Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
William (1641?–1707) and Thomas (1678–1761) Sherlock
 
[The almost obligatory rule of treating but one author in one article may be broken with some reason in the case of the Sherlocks, who occupy a position almost unmatched in English literary history. The lives of the father and the son covered nearly a century and a quarter, during by far the greater part of which time both occupied very high places in exactly the same branch of literature,—that of oratorical and controversial divinity,—their careers overlapping considerably. They were both Eton and Cambridge men; both held the important office of Master of the Temple, which gave them probably the most intellectual congregation out of the two universities; both were representatives of an extreme and yet by no means uncompromising political and theological orthodoxy; both were for the time the central figures of furious and celebrated polemical struggles; and both had very high reputations in their day as writers and preachers. The continuity of their careers is curious; perhaps not less curious is the contrast of their style, which marks progress more strikingly than any unrelated and casual examples taken at the same distance of time could possibly do.  1
  William Sherlock, the father, was born at Southwark in 1641, went from Eton to Peterhouse, and became a beneficed London clergyman in 1669. He soon took a prominent part among the High Church section of the London clergy, and became even more famous as a controversialist and pamphleteer than as a preacher. He opposed Puritans and Romanists, but especially the enemies of the Duke of York’s succession, for which latter service he received the Mastership of the Temple and other preferments from Charles II. But he would not lend himself to James’s toleration of Papists, and fell under the royal displeasure even before the Revolution. His singular and, to say the least, unfortunate conduct at that crisis has been told by Macaulay in one of his liveliest and (for the importance of the matter) most detailed passages. Here it must be sufficient to say that Sherlock at first refused the oaths, and was suspended from his Mastership; but after some months announced his conversion, by dint of a treatise of Bishop Overall’s, enjoining submission to the government de facto, and took the oaths—together with the Deanery of St. Paul’s. He at once became the mark for the most violent abuse, not merely from Non-jurors, but from those who, by this means or that, had reconciled themselves to the oaths at once. By extraordinary ill-luck or maladroitness, the almost simultaneous publication of a well-intentioned but clumsy “Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” in which he was said to have fallen into Tritheism in attacking the Socinians, gave his enemies (among whom was the redoubtable South) a handle. Sherlock, however, kept his places, lived the storm down, and after loyal dedications and the like to Queen Anne, died in 1707. His most famous work, A Practical Discourse concerning Death (1689), was written during retirement between his refusing and his taking the oaths, and became extraordinarily popular, twenty-seven editions having been called for by the middle of the eighteenth century. He also published other Discourses of the same kind on Judgment, Providence, and Future Punishment, together with sermons and a great number of controversial works. But these do not appear to have ever been collected.  2
  Thomas Sherlock, his second son (by a wealthy and masterful lady, who was said by scandal to have had not a little to do with her husband’s tergiversation), was born in London in 1678. He too went to Eton, where he made many useful friends, including Walpole, and acquired much reputation as a scholar and a swimmer. He then went to Catherine Hall, Cambridge, of which he became successively Fellow and (in 1714) Master, and where he came into early contact with his future antagonist, Hoadly. In 1704, when he was only twenty-six, his father found means to resign the Mastership of the Temple in his favour. Sherlock was a strong Tory and High Churchman; but with a luckier application of the family tendency to face both ways, he contrived to be a strong Hanoverian also, and after the accession of the Georges he was successively Dean of Chichester (1715), and Bishop of Bangor (1728), Salisbury (1734), and London (1748). He had also inherited another family talent, that for controversy, and after taking no small share, as Vice-Chancellor, in the Bentleian broils at Cambridge, he became a protagonist in the great Bangorian controversy with Hoadly, his early rival and immediate predecessor at Bangor itself. He was a frequent and effective speaker in Parliament, is said to have declined Canterbury before he accepted London, and (a rather unusual thing in that age of pluralities), resigned his Mastership of the Temple, after a tenure of all but half a century, in 1753. He died on nth July 1761, leaving no children, but a considerable fortune to his wife, who had been a Miss Judith Fountaine. Sherlock’s long life, prominent position, active temper, and not small abilities, brought him under the favourable or unfavourable notice of many men of letters among both the wits and the divines of his time. Besides his controversial works and his sermons, he is best remembered by his very clever Trial of the Witnesses against the Deists, and by an excellent little Letter to the Clergy and Laity of his diocese on the earthquakes of 1750. A collected edition of his works appeared in 1830, in 5 vols. 8vo, edited by the Rev. T, C. Hughes.]  3
 
WILLIAM SHERLOCK’S Discourse on Death must certainly be pronounced a book of no ordinary good fortune. As has been said above, the public bought it without stint; and the critics praised as freely as the public bought. Addison, in prose, set it in the first rank as a persuasive to a religious life: Prior, in verse, devoted to it a long string of very bad and very un-Prior-like lines, in which Sherlock is apostrophised as “wondrous good man,” is compared to St. John the Baptist, is told that “his words are easy and his sense sublime,” receives the doubtfully orthodox assurance that at the Last Judgment he will “glad all Heaven with millions he has saved,” and, in short, serves as a text to show that the keen satirist of Boileau, the charming humourist whose sense delights us as much as his wit elsewhere, could at need write fulsome rubbish to which Boileau would have been ashamed to set his hand. Now to the student of literature it is, though a by no means uncommon, always an interesting thing to turn to books which have been the subject of hyperbolical praise in their own day, and have been nearly forgotten since. Turning thus to the Practical Discourse concerning Death, we shall find it to be very much what might be expected. In another case, the Discourse on Future Judgment, which is also drawn upon here, Sherlock informs us that part of it had been actually preached, and the tone of all these discourses suggests, as well as their form, the pulpit rather than the study as a scene, the hearer rather than the reader as a public. Not that they are extremely rhetorical; but they are eminently exoteric. They are addressed to presumably educated readers, but in their manner there is something of an anticipation of that tone of the modern newspaper article which is reflected in the well-known advice to a commencing journalist, “You must not be too clever.” Sherlock, in fact, was not too clever or too learned; he had escaped some inconveniences, though he might have reaped fewer solid benefices, if his share of both these gifts had been greater. But he is competent in learning and in ability, well-bred, persuasive, not too enthusiastic, as the age was already beginning to say, and deeply imbued with that not unkindly but somewhat unheroic and intensely commonsense morality which dominated the religion and the literature of the next century. He has not the polish of the younger generation of those who admired him; but, on the other hand, he has still a touch of the older directness and simplicity. Above all, he is completely free from the somewhat arrogant and insulting preponderance of intellect which made his elder contemporary and enemy, South, not exactly loved, and which made his younger contemporary, Bentley, feared and hated. He was too hardened a controversialist to show traces of the almost too abundant milk of human kindness which flowed in Tillotson; but there is nothing savage or overweening about him. Indeed, it is fair to say that it is greatly to Addison’s credit, when rightly considered, that, though the form of that great writer’s famous reflections on tombs is his own, the substance is practically Sherlock’s. In short, the Master of the Temple had seized, and to some extent anticipated, the temper and thoughts of the average best men of his age, and had expressed them in competent, if not consummate, manner. This is almost a definition of the secret of popularity.  4
  Thomas Sherlock was superior to his father, both in general intellectual ability and in special literary faculty; and he had the advantages of an almost finished style put ready into his hands. But he paid for this by being the contemporary of more distinguished writers in his own fields, and by the fact that the pulpit, though still powerful, was less powerful than it had been, and that the gradual “taming” process, of which Tillotson had set the example, had brought its exercises close to the uninteresting. As a mere writer he could not vie with Addison or Swift; as a writer in controversial divinity he could not vie with Law on one side or Berkeley on another. Nevertheless, he exhibited the earlier form of eighteenth-century prose in a very good measure, and showed its capacities in the various uses to which he applied it. As has been said above, he marks progress particularly well when he is contrasted with his father. The half century of difference (though indeed there was not that between their births) is perceivable at once. The style of Sherlock the younger is not extraordinarily remarkable; but it is good of its kind. It has not seemed necessary to draw on his Sermons, but the Trial of the Witnesses and the Letter on the Earthquakes have each furnished a characteristic specimen. Those persons who retain the old English delight in a theological argument, conducted on sound logical principles, may be invited to turn from the extract here given from the Trial to the severer and more daring championship of orthodoxy on the same subject by the great antagonist of Sherlock’s father, South.  5
 
 
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