1902 Encyclopedia > John Foster

John Foster
English author and dissenting minister

JOHN FOSTER, (1770-1843), an English author and dissenting minister, generally known as the " Essayist," was born in a small farmhouse near Halifax, Yorkshire, September 17, 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, the outward and physical life of boyhood had for him scarcely an existence, and 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 ;" what observations he made on men and things were characterized by a precocious shrewdness and gravity, but he lived in an interior world of emotions and senti-ments which he recoiled from communicating to any human being ; his imagination often exercised on him a tyrannous sway, endowing past or fictitious events with a stronger and more importunate reality than the actual circumstances which surrounded him, and sometimes arousing almost insupportable emotions of pain or terror. A partial counteractive to the predominance of this inward life was supplied by his love of natural scenery, but even here his interest was rather in the grand and sublime than in the beautiful, and nature awakened his strong enthusiasm more frequently than it inspired him with quiet and genial enjoy-ment. The most wholesome influence exercised on his earlier years was perhaps that obtained from the perusal of books of travel—a species of literature for which he had always a decided preference. It supplied him with actual scenes and adventures on which to exercise his imagination, and helped to deliver him from a too constant contemplation of abstractions and a too minute analysis of his own moods and sentiments. His moral feelings in youth were not only sensitive but deeply rooted and constant and steadfast in their influence, being manifested in entire dutifulness to his parents, strong but " not malicious" antipathies, habitual abhorrence of cruelty, intense love of the heroic, and a tone of mind whose seriousness was ex-cessive.

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. There is little information as to the manner in which he obtained his primary educa-tion, but at an early period 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 con-ducted by his pastor Dr Fawcett. The mental processes of Foster followed a course which was entirely their own, and the manner of their operation was often awkward and unwieldy. He had difficulty in bending his attention to the continuous contemplation of a subject as it had been viewed by others, and smaller niceties and details only made an impression on his mind after a repeated perusal. He therefore mastered his tasks very slowly and with great labour, and his application was so intense and protracted as to awaken the serious anxiety of his friends. To excel in literary composition was the purpose which occupied his most eager attention, and with a view to obtain facility and variety of diction, it was his custom to select para-graphs from different writers and to alter the structure and expression of each sentence in as many different ways as his ingenuity could invent, a method which, if it helped him to acquire the particular kind of flexibility which his style afterwards manifested, was perhaps also in part the means of betraying him into his occasional use of lumbering expressions, and of a harsh, involved, or clumsy order of arrangement.

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 Newcastle-on-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 Down-end, 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 whichEvangelical Religion lias 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-the-Water, 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. He describes this essay with a certain degree of happiness and accuracy as a " broad, true, and strongly delineated picture of the intellectual and moral state of the mass of our people;" only it must be added that the contemplation of the gloomy features of his subject has so reacted on his vision that an artificially darkened atmosphere seems to overespread his whole canvas, and his picture somewhat resembles that of a landscape painted during an eclipse. 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 in 2 vols. 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 15th 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 preach-ing very seldom took the mould of theological forms. His " apprehension of the divine mercy, and of the terms of hope and safety for poor mortals, was," he says, " widely remote from the austerity of the systematic divines." He rejected the doctrine of eternal punishment, because the idea of such protracted and hopeless misery following such a "brief trial and sojourn on earth" seemed inconsistent with the divine goodness, and he was thus compelled to believe that the language of Scripture which seemed to support this doctrine was susceptible of another and milder interpretation. Though always retaining his connexion with the Baptist denomination, the evils resulting from organized religious communities seemed to him so great that lie 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.
Though he was mild and charitable in his interpretation of the conduct of individuals, his moral constitution was narrow and stern rather than sympathetic, and his creed left little room for laughter, and on the question of amusements was strongly puritanical. The dark and sombre scenes which his imagination so vividly pictured forth riveted his contemplation by a fascination from which he vainly struggled to be free. With such mournful views of life the "weight of this unintelligible world" pressed rather heavily upon him, and 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.

Apart from the singularity of his modes of thought, and the unusual forms of his spoken as well as his written style, Foster was constitutionally unfitted to excel as an orator, and Robert Hall testifies that " though his words might be fire within, the moment they left his lips they froze and fell down at his feet." As a writer his most characteristic quality is his searching discernment of every kind of moral falsity and weakness, the dark and subtle windings of which he tracks with unerring and dogged sagacity, and exposes either with easy irony, or with a keen and scathing satire, whose indignation, however, is slightly qualified by a faint suggestion of sorrowful contempt. He often strangely interweaves the hackneyed and commonplace with the novel and unexpected. The substance of his thought is old and worn, but after passing through the crucible of his mind it acquires a brilliant lustre, and he places it in such new and striking lights that his exhibition of it resembles the revelation of something hitherto unknown. He is, however, so intent on adequately representing the minutest aspects of his subject that he does not sufficiently distinguish between the important and the unimportant; and he often employs a beautiful some-times a sublime figure to illustrate either an almost self-evident proposition, or a thought otherwise much too lowly for such a splendid dress ; while, on the other hand, an elevated thought or sentiment is sometimes associated with imagery as much out of harmony with its surroundings and position as would be the rags of a beggar with the splendour and magnificence of a court. His originality consists chiefly in placing old and time-honoured beliefs in new and unexpected relations, and imparting a vividness to truths which are so generally recognized that their importance is almost forgotten. He has therefore given no new impulse to thought, and he has scarcely entered upon the threshold of the speculation and ideas of the 19th century. Though his intellectual was much wider than his moral sympathy, his literary criticisms—apart from the fact that they are totally unfettered by artificial rules and maxims, and record in ingenuous language the actual impression produced upon his mind by the work he examines—are chiefly of value for their keen detection of what is hollow and false in sentiment, and their sarcastic exposure of affectation and pretence. He wrote with intense mental strain and effort, and sometimes spent days in the elaboration of a single paragraph. His style has the merit of entire individuality ; as he himself says, his " language is simply and absolutely formed for the thought—is adapted and flexible to it—is taken out of the whole vocabulary of our tongue just on purpose for the thoughts, and moulded to their very shape, with an almost perfect independence and avoidance of all the set artificial forms of expression." With this merit however, it has the defects formerly 'adverted to; and while scarcely ever weak or ambiguous, but even in the midst of its frequent involutions surprising by terse and pointed or vivid and graphic interpolations, and preserving throughout its winding structure a compact, nervous, and sinewy strength which occasionally assumes the form of a rhythmical and measured eloquence, it is yet on the whole deficient in directness, freedom, ease, and grace.

Besides the works already alluded to, Foster is 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. Eyland, originally published in 1846, has passed through several editions. (T. F. H.)

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