Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
John Tillotson (1630–1694)
[John Tillotson was born in 1630 at Sowerby in Yorkshire, his father being a clothier and a strong Puritan. The son was sent to Cambridge; not, however, to Emmanuel, the Puritan headquarters, but to Clare Hall. He took his Master’s degree in 1654, and seems to have been a good deal under the influence of the overlapping schools of thought in that University, who earned themselves the titles of “Cambridge Platonists” and “Cambridge Latitudinarians.” He took a tutorship on leaving Cambridge, and the place and circumstances of his ordination are very uncertain. At the Savoy Conference he appeared on the Presbyterian side, but accepted the Act of Uniformity. Refusing to take a living of which Calamy had been deprived (a piece of politic chivalry which he would have done well to repeat later), he soon obtained another, and was also appointed preacher at Lincoln’s Inn. Here his sermons at once attracted attention, not only for their merits of style, but because the preacher developed in them a kind of “moderate” theological and ecclesiastical position, which kept “Popery,” Puritanism, and what was beginning to be called “philosophy” at equal distance. He became, notwithstanding decided Whig leanings, a prebendary and Dean of St. Paul’s during Charles the Second’s reign; and his attendance on Lord Russell during his imprisonment marked him out for favour after the Revolution. When Sancroft refused to take the oaths, the primacy was offered to him; and though he is said to have resisted the invidious honour, his resistance was overcome. That he would be violently attacked by the Nonjurors was, of course, certain; and he must have laid his account with it. He died not long afterwards, on 18th November 1694. Until his mistake in the Canterbury matter, Tillotson, though a Low Church latitudinarian, whose orthodoxy, even on the most liberal estimate, was open to considerable question, had been treated with much respect by all parties, and appears to have earned it, so far as a gentle temper and a complete freedom from ambition, greed, and intriguing could go; while even his great popularity as a preacher does not seem to have drawn on him the envy of his brethren. His Works have been more than once collected. The latest collection, I believe, which includes Birch’s learned Life (1752) is in 10 vols. 8vo. London: 1820.]  1
TILLOTSON enjoys, and partly deserves, a very high traditional reputation among English prose writers. That reputation is in part due to two rather accidental circumstances. We have it on the authority of Congreve that Dryden told him that if he, Dryden, had any skill of English prose, it was at any rate in some measure due to the study of Tillotson; and this is naturally and necessarily regarded as a very high testimonial. A little examination will perhaps somewhat reduce its value. In the first place, Dryden, like most, though not all, distinguished men of letters, was very much wont to overestimate, or at least to overstate, the merits of others and his own debt to them. A man who is thoroughly conscious of his own superior, much more of his own supreme merits, seldom (though there are contrary instances in the cases of Milton, Corneille, Racine, Wordsworth, and others) attempts to enhance them by the depreciation of others. Indeed he very often, as Goethe, Scott, and Dryden himself notoriously did, exceeds the limits of strict criticism in his encomiums. In this particular case, too, we have dates and facts to guide us. Before the appearance of Dryden’s first remarkable prose work, the Essay on Dramatic Poesy, Tillotson had published so little that he simply cannot have exercised much influence on his contemporary. They were both on the same way—the way of simplifying and refining English prose style; and, no doubt, Dryden was encouraged by Tillotson at the time, and with characteristic generosity exaggerated his indebtedness long afterwards. But something else has to be considered in estimating both the just and the traditional reputation of the archbishop. For something like two centuries, in gradually decreasing, but till almost within living memory, still considerable degree, the reading of sermons was one of the chief literary occupations of all Englishmen and Englishwomen who were disposed to literary occupations of any kind. In the later years of the seventeenth century there were hardly any indigenous novels, essays, or periodicals which rose above mere news-letters. It was some time after Tillotson’s death that Defoe, Addison, Steele, and the rest supplied the essays; and nearly half a century had passed after that event before the novels came in any noteworthy degree. The sermon, therefore, had a prerogative influence, and it lost that influence only step by step during the whole eighteenth century. Now, of sermon writers Tillotson was unquestionably the first who adjusted himself, with commanding ability, to the alterations of English style and English taste during the last quarter or the last two quarters of the seventeenth century—alterations which prevailed and progressed during the whole of the eighteenth. He could not vie in intellectual eminence or in literary quality with Taylor or South or Barrow; but he was far more distinctly “modern” for his day even than South, who was his junior, and outlived him for a good many years. His theology was the fashionable accommodation and latitudinarianism, which was the shoe-horn to draw on the deism of the next century; but he was not consciously or intentionally otherwise than orthodox. He was a Whig in politics, but though by no means given to temporising or cowardice, he never made any attacks on the other side, and might have gone to his grave with the esteem of both sides if it had not been for his fatal (and yet perhaps in a way generous) acceptance of Sancroft’s bishopric. And he undoubtedly had, if not as a master and originator, at any rate by early adoption and by sympathy of literary feeling, the new style—the style of slightly Gallicised English, which discarded nights and conceits on the one hand, classicisms and long-winded constructions on the other, and was concise, clear, succinct, reasonable, prosaic. He will rank, in short, with Dryden, Halifax, and Temple among the chief introducers of this style in English, and as perhaps the most influential (in virtue of the potency of his special form on the literary habits of the nation) of the four. But he will, I think, rank as the least of them in original literary quality and in literary accomplishment within his own limits. Not the least good example of his style, and one of the most touching examples of his curiously amiable temper that I know, will be found in the first of the following extracts, given by Dr. Birch from his commonplace book, and dated just after his troublesome elevation to the archbishopric; and in a larger space it might be supplemented from many of his letters, especially those to Rachel, Lady Russell. Indeed it is impossible for the most ferocious of Tories not to have a certain affection for Tillotson after reading him.  2

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