Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thompson, Samuel

THOMPSON, SAMUEL (1766–1837), founder of the ‘Freethinking Christians,’ born in Aldgate, London, on 7 June 1766, was the son of Samuel King Thompson, victualler, of the Bell, Church Row, Houndsditch, by his wife Catherine. He was admitted to Christ's Hospital on 5 May 1774, and after his discharge, on 6 June 1780, was apprenticed to a watchmaker in Whitechapel. Before he was twenty he married and set up in business for himself. Fond of society and a good singer, his business did not prosper. He left the watch trade for a wine and spirit business in East Smithfield. His wife's death turned him to religion; he remarried, took seriously to business, became eminent as a ‘gin-spinner,’ and regulated his trade by strict measures against drunkenness and loose language. Up to this point he was a churchman; a casual hearing of Elhanan Winchester, the universalist, led him to become a member (23 Sept. 1794) of his congregation in Parliament Court, Bishopsgate. He was made deacon on 16 Aug. 1795, and ‘set apart’ with three others for ‘public service’ on 8 Jan. 1796. He was afternoon preacher, and distinguished himself by arguing against deists at open-air meetings, but soon quarrelled with William Vidler [q. v.], Winchester's successor, on a point of pastoral authority. With twenty-one others he seceded on 19 Nov. 1798, the schism being primarily a protest against a one-man ministry and the payment of preachers.

On Christmas-day 1798 the seceders opened a meeting-room at 38 Old Change, and at once announced their rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, retaining, however, for some time, the doctrine of our Lord's pre-existence. They rejected also baptism and the eucharist, as well as public singing and prayer; and met for scripture reading and study, addresses, and discussion. Their rules of membership and exclusion were strict, and strictly enforced. They took the name of ‘The Church of God,’ elected an elder (Thompson) and deacons on 24 March 1799, and published their laws of church government in 1800. In March 1804 large audiences were attracted to their meetings by their public replies to Paine's ‘Age of Reason.’ The name ‘Freethinking Christians’ was now given them by outsiders, and accepted by themselves, though their title of association remained as above.

Thompson left business in April 1806, retiring with about 300l. a year to Kingsthorpe, Northamptonshire, for the education of his children. Contention in his church brought him back to London; he resumed the spirit business on Holborn Hill at midsummer 1807. On 20 Dec. his followers changed their place of meeting to 5 Cateaton Street, formerly the Paul's Head tavern. They advertised that they were going to ‘inquire’ into the existence of ‘a being called the Devil.’ Beilby Porteus [q. v.], bishop of London, called the attention of the authorities to these proceedings in an unlicensed conventicle. Thompson and four others were cited (5 Feb. 1808) by the city marshal. They applied for license as protestant dissenters, and obtained it with some little trouble. In 1810 they built a meeting-house, on a short lease, in Jewin Crescent, soon started a magazine, and made attacks on the unitarian leaders, Thomas Belsham [q. v.] and Robert Aspland [q. v.] In December 1813 Thompson, regarding marriage as purely a civil act and the Anglican marriage service as ‘idolatrous,’ suggested that, on occasions of marriage, a protest should be delivered to the officiating clergyman and advertised in the newspapers. This policy was carried out (10 June 1814) on the marriage of Thompson's eldest daughter, Mary Ann, to William Coates; it was persistently continued, occasionally causing scandalous scenes, till the grievance was remedied by the marriage act of 1836.

On the expiry (about 1820) of the Jewin Crescent lease, meetings were held in High Holborn. There was now (1821) a small secession, led by William Stevens, of members dissatisfied with Thompson's personal rule and dictatorial manner, meeting in Moorfields, and claiming to be the true ‘church of God.’ Thompson's friends built a meeting-house (1831) on freehold property in St. John's Square, Clerkenwell. William Coates was their leader; Thompson, who was now living at Plaistow, Essex, being reduced to inactivity by ill-health. He finally retired from business in 1831 (his son-in-law had long been the managing partner); and, at his own request (1 Jan. 1832), he was released from ‘public service’ by his church. He was still, however, involved in its disputes. In 1834, having made up his old quarrel with Robert Aspland, he published a series of papers in Aspland's magazine, ‘The Christian Reformer,’ on the ‘unity and exclusiveness of the church of God.’ This was done ‘without the previous consent of the church, as required by their laws.’ He asked and obtained indemnity (27 July); but the dispute continued, and Thompson, though claiming to be ‘the founder of the church, God's agent,’ was served (17 Nov.) with notice of expulsion. He was, in fact, expelled (21 Dec.), but not before he had rallied his immediate following and been elected (14 Dec.) elder of another, and the only real, ‘church of God.’ The revolt against Thompson, headed by John Dillon, partner of James Morrison [q. v.], had no continuance. The original society became extinct in 1851, having survived its branches at Battle, Dewsbury, Loughborough, and a few other places.

Thompson died at Reigate, Surrey, on 20 Nov. 1837, and was buried in the graveyard of the General Baptist chapel at Ditchling, Sussex. An epitaph, his own composition, gives the articles of his creed, and adds ‘The good loved him, and the base hated, because they feared.’ He married, first, on 27 May 1786, Ann Kilbinton (d. 1789), by whom he had two children, who died in infancy; secondly, on 25 Dec. 1793, Mary Fletcher (1777–1850), by whom he had four sons and eight daughters. Sydney Thompson Dobell [q. v.], the poet, was his grandson, his daughter Julietta having married John Dobell on 23 May 1823, with the usual protest.

Besides a few tracts, he published ‘Evidences of Revealed Religion,’ 1812; 4th ed. 1842, 12mo; and contributed to the ‘Universalist's Miscellany,’ 1797–9; the ‘Freethinking Christian's Magazine,’ 1811–14; and the ‘Freethinking Christian's Quarterly Register,’ 1824–5.

[Memoir by J. D. [John Dobell] in Christian Reformer, 1838, pp. 67 sq.; Memoir, prefixed to Evidences, 1842 (portrait); Monthly Repository, 1808, p. 284; Stevens's Antidote to Intolerance, 1821; Coates's Plea for the Unity, 1828; Reports and other Documents relative to the Free-thinking Christians, 1835; Declaration of certain Members, 1835; Brief Account of the … Free-thinking Christians, 1841; Life and Letters of Sydney Dobell, 1878, i. 64 sq. (account of Thompson by Clarence Dobell); manuscript account (1877) by Joseph Calrow Means [q. v.]; manuscript information (1896) from the late Sir James Clarke Lawrence, bart.; tombstones at Ditchling.]

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