Dr. JOHN JORTIN, a learned English divine, was born in the parish of St. Giles's, Middlesex, Oct. 23, 1698. His father, Renatus, was a native of Bretagne in France; came over to England about 1685, when protestantism was no longer tolerated in that country; was made a gentleman of the privy-chamber in 1691; became afterwards secretary to lord Orford, sir George Rooke, and sir Cloudesly Shovel; and was cast away with the last, when his ship struck upon the rocks of Scilly, Oct. 22, 1707. His mother was Martha Rogers, of an ancient and respectable family in Bucks, which had produced some clergymen, distinguished by their abilities and learning. He was educated at the Charter-house, where he made a good proficiency in Greek and Latin: French he learned at home, and he understood and spoke that language well.
In May 1715, he was admitted of Jesus-college, Cambridge; and, about two years after, recommended by his tutor Dr. Styan Thirlby, who was very fond of him, and always retained a friendship for him, to make extracts from Eustathius, for the use of Pope's Homer. He was not employed directly by Pope, nor did it ever happen to him to see the face of that poet: for, being of a shy modest nature, he felt no impulse to force his way to him; nor did the other make inquiry about him, though perfectly satisfied with what he had done for him. He took the degree of B.A. in 1718-19, and M.A. in 1722: he had been chosen fellow of his college soon after the taking of his first degree. This year he distinguished himself by the publication of a few Latin poems, entitled, Lusus Poetici; which were well received, and were twice reprinted, with additions. In Sept. 1723, he entered into deacon's orders, and into priest's the June following. In Jan. 1726-7, he was presented by his college to Swavesey, near Cambridge; but, marrying in 1728, he resigned that living, and soon after settled himself in London, where he was engaged as a reader and preacher at a chapel in New-street, near Russell-street, Bloomsbury.
In this town he spent the next twenty-five years of his life: for though, in 1737, the earl of Winchelsea gave him the living of Eastwell in Kent, where he resided a little time, yet he very soon quitted it, and returned to London. Here for many years he had employment as a preacher, in the abovementioned and other chapels; with the emoluments of which occasional services, and a competency of his own, be supported himself and family in a decent though private manner, dividing his leisure hours between his books and his friends, especially those of the literati, with whom he always kept up a close and intimate connection. In 1730, he published Four Sermons upon the Truth of the Christian Religion: the substance of which was afterwards incorporated in a work, entitled, Discourses concerning the Truth of the Christian Religion, 1746, 8vo.
In 1731, he published Miscellaneous Observations upon Authors, ancient and modern, in 2 vols. 8vo. This is a collection of critical remarks, of which, however, he was nor the sole, though the principal, author: Pearce, Masson, Dr. Taylor, Wasse, Theobald, Dr. Robinson, Upton, Thirlby, and others, were contributors to it. This work was highly approved by the learned here, and was translated into Latin at Amsterdam, and continued on the same plan by D'Orville and Burman. In 1751, archbishop Herring, unsolicited, gave him the living of St. Dunstan in the East, London. This prelate had long entertained a high and affectionate regard for him; had endeavoured to serve him in many instances with others; and afterwards, in 1755, conferred upon him the degree of D.D. This same year, 1751, came out his first volume of Remarks upon Ecclesiastical History, 8vo. This work was inscribed to the earl of Burlington; by whom, as trustee for the Boylean Lecture, he had, through the application of bishop Herring and bishop Sherlock, been appointed, in 1749, to preach that lecture. There is a preface to this volume of more than forty pages, which, with much learning and ingenuity, displays a spirit of liberty and candour. These Remarks upon Ecclesiastical History were continued, in four succeeding volumes, down to the year 1517, when Luther began the work of reformation; two, published by himself, in 1752 and 1754; and two, after his death, in 1773.
In 1755, be published Six Dissertations upon different Subjects, 8vo. The sixth dissertation is, On the state of the dead, as described by Homer and Virgil; and the remarks in this, tending to establish the great antiquity of the doctrine of a future state, interfered with Warburton in his Divine Legation of Moses, and drew upon him from that quarter a very severe attack. He made no reply; but in his Adversaria was the following memorandum, which shews that he did not oppose the notions of other men, from any spirit of envy or contradiction, but from a full persuasion that the real matter of fact was as he had represented it. "I have examined," says he, "the state of the dead, as described by Homer and Virgil; and upon that dissertation I am willing to stake all the little credit that I have as a critic and philosopher. I have there observed, that Homer was not the inventor of the fabulous history of the gods: he had those stories, and also the doctrine of a future state, from old traditions. Many notions of the Pagans, which came from tradition, are considered by Barrow, Serm. viii. vol. II. in which sermon the existence of God is proved from universal consent."
In 1758, appeared his Life of Erasmus, in one vol. 4to; and in 1760, another vol. 4to, containing Remarks upon the Works of Erasmus, and an Appendix of Extracts from Erasmus and other Writers. In the preface to the former volume, he says, that "Le Clerc, while publishing the Works of Erasmus at Leyden, drew up his Life in French, collected principally from his letters, and inserted it in the Bibliotheque Choisie; that, as this Life was favourably received by the public, he had taken it as a groundwork to build upon, and had translated it, not superstitiously and closely, but with much freedom, and with more attention to things than to words; but that he had made continual additions, not only with relation to the history of those days, but to the life of Erasmus, especially where Le Clerc grew more remiss, either wearied with the task, or called off from these to other labours." After mentioning a few other matters to his readers, he turns his discourse to his friends; "recommending himself to their favour, whilst he is with them, and his name, when he is gone hence; and intreating them to join with him in a wish, that he may pass the evening of a studious and unambitious life in an humble but not a slothful obscurity, and never forfeit the kind continuance of their accustomed approbation."
The plan of this work, however, is highly objectionable, unless as a book to be consulted. It contains, in that respect, a vast mass of facts and opinions respecting Erasmus and his contemporaries, put together in chronological order, and of great importance in ecclesiastical or biographical researches.
But whatever Dr. Jortin's wishes might be as to retirement, he was to live hereafter neither so studiously nor so obscurely as his imagination had figured out to him: more public scenes than any he had yet been engaged in still awaited him. For, Hayter, bishop of London, with whom he had been upon intimate terms, dying in 1762, and Osbaldiston, who was also his friend, succeeding to that see, he was made domestic chaplain to this bishop in March, admitted into a prebend of St. Paul's the same month, and in October presented to the living of Kensington, whither he went to reside soon after, and there performed the office of a good parish priest as long as he lived. In 1764, he was appointed archdeacon of London, and soon after had the offer of the rectory of St. James, Westminster; which, however, he refused, from thinking his situation at Kensington more to his honour, as well as better adapted to his now advanced age. Here he lived occupied (when his clerical functions permitted) amongst his books, and enjoying himself with his usual serenity, till Aug. 27, 1770: when, being seized with a disorder in the breast and lungs, he grew continually worse in spite of all assistance; and, without undergoing much pain in the course of his illness, died Sept. 5, in his 72d year. He preserved his understanding to the last; and, in answer to a female attendant who offered him something, "No," said he, with much composure, "I have had enough of every thing." He was buried in the new church-yard at Kensington, as he had directed; and had a flat stone laid over him, with this inscription, dictated by himself:
Mortalis esse desiit,
Anno Salutis 1770,
He left a widow and two children, Rogers Jortin, of Lincoln's-inn, in the profession of the law; and Martha, married to the rev. Samuel Darby, fellow of Jesus-college, in Cambridge, and afterwards rector of Whatfield, in Suffolk.
Besides his principal works, which have already been mentioned, there are some other things of a smaller nature; as, Remarks upon Spenser's Poems, 1734, 8vo, at the end of which are some Remarks upon Milton; Remarks on Seneca, printed in the Present State of the Republic of Letters, for Aug. 1734; A Sermon preached at the Consecration of Pearce bishop of Bangor, 1747; a few Remarks on Tillotson's Sermons, given to his friend Dr. Birch, and printed in the appendix to Birch's Life of that prelate, 1752; Letter to Mr. Avison, concerning the Music of the Ancients, subjoined to a second edition of Avison's Essay on Musical Expression, 1753, and a few Remarks on Phillips's Life of Cardinal Pole, printed in an appendix to Neve's Animadversions upon that History, 1766. In 1771, the year after his death, 4 volumes of his Sermons, in 8vo, were inscribed by his son Rogers Jortin, esq. to his parishioners of St. Dunstan's, at whose request they were published; and these, being well received by the public, were reprinted in 1772, with the addition of 3 volumes more. At the end of the 7th vol. are Four Charges, delivered to the Clergy of the Archdeaconry of London. His whole Works have lately been reprinted, including his Life of Erasmus, by Messrs. White and Cochrane, in an uniform edition.
Besides great integrity, great humanity, and other qualities which make men amiable as well as useful, this learned person was of a very pleasant and facetious turn; as his writings abundantly shew. He had, nevertheless, great sensibility, and could express himself with warmth, and even with some degree of indignation, when he thought the occasion warranted him to do so. For instance, he had a great respect and fondness for critical learning, which he so much cultivated; and though he knew and allowed it to have been disgraced by the manners of proud, fastidious, and insolent critics, yet he thought the restoration of letters, and the civilization of Europe, so much indebted to it, that he could ill bear to see it contemptuously treated. Hence a little tartness sometimes in his writings, when this topic falls in his way.
For the motto of his Life of Erasmus, he chose the following words of Erasmus himself: "illud certe praesagio, de meis lucubrationibus, qualescunque sunt, candidius judicaturam Posteritatem: tametsi nec de neo seculo queri possum." Yet it is certain that he had very slight notions of posthumous fame or glory, and of any real good which could arise from it; as appears from what he has collected and written about it, in a note upon Milton, at the end of his Remarks upon Spenser. He would sometimes complain, and doubtless with good reason, of the low estimation into which learning was fallen; and thought it discountenanced and discouraged, indirectly at least, when ignorant and worthless persons were advanced to high stations and great preferments, while men of merit and abilities were overlooked and neglected. Yet he laid no undue stress upon such stations and preferments, but entertained just notions concerning what must ever constitute the chief good and happiness of man, and is himself believed to have made the most of them. Dr. Parr has drawn his character with his usual elegance and discrimination. "Jortin," says he, "whether I look back to his verse, to his prose, to his critical, or to his theological works, there are few authors to whom I am so much indebted for rational entertainment, or for solid instruction. Learned he was, without pedantry. He was ingenious without the affectation of singularity. He was a lover of truth, without hovering over the gloomy abyss of scepticism, and a friend to free inquiry, without roving into the dreary and pathless wilds of latitudinarianism. He had a heart which never disgraced the powers of his understanding. With a lively imagination, an elegant taste, and a judgment most masculine, and most correct, he united the artless and amiable negligence of a school-boy. Wit without ill-nature, and sense without effort, he could at will scatter upon every subject; and in every book the writer presents us with a near and distinct view of the real man."