Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Newton, Thomas (1704-1782)

NEWTON, THOMAS (1704–1782), bishop of Bristol, born at Lichfield on 1 Jan. 1704 (N.S.), was the son of John Newton, a brandy and cider merchant. His mother, the daughter of a clergyman named Rhodes, died a year after his birth. He was first sent to Lichfield grammar school. His father afterwards married a sister of Dr. Trebeck, the first rector of St. George's, Hanover Square, London, and by Trebeck's advice he was sent to Westminster in 1717, and in 1718 was nominated to a scholarship by Bishop Smalridge, also a native of Lichfield. At Westminster he was a contemporary of the future Lord Mansfield and other men afterwards distinguished. He regretted that he dropped friendships which might have been useful by applying for a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, in May 1723, instead of going to Christ Church. He graduated B.A. in 1726–7, and M.A. in 1730. A polite reference to Bentley, then master, in a college exercise, appears to have helped him to obtain a fellowship at Trinity. He prepared a stock of twenty sermons, and was ordained deacon in December 1729 and priest in the following February by Bishop Gibson. He became curate to Trebeck at St. George's, and was chosen reader at Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street. He was soon well known in the parish, and became tutor to the son of George, lord Carpenter [q. v.], in whose house he lived for some years. The position enabled him to begin a collection of books and pictures.

In 1738 Zachary Pearce [q. v.], then vicar of St. Martin's, appointed him morning preacher at the Spring Gardens Chapel. His connection was increased by an acquaintance with Mrs. Devenish, whose first husband had been the dramatist, Nicholas Rowe [q. v.] She introduced him to Pulteney, for whom he had already the ‘profoundest veneration.’ Pulteney, on becoming Earl of Bath (1742), appointed Newton his chaplain. Newton appears to have enjoyed the political confidence of his patron, and has preserved some accounts of the intrigues in which Bath was concerned at the overthrow of Walpole, and again in 1746. Bath obtained for him in 1744 the rectory of St. Mary-le-Bow, then in the king's presentation, by the preferment of the former incumbent, Samuel Lisle [q. v.], to a bishopric. He now gave up his fellowship and the chapel at Spring Gardens, and in 1745 took his D.D. degree. Newton preached some loyal sermons during the rebellion of 1745, and received threatening letters in consequence. He was asked to publish them, but was not rewarded by preferment. The Prince of Wales was teaching his children to repeat ‘fine moral’ speeches, especially from Rowe's ‘most chaste and moral’ dramas. He asked Mrs. Devenish to preface a new edition of her husband's works. It appeared in 1747; and she employed Newton in the work, and commended him highly to the prince and princess, thus ‘laying the groundwork’ for future favours. In 1747 he was chosen lecturer at St. George's, Hanover Square; and in the August of the same year married Jane, eldest daughter of the rector, Dr. Trebeck. She was, he says, an ‘unaffected, modest, decent young woman,’ who saved him the trouble of housekeeping. They had no children, and lived in her father's house. In 1749 he published his edition of Milton's ‘Paradise Lost,’ with a life and elaborate notes; and in 1752 the remaining poems. Eight editions of the ‘Paradise Lost’ appeared by 1775, and he made 735l. by it (Chalmers). It also brought him the acquaintance of Jortin and Warburton. It was dedicated to Bath, to whom, in ‘the words of soberness and truth,’ he assigned all possible virtues and graces; Bath was in the meantime trying to get something for him from the Duke of Newcastle. On the death of Frederick, prince of Wales, in 1751, he preached a pathetic sermon upon the ‘most fatal blow that the nation had felt for many, many years,’ and a copy was sent to the princess, who thereupon made him her chaplain.

In 1754 he lost his father and his wife. He distracted his grief by composing his ‘Dissertation on the Prophecies, which have been remarkably fulfilled, and are at this time fulfilling in the world,’ the first volume of which appeared in the winter. He was then appointed Boyle lecturer, and his lectures, published in 1758, formed the two later volumes of his work. In 1756 the Duke of Newcastle at last fulfilled his promise to Bath by offering Newton a prebend in Westminster Abbey. It turned out that the supposed vacancy had not occurred. An appointment, however, to be chaplain to the king, was probably made by way of atoning for the blunder; and in March 1757 he received the desired prebend. In October following John Gilbert [q. v.], archbishop of York, obtained for him the sub-almonership, and in June 1759 made him precentor of York. Newton, at a suggestion conveyed through Gilbert, judiciously reduced the length of his preaching before the king from twenty to fifteen minutes, when his majesty was graciously pleased to say occasionally ‘A short, good sermon.’

The death of Dr. Trebeck in 1759 deprived Newton of his home; he had to take a house, and looked for a clever, sensible woman of the world to manage his housekeeping, nurse his health, and be a presentable wife. Such a one was Elizabeth, daughter of John, viscount Lisburne, and widow of the Rev. Mr. Hand. They were married on 5 Sept. 1761.

There was a ‘remarkable mortality among the great bishops,’ as Newton observes, in the first year of George III's reign. Newton's relations with the king's mother had made him known to Bute, and through Bute he obtained the bishopric of Bristol, Yonge, the previous bishop, being translated to Norwich. The bishopric (to which he was consecrated 28 Dec. 1761) was only worth 300l. a year, and he had to resign the prebend at Westminster, the precentorship of York, the lectureship of St. George's, and the sub-almonership. He was, however (24 Nov. 1761), made a prebendary of St. Paul's. When, in 1763, Pearce desired to resign the bishopric of Rochester and the deanery of Westminster, he hoped that Newton would be his successor. Newton was advised by George Grenville not to think of it, as better things were intended for him. Pearce was not allowed to resign. In 1764 Grenville recommended Newton for the see of London without success, and later in the year offered him the primacy of Ireland, upon the death of George Stone. Newton, who was becoming infirm, declined; and Grenville's retirement from office in 1764 deprived him of a ‘very good friend at court.’ The bishop, however, had always supported the ministers in the House of Lords, and only protested once, namely, against the repeal of the Stamp Act—a weak measure to which he ascribes all the American troubles. He had also succeeded in preventing the Roman catholics from erecting a ‘public Mass-house’ at Clifton. On the death of Archbishop Secker in 1768 he hoped for preferment, and the king desired arrangements by which he would become bishop of London. The ministry successfully opposed this plan, but had to make Newton dean of St. Paul's (8 Oct. 1768). He generously resigned St. Mary-le-Bow, thinking that he ought not to be ‘tenacious of pluralities.’ A severe illness followed; and he was afterwards unable to attend services at St. Paul's, though he resided at the deanery, spending his summers at Bristol till 1776. He complains much of the ‘shameful neglect’ of the duties by the dean and canons. His health was now very weak. He had never spoken in parliament, and he ceased to attend. He bought a house at Kew Green, where he could spend the summers, and have ocular proof of the king's domestic virtues. He continued to collect books and pictures, and tried to secure the acceptance of a scheme under which Joshua Reynolds and other academicians had offered to decorate St. Paul's at their own cost. It was disapproved by the bishop of London as tending to popery, and finally abandoned. Newton improved the deanery, however, and raised the income of Bristol to 400l. a year. Newton's last publication was a ‘letter addressed to the new Parliament’ in 1780. He regarded the opposition as the most unprincipled and factious that he had ever known. He was disgusted by Gibbon's history, though he managed to read it through; and Johnson's ‘Lives of the Poets’ shocked him by its malevolence. He finished his autobiography a few days before his death at the deanery on 14 Feb. 1782. He was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, and a monument was erected by his widow in Bow Church. Religion and Science, in sculpture, by Thomas Banks [q. v.], deplore his loss, and beneath are lines by the ‘ingenious Mrs. Carter.’ He had no children.

Newton's ‘Works’ were published in three volumes, 4to, in 1782, containing the autobiography, the work on the prophecies, and a number of ‘dissertations’ and sermons. A second edition, in 6 vols. 8vo (1787), does not contain the work on the ‘Prophecies,’ which went through many editions separately. An 18th edition appeared in 1834 in 1 vol., with a portrait engraved by Earlom after West, and a 20th in 1835. Johnson (Boswell, ed. Hill, iv. 286) admitted that the ‘Dissertation on the Prophecies’ was ‘Tom's great work: but how far it was great and how much of it was Tom's, was another question.’ It is a summary of the ordinary replies to Collins and other deists of no real value. The autobiography was reprinted in a collection of lives edited by Alexander Chalmers in 1816. It contains many amusing anecdotes, but is chiefly curious as exhibiting the character of the prelate who combined good domestic qualities with the conviction that the whole duty of a clergyman was to hunt for preferment by flattery. Gibbon refers to it characteristically in his own autobiography. A portrait of Newton by Sir Joshua Reynolds was, in 1867, in the possession of the Archbishop of Canterbury; it was engraved by Collier, and prefixed to the 1782 edition of his works; it was also engraved by Watson.

[Life, as above; Welch's Westminster Scholars, pp. 285–7; Le Neve's Fasti, i. 220, ii. 317, 424, iii. 157, 366.]

L. S.