Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Blackall, Offspring

BLACKALL or BLACKHALL, OFFSPRING (1654–1716), bishop of Exeter, did not come into public notice until he was a middle-aged man, and of his early years little is known. He was born in London, and in due time became a member of St. Catharine's Hall, Cambridge, where, it may be presumed, he lived a strictly religious life, for he is mentioned as one of the intimate college friends of the saintly James Bonnell [q. v.], who chose none but the godly for his companions. In 1690 he became rector of South Okenden or Ockendon in Essex, and in 1694 rector of St. Mary Aldermary in London; with this latter preferment he also held successively two lectureships in the city. He was next made chaplain to King William III, although he was so strongly suspected of inclining to the exiled dynasty that he was charged in a pamphlet of 1705 with having continued a nonjuror for two years after the revolution. A sermon preached before the House of Commons on 30 Jan. 1699 first brought him into notice as a controversialist. The sermon is really a very moderate one, in comparison with many which were wont to be preached on such occasions, but in it the preacher made a passing reference—it only takes up about a twentieth part of the sermon—to John Toland, against whom everybody was then preaching. In 1698 Toland in his ‘Life of Milton’ disputed the royal authorship of the ‘Icon Basilike,’ and took occasion, more suo, to insinuate that, as people were mistaken on this point, so they might be about the authenticity of many of the early writings about christianity. Blackhall not unnaturally supposed that Toland referred to the New Testament, and hinted to the House of Commons that their pious designs to suppress vice and immorality would not be of much effect if the foundations of all revealed religion were thus openly struck at. Toland replied in his well-known ‘Amyntor,’ declaring that he had not referred to the holy scriptures at all. Blackhall rejoined, and the controversy brought him into such notice that the next year (1700) he was chosen Boyle lecturer. The subject he chose was ‘The Sufficiency of a standing Revelation,’ and the seven sermons, preached at St. Paul's, which formed the lecture, may be found in his published works. On 8 March 1704, the anniversary of Queen Anne's accession, Blackhall preached at St. Dunstan's, and on the same occasion in 1708 at St. James's, before the queen, sermons which called forth the wrath of the whigs. In 1709 Benjamin Hoadly attacked him, and a long and rather warm controversy ensued. Pamphlet after pamphlet poured forth from the press. Among the supporters of Blackhall one is supposed to have been the famous Charles Leslie, and the pamphlet with the curious title ‘The best answer ever was made, and to which no answer ever will be made (not to be behind Mr. Hoadly in assurance), &c.,’ bears strong internal evidence of having been written by Leslie. Among the supporters of Hoadly were the wits of the ‘Tatler.’ Blackhall had by this time become a bishop. In January 1707–8 Queen Anne, on the recommendation of her spiritual director, Archbishop Sharp, conferred upon him the see of Exeter, to the great annoyance of the low-church party. Burnet, while admitting that Blackhall was ‘a man of value and worth,’ strongly reprobates the appointment because ‘his notions were all on the other side,’ and declares that ‘he [Blackhall] seemed to condemn the Revolution and all that had been done pursuant to it’ (Own Times, book vii.). Blackhall also, as we learn from Le Neve (Fasti Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ, vol. i.), held with his bishopric the archdeaconry of Exeter until his death. Little is known of Blackhall's management of his diocese, except that he took a deep interest in the newly formed scheme of charity schools, and endeavoured to rouse his clergy into activity on their behalf. But he had a great reputation in his day both as a preacher and a writer. His friend and editor, Sir William Dawes, tells us in the posthumous edition of Blackhall's sermons that he had ‘universally acquired the reputation of being one of the best preachers of his time,’ and the published sermons bear out this reputation. They are 105 in number, no less than eighty-seven of them being an exposition of the sermon on the Mount. These eight-seven, in especial, are remarkably clear and exhaustive; they are written in the homely style which became fashionable soon after the Restoration. Unlike the sermons of an earlier date, they contain no quotations from foreign languages, no fine words, no similes or metaphors, but they thoroughly grapple with the difficulties, never diverge from the subject in hand, and are full of weighty matter. We are not surprised to learn that ‘vast numbers both of clergy and laity flocked to hear them,’ and that he was importuned by many friends to print them. He intended to do so, but a long sickness, which terminated in his death (29 Nov. 1716), prevented him from carrying out his intention, so the task was left for his friend and brother prelate, Sir William Dawes, who executed it with fidelity and judgment. The drawback to the series (not to the individual sermons , for each would take not more than half an hour in delivery) is its inordinate length. It fills no less than 939 folio pages, and this, perhaps, is the reason why it has not been accepted as a standard exposition of the sermon on the Mount. Many of the other sermons have been published separately. Writing from a literary point of view, Felton, in his ‘Classics,’ describes Blackhall as ‘an excellent writer,’ and De la Roche, in his ‘Memoirs of Literature,’ calls him ‘one of those English divines who, when they undertake to treat a subject, dive into the bottom of it and exhaust the matter.’ As to his personal character, his friend Sir W. Dawes thus describes it, in language which evidently came from the heart: ‘I, who had the happiness of a long and intimate friendship with him, do sincerely declare that in my whole conversation I never met with a more perfect pattern of a true christian life in all its parts than in him.’ He showed such ‘primitive simplicity and integrity, such constant evenness of mind, such unaffected the yet most ardent piety towards God.’ His son Theophilus (d. 1737) was the father of Samuel Blackhall [q. v.], and his grandson, also Theophilus (d. 1781), was father of John Blackhall [q. v.]

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J. H. O.