Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Evanson, Edward

EVANSON, EDWARD (1731–1805), divine, was born at Warrington 21 April 1731. His uncle, John Evanson, rector of Mitcham, Surrey, educated him, and sent him to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1745. He took the degree of B.A. 1749, and M.A. 1753. He took orders, and became curate to his uncle, who apparently kept a school. In 1768 he became vicar of South Mimms, near Barnet. In 1769 Lord-chancellor Camden gave him the vicarage of Tewkesbury, at the request of John Dodd, M.P. for Reading. Hurd introduced Evanson, as a member of his own college, to Warburton, who, upon the strength of Hurd's introduction, gave him also the perpetual curacy of Tredington, Worcestershire, and in August 1770 he exchanged South Mimms for Longdon in Worcestershire. Here Evanson began to show unitarian leanings. He wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Cornwallis), who was supposed, with other dignitaries of the church, to be contemplating some changes in the liturgy. Evanson hoped that the Nicene and Athanasian creeds would not be retained until his objections to them had been considered. He begged that the archbishop would show him how to surmount his scruples if they were groundless. The archbishop did not reply. Evanson adapted the liturgy to his own opinions. A sermon upon the Resurrection on Easter day (31 March 1771) gave additional offence, and a prosecution was instituted by Neast Havard, town clerk of Tewkesbury, and others in the consistory court. Evanson published anonymously in 1772 a pamphlet upon ‘The Doctrines of a Trinity and the Incarnation of God.’ One of the witnesses for the prosecution stated that Evanson explained, on being reproached for retaining his living, that he ‘had not learnt the art of starving,’ and that the care ‘of a great school’ had prevented him from properly examining his opinions until he was fixed in the ‘corrupt church.’ The case was heard before the Bishop of Gloucester on 16 Jan. 1775. Some technical objections led to the failure of the prosecution; but appeals were made to the court of arches, and afterwards to the court of delegates. Evanson was popular in the parish. The principal inhabitants of Tewkesbury subscribed to pay his expenses, and the people of Longdon expressed their willingness to accept his alterations of the services. Wedderburne, the solicitor-general, defended him gratuitously, and on 31 May 1775 appointed him his chaplain. In 1777 he published ‘A Letter to Dr. Hurd, bishop of Worcester,’ in which he argues that either the christian revelation is false, or every church in Europe, and especially the church of England, is ‘false and fabulous.’ He relies upon the argument from the prophecies, which, according to him, foretell the great apostasy of trinitarianism. This utterance was naturally followed by the resignation of his living. His letter to the bishop is dated 22 March 1778. He now returned to Mitcham, and set up a school. Colonel Evelyn James Stuart, son of the Earl of Bute, the father of one of his pupils, settled an annuity upon him, which was paid till his death. Evanson held family services, using Samuel Clarke's version of the liturgy, with additional changes of his own. He administered the Lord's supper to visitors, holding it to be the only sacrament, and intended for all social gatherings, and he wished to set up a society of ‘Christo philanthropists’ to hear expositions of the authentic scriptures. He had a controversy with Priestley in the ‘Theological Repository,’ vol. v., arguing against the sanctity of the sabbath as understood by Priestley. These papers were collected and published by Evanson with a letter to Priestley as ‘Arguments against the Sabbatical Observance of the Sunday’ (1792). In 1792 he also published ‘The Dissonance of the four generally received Evangelists, and the Evidence of their Authenticity examined.’ In this he rejects the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and John, the epistles to the Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, and Hebrews, and those of James, Peter, John, and Jude, besides part of the other books of the Testament. He was again answered by Priestley (in reply to whom he published in 1794 a ‘Letter to Dr. Priestley's Young Man’), expelled from a book club, and ‘pestered by anonymous letters.’ Thomas Falconer also replied to him in a course of ‘Bampton Lectures’ published in 1811. Evanson also published ‘Reflections upon the State of Religion in Christendom,’ 1802, and ‘Second Thoughts on the Trinity,’ 1805. Evanson in 1786 married Dorothy Alchorne, daughter of a London merchant. She probably brought him a fortune, as he afterwards bought an estate at Blakenham, Suffolk. He afterwards retired to Great Bealings, near Woodbridge, thence to Lympston, Devonshire, where he preached to a unitarian congregation, and finally to Colford in Devonshire, where he died on 25 Sept. 1805. His friends testify to the excellence of his character, his engaging manners, and his liberality to the poor.

His collected sermons (2 vols. 1807) contain the obnoxious sermon of 1771, and an account of the prosecution in answer to Havard.

[Monthly Mag. December 1805, xx. 477–83; Gent. Mag. 1805, ii. 1233; Neast Havard's Origin and Progress of the Prosecution in Tewkesbury, 1778; Nichols's Anecd. vi. 483; Life (by George Rogers) prefixed to Sermons; Warburton's Letters to Hurd, pp. 450, 467.]