Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forster, William (1784-1854)

FORSTER, WILLIAM (1784–1854), minister of the Society of Friends, was born at Tottenham, near London, 23 March 1784. His father, who was a land agent and surveyor, and his mother were pious members of the Society of Friends, and they took much pains in bringing up their children. From his earliest years William, their second son, manifested a profoundly spiritual disposition, and in after years would say that 'in looking back on his earliest religious experience he could not remember a time when he was not sensible of the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart.' After his education was completed he declined to follow his father's profession, and, having taken part in quaker meetings for two years, was recognised as a minister in 1805, in his twenty-second year. For several years he was an itinerant minister, and visited many parts of England and Scotland. For a time he settled at Tottenham. In October 1816 he married, at Shaftesbury, Anna Buxton, a daughter of Mr. Buxton of Earlham, Norfolk, and sister of Elizabeth Fry [q. v.] and Joseph John Gurney [q. v.] Anna Buxton, whose family were residing at Weymouth, was a handsome girl of fascinating manners. She had attracted the interest of George III, to whom Weymouth was a favourite resort, and was on intimate terms with the royal family. Shortly before her marriage she had come under deep religious impressions. Forster had been a helper of Mrs. Fry in her philanthropical efforts.

After his marriage Forster resided at Bradpole, Dorsetshire, where their only son, William Edward Forster [q. v.], was born in 1818. He afterwards removed to Norwich. In 1820 Forster was induced to undertake a mission to the United States on behalf of the society there. This visit was unexpectedly protracted to five years. A tendency had appeared towards unitarianism, which ultimately caused a great separation in the body, much to Forster's distress. Though unable to avert the separation, his friends believed that he did good service in preventing the spread of Unitarian views. His eminently calm and peaceful tone suited him for conciliatory work. In the course of his life he paid two other visits to America. One was occasioned by a threatened secession among the Friends in the state of Indiana, arising from a difference of view on the slavery question. The efforts of the deputation of which Forster was a member (in 1845) were highly successful, and furnished an illustration of the right method of dealing with brethren in reference to such differences. On another occasion Forster undertook a mission to Normandy for the purpose of fostering religious earnestness. A longer series of visits to the continent was paid in 1849-52, at the instance of the society, whose deputies sought interviews with all persons of influence to whom they could find access, for the purpose of promoting the anti-slavery movement. Still another continental visit was paid by him to the Vaudois churches in Piedmont. The reception he met with from the Vaudois pastors was most satisfactory. Dr. Lantaret, as moderator of the 'Table,' assured them that the sight of such an aged, venerable ambassador of Christ among them brought to their minds the passage 'How beautiful upon the mountains.'

Before the last two of these continental missions Forster had performed an important service in Ireland. With the Society of Friends generally he was deeply concerned for the famine caused by the failure of the potato crop in 1846. Before any general committee of relief was formed he conferred with his friends on the subject, and at their request he set out on a journey to the distressed districts. In this journey he was accompanied by his son. He spent the time from 30 Nov. 1846 to 14 April 1847 investigating the condition of the people.

These public labours were added to those of the ministry which he continued to carry on. His health failed in his later years. Nevertheless he was induced, at the request of his brethren and at the impulse of his own heart, to engage in an additional enterprise. This was to present an anti-slavery address to the president of the United States, and to the governors of the states and other persons of influence to whom they might find access. He left home in considerable bodily weakness in 1853. On 1 Oct. he and his fellow-deputies had an interview with President Pierce. He gave them little encouragement to believe that slavery would soon come to an end. The prosecution of their mission among other men of mark occupied the rest of the year. In January 1854 he was seized with severe illness while staying with Samuel Low near the Holston River, East Tennessee, North America, and after a few weeks of suffering he died on the morning of the 27th, aged 70. He was buried in the Friends' burying-ground at Friendsville. One is reminded of Howard dying at his post in the far east, as Forster now did in the west. His son said with much truth: 'It is impossible not to feel that he was allowed to fall a martyr to his devotion to that great and holy cause of the abolition of negro slavery, in the earnest and untiring advocacy of which so large a portion of his life had from time to time been spent.'

All through his life Forster bore a most consistent and devoted testimony to his creed. His ministry was emphatically evangelical. The news of his death caused an extraordinary sensation both in America and Great Britain. Warm testimonies to his worth appeared in the newspapers, and tokens of love and esteem were issued both by his own monthly and quarterly meetings and by the monthly meeting of the Friends in Tennessee. He published 'A Christian Exhortation to Sailors,' 1813, often reprinted, and translated into French; 'Recent Intelligence from Van Diemen's Land,' 1831; 'A Salutation of Christian Love,' issued by Forster's brother Josiah in 1860. Joseph Crosfield, James H. Tuke, and William Dillwyn published accounts of Forster's visit to Ireland in 1846.

[Memoirs of the Life of William Forster, ed. Benjamin Seebohm, 2 vols. 1865; Brief Memoir by Robert Charleton, 1867; Smith's Friends' Books.]

W. G. B.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.129
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
24 ii 7-5 f.e. Forster, William (1784-1854): for daughter of Mr. Buxton . . . . Joseph John Gurney [q. v.] read daughter of Thomas Fowell Buxton of Earl's Colne, Essex, and sister of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton [q. v.].
25 ii 21 for aged 70 read aged 69