Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Webster, John (1610-1682)

752733Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 60 — Webster, John (1610-1682)1899Bertha Porter

WEBSTER, JOHN (1610–1682), author of ‘The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft,’ was born at Thornton in Craven on 3 Feb. 1609–10. He speaks of Cambridge as though he had received his education there, but no record can be found of him in the university registers. Subsequent to July 1632 he was ordained, and in 1634 was curate of Kildwick in Craven. Previous to his ordination he had studied chemistry under John Huniades, probably in the course of medical study. In 1643 he was master of the free grammar school at Clitheroe, but during the civil war he acted as chaplain and surgeon in the parliamentary army. He was surgeon in Colonel Shuttleworth's regiment in 1648, by which time he had apparently left the established church and become a nonconformist (cf. Saint's Rest, 1654). Towards the end of the civil war he ‘was intruded by the governing powers’ into the vicarage of Mitton in Yorkshire, and thence preached sometimes ‘gratis’ at Grindleton, four miles distant. He was still at Mitton in 1654. He was apparently officiating minister at All Hallows, Lombard Street, where, on 12 Oct. 1653, he and William Erbury [q. v.] had ‘a very famous dispute’ with two ministers whose names are not known (cf. Mercurius Politicus, 13–20 Oct. 1653; Erbury, A Monstrous Dispute; Webster, The Picture of Mercurius Politicus). At this time Webster was famous as a preacher. His attitude towards university teaching, or as he called it ‘humane or acquired learning,’ led him into some controversy, and was, he states, much misunderstood. In his endeavour to make his position clear he published in 1654 his ‘Academiarum Examen,’ in the epistle to which he asserts that he intends not ‘to traduce or calumniate the academies themselves, but only the corruptions that time and negligence hath introduced there.’ He gives vent, however, to his tendency towards mysticism in his expressed admiration of Jacob Boehmen (p. 26), and his recommendation of the study of astrology (p. 51). The book was answered by Seth Ward [q. v.], bishop of Salisbury, under the signature H. D., the final letters of both his names, with a prefatory epistle by John Wilkins [q. v.], bishop of Chester, also signed with final letters, N.S., and which has in consequence been assigned to Nathaniel Stephens (1606?–1678) [q. v.] Thomas Hall (1610–1665) [q. v.] also wrote a reply entitled ‘Histrio-Mastix: a Whip for Webster,’ at the end of his ‘Vindiciæ Literarum.’ In 1654 he was occupied in a controversy with Thomas Jollie [q. v.] In 1657 Webster was residing at Clitheroe. The following year his books were seized and taken away from him, but for what cause does not appear. He now seems to have given up the ministry and to have devoted himself to the study of metallurgy and the practice of medicine.

It was at this time, as also later when his age interfered with active practice, that he prepared his ‘Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft’ (London, 1677; Halle, 1719. German translation, with preface by Christian Thomas), in which he attacked the credulous views of Meric Casaubon [q. v.], Joseph Glanvill [q. v.], and Henry More (1614–1687) [q. v.]

Webster died on 18 June 1682, and was buried on the 21st at Clitheroe. His works show that his active, impressionable mind passed through many phases of religious conviction, and it is difficult to reconcile the authorship of ‘The Judgment Set’ with that of the ‘Examen’ or the ‘Displaying.’ Ward accuses Webster of ignorance (Vindiciæ Academiarum, p. 1), but he was acquainted with Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, and French.

He was evidently married, as Thoresby (Diary, i. 393) mentions obtaining information respecting him from ‘a minister who married his widow.’

Hall, in the title to his ‘Histrio-Mastix,’ sarcastically speaks of Webster ‘as (as 'tis conceived) the Quondam Player,’ and for some time it seems to have been taken for granted that the ‘Examen’ was written by his namesake, the dramatist. On the strength of Hall's ‘conceived’ opinion, Payne Collier (Poetical Decameron, ii. 260 et seq.) absurdly accepts the ‘Examen’ as the work of the more famous John Webster, and compares passages in it with some in the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ to support his view. Thence he foolishly argues that the ‘Saint's Guide’ was also by the dramatist. He makes, however, no mention of the ‘Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft.’ The identity of the author of the ‘Examen’ with that of the ‘Displaying,’ which had been previously stated by Henry More in his attack on Webster in the ‘Præfatio Generalissima’ to the Latin edition of his works (vol. ii. pp. xvi–xvii), was finally established by Dyce in the introduction to his ‘Works of Webster the Dramatist.’ Dyce at the same time disposed of the ridiculous ascription of the ‘Examen’ and other works to the dramatist. Webster took pleasure in signing himself ‘Johannes Hyphastes,’ and the pseudonym appears on his memorial tablet in Clitheroe church.

His published works include:

  1. ‘The Saint's Guide,’ London, 1653, 1654, 1699.
  2. ‘The Picture of Mercurius Politicus,’ London, 1653, 4to.
  3. ‘The Judgment Set and the Books opened,’ London, 1654, containing (i.) ‘The Vail of the Covering’ (reprinted, separately, London, 1713, Greenwich, 1817); (ii.) ‘The Builders of Babel confounded;’ (iii.) ‘The Power of Divine Attraction;’ (iv.) ‘The Cloud taken off the Tabernacle’ (reprinted, London, 1708); (v.) ‘The Secret Soothsayer’ (reprinted, London, 1716); (vi.) ‘The Rooting of every Plant;’ (vii.) ‘The Saint's Perfect Freedom;’ (viii.) ‘A Responsion to certain pretended Arguments;’ (ix.) ‘A Testimony freely given,’ the whole work, Brighton, 1835.
  4. ‘Academiarum Examen,’ London, 1654.
  5. ‘Metallographia,’ London, 1661, 1671.

He also wrote an account and defence of the character of William Erbury as an epistle to Erbury's work, ‘The Great Earthquake.’

[Whitaker's Whalley, ii. 86–7, 95, 494, 506, 548–51; Whitaker's Craven, p. 22; Introduction and Notes to Potts's Discovery of Witches by James Crossley (Chetham Soc.) pp. xxviii–xli; Webster's Works, passim; Cal. of State Papers, 1657–8, p. 302; Boehmer's Handbuch der Naturgeschichte, pt. ii. vol. i. p. 34; Morhof's Polyhistor Literarius, ii. 402; Journal des Sçavans, 1678, p. 158; Philosophical Transactions, 1670, p. 2034; Oldys's British Librarian, p. iii; Brydges's Censura Literaria, x. 306–7; Lansdowne MS. 459, f. 72; Note-book of the Rev. Thomas Jolly (Chetham Soc.), pp. xiv. 126, 128; State Papers (Record Office) Dom. Commonwealth, vol. clxxix. f. 177.]

B. P.