Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Norton, John (1606-1663)

NORTON, JOHN (1606–1663), divine, born at Bishop Stortford, Hertfordshire, on 9 May 1606, was son of William Norton, and came of ‘honourable ancestors.’ He was educated under Alexander Strange, forty-six years vicar of Buntingford, and ‘could betimes write good Latin with a more than common elegancy and invention’ (Mather, Magnalia, pt. iii. p. 32). At fourteen he entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, but, after graduating B.A. 1627, ‘the ruin of his father's estate’ compelled him to leave the university. He became tutor in the Stortford grammar school, and was appointed curate there. The preaching of Jeremiah Dyke [q. v.] of Epping roused in him strong puritanic feeling. His dislike of ceremonies prevented his acceptance of a benefice offered by his uncle, and of a fellowship pressed upon him by Dr. Sibbes [q. v.], master of Catharine Hall. He was chaplain for a time to Sir William Masham of Oates, High Laver, Essex, who afterwards wrote to Governor Endecott (29 March 1636) ‘his abilyties are more than ordinary, and will be acceptable and profitable to your churches.’ He preached wherever opportunity offered until silenced for nonconformity, when he determined to go to America.

In 1634 Norton married a ‘gentlewoman of good estate and good esteem,’ and soon afterwards (in September) set sail with her from Harwich for New England. In October 1635 they landed at Plymouth, New England, and Norton preached through the winter. He was soon ‘called’ to Ipswich, although not formally ordained ‘teacher,’ i.e. lecturer, until 20 Oct. 1638. His coadjutor was Nathaniel Ward [q. v.] until February 1637; Nathaniel Rogers [see under Rogers, John] succeeded Ward on 5 Nov. 1639. Two hundred acres of land were voted to Norton. In 1644 he was appointed by the New England divines to draw up an answer to the questions on church government sent by William Apollonius, pastor of Middleburg, Holland, to the ministers of London. This work (finished in 1645), ‘Responsio ad totam quæstionum syllogen,’ London, 1648, was the first Latin book composed in the colonies. It was praised by Goodwin, Nye, Professor Hornbeck of Leyden, and others. Fuller in his ‘Church History’ says no book was ‘more informative to me of those opinions.’ The ‘Introductory Epistle’ is by John Cotton (1585–1652), formerly vicar of Boston, Lincolnshire, and then pastor of the first church in Boston, Massachusetts. Norton afterwards wrote, ‘Abel being dead yet speaketh, or the Life and Death of Mr. John Cotton,’ London, 1658; reprinted, with short memoir of the author by Enoch Pond, New York, 1842.

In 1645 Norton wrote a Latin letter to John Durie (1596–1680) [q. v.], which was translated and printed, with the last three sermons preached by Norton in 1664. There he set forth the view that, although he and his friends refused subscription to the hierarchy, they claimed fellowship with such churches as profess the gospel. A copy, with autograph signatures of Norton and forty-three other ministers, belongs to the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Massachusetts (Maclure).

In 1646 Norton took a leading part in the Cambridge synod, and in drawing up the ‘Platform of Church Discipline.’ On the death of Cotton in 1652 he was called to Boston. Rogers dying two years later, the Ipswich church clamoured for Norton's return. He was, however, installed teacher of the Boston church, in conjunction with John Wilson, on 23 July 1656; on the same day he married his second wife, Mary Mason of Boston (d. January 1678), and was given 200l. to buy a house.

Norton was chief instigator of the persecution of the quakers in New England [see under Leddra, William]. He was requested by the Massachusetts council on 19 Oct. 1658 to write a ‘tractate’ against their heresies (Records, iv. 348); copies of his ‘Heart of New England Rent’ were ordered to be distributed on 28 May 1659 (ib. p. 381), and a grant of five hundred acres of land, with the council's thanks, was made him on 12 Nov. of the same year (ib. p. 397). A royal mandamus for the suspension of the penal laws against the quakers was issued at Whitehall on 9 Sept. 1661 (Sewel, Hist. of the Rise, &c., i. 363), and an order given for the release of all in prison. On 11 Feb. 1662 Norton and Simon Bradstreet sailed for England to obtain from the king a confirmation of their charter, which they feared was endangered by the unwarrantable severity which they had employed against the quakers. They had several interviews with George Fox, and Norton denied that he had taken part in the persecution at Boston. William Robinson's father, a Cumberland man, appears to have been anxious to prosecute the deputies for murder (Bishop, New England Judged, p. 47), but was dissuaded by Fox (Journal, Leeds ed. i. 549). Upon their return to Boston they were coldly received, and Norton died suddenly six months later, on 5 April 1663, after preaching at the Sunday morning service. His funeral sermon was preached by Richard Mather at the Thursday lecture following. Some verses by Thomas Shepherd on his death are in Nathaniel Morton's ‘New England's Memorial,’ 6th ed., Boston, 1855, p. 195.

Norton had no children. His widow gave or bequeathed almost all his property to the Old South church in Boston. Wine, lutestring, and gloves at her funeral cost as much as 73l. (Maclure). Norton's brother William, living at Ipswich, Massachusetts, was father of John Norton (1651–1716), pastor of Hingham, Massachusetts, author of some sermons and verses.

Norton was a strong Calvinist, an effective preacher, and a ready, if unpolished, writer. Besides the books above mentioned, and some separate sermons, he wrote: 1. ‘A Brief and Excellent Treatise containing the Doctrine of Godlinesse,’ &c., London, 1647. 2. ‘The Sufferings of Christ,’ London, 1653. 3. ‘The Orthodox Evangelist,’ &c., London, 1654; another edition, London, 1657; reprinted Boston, 1851. 4. ‘The Heart of New England Rent,’ &c., London (12 Jan.), 1659; Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1659. This violent attack upon the quakers was answered by Francis Howgil and Edward Burrough [q. v.], by Humphrey Norton [q. v.], and by Isaac Pennington (1616–1679) [q. v.] 5. ‘The Divine Offence,’ &c. 6. ‘A Catechism.’ 7. ‘Of the State of the Blessed.’

He left in manuscript a ‘Body of Divinity,’ which is preserved among the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

[Palfrey's Hist. of New England, vols. i. and ii. passim; Neal's Hist. of New England, ii. 332; Gough's Hist. of Quakers, i. 375; Brook's Puritans, iii. 394, 419; Doyle's English in America, ii. 144, 175, 179; Sprague's Annals of the American Pulpit, Trinitarian Congregational, New York, 1857, i. 54–9, Unitarian, 1865, p. 1, n.; Urwick's Nonconformity in Hertfordshire, pp. 613, 695–6, 756; Maclure's Lives of the chief Fathers of New England, Boston, 1870, ii. 175–248; J. B. Felt's Hist. of Ipswich, &c., Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1834, pp. 221–5; and his Selections from New England Fathers, No. 1, John Norton, Boston, 1851, p. 2; Smith's Bibliotheca Anti-Quakeriana, p. 341; Hutchinson's Collection of Papers relating to the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, Boston, 1769, pp. 348–77; Bowden's Hist. of Friends in America, vol. i. pt. iii. pp. 241–3.]

C. F. S.