Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stephens, William (1647?-1718)

635766Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54 — Stephens, William (1647?-1718)1898Gerald le Grys Norgate

STEPHENS, WILLIAM (1647?–1718), divine, eldest son of Richard Stephens, a ‘dealer,’ of Worcester, was born probably on 27 March 1647, in the parish of All Hallows, Lombard Street. From Merchant Taylors' school he matriculated at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, as a batler on 1 July 1664. He graduated B.A. in 1668, M.A. in 1671, being incorporated at Cambridge the same year, and B.D. in 1678. He was for some time preacher at St. Lawrence, Hincksey, near Oxford, ‘where, by his sedulous endeavours, he caused the tower to be re-edified,’ says Wood, and at St. Martin's, Carfax. On 26 July 1690 he became rector of Sutton, Surrey, and archdeacon. He soon became known for his strong whig principles.

Being appointed to preach before the House of Commons on 30 Jan. 1700, Stephens not only omitted the prayer for the king and royal family, but suggested the propriety of discontinuing the observance of the anniversary of the execution of Charles I; while he further offended a tory house by insisting upon the whig doctrine of the foundation of government on consent (cf. Evelyn, Diary, 25 Jan. 1699–1700). The result was that not only was the usual vote of thanks withheld, but a resolution was passed that for the future ‘no one be recommended to preach before the house who is under the degree of a dean or hath not taken his degree of doctor of divinity’ (Journals of the House of Commons). The sermon was published in 1700, with an apologetic advertisement, stating that ‘since it had stolen incorrectly into the world without his privity,’ the author ‘hoped it would not be imputed as a crime that he amended the errata of the press.’ A reply by ‘H. E.’ (probably Edward Hawarden), entitled ‘A Sermon vindicating King Charles the Martyr,’ appeared the same year. Stephens's sermon was reprinted in vol. ii. of R. Barron's ‘Pillars of Priestcraft shaken,’ 1752.

On 6 May 1706, chiefly on the ground that he refused to give evidence against Thomas Rawlins, the reputed author of a libellous ‘Letter to the Author of the Memorial of the State of England’ (in reality by Toland), Stephens was himself indicted as the writer. He was sentenced to a fine of one hundred marks, to stand twice in the pillory, and to find sureties for his good behaviour for twelve months. Though the more ignominious part of the sentence was remitted, Stephens had to go to a public-house at Charing Cross and see the scaffold and the gathering spectators (Boyer). Stephens's reticence also led to his being coupled with the leading deists in the satirical ‘Apparition’ of Abel Evans [q. v.] He died on 30 Jan. 1717–18.

Stephens also published, besides sermons: 1. ‘An Account of the Growth of Deism in England,’ 1696, 4to. 2. ‘A Letter to King William III, showing (1) the original foundation of the English Monarchy; (2) the means by which it was removed from that foundation; (3) the expedients by which it has been supported since that removal; (4) its present constitution; (5) the best means by which its grandeur may be for ever maintained’ (in Collection of State Tracts, 1705–7, vol. ii.) 3. ‘Bishop Hacket's Memoirs of the Life of Archbishop Williams, abridged,’ 1715, 8vo.

[C. J. Robinson's Register of Merchant Taylors' School, i. 252; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iv. 790; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 46, viii. 301; Wilson's Memoirs of Defoe, i. 311–12, ii. 377–80, 425; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. ii. 123; J. Hunt's Relig. Thought in England, iii. 98n.; Manning and Bray's Surrey, ii. 487.]

G. Le G. N.