Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Spencer, John (1630-1693)
SPENCER, JOHN, D.D. (1630–1693), master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and author of 'De Legibus Hebræorum,' was a native of Bocton, near Bleane, Kent, where he was baptised on 31 Oct. 1630 (Lewis, Antiquities of Feversham, p. 87). He was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, became king's scholar there, and was admitted to a scholarship of Archbishop Parker's foundation in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on 25 March 1645. He graduated B.A. in 1648, M.A. in 1652, B.D. in 1659, and D.D. in 1665. He was chosen a fellow of his college about 1655. After taking holy orders he became a university preacher, served the cures first of St. Giles and then of St. Benedict, Cambridge, and on 23 July 1667 was instituted to the rectory of Landbeach, Cambridgeshire, which he resigned in 1683 in favour of his nephew and curate, William Spencer. On 3 Aug. 1667 he was unanimously elected master of Corpus Christi College, and he governed that society 'with great prudence and reputation' for twenty-six years. He contributed verses to the Cambridge University Collection on the death of Henrietta Maria, queen dowager, 1669. He was appointed a prebendary in the first stall at Ely in February 1671-2, and served the office of vice-chancellor of the university in the academical year 1673-4, during which he delivered a speech addressed to the Duke of Monmouth on his installation as chancellor of the university (cf. Hearne's appendix to Vindiciæ Antiq. Oxon. Thomæ Caii, p. 86; Biogr. Brit.) He was admitted, on the presentation of the king, to the archdeaconry of Sudbury in the church of Norwich on 5 Sept. 1677; and was instituted to the deanery of Ely on 9 Sept. 1677. He died on 27 May 1693, and was buried in the college chapel, where a monument with a Latin inscription was erected to his memory. He was a great benefactor to the college, He married Hannah, daughter of Isaac Puller of Hertford, and sister of Timothy Puller [q. v.] She died in 1674, leaving one daughter (Elizabeth) and one son (John).
Spencer was an erudite theologian and Hebraist, and to him belongs the honour of being the first to trace the connection between the rites of the Hebrew religion and those practised by kindred Semitic races. In 1669 he published a 'Dissertatio de Urin. et Thummin' (Cambridge, 8vo), in which he referred those mystic emblems to an Egyptian origin. The tract was republished in the following year, and afterwards, in 1744, by Blasius Ugolinus in 'Thesaurus Antiquitatum.' This was the prelude to a more extensive work. In 1685 appeared Spencer's chief publication, his 'De Legibus Hebræorum, Ritualibus et earum Rationibus libri tres' (Cambridge, 1685, fol.; The Hague, 1686, 4to, libri quattuor). In this work, which included the earlier treatise on Urim and Thummin, Spencer deserted the time-honoured paths traced by commentators, and 'may justly be said to have laid the foundations of the science of comparative religion. In its special subject, in spite of certain defects, it still remains by far the most important book on the religious antiquities of the Hebrews' (Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, 1894, Pref. p. vi). The remarkable nature of Spencer's achievement is enhanced when, it is remembered that oriental studies were then in their infancy, and that he was compelled to derive nearly all his data from classical writers of Greece and Rome, from the Christian fathers, the works of Josephus, or from the Bible itself. Spencer professed that his object was 'to clear the Deity from arbitrary and fantastic humour,' but it was inevitable that his orthodoxy should be questioned. Among his earliest adverse critics may be mentioned Hermann Witsius in his 'Aegyptiaca' in 1683, Joannes Wigersma, Ibertus Fennema, Andreas Kempfer, Joannes Meyer, John Edwards (1637-1716) [q. v.], and John Woodward [q. v.] Among later writers Spencer's chief antagonists were William Jones of Nayland (1726-1800) [q. v.], and Archbishop Magee,who rebuked Warburton for defending Spencer against Witsius. The latest works on comparative religion, such as J. Wellhausen's 'History of Israel' (1878) and C. P. Tiele's 'Histoire Compared des Anciennes Religions de l'Egypte et des Peuples Sémitiques,' develop and extend the lines traced by Spencer two centuries ago. A second edition of Spencer's work appeared at Cambridge in 1727, 4to (revised by Leonhard Chappelow), and another at Tübingen, 1732, 2 vols. 8vo.
Spencer also wrote 'A Discourse concerning Prodigies, wherein the vanety of Presages by them is reprehended, and their true and proper Ends asserted and vindicated,' London, 1663, 4to; 2nd edit., 'to which is added a short Treatise concerning Vulgar Prophecies,' London, 1665, 8vo.
A portrait of Spencer, engraved by Vertue, is prefixed to the treatise 'De Legibus Hebraeorum.' There is also a portrait in Masters's 'History of Corpus Christi College.'[Addit. MSS. 5807 pp. 23, 24, 39, 40, 123, 5843 pp. 292, 294, 5880 f. 19; Baker's MS. 26, p. 281; Bentham's Ely, i. 237; Biogr. Brit.; Bowes's Cat. of Cambridge Books; Bromley's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, p. 183; Calamy's Abridgment of Baxter, 1713, ii. 118; Clay's Hist. of Landbeach, p. 115; Cooper's Memorials of Cambridge, i. 149; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits; Hasted's Kent, iii. 9; Le Neve's Fasti (Hardy); Locke's Letters, 1708, p. 444; Masters's Hist. of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, p. 163 and index, and also edit, p. 193; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. iv. 281; Richardson's Athenae Cantabr.; Dawson Turner's Sale Cat. p. 42; Warton's Life of Bathurst, p. 105.]