Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Foster, James
FOSTER, JAMES (1697–1753), divine, was born at Exeter on 16 Sept. 1697. His father, a fuller at Exeter, had become a dissenter, although he was the son of a clergyman of Kettering, Northamptonshire. Foster was educated at the free school of Exeter, and afterwards at an academy in that town kept by Joseph Hallet (d. 1722). He began to preach in 1718. At this time the dissenters in the west were inclining to Arianism. The proposal that they should make a declaration of orthodoxy led to the Salters' Hall conference, and to the expulsion of James Peirce and Joseph Hallet (d. 1722), both friends of Foster, from their congregation at Exeter. Foster took the side of the non-subscribers. His opinions gave offence to the majority of the dissenters in Exeter, and he accepted an invitation from a congregation at Milborne Port in Somersetshire. Milborne Port was also too orthodox for him, and he left it to live in the house of Nicholas Billingsley (son of Nicholas Billingsley [q. v.]) at Ashwick, under the Mendip Hills. An inscription, afterwards placed in a summer-house where he wrote and studied, is given in Collinson's ‘History of Somersetshire’ (ii. 449). He preached to two small congregations at Colesford and Wokey, near Wells, his salary from both amounting to only 15l. a year. He next moved to Trowbridge, Wiltshire, where he boarded with a glover, and had a congregation of from fifteen to twenty persons. In 1720 he published a sermon, ‘The Resurrection of Christ proved,’ preached at Trowbridge; and afterwards in the same year an ‘Essay on Fundamentals,’ arguing that the doctrine of the Trinity should not be regarded as essential. An appendix seems to imply that his own views were Arian. He was converted by the writings of John Gale [q. v.] against infant baptism. He was baptised by Gale in London. Although his congregation did not object, they were only able to give him so small a salary that he thought of entering his landlord's trade as a glover. A Mr. Robert Houlton, however, took him as a domestic chaplain. In 1724 he was chosen as the colleague of Joseph Burroughs [q. v.] at the chapel in the Barbican, a position previously occupied by Gale. In 1728 he was also appointed to give the Sunday evening lecture at the Old Jewry. Foster became known as an eloquent preacher, and took part in many controversies. In 1731 he wrote one of the best-known replies to Tindal's ‘Christianity as Old as the Creation’ (the ‘Usefulness, Truth, and Excellency of the Christian Religion defended against …’), and Tindal is said to have spoken with great regard (Caleb Fleming) of an answer which, in fact, implies a very close approximation of opinion. In 1735 he had a controversy with Henry Stebbing [q. v.] upon heresy, in which his main point was the innocency of intellectual error. Foster made replies to two ‘Letters’ by Stebbing, and to a ‘True State of the Controversy,’ in which Stebbing answered the second letter; and Stebbing again answered the last reply (1735–6–7). In 1744 he became pastor of the independent church at Pinners' Hall. In 1746 he visited Lord Kilmarnock in the Tower, administered the sacrament to him, and was present at his execution (18 Aug.) He published an account of Kilmarnock's behaviour (partly printed in Howell, State Trials, xviii. 503–14), which was attacked in various pamphlets. It was insinuated that the dissenters were willing to accept the Pretender in order to get rid of the Test Act, as some had been willing to submit to James II. The attack was apparently very unfair. Foster seems to have shown good feeling, and it is said that his health declined from this time on account of the shock to his nerves (Fleming and Hawkins, Anecdotes, p. 164).
Foster published four volumes of sermons (1744, &c.), besides separate sermons. The first volume produced ‘A Vindication of some Truths of Natural and Revealed Religion, in answer to the false teaching of James Foster,’ by J. Brine (1746). His great reputation is indicated by Pope's familiar lines (Epilogue to the Satires, i. 132–3):
Let modest Foster, if he will, excel
Ten Metropolitans in preaching well;
though Johnson explained the remark to Beauclerk by saying, ‘Sir, he [Pope] hoped that it would vex somebody’ (Langton's ‘Collectanea,’ in Boswell). Hawkins, in his ‘History of Music,’ said that it had become a proverbial phrase that ‘those who had not heard Farinelli sing and Foster preach were not qualified to appear in genteel company.’ A contemporary eulogist gives the less conclusive proof that the sermons were attended by numbers of the fair sex. His published sermons went through five editions. Two volumes of ‘Discourses on all the Principal Branches of Natural Religion and Social Virtue,’ published in 1749 and 1752, had two thousand subscribers. Foster's health was declining. He had a paralytic stroke in April 1750, and a second in July 1753. He died on 5 Nov. 1753.
Foster received the D.D. degree by diploma from the Marischal College, Aberdeen, in December 1748. He had a fine voice and graceful action. He was a man of generous character, so liberal that he would have died without a penny but for the subscription to his ‘Discourses.’ He is said to have declined many offers of preferment in the Irish church from Bishop Rundle. As a thinker Foster represents the drift of the dissenters of his time towards rationalism. Though he argued against Tindal and supported the historical evidences of Christianity, he substantially agrees in philosophy with the deists. In his sermons (volume of 1733, i. 175) occurs a characteristic phrase quoted by Bolingbroke and Savage (Gent. Mag. v. 213): ‘Where mystery begins, religion ends.’ He was sharply attacked by John Brine [q. v.] in a ‘Vindication of some Truths of Natural and Revealed Religion …,’ 1746, for his freethinking tendencies. The eloquence of his preaching is not very perceptible in his published works, but he shows some ability and much good feeling.
Miss Hawkins says (Anecdotes, p. 164) that the portrait by Wilkes, supposed to represent Foster, was really taken by mistake from a Mr. Morris, who was preaching for him.[Funeral Sermon by Caleb Fleming, 5 Nov. 1753; Gent. Mag. 1753, p. 569; Murch's Presbyterian Churches of the West of England, pp. 158, 159; Ivimey's English Baptists, iii. 215, 399–404; Wilson's Dissenting Churches, ii. 270–285; Hawkins's Hist. of Music, 1776, v. 321; Life by Jared Sparks in Collection of Essays, &c., v. 171–85 (followed by selections from writings); Protestant Dissenters' Mag. iii. 309.]