Open main menu

CORNISH, JOSEPH (1750–1823), dissenting writer, youngest of seven children of Joseph Cornish, woollen-dresser (d. 1776), by his second wife, Honour (d. 1769), was born at Taunton on 16 Dec. 1750. His family was presbyterian, and two of his father's eight brothers were in the ministry of that body, John at Leather Lane, London, and James at Dulverton, Somersetshire. Cornish, having received a classical grounding under a clergyman named Patch, and Glass, a churchman not in orders, became in 1765 one of the first pupils of Joshua Toulmin (afterwards D.D.), a learned baptist divine. Toulmin gained him admission (September 1767) as a foundation student in Coward's Academy, Hoxton. The divinity tutor was Samuel Morton Savage, a moderate Calvinist, his coadjutors being Andrew Kippis and Abraham Rees, both Arians. Cornish became an author shortly before leaving the academy, his ‘Address to Protestant Dissenters’ being issued early in 1772. As a student he was much noticed by Thomas Amory, D.D. (1701–1774) [q. v.], to whose ministry at Taunton his parents had been attached, and who recommendedmended him to a small presbyterian congregation at Colyton, Devonshire, vacant for four years. Though he had a unanimous call to Epsom, he preferred Colyton, as being nearer to his father's residence, and began his ministry there in July 1772. At the suggestion of Philip Furneaux, D.D. (1726–1783) [q. v.], he offered himself in the same year as a candidate for the afternoon lectureship at Salters' Hall, in succession to Hugh Farmer (1714–1787) [q. v.], but was unsuccessful. He received presbyterian ordination at Taunton on 11 May 1773. His stipend at Colyton, including endowment, averaged no more than 40l., but he boarded with one of his leading hearers for under 20l. a year, and always found it possible to ‘spare something for charitable purposes.’ Late in 1781 he had a unanimous call to Tewkesbury; his regard for his Colyton friends led him, after some hesitation, to resist the temptation of a larger income. In the same way he declined overtures from Banbury in 1792. Ten years before this he had opened a classical school, which he taught in the gallery of his meeting-house till he was able at Christmas 1796 to buy a house and take boarders. His school, which he continued in one shape or another till Christmas 1819, was very successful, and not confined to dissenters. His father's business had been ruined by the American war, and some time before his death he had made a composition with his creditors. As soon as his savings enabled him to do so, Cornish honoured his father's memory by paying every creditor in full. Cornish while at Hoxton Academy adopted what he calls the ‘very high Arian scheme’ associated with the name of Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) [q. v.], and to this he adhered through life. Under his preaching his congregation grew for a time, but eventually declined. On 28 April 1814 four neighbouring ministers addressed to him a curious letter, suggesting that he should retire in favour of a Calvinistic successor. This he was not disposed to do, and a new meeting-house was built for the Calvinistic dissenters. Cornish continued to discharge his ministerial duties till August 1823, when he was attacked by illness. He assisted at the Lord's supper on 5 Oct., and died on 9 Oct. 1823. He was buried at Colyton on 17 Oct.; a marble tablet to his memory was placed in his meeting-house. He never married. Among his benefactions was a sum of 400l. given to the London presbyterian fund.

As a writer Cornish is a good specimen of the class of men to whom dissent meant religious liberty rather than sectarian organisation or theological system. His breviates of nonconformist history are pointed and telling. His ‘Life of Thomas Firmin [q. v.] ’ is an improvement on the earlier biography, but it was set aside by the unitarians ‘because it contained some apology for Mr. Firmin's continuing in the church.’ He published: 1. ‘A Serious and Earnest Address to Protestant Dissenters,’ 1772, 12mo (went through three large editions). 2. ‘A Brief and Impartial History of the Puritans,’ 1772, 12mo. 3. ‘A Blow at the Root of all Priestly Claims,’ 1775, 8vo. 4. ‘A Letter to the Venerable Bishop of Carlisle,’ &c., 1777, 8vo (in reply to Bishop Edmund Law, on subscription). 5. ‘The Life of Mr. Thomas Firmin, citizen of London,’ 1780, 12mo (preface acknowledges the assistance of Kippis and Bretland). 6. ‘An Attempt to display the Importance of Classical Learning,’ &c., 1783, 12mo. 7. ‘The Miseries of War,’ &c., 1784, 12mo (a thanksgiving sermon on 29 July). 8. ‘A Brief Treatise on the Divine Manifestations to Mankind in general, and to some in particular,’ Taunton, 1787, 12mo. 9. ‘A Vindication of the Doctrine of the Pre-existence of Christ,’ Taunton, 1789, 12mo. 10. ‘Evangelical Motives to Holiness,’ Taunton, 1790, 12mo. 11. ‘A Brief History of Nonconformity,’ &c., 1797, 12mo (a rewritten issue of No. 2, revised by Samuel Palmer of the ‘Nonconformist's Memorial’). Cornish projected a ‘Life of John Lilburne,’ but the work, though announced, was never published. He wrote in the ‘Monthly Repository’ (1819, p. 77 sq.) ‘On the Decline of Presbyterian Congregations,’ and some short pieces in later volumes, including a letter (September 1798) to Thomas Williams, imprisoned for selling Paine's ‘Age of Reason.’ Cornish sent Williams five guineas as a testimony against a wicked prosecution, and at the same time advised him to read works on the evidences (Monthly Repository, 1822, p. 586 sq.)

[Cornish's Autobiography, somewhat abridged by Rev. James Manning of Exeter, is printed in Monthly Repository, 1823, p. 617 sq.; see also same magazine, 1816, p. 649 sq., 1823, p. 635; Murch's Hist. Presb. and Gen. Bapt. Churches in West of Eng., 1835, p. 336 sq., 340 sq.]

A. G.