Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stephens, Nathaniel

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STEPHENS, NATHANIEL (1606?–1678), nonconformist divine, son of Richard Stephens, vicar from 1604 of Stanton St. Bernard, Wiltshire, was born in Wiltshire about 1606. On 14 March 1623, at the age of sixteen, he entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford, as a batler, graduating B.A. 14 Feb. 1626, M.A. 25 June 1628. He was a hard student, giving sixteen hours a day to study. On leaving the university he appears to have become curate at Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, of which Robert Mason was rector. He probably was in sole charge from 1638. Driven from Drayton by the outbreak of the war in 1642, he took refuge in Coventry, where he subscribed the 'league and covenant ' and became morning preacher at St. Michael's. He returned to Drayton in 1645, and had among his hearers George Fox (1624-1691) [q. v.], who was then at a critical stage in his religious history. Stephens thought highly of Fox, discussed religion with him, and preached on the topics of their discourse, a proceeding which, in Fox's sensitive state, made him conceive a dislike to his pastor. In 1649, while Stephens was conducting a lecture at Market Bosworth, Fox interposed, Stephens cried out that he was mad, and Fox, stoned out of the town by a rabble, set down the 'deceitful priest' as his 'great persecutor.' A discussion between them at Drayton in 1654 is graphically narrated in Fox's 'Journal.' 'Neighbours,' said Stephens, 'this is the business: George Fox is come to the light of the sun, and now he thinks to put out my starlight.' With anabaptists, and with Gerard Winstanley [q. v.] the universalist, Stephens had similar discussions, when they invaded his parish. His allusions in print to his various antagonists are marked by good sense and good feeling. In controversy he was moderate and fair, aiming neither 'to please nor to displease any party;' even of the Roman church he writes without bitterness. His chief work (1656), on the Apocalypse, is notable for its rejection of fanciful speculations; his exegesis is highly praised and generally followed by Matthew Poole or Pole [q. v.] in the fifth volume (1676) of his 'Synopsis Criticorum.'

In 1659 Stephens was presented by Colonel Purefsy to the rectory of Drayton, which he held till 1662, when he resigned under the Uniformity Act. He continued to preach privately, but his services were often interrupted. Having seven times been driven from Drayton, he at length removed to Stoke Golding, three miles off, and preached there till lameness confined him to his chair. His studies made him absent-minded, but he was not wanting in a playful humour. He was buried on 24 Feb. 1678 in the churchyard of Stoke Golding.

He published:

  1. 'A Precept for the Baptisme of Infants … vindicated … from … Mr. Robert Everard,' 1651, 4to (preface by John Bryan, D.D. [q. v.], and Obadiah Grew [q. v.])
  2. 'A Plain and Easie Calculation of the Name … of the Beast,' 1656, 4to (preface by Edmund Calamy the elder [q.v.])
  3. 'Vindiciæ Fundamenti, or a threefold defence of the Doctrine of Original Sin,' 1658, 4to (against the Arminian positions of Everard, Jeremy Taylor, and others).

Calamy gives a specimen of his unpublished notes on the Apocalypse, used by Poole, and afterwards in the possession of Sir Charles Wolseley (d. 1714) [q. v.]

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iii. 1148 sq.; Wood's Fasti (Bliss), i. 422, 439; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500-1714, iv. 1419; Calamy's Account, 1713, pp. 419 sq.; Calamy's Continuation, 1727, ii. 1 sq.; Theological Review, 1874, pp. 51 sq.; extracts taken in 1873 from the parish registers of Stanton St. Bernard, Fenny Drayton. and Stoke Golding.]

A. G.