Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/South, Robert
SOUTH, ROBERT, D.D. (1634–1716), divine, son of Robert South, a London merchant, was born at Hackney on 4 Sept. 1634. His mother was of a Kentish family named Berry. In 1647 he was admitted as a king's scholar at Westminster school under Richard Busby [q. v.] It is said that, when reading the Latin prayers at school, he prayed for Charles I by name on the day of his execution. South himself (sermon on Virtuous Education) merely claims to have heard the king then prayed for. He was elected a student of Christ Church, Oxford, matriculating on 11 Dec. 1651. He is said to have been patronised by his namesake, John South (d. 1672), who had been regius professor of Greek, 1622–5. Among his college exercises was a panegyric upon Cromwell in Latin verse on the conclusion of peace with the Dutch (5 April 1654). He commenced B.A. on 24 Feb. 1654–5. On account of his using the common prayer-book, John Owen, D.D. [q. v.], dean of Christ Church and vice-chancellor, unsuccessfully opposed his proceeding M.A. on 12 June 1657. He travelled on the continent, and in 1658 privately received episcopal ordination, perhaps from Thomas Sydserf [q. v.] Richard Baxter [q. v.] says he was suggested to him as his curate at Kidderminster. He was incorporated M.A. at Cambridge in 1659. His assize sermon at St. Mary's on 24 July 1659 was a lively attack upon the independents, and a sample of the ‘graphic humour’ for which South became famous. In his university sermon on 29 July 1660 he included the presbyterians in his invective, referring to Henry Wilkinson, D.D. (d. 1675) [q. v.], as ‘Holderforth.’ He was chosen public orator to the university on 10 Aug. 1660, an office which he held till 1677. Clarendon made him his chaplain, in consequence of his oration on his installation as chancellor (15 Nov.). On 30 March 1663 he was installed prebendary of Westminster. On 1 Oct. 1663 he was created B.D. and D.D. on letters from Clarendon. The creation was ‘stiffly opposed’ in convocation by those who reckoned South a time-server. On a scrutiny, Nathaniel Crew [q. v.], the senior proctor, ‘according to his usual perfidy’ (Wood, declared the majority to be for South, who was presented by John Wallis (1616–1703) [q. v.] He was incorporated D.D. at Cambridge in 1664. Clarendon gave him in 1667 the sinecure rectory of Llanrhaiadr-y-Mochnant, Denbighshire, and on Clarendon's fall, at the end of that year, he became chaplain to the Duke of York. His ridicule of the Royal Society, in an oration at the dedication of the Sheldonian Theatre, July 1669, called forth a remonstrance from Wallis, addressed to Robert Boyle [q. v.] South was installed canon of Christ Church on 29 Dec. 1670.
In June 1676 he travelled to Poland as chaplain to the ambassador, Laurence Hyde (afterwards Earl of Rochester) [q. v.] A valuable account of his journey, including a realistic sketch of John Sobieski, is given in the form of a letter (Danzig, 16 Dec. 1677) to Edward Pococke [q. v.] On his return he was presented (1678) by the dean and chapter of Westminster to the rectory of Islip, Oxfordshire. Half the income he gave to a curate; with the rest he restored the chancel (1680), built a new rectory-house, and educated and apprenticed the children of parishioners. He lived at Caversham, near Reading, where he had an estate.
The story goes that, after a humorous passage in a sermon by South before the king, Charles turned with a laugh to Rochester, saying, ‘Odd's fish, Lory, your chaplain must be a bishop; therefore put me in mind of him at the next death.’ The incident is usually connected with South's often quoted description of Cromwell's first appearance in parliament, ‘with a threadbare torn coat and a greasy hat (and perhaps neither of them paid for).’ But this passage occurs in a sermon preached, after Charles's death, at Westminster Abbey on 22 Feb. 1684–5. South was chaplain in ordinary to Charles II, but had no other preferment from him than the Westminster prebend. In James II's reign Rochester, then lord-lieutenant of Ireland, is said to have offered South an Irish archbishopric (Cashel was vacant, 1685–91). Rochester nominated South (November 1686) as one of two Anglican divines to discuss points of doctrine with two of the church of Rome; but James objected to South, and Simon Patrick (1626–1707) [q. v.] was substituted.
At the Revolution South hesitated for some time to transfer his allegiance, being, according to Kennett, under the influence of William Sherlock, D.D. [q. v.] He at length took the oath, adopting the parliamentary fiction that James's flight constituted an abdication. He is said to have declined a bishopric vacated by a nonjuror. He warmly opposed himself to the scheme for a comprehension of dissenters, but was not a member either of the royal commission (13 Sept. 1689) on the subject, or of the convocation of that year [cf. art. Pearse, Edward].
In 1693 South intervened anonymously in the Socinian controversy, with strong animus against Sherlock, his ‘Animadversions’ on Sherlock's ‘Vindication’ (1690) being ‘humbly offered to his admirers, and to himself the chief of them.’ He made galling references to Sherlock's career, ‘tainted with a conventicle’ at the outset; vehemently assailed his earlier writings as heterodox on the doctrine of atonement, and maintained his ‘new notion’ of the Trinity to be tritheistic; an opinion reiterated in his ‘Tritheism Charged’ (1695). The anonymity of these attacks was quite transparent. It is not so certain that South was the translator of ‘A Short History of Valentinus Gentilis the Tritheist’ (1696) from the Latin of Benedict Aretius; the dedication to the hierarchy is in his manner, and there is a reference to Gentilis in ‘Tritheism Charged.’ p. 47. South's position is in the main that of Wallis; but he chiefly devotes the brilliant resources of his learning and the amazing powers of his wit to the congenial task of demolishing Sherlock. At the same time, his ‘Tritheism Charged’ is worth reading for its philosophic acumen, apart from the immediate controversy. Public judgment on the controversy was not inaptly expressed in William Pittis's ballad, ‘The Battle Royal’ [cf. Burnet, Thomas, (1635?–1715)].
In later years South's health was much broken. Swift's correspondence with the Earl of Halifax shows that his death was counted on. He writes (13 Jan. 1709): ‘Pray, my lord, desire Dr. South to die about the fall of the leaf; for he has a prebend of Westminster … and a sinecure in the country … which my friends have often told me would fit me extremely.’ Halifax writes (6 Oct.): ‘Dr. South holds out still; but he cannot be immortal.’ He roused himself in 1710 to take part on the high church side in the affair of Henry Sacheverell [q. v.] On the death (20 May 1713) of Thomas Sprat [q. v.] the bishopric of Rochester and deanery of Westminster were offered to him. His refusal was graceful: ‘Such a chair would be too uneasy for an old infirm man to sit in.’ He died at Westminster on 8 July 1716, and was buried in the Abbey, near the grave of Busby, where he had wished to lie. His tomb bears his recumbent effigy, with an elaborate epitaph. An anonymous portrait of South belonged in 1866 to Henry Longueville Mansel [q. v.] Engravings by Vandergucht and R. White are prefixed to various editions of his ‘Sermons.’
South, a man of strong prejudices and warm attachments, was never a self-seeker, and, when he changed his attitude, followed what appeared to be the dictates of common-sense. His use of humour in the pulpit suggested to Tillotson a want of seriousness in his character. Yet no preacher was more direct in his dealing with the vices of the age, no court preacher more homely in his appeals. His humour has a native breadth and freshness. Like Fuller's pleasant turns, it always illuminates his subject; but, unlike Fuller's conceits, it does not cloy. Baxter says that South was ‘a fluent, extemporate speaker,’ yet tells a story of his breaking down, which shows that in early life his sermons were learnt by heart. Kennett tells of his attention to delivery, and how he ‘worked up his body’ as he approached his points. Wood's harsh judgment on South is said to have been inspired by a jest with which South received Wood's mention of a bodily ailment from which he suffered.
His sermons, many of them published separately (from 1660), were collected by himself in six volumes (1679–1715); a seventh, with ‘Memoirs’ and the account of his Polish travels, was published in 1717, and five more in 1744, all 8vo. Modern editions are: Oxford, 1823, 8vo, 7 vols.; 1842, 8vo, 5 vols.; London, 1843, 8vo, 4 vols.; 1845, 8vo, 2 vols., with ‘Memoir;’ 1850, 8vo, 2 vols. Selections from them are numerous, e.g. ‘Maxims, Sayings, Explications, … Descriptions, and Characters, extracted from … South,’ 1717, 8vo; ‘The Beauties of South,’ 1795, 8vo; and a selection in Wesley's ‘Christian Library.’ He also published:
- ‘Musica Incantans,’ Oxford, 1655, 4to; 1667, 4to (Latin verses).
- ‘Animadversions upon Dr. Sherlock's … Vindication of the … Trinity. … By a Divine of the Church of England,’ 1693, 4to.
- ‘Tritheism Charged upon Dr. Sherlock's new Notion of the Trinity,’ 1695, 4to.
[Funeral Oration by John Barber, 1716; Memoirs, 1717; Memoirs, 1721; Memoir, 1845; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714, iv. 1391; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iv. 631 sq.; Wood's Fasti (Bliss), ii. 158, 182, 200, 276, 281, 334; Wood's Life and Times, ed. Clark, passim; Reliquiæ Baxterianæ, 1696, ii. 380, iii. 36; Birch's Life of Tillotson, 1753, pp. 195 sq., 328, 429; Noble's Continuation of Granger, 1806, i. 99; Retrospective Review, 1823, iv. 295; Original Letters (Camden Soc.), 1843, p. 340; Wallace's Antitrinitarian Biography, 1850, i. 261 sq.; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. i. 323.]