John Foster - Encyclopedia

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JOHN FOSTER (1770-1843), English author and dissenting minister, generally known as the "Essayist," was born in a small farmhouse near Halifax, Yorkshire, on the 17th of September 1770. Partly from constitutional causes, but partly also from the want of proper companions, as well as from the grave and severe habits of his parents, his earlier years were enshrouded in a somewhat gloomy and sombre atmosphere, which was never afterwards wholly dissipated. His youthful energy, finding no proper outlet, developed within him a tendency to morbid intensity of thought and feeling; and, according to his own testimony, before he was twelve years old he was possessed of a "painful sense of an awkward but entire individuality." The small income accruing to Foster's parents from their farm they supplemented by weaving, and at an early age he began to assist them by spinning wool by the hand wheel, and from his fourteenth year by weaving double stuffs. Even "when a child," however, he had the "feelings of a foreigner in the place"; and though he performed his monotonous task with conscientious diligence, he succeeded so indifferently in fixing his wandering thoughts upon it that his work never without difficulty passed the ordeal of inspection. He had acquired a great taste for reading, to gratify which he sometimes shut himself up alone in a barn, afterwards working at his loom "like a horse," to make up for lost time. He had also at this period "a passion for making pictures with a pen." Shortly after completing his seventeenth year he became a member of the Baptist church at Hebden Bridge, with which his parents were connected; and with the view of preparing himself for the ministerial office he began about the same time to attend a seminary at Brearley Hall conducted by his pastor Dr Fawcett.

After remaining three years at Brearley Hall he was admitted to the Baptist College, Bristol, and on finishing his course of study at this institution he obtained an engagement at Newcastleon-Tyne, where he preached to an audience of less than a hundred persons, in a small and dingy room situated near the river at the top of a flight of steps called Tuthill Stairs. At Newcastle he remained only three months. In the beginning of 1793 he proceeded to Dublin, where, after failing as a preacher, he attempted to revive a classical and mathematical school, but with so little success that he did not prosecute the experiment for more than eight or nine months. From 1797 to 1799 he was minister of a Baptist church at Chichester, but though he applied himself with more earnestness and perseverance than formerly to the discharge of his ministerial duties, his efforts produced little apparent impression, and the gradual diminution of his hearers necessitated his resignation. After employing himself for a few months at Battersea in the instruction of twenty African youths brought to England by Zachary Macaulay, with the view of having them trained to aid as missionaries to their fellow-countrymen, he in 1800 accepted the charge of a small congregation at Downend, Bristol, where he continued about four years. In 1804, chiefly through the recommendation of Robert Hall, he became pastor of a congregation at Frome, but a swelling in the thyroid gland compelled him in 1806 to resign his charge. In the same year he published the volume of Essays on which his literary fame most largely if not mainly rests. They were written in the form of letters addressed to the lady whom he afterwards married, and consist of four papers, - "On a Man writing Memoirs of himself"; "On Decision of Character"; "On the Application of the Epithet Romantic"; and "On some Causes by which Evangelical Religion has been rendered unacceptable to Men of Cultivated Taste." The success of this work was immediate, and was so considerable that on resigning his charge he determined to adopt literature as his profession.

The Eclectic Review was the only periodical with which he established a connexion; but his contributions to that journal, which were begun in 1807, number no fewer than 185 articles. On his marriage in May 1808 he removed to Bourton-on-theWater, a small village in Gloucestershire, where he remained till 1817, when he returned to Downend and resumed his duties to his old congregation. Here he published in 1820 his Essay on Popular Ignorance, which was the enlargement of a sermon originally preached on behalf of the British and Foreign School Society. In 1821 he removed to Stapleton near Bristol, and in 1822 he began a series of fortnightly lectures at Broadmead chapel, Bristol, which were afterwards published. On the settlement of Robert Hall at Bristol this service was discontinued, as in such circumstances it appeared to Foster to be "altogether superfluous and even bordering on impertinent." The health of Foster during the later years of his life was somewhat infirm, the result chiefly of the toil and effort of literary composition; and the death of his only son, his wife and the greater number of his most intimate friends combined with his bodily ailments to lend additional sombreness to his manner of regarding the events and arrangements of the present world - the "visage of death" being almost his "one remaining luminary." He died at Stapleton on the 15th of October 1843.

The cast of Foster's mind was meditative and reflective rather than logical or metaphysical, and though holding moderately Calvinistic views, his language even in preaching very seldom took the mould of theological forms. Though always retaining his connexion with the Baptist denomination, the evils resulting from organized religious communities seemed to him so great that he came to be "strongly of opinion that churches are useless and mischievous institutions, and the sooner they are dissolved the better." The only Christian observances which he regarded as of any importance were public worship and the Lord's Supper, and it so happened that he never administered the ordinance of baptism. His cast of thought is largely coloured by a constant reference to the "endless future." He was a firm believer in supernatural appearances, and cherished a longing hope that a ray of light from the other world might sometimes in this way be vouchsafed to mortals. As a writer he was most painstaking and laborious in his choice of diction, and his style has its natural consequent defects, though the result is eloquent in its way.

Besides the works already alluded to, Foster was the author of a Discourse on Missions (1818); "Introductory Essay" to Doddridge's Rise and Progress of Religion (1825); "Observations on Mr Hall's Character as a Preacher," prefixed to the collected edition of Hall's Works (1832); an "Introduction" to a pamphlet by Mr Marshman on the Serampore Missionaries; several political letters to the Morning Chronicle, and contributions to the Eclectic Review, published posthumously in 2 vols., 1844. His Life and Correspondence, edited by J. E. Ryland, was published in 1846.

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