowledge of medicine was of great service to his poorer parishioners. But, for the benefit of Mrs. Secker's health, a sort of exchange was effected with Dr. Finney, rector of Ryton and prebendary of Durham, to both of which posts Secker, having resigned Houghton, was instituted in London on 3 June 1727. In July 1732 he was appointed chaplain to the king at the instance of Bishop Sherlock, who was much struck with a sermon he heard Secker preach at Bath. In August he preached before Queen Caroline (the king being abroad) at St. James's Chapel Royal, and from that time became an attendant at the queen's philosophical parties.

In May 1733 Secker, on the recommendation of Bishop Gibson, was appointed to the rectory of St. James's, Westminster. He proceeded D.C.L. at Oxford, not being of sufficient standing for the D.D. degree; and he preached on the occasion the Act sermon ‘On the Advantages and Duties of an Academical Education,’ which pleased the queen and contributed to his further advancement. In December 1734 he was nominated bishop of Bristol, and on 19 Jan. following was consecrated to that see in Lambeth chapel. He still retained both the rectory of St. James's and the prebend of Durham, for which, however, there was some excuse, as Bristol was the poorest bishopric in England. It was at this time that he drew up his ‘Lectures on the Church Catechism’ for the use of his parishioners at St. James's. Among the regular worshippers at his church was Frederick, prince of Wales, who now resided at Norfolk House, and Secker baptised many of the prince's children. George II had been impressed by Secker's sermon on the death of Queen Caroline, and he charged the bishop to try and bring about a reconciliation between him and his son; but the attempt proved abortive, and Secker incurred for a time the royal displeasure.

In 1737 he succeeded Dr. Potter as bishop of Oxford, and in this capacity his moderation and judgment stood him in good stead. Oxford was a stronghold of Jacobitism, and the bishop was a staunch supporter of the Hanoverian government; but, though he never concealed his opinions, Secker contrived to avoid collision with those with whom he disagreed. As bishop of Oxford he was brought into contact with Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, who resided at Blenheim. He frequently visited her there, and was made one of her executors. In 1748 Mrs. Secker died, leaving no issue. In 1750 he was installed dean of St. Paul's, in succession to his friend Butler, who was made bishop of Durham. This again was a sort of exchange, made at the instance of the lord chancellor, Hardwicke. Secker resigned St. James's and his prebend at Durham in favour of a friend of the chancellor's. In 1758, in spite of his breach with the court, he became archbishop of Canterbury, being confirmed at Bow Church on 21 April. He was reconciled to George II before that king's death, and with his successor, whom he had baptised, confirmed, crowned, and married, he was a favourite. George III gave him in 1761 a miniature of himself, which descended through the bishop's niece to the Rev. Secker Gawthern, of Car Colston. For ten years Secker filled the post of primate creditably, if not brilliantly. In his later years he suffered severely from the gout. He died of a caries of the thigh-bone on 3 Aug. 1768, and was buried in a covered passage leading from Lambeth Palace to the north door of Lambeth church. At his own request neither monument nor epitaph was placed over his remains.

Secker was a favourable specimen of the orthodox eighteenth-century prelate. He had a typical horror of ‘enthusiasm,’ and deprecated the progress of methodism, though he was alive to its earnestness and piety, and did not persecute its adherents. His early training probably enabled him to distinguish between the attitude of the Wesleys and that of the dissenters. John Wesley declares that Secker was acquainted with every step they took, and never regarded their movement as a secession. Secker's remarks on methodism in his charges show great discernment, and for that very reason were not likely to please any party. On the other hand, he had no sympathy with the whig theology of the time, and spoke of the ‘Hoadleian divinity’ as ‘Christianity secundum usum Winton.’ He was not beyond his age in the matter of pluralities, thinking it no shame to hold a valuable living and a prebend, or an important deanery, in conjunction with a bishopric. But on almost all public questions he was on the side of enlightenment and large-hearted charity. Anti-Jacobite though he was, he protested against the persecution of the Scottish episcopal clergy after the rebellion of 1745. He was strongly in favour of granting the episcopate to the American church [see Sharp, Granville], following in this, as in many points, the example of his friend Butler; and he incurred great disfavour both in England and in America by advocating the scheme. Not long before his last illness he defended indignantly the memory of his old friend Butler from the absurd charge that he had died a papist (cf. Secker's three letters signed ‘Misopseudes’ in St. James's Chron. 1767). He was foremost in opposing the Spirituous Liquors Bill of 1743, which unquestionably wrought much mischief. He supported the repeal of the Jews' Naturalisation Bill of 1753, but so reasonably that fanatics thought he was arguing against the repeal. Though unbending as a churchman, he had the happy knack of disentangling the personal from the theological side of the question, and maintained friendly relations with many leading dissenters, such as Doddridge, Watts, Leland, Lardner, and Chandler. He was liberal with his money, and very happy in his family relations. He showed the potency of his friendships, among other ways, by cheerfully undertaking the rather thankless task of revising and correcting his friends' writings. Butler's ‘Fifteen Sermons’ and ‘Analogy’ are said to have had the benefit of his revision; certainly Dr. Church's ‘Answer to Middleton,’ and ‘Analysis of Lord Bolingbroke's Works,’ and Dr. Sharpe's ‘Answer to the Hutchinsonians’ were corrected by him. On the other hand, he is said to have been somewhat stiff and reserved to those with whom he could not sympathise. He certainly made several enemies. Horace Walpole is particularly bitter against Secker, bringing outrageous charges against him; and a less reckless writer, Bishop Hurd, in the well-known ‘Life of Warburton’ prefixed to his edition of Warburton's ‘Works,’ depreciates Secker's learning and abilities. Bishop Porteus defended his old friend and benefactor against both writers. Other champions were Bishop Thomas Newton, who describes him as ‘that excellent prelate,’ and Mr. Johnson of Connecticut, who thought ‘there were few bishops like him;’ while William Whiston, who disagreed with his views, called him ‘an indefatigable pastor.’ Even Horace Walpole owns that he was ‘incredibly popular in his parish.’

As a writer Secker is distinguished by his plain good sense. The range of his knowledge was wide and deep. He was a good hebraist, and he wrote excellent Latin. The works which he has left to the Lambeth library are valuable quite as much from his manuscript annotations as for their own worth. Judging by his printed sermons, one would hardly rank him among the great pulpit orators of the English church. But he purposely, his biographer tells us, composed them with studied simplicity, and the reader misses the tall commanding presence, and the good voice and delivery of the preacher. Archbishop Secker's printed works include no fewer than 140 sermons. Four volumes of them were published in his lifetime and the rest after his death. His other printed works are: ‘Five Charges,’ delivered by him to his clergy as bishop of Oxford in 1738, 1741, 1750, and 1753 respectively, and ‘Three Charges’ as archbishop of Canterbury in 1758, 1762, and 1766. All these give a valuable insight into the state of the church in the middle of the eighteenth century. His ‘Instructions given to Candidates for Orders after their subscribing the Articles’ (1786; 15th edit. 1824) deal with the questions in the ordination service. They are short, but sensible and earnest. His ‘Oratio quam coram Synodo Provinciæ Cantuariensis anno 1761 convocatâ habendam scripserat, sed morbo præpeditus non habuit Archiepiscopus,’ is remarkable for its excellent latinity. His thirty-nine ‘Lectures on the Church Catechism’ (1769, 2 vols.), written for the use of his parishioners at St. James's, were published in two volumes after his death. He also wrote, in reply to a colonial criticism of the scheme of appointing bishops in America, ‘An Answer to Dr. Mayhew's Observations on the Charter and Conduct of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts’ (1764). The subject of bishops for America also drew from him a ‘Letter to the Right Hon. Horatio Walpole, Esq.,’ dated 9 Jan. 1750–1, but not published until 1769, after his death, in accordance with his instructions. Secker argues in favour of the modest proposal that ‘two or three persons should be ordained bishops and sent to our American colonies.’ All these works were collected in 1792 in four octavo volumes.

A portrait by T. Willes was mezzotinted by J. McArdell in 1747. A later portrait by Reynolds, now at Lambeth, was engraved by Charles Townley (1797) and by Henry Meyer (1825). A copy of this portrait, probably by Gilbert Stuart, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

[A Review of the Life and Character of Dr. Thomas Secker, archbishop of Canterbury, by Bishop Beilby Porteus [1770]; Secker's Works in four vols.; Abbey's English Church and its Bishops, 1700–1800; Abbey and Overton's English Church in the Eighteenth Century; Hunt's Religious Thought in England; Brown's Worthies of Nottinghamshire, p. 247; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 344; Monthly Repository, 1810 p. 401, 1820 p. 65, 1821 pp. 193–4.]

J. H. O.