Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aikin, John (1713-1780)
AIKIN, JOHN (1713–1780), scholar and theological tutor, was born in 1713, in London, where his father, a native of Scotland, had been for some years settled in business. He was placed for a short time as French clerk in a mercantile house, but, an ardent love of study rendering commercial pursuits distasteful to him, he entered the Kibworth Academy, a school of which the celebrated Dr. Doddridge had become the head, but so recently that young Aikin was his first pupil. Hence he proceeded to Aberdeen University, where the anti-Calvinist opinions of the tutors in divinity gradually led him to that system of Low Arianism, as it was then called, which afterwards became the distinguishing feature of the Warrington Academy. That the university was proud of its alumnus is shown by the fact that it subsequently conferred upon him, without solicitation and without notice, the degree of D.D., an honour which was actually distressing to his retiring disposition. Returning from Aberdeen, he was ordained, and after a short period of work as Doddridge's assistant, he accepted the cure of a dissenting congregation at Market Harborough. An affection of the chest, however, made him a valetudinarian for life, and left him no resource but tuition. It is mainly as a tutor of Warrington Academy that John Aikin is noticeable. This institution, which may be regarded as the cradle of Unitarianism, was but short-lived, and yet formed during the twenty-nine years of its existence the centre of the liberal politics and the literary taste of the county of Lancashire. It was originally projected in 1753, in consequence of the decay of several of the training schools belonging to the English Presbyterian body, but was not formally constituted till June 1757, when, thanks to the exertions of Mr. John Seddon of Warrington, the subscription list amounted to 469l. 5s., and the benefactions to 148l. 11s. The building, which consisted of a large and staid red brick house, is said to have possessed ‘a respectable collegiate appearance;’ while the Mersey, according to Aikin's daughter, Mrs. Barbauld,
Reflects the ascending seats with conscious pride.
Three tutors at 100l. a year each were at first chosen. Dr. Taylor, of Norwich, taught divinity; Mr. Holt, of Kirkdale, natural philosophy; and Aikin was classical tutor. Lord Willoughby, of Parham, was the first president of the academy. Early in the history of the academy a fourth tutor was appointed. On the death of Dr. Taylor, in 1761, Aikin became tutor in divinity, which post he held almost to the year of his death, and was succeeded in his old duties by Dr. Priestley. Priestley says of the tutors: ‘We were all Arians, and the only subject of much consequence on which we differed respected the doctrine of Atonement, concerning which Dr. Aikin held some obscure notions.’ Among the other tutors who from time to time joined the staff of the academy, were Mr. Reinhold Forster, Mr. Enfield, the Rev. G. Walker, Dr. Nicholas Clayton, and Gilbert Wakefield. When the academy was dissolved in 1786, 393 pupils, many of whom won distinction in the legal and medical professions, had been from first to last on the books. Aikin's health began to fail in 1778; soon afterwards he resigned his tutorship, and died in 1780. He was, says Wakefield, ‘a gentleman whose endowments as a man and as a scholar it is not easy to exaggerate by panegyric. Every path of polite literature had been traversed by him, and traversed with success.’ His two children were John, physician and author, and Anna Letitia, better known as Mrs. Barbauld.
[Unpublished Letters and Memoirs; An Historical Sketch of Warrington Academy, by Henry A. Bright, B.A.]