Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Asgill, John
ASGILL, JOHN (1659–1738), an eccentric writer, was born at Hanley Castle, Worcestershire, and baptised 25 March 1659 (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. v. 569). He became a student of the Middle Temple in 1686, and was called to the bar in 1692. He was patronised by Eyre, one of William III's judges, and became the friend and executor of Dr. Barbon, speculator and author [see Barbon, Nicholas]. As Barbon's heir, Asgill acquired an interest in the borough of Bramber. Barbon selected Asgill for his executor, it is added, in order that his debts might never be paid—a fact which Asgill announced to the creditors, adding that he should religiously observe his friend's wishes. He naturally got into difficulties. In 1696 he published a pamphlet, suggested by the abortive scheme of the land bank, proposing the issue of 'another species of money than gold or silver,' or in other words a kind of assignats. In 1698 he published another pamphlet, advocating a registry of titles of lands in a quaint mixture of scriptural and legal arguments. The next year appeared his best known work, an argument to prove that death was not obligatory upon Christians. Asgill was just starting for Ireland, where the act for resuming to the public the forfeited estates which had been given away by William was providing work for lawyers. Asgill's printers had thought him mad, and the reputation was, as he says, useful to him in Ireland by increasing his notoriety. He obtained business enough to encourage him to a speculative purchase. He bought, in 1703, the forfeited life-interest in certain estates of the second Lord Kenmare, an adherent of James II. About the same time, presumably, he married Kenmare's eldest daughter, who had been brought up as a protestant by her grandmother. He was consequently elected member for Enniscorthy in the Irish House of Commons, but got into ruinous entanglements. The house ordered his pamphlet on death to be burnt by the hangman, and a fortnight afterwards (11 Oct. 1703) expelled him and declared him incapable of sitting again. The guardian of Lord Kenmare's children complained in a petition to the house that Asgill had bought the estates as agent for the children and now refused to convey them. The petition was rejected (10 Nov. 1703), but Asgill seems to have got nothing but trouble from his purchase. A catholic, he tells us (Postscript to Defence upon his Expulsion), became protestant enough to be qualified as 'leasetaker' for some of the land, and then got Asgill outlawed in Ireland on an action for debt, to prevent him suing for rent, and never paid any rent afterwards. Asgill returned to England, where he had been elected member for Bramber in October 1702. He sat in the next parliament from October 1705, served on several committees, and obtained an act of relief (14 Feb. 1705-6) for not having paid at the right time an instalment of the purchase money for the Kenmare estates. On the dissolution of 1707 he was arrested for debt of near 10,000l. 'at the procurement,' he says, of Colonel John Rice, though the debt was due to other persons; and being returned to the next parliament, petitioned for his release. After an elaborate investigation of precedents by a committee, the House ordered his release; but another committee was appointed to examine his book; and on 18 Dec. 1707 the book was ordered to be burnt, and Asgill, having appeared in his place and made his defence (published in 1712), was expelled.
Asgill declares that the Irish difficulties were the real cause of his expulsion, though the story is not clear. Colonel Rice, formerly in James's army, had obtained, in 1705-6, a sum of 11,000l. in debentures on the forfeited estates for his services at the capitulation of Limerick in preventing the regiment which he had commanded under James from taking foreign service. He pledged part of these debentures to various persons, and invested part in the purchase of some of the lands in which Asgill had invested his money. Complaints having been made, a commission was appointed to force Rice to account for the sum. A report was made by the commission, and Asgill petitioned the house, after his expulsion, to take it into consideration. A day was appointed for the purpose, but after repeated adjournments the business seems to have fallen through at the end of the session. The report, preserved at the House of Lords, shows that Asgill and the guardian of Kenmare's children had conveyed certain lands and woods to two persons named Matthews and Wetton, in consideration of debentures for 2,500l. handed over by Rice. Asgill says that Matthews and Wetton had prosecuted him, and that he was accused of a breach of trust, though the Irish House of Commons had rejected the accusation as ridiculous. The facts seem to be unascertainable. Asgill surrendered to his creditors and passed the rest of his life in the Fleet or within the rules of the King's Bench. He lost his wife some time between 1707 and 1712; but he retained his vivacity to the last, and supported himself by writing pamphlets and drawing legal papers. He was commonly called 'translated Asgill,' as claiming to have been 'translated' without dying, but finally died in his eightieth year, though reported to be near one hundred, in November 1738.
Asgill's seriousness in the pamphlet on death was doubted at the time. A German traveller in 1710 (Offenbach's Merkwürdige Reisen, ii. 200) gives a report that it was written in answer to a lady's challenge to show his skill in maintaining paradoxes. The book itself indicates no want of sincerity, though some ludicrous phrases were very unfairly wrested by the committee of the English House of Commons to colour the charge of blasphemy. It interprets the relations between God and man by the technical rules of English law. Death being the penalty imposed by Adam's sin, and Christ having satisfied the law, death could no longer be legally inflicted, and all who claim their rights will be exempt. Asgill professes that, having claimed his discharge, he expects 'to make his exit by way of translation.' The book is written in pithy detached sentences. Coleridge declares that there is no 'genuine Saxon English' finer than Asgill's; thinks his irony often finer than Swift's; and calls him 'a consummate artist in the statement of his case.' The praise seems excessive, though not groundless; but we may accept Coleridge's conclusion that Asgill was a humorist who did not himself know how far he was serious. Full extracts may be found in Southey's 'Doctor.' In recent years Asgill found a disciple in a Mr. Tresham Gregg, an Irish clergyman, who republished the pamphlet with some introductory notes.
Asgill's pamphlet on Registration, with a sequel, is published in the collection of State Tracts for the reign of William III (ii. 693, 704). His chief writings are: 1. 'An Argument proving that according to the covenant of eternal life revealed in the Scriptures, man may be translated from hence into that eternal life without passing through death, although the human nature of Christ himself could not so be translated until he had passed through death,' London, 1700. 2. 'Mr. Asgill's Defence upon his Expulsion from the House of Commons of Great Britain in 1707,' London, 1712. 3. 'The Metamorphosis of Man by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead,' London, 1727. 4. 'De Jure Divino, or an assertion that the title of the House of Hanover to the succession of the British monarchy (on failure of issue from her present majesty) is a title hereditary and of divine institution,' 1710. 5, 'Asgill upon Woolston,' 1730; and other trifling pamphlets.[Article in Biographia Britannica, founded on a MS. Life of Asgill by his intimate friend, Mr. A.; Journals of the Irish House of Commons, October and November 1703; Lords and Commons Journals from December 1705 to April 1708; MS. Report in the House of Lords; Lodge's Peerage of Ireland (by Archdall), vii. 57; Compleat History of Europe for 1707; Fraser's Magazine for August 1871; Asgill's Defence (as above); Asgill's Argument to prove that death is not obligatory on Christians, with memoir and notes by Rev. Tresham D. Gregg, 1875; Coleridge's Literary Remains (1836), ii. 390; Coleridge's Table-Talk, 30 April 1832, and 15 May 1833; Southey's Doctor, chaps. 172, 731.]