Parsons, John (1761-1819) (DNB00)

PARSONS, JOHN (1761–1819), bishop of Peterborough and master of Balliol College, Oxford, was son of Isaac Parsons, butler of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and his wife Alice (both of whom are buried in the cloisters of that college). Born in the parish of St. Aldates, Oxford, he was baptised in St. Aldates church on 6 July 1761. He received his early education, first at the school attached to Christ Church, and subsequently at Magdalen College school. In his sixteenth year he was admitted at Wadham on 26 June 1777, and was elected a scholar of the college on 30 June 1780. He graduated B.A. in 1782, and M.A. in 1785. His other degrees were B.D. and D.D., both in 1799. He was elected fellow of Balliol on 29 Nov. 1785, and in July 1797 was presented by the college to the united livings of All Saints and St. Leonard's, Colchester. On 22 Jan. 1798 he married Miss Elizabeth Parsons, probably a cousin, at St. Aldates church, and on the 14th of the following November he was elected master of Balliol. That office he held till his death. From 1807 to 1810 he was vice-chancellor of the university.

With the mastership of Dr. Parsons the real revival of Balliol, and it may be said of the university generally, began. He made the college examination a reality, and thus, in conjunction with Dr Eveleigh, provost of Oriel, he gave the lead to the university in making the examinations, which had degenerated into a discreditable farce, also a reality. In conjunction with Dr. Eveleigh he also elaborated the new examination Statute of 1801, by which university honours were for the first time awarded for real merit; and he was one of the first examiners, the earliest class list under the new system appearing in 1802. He was for many years 'the leading, or rather the working, member' of the Hebdomadal board. By the success of the experiment at Balliol he may be said to have laid the foundation of the collegiate tutorial system. Parsons had great sympathy with the undergraduates, and was much respected by them. When he first became master 'the junior common room was reported to be in a very bad state. He sent for the "book of rules," and, after examining it, put it on the fire, sending for the leading members of the junior common room to see it burning, and thus put an end to the institution' (Jowett, MS. Letter). Richard Jenkyns [q. v.], who succeeded him as master, was tutor under him, and when Parsons was made a bishop was appointed vice-master, vigorously seconding his administration of the college.

Though the warm advocate of all reforms calculated to promote the welfare of his college and of the university, he was in principles a strong tory. Against all 'innovations,' either in university or political matters, he fought manfully, and he was firmly opposed to catholic emancipation. He was the senior of the three heads of houses who, on the death of the Duke of Portland in 1809, proposed Lord Eldon for the chancellorship of the university, to which Lord Grenville was elected (Eldon, Life, ii. 113).

This and other services rendered to the tory party in the university marked him out for preferment. In 1810 he was appointed to the deanery of Bristol, and in 1812 he was presented to the chapter living of Weare in Somerset, which he held in commendam till his death. In 1813 he was raised to the bishopric of Peterborough, on the death of Dr. Spencer Madan (1729 –1813) [q. v.] The appointment, we are told, was regarded at Oxford as a reward for his zeal for 'the new system of examinations.' His promotion was mainly due to Lord-chancellor Eldon, who, writing to his daughter soon after the consecration, said: 'My new bishop has been to see me today; he is a stout fellow, and sound upon the catholic bill.' Both as dean of Bristol and as bishop of Peterborough he rendered effectual aid in the establishment and promotion of the 'National Society' for the education of the poor. In conjunction with Provost Eveleigh he actively promoted its interests at Oxford; and Parsons, together with Joshua Watson [q. v.], to whom more than to any single person the origination of the society is due, is credited with drawing up in 1812 the terms of union for the district committees of the provincial schools (Churton, Life of Joshua Watson, pp. 64, 66; Overton, English Church of the Eighteenth Century, p. 242).

Parsons's bishopric was at the date of his appointment one of the smallest in area in the English church. As bishop he gained the confidence and esteem of his diocese. In the House of Lords he seldom spoke, but was very useful on committees, 'making the due despatch of business his object.' He was materially concerned in digesting the 'Consolidation Act and greatly improving the Church Building Act' (Marsh, Primacy Charges, 1820). He died at Oxford on 12 March 1819, of rheumatic gout, and was buried, almost privately, by his own desire, in the chapel of Balliol College, where a monument has been erected. Parsons was a preacher of a high order, with a dignified and emphatic delivery, 'making it his object to convince, not to win applause.' Only two of his sermons were printed—that preached before the House of Commons on the general fast, 20 March 1811, and that before the members of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in 1818. All his manuscript sermons were burnt after his death, by his express desire. In the acrimonious controversy concerning the 'Bampton Lectures' of Dr. Joseph White [q. v.], the Arabic professor, of which the Rev. Samuel Badcock [q. v.] was asserted to have been the author, and portions of which were claimed by Dr. Samuel Parr [q. v.], Parsons was appointed one of the arbitrators, but declined to act; and it was believed that he also had 'a considerable right of property in the lectures, which his honour or his kindness obliged him to dissemble,' and that Parr in some of his claims was 'trespassing on ground he knew to be his own' (De Quincey, Works, v. 157). Parsons is described by the Rev. E. Patteson, in a letter to Sir William Scott (afterwards Lord Stowell) [q. v.], as 'a second founder of his college, a reformer of the abuses of the university, an enforcer of its discipline, an able champion of its privileges, and a main pillar of its reputation.' He had vigorous colloquial powers, and was both witty and gay when conversing with congenial companions; but in general society he was grave and reserved. He left no children by his wife, who survived him. A portrait of him, by Owen, hangs in Balliol hall.

[Patteson's letter to Sir W. Scott, in Annual Biography, iv. 439-44, and in Christian Remembrancer, June 1819, i. 384-5, 670-2; Gent. Mag. 1818 pt. ii. p. 525, 1819 pt. i. p. 481; Foster's Alumni Oxon. iii. 1076; Foster's Index Eccl. p. 135; Cox's Recollections of Oxford, p. 191; Britton's Peterborough Cathedral, p. 49; Churton's Life of Watson, pp. 64-6; Overton's English Church of the Eighteenth Century; private information from the late Professor Jowett; De Quincey's Works, v. 157.]

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