PEARSON, John (1613-86)

PEARSON, John (1613–86)

cons. 9 Feb. 1673 bp. of CHESTER

First sat 18 Feb. 1673; last sat 28 Mar. 1681

b. 12 Feb. 1613, elder s. of Robert Pearson (d.1640) of Westmor, clergyman, and Joanna, da. of Richard Vaughan, bp. of London. educ. Eton 1623-31; King’s, Camb. matric. 1632, BA 1635-6, fell. 1635-9, MA, 1639, ord. 1639, DD 1661. m. unknown. d. 16 Jul. 1686; will 2 Jan. 1678-18 June 1685, pr. 25 Sept. 1686.1

Chap. to Charles II 1660-73.

Preb. Salisbury 1639-62, Ely 1660-1, 1661-72; rect. Thorington, Suff. 1640-bef. 1646, Terrington St Clement, Norf. 1661-73, St Christopher-le-Stocks, London 1660-2, Wigan, Lancs. 1673-86; chap. to John Finch, Bar. Finch, 1640, to regt. of George Goring, Bar. Goring, 1645; preacher, St Clement Eastcheap, London 1654-60; adn. Surr. 1660-86; master Jesus, Camb. 1660-2, Trinity, Camb. 1662-73; Lady Margaret Prof. Divinity 1661-72; commr. Savoy conference 1661.2

FRS 1667.

Also associated with: Creake, Norf.

Likenesses: engraving, by D. Loggan, 1682, NPG 635; line engraving by F.H. Van Hove, 1675, after W. Sonmans, repro. in J. Pearson, An exposition of the creed (1676).

John Pearson, who became a celebrated patristic scholar of the seventeenth century, came from something of a clerical dynasty. His mother was the daughter of a bishop of London, his father a clergyman who had sympathized with the anti-Calvinist churchmanship of Richard Mountague, bishop of Norwich. One of his cousins was the royalist clergyman Thomas Mallory, son and namesake of the dean of Chester. The family also had useful secular connections: another cousin was Sir Charles Cornwallis, who represented Eye in the Commons from 1662 to 1675, and through this connection Pearson was distantly linked to the Barons Cornwallis. By the Restoration Pearson was a client of George Berkeley, 9th Baron (later earl of) Berkeley.3

During the civil wars, Pearson was counted as one of London’s ‘cavalier’ ministers4 He had formulated a coherent political theology from which he would never deviate: the defence of the established Church against both Rome and nonconformity.5 His Eastcheap lectures, delivered in the 1650s, went into numerous editions as An Exposition of the Creed and became a core Anglican commentary. He contributed to debates at the Savoy Conference and took part in further discussions aimed at resolving the impasse with nonconformists.6 On 13 Dec. 1661 he was appointed to assist in the preparation of the revised Book of Common Prayer.7 Throughout the 1660s he preached at court, continued to write prolifically and was active in the Upper House of Convocation. He was of the same mind as Gilbert Sheldon, of Canterbury, on religious uniformity, and it is likely that his long-awaited elevation to the episcopate was delayed by the tolerationist agenda of the Cabal and attendant eclipse of Sheldon’s influence. His fortunes changed with Sheldon’s return to favour, and when he learned of his elevation to Chester in December 1672 he readily acknowledged the ‘greatness’ of Sheldon’s ‘undeserved kindness in inclining his majesty to that good opinion of me’.8 His elevation came at a difficult time for the Church: in the wake of the 1672 Declaration of Indulgence and revelations of the recent conversion to Catholicism of James Stuart, duke of York.

Pearson took his seat in the Lords for the 1673 session on 18 Feb., subsequently attending for nearly 60 per cent of sittings. On 1 Mar. 1673 he was added to the committee on the private bill for Berkeley, a committee in which it seems likely, given his personal connection to the family, that he did participate. On 19 Mar. 1673 Pearson was present when the Commons sent up a bill for the ease of Protestant Dissenters and went into a committee of the whole on the bill to prevent dangers from Catholics. He attended on 22 and 25 Mar. for debates on the Dissenters bill. The next session began on 27 Oct. 1673. Pearson was appointed to the sessional committees, but after only eight days Parliament was prorogued. The following day, 5 Nov. 1673, Pearson preached the thanksgiving sermon at Westminster Abbey, reiterating his stand on ‘public and united’ worship. He used the sermon to attack Catholicism and to warn nonconformists that they were weakening the Church’s fight against Rome.9

On 1 Dec. 1673, in advance of the spring 1674 session, Pearson received the proxy of Edward Rainbowe, of Carlisle (who was absent from the House until April 1675). He attended the House for the start of business on 7 Jan. 1674, attending for 85 per cent of sittings. Although present on 10 Feb. when a committee of the whole debated the ‘heads for securing the Protestant religion’, he did not attend on 13 Feb. when George Morley, of Winchester, introduced a new bill to invite ‘sober and peaceably-minded’ Dissenters into the Church. On 19 Feb. the bill had a second reading, and Pearson was one of several bishops, including John Dolben, of Rochester, Benjamin Laney, of Ely, and Seth Ward, of Salisbury, who voted that no minister should be obliged to wear the surplice or use the cross in baptism. The bill was carried ‘by almost twenty votes’ after a ‘great debate’ when Pearson, Morley, Ward and Dolben were ‘for the commitment and spoke for the thing’, but was eventually lost with the prorogation on 24 Feb. 1674.10

Pearson returned to his diocese for the summer months of 1674 to conduct a visitation.11 Although unwell, he returned to London in the late autumn of 1674, answering a royal summons, together with Richard Sterne, of York, Walter Blandford, of Worcester, and George Morley, to discuss ‘the preservation and security of the protestant religion’.12 In January 1675 the king issued instructions to the bishops to assist in ‘the preserving of the Church’. Pearson was one of the eight bishops who concluded that the penal laws already on the statute book against Catholics and nonconformists were adequate but required a royal proclamation to encourage their implementation. Pearson and five other bishops also joined Heneage Finch, Baron Finch, later earl of Nottingham, Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby (later duke of Leeds), and John Maitland, duke of Lauderdale [S], and earl of Guilford, to sign the ‘advice’ to the king on Catholicism.13

During the early months of 1675 he was involved in further unsuccessful negotiations with Morley, Ward and Baxter about comprehension.14 He took his place in the Lords at the opening of the new session of Parliament that began on 13 Apr. 1675. He attended the session for 69 per cent of sittings and contributed to debates on the threat of catholicism. On 21 Apr. 1675, as opposition to Danby’s ministry became more vocal, Pearson, with the entire episcopal bench, supported the government motion that the bill imposing the contentious ‘no alteration’ oath on members of both Houses, did not entrench on the Lords’ privileges. On 11 May, after being named to a committee of the House on the ‘heads’, he was named to a subcommittee to prepare a bill for the suppression of atheism and blasphemy. Pearson was present when the House reassembled on 13 Oct. 1675 and on 21 Oct. again received the proxy of Edward Rainbowe for the whole session. He attended the House for 76 per cent of sittings until the prorogation of 22 Nov. 1675.

After spending the recess in Chester, Pearson was at Westminster for the first day of the session on 15 Feb. 1677 and was promptly named to the committee to enquire into the writer and printer of the contentious Some Considerations upon the Question Whether the Parliament is Dissolved by Prorogation for Fifteen Months. He attended the session for 59 per cent of sittings and was present on 21 Feb. when the House went into committee on the security of the protestant religion. On 30 Mar. 1677 he was one of those nominated ‘to interpose and mediate’ in the marital dispute between Thomas Leigh, 2nd Baron Leigh, and his wife. On 28 Jan. 1678 Pearson was in the House to hear of the committal of Philip Herbert, 7th earl of Pembroke. The following day he failed to join the protest, led by William Sancroft, against the earl’s release. After the prorogation Pearson resumed his seat on 23 May 1678 and attended the House regularly until the end of the session on 15 July 1678. On 8 July he was present for the debates on the appeal of Louis de Duras, 2nd earl of Feversham. Baron Finch, the lord chancellor who had presided over the original case in chancery, reported in some exasperation that Pearson ‘talked scholastically upon the words “dependent” and “coherent” but understood not at all that sense in which the lawyers used those words’ and thus contributed to what Finch considered to be an erroneous verdict that overturned the original decree.15

Pearson did not appear at the start of the next session in October 1678, thus missing the emotive debate on 19 Nov. when the duke of York pleaded for an exemption from the second Test.16 He entered his proxy on 2 Nov. 1678 in favour of Seth Ward. Perhaps he was genuinely unable to attend, but it is equally possible that his absence was strategic. The death of Ralph Brideoake, of Chichester, on 5 Oct. had led to much speculation about possible translations, and Henry Compton, of London, proposed that Pearson take the see.17 Pearson arrived in the House on 22 November. He then joined his fellow bishops in their support for Danby against impeachment. On 26 Dec. 1678, he voted in the division on the supply bill, insisting on the Lords’ amendment relating to the payment on money into the exchequer.

Pearson appeared on the second day of the first Exclusion Parliament, 7 Mar. 1679. He attended the first day of the main session, on 15 Mar., and thereafter attended 23 per cent of sitting days. and was present on 26 Mar. for the third reading and vote on the banishment of Danby. Although he was not recorded in the printed Journal as attending on 14 Apr. 1679, surviving division lists name him as one of the six bishops who left the chamber rather than vote for the attainder of Danby. Pearson attended the House sporadically throughout May 1679 but was absent for every debate that month on the matter of the bishops’ right to vote in capital cases. On 9 May 1679 Pearson was excused attendance at a call of the House and, with the exception of two days at the end of the month, he stayed away for the rest of the session. In August 1679 he wrote to Sancroft about the necessity of promoting strong-principled churchmen in a region ‘whereon a numerous party of each separation hath acted these many years’.18

Throughout the summer and winter of 1679 and for much of 1680 Pearson remained in Chester. He fretted over his enforced absence from London, especially with regard to a case pending in common pleas over the Staffordshire rectory of Bradley (‘sacrilegiously made ... away’ by the first bishop after the Reformation); he asked Sancroft to lobby lord chief justice Charles North, 5th Baron North, to ‘be careful of the right of the Church’.19 Pearson attended the second Exclusion Parliament in October 1680 and was then present for 32 per cent of sittings. He was excused attendance on the grounds of illness on 30 Oct. but returned in November, holding Seth Ward’s proxy from 12 Nov. to the end of the session. He was not present for the vote on the Exclusion bill on 15 Nov., although he was back in the House two days later. He went to each sitting of the brief Oxford Parliament in 1681, being named to the committee on the popish plot on 25 March. He attended the House for the final time on 28 Mar. 1681, the day of the abrupt dissolution of Parliament. By 1682 William Lloyd, of St Asaph, reported that the ageing bishop was ‘so infirm’ that he could not travel to London ‘without hazard of life’.20

As the Tory reaction began to bite the diocese of Chester became increasingly polarized. Pearson was caught between political factions when his clergy came under political scrutiny from the gentry and nobility. He was pressurized to suppress certain lectures on the grounds that they encouraged whiggism and hampered the execution of the penal laws. Pearson also found himself at odds with his own dean, James Arderne (an appointee of the ecclesiastical commissioners) who was enthusiastically committed to rooting out political opposition. Pearson himself pointed to the success of the lectures in recovering to the Church wavering nonconformists ‘who otherwise had passed over into the tents of desperation’.21

By 1685 Pearson’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and he was unable to attend the opening of James II’s first Parliament. In December 1685 William Lloyd reported that Pearson was deaf and bedridden. When visited by Henry Dodwell, his ‘great friend and fellow labourer’, Pearson’s confusion left Dodwell shocked and ‘ashamed’ at the degeneration of such a great mind.22 Pearson died on 16 July 1686. William Lloyd wrote of his ‘heartache’ at the death of his ‘most excellent’ friend. Neither his grief nor his respect for Pearson was shared by Thomas Cartwright, the next bishop of Chester, who complained that the Pearson had mismanaged the diocese by ‘minding his private study more than the public concerns of the Church’.23

Despite the success of his publications, the bishop was never a wealthy man. His diocesan revenue was an annual £744.24 The Norfolk landholdings Pearson had inherited from his father were bequeathed to his brother and executor Theophilus, and he left only £100 to his nephew and amanuensis John Thane. Pearson was buried in Chester Cathedral near to the high altar without a surviving monument. His body was rediscovered in 1841 and moved to a new tomb in 1863.


  • 1 TNA, PROB 11/384.
  • 2 Bodl. Tanner 282, f. 35.
  • 3 J. Pearson, Patriarchal Funeral, A2.
  • 4 Ath. Ox. iv. 276; Pepys Diary, viii. 337.
  • 5 J. Pearson, The Excellency of Forms of Prayer … in a Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge … 1644, pp. 3, 14.
  • 6 Cardwell, 257, 264.
  • 7 Swainson, Parl. Hist. 16.
  • 8 Bodl. Add. C305, f. 66.
  • 9 J. Pearson, Sermon Preached Nov. 5 1673 at the Abbey-Church in Westminster, 2, 25.
  • 10 Tanner 42, f. 89; 44, f. 249; Add. 23136, f. 98.
  • 11 Articles of Enquiry Concerning Matters Ecclesiastical within the Diocese of Chester (1674).
  • 12 CSP Dom. 1673-5, pp. 390, 403.
  • 13 Ibid. pp. 548-50.
  • 14 Reliquiae Baxterianiae, iii. 156-8.
  • 15 Lord Nottingham’s Chancery Cases ed. D.E.C. Yale, ii. 637-47.
  • 16 Timberland, i. 221.
  • 17 Tanner, 39, f.108.
  • 18 Tanner 38, f. 71.
  • 19 Tanner 144, ff. 21, 24.
  • 20 Tanner 35, f. 162.
  • 21 Tanner 32, ff. 15, 26; Tanner 34, ff. 18, 27.
  • 22 Tanner 31, ff. 30, 242; Lansd. 987, f. 53.
  • 23 Tanner 30, ff. 3, 180.
  • 24 Hirschberg, ‘Episcopal Incomes’, 214.