Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Douglas, John (1721-1807)

DOUGLAS, JOHN (1721–1807), bishop of Salisbury, born on 14 July 1721, was the second son of Archibald Douglas, merchant of Pittenweem, Fifeshire. His grandfather was a clergyman of the episcopal church of Scotland, who succeeded Burnet in the living of Saltoun. John Douglas was at school in Dunbar till in 1736 he was entered as a commoner at St. Mary Hall, Oxford. In 1738 he was elected to a Warner exhibition at Balliol, where Adam Smith was his contemporary. He graduated as B.A. in 1740, and, after going abroad to learn French, took the M.A. degree in 1743, was ordained deacon in 1744, and appointed chaplain to the third regiment of foot guards. He was at the battle of Fontenoy, 29 April 1745. He gave up his chaplaincy on the return of the army to England in the following autumn, and was elected Snell exhibitioner at Balliol. In 1747 he was ordained priest, and was successively curate of Tilehurst, near Reading, and of Dunstew, Oxfordshire. He next became travelling tutor to Lord Pulteney, son of the Marquis of Bath. In October 1749 he returned to England and was presented by Lord Bath to the free chapel of Eaton Constantine and the donative of Uppington in Shropshire. In 1750 Lord Bath presented him to the vicarage of High Ercall, Shropshire, when he resigned Eaton Constantine. He only visited his livings occasionally, taking a house for the winter near Lord Bath's house in London, and in the summer accompanying his patron to Bath, Tunbridge, and the houses of the nobility.

He was meanwhile becoming known as an acute and vigorous writer. In 1750 he exposed the forgeries on the strength of which William Lauder [q. v.] had charged Milton with plagiarism. His pamphlet is called ‘Milton vindicated from the Charge of Plagiarism …’ (1751), and a second edition with postscript appeared in 1756 as ‘Milton no Plagiary.’ Lauder had to address to Douglas a letter dictated by Johnson, who had written a preface to his book, making a confession of his imposture. In 1752 Douglas attacked Hume's argument upon miracles in a book called the ‘Criterion.’ It was in form a letter addressed to an anonymous correspondent, afterwards known to be Adam Smith. The original part of Douglas's book is an attempt to prove that modern miracles, such as those ascribed to Xavier, the Jansenist miracles, and the cures by royal touch in England, were not supported by evidence comparable to that which supports the narratives in the gospels. Douglas was afterwards in friendly communication with his antagonist in regard to some points in Hume's history (Burton, Hume, ii. 78, 87). After a short brush with the Hutchinsonians in an ‘Apology for the Clergy’ (1755), Douglas next attacked Archibald Bower, against whom he wrote several pamphlets from 1756 to 1758, accusing him of plagiarism and immorality [see an account of these pamphlets under Bower, Archibald].

In 1758 Douglas took his D.D. degree, and was presented by Lord Bath to the perpetual curacy of Kenley, Shropshire. In 1762 his patron also secured for him a canonry at Windsor. Douglas wrote various political pamphlets under Bath's direction. In 1756 he wrote ‘A Serious Defence of some late Measures of the Administration;’ he defended Lord George Sackville in 1759 against the charge of cowardice at Minden in ‘The Conduct of the late Commander candidly considered;’ and in 1760 he wrote with Lord Bath's advice what Walpole (Letters, Cunningham, iii. 278) calls ‘a very dull pamphlet,’ entitled ‘A Letter to two Great Men [Pitt and Newcastle] on the Approach of Peace,’ followed by ‘Seasonable Hints from an Honest Man’ (1761). In 1763 he took part with Johnson in the detection of the Cock-Lane ghost (Croker, Boswell, ii. 182). In the same year he edited Lord Clarendon's ‘Diary and Letters,’ with a preface. In 1763 he also went with Bath to Spa and made acquaintance with the Duke of Brunswick. On 1 July 1764 Bath died, leaving his library to Douglas, who allowed General Pulteney to keep it for 1,000l. General Pulteney again bequeathed it to Douglas, who again parted with it on the same terms to Sir William Pulteney.

In 1761 Douglas exchanged his Shropshire livings for the rectory of St. Augustine and St. Faith, Watling Street, London. He continued to write political papers, some of which appeared in the ‘Public Advertiser’ of 1770 and 1771, under the signatures of ‘Tacitus’ and ‘Marlius.’ At the request of Lord Sandwich he edited the journals of Captain Cook, and helped to arrange the ‘Hardwicke Papers,’ published in 1777. In 1776 he exchanged his Windsor canonry for a canonry at St. Paul's. In 1778 he was elected F.R.S. and F.S.A., and in March 1787 was appointed a trustee of the British Museum. In September 1787 he was appointed bishop of Carlisle, and in 1788 dean of Windsor. In 1791 he was translated to Salisbury. He died of gradual decay 18 May 1807, and was buried in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, on 25 May.

Douglas was twice married: (1) in September 1752 to Dorothy, sister of Richard Pershore of Reynolds Hall in Staffordshire, who died three months afterwards; (2) in April 1765 to Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Brudenell Rooke. He is said to have been remarkably industrious; his family never saw him without a book or pen in his hand when not in company; he was well read, and an effective writer in the controversies which were really within his province. Though not above the standard of his day in regard to clerical duties, he was amiable, sociable, and the respected correspondent of many distinguished men.

His ‘Miscellaneous Works,’ including the ‘Criterion,’ a journal kept abroad in 1748–9, and a pamphlet against Lauder, with a life by W. Macdonald, appeared in 1820.

[Life prefixed to Miscellaneous Works, 1820; Scots. Mag. for 1807, pp. 509–12; Gent. Mag. 1807.]

L. S.