This celebrated writer, the son of a clergyman, was born at Hardingstone, near Northampton, on the 26th of February, 1713-14. At seven years of age, he was sent to the free grammar school of that city, where, it is said, his genius and memory would have made him a much greater proficient, but for the extraordinary whim of his teacher, who would allow no boy to learn faster than his own son.
In 1731, he entered a student of Lincoln College, Oxford, where he continued to reside for about seven years, but only proceeded to the degree of B.A. Among the books he read during this time were Keil's Anatomy; Derham's Physico-Theologico, and Astro-Theology; and Spence's Essay on Pope's Odyssey, to which he used to say, he owed more of his improvement of style and composition than to any other work he ever read. At the age of twenty-three, he entered into deacon's orders, and being urged by his father to get a curacy in or near Oxford, that he might retain a small college exhibition of the value of about £20 per annum, he declined, saying, "that he thought it unjust to retain it after he was in orders, as some other person might want its aid, to further his education." He accordingly, in 1736, accepted the curacy of Dummer, in Hampshire, where he continued about a year, when he was invited to Stoke Abbey, in Devonshire, the seat of his friend, Paul Orchard, Esq.; during his residence with whom, he, in 1740, became curate of Bideford. Here, his stipend being small, he was so much beloved, that the parishioners increased it to £60 a year, by an annual subscription; and offered to maintain him at their own expense, to prevent his dismissal by a new rector, who, however, deprived him of his curacy in 1742. In the following year, he became curate to his father, then holding the living of Weston Favell, as well as that of Collingtree, to both of which he succeeded on the death of the former, in 1752. He accepted the two livings together, with much reluctance, and, on waiting upon the Bishop of Peterborough, for institution, he said, "I suppose your lordship will be surprised to see James Hervey come to desire your lordship to permit him to be a pluralist; but I assure you I do it to satisfy the repeated solicitations of my mother and my sister, and not to please myself." Our author had already established his literary reputation, by the publication of his celebrated Meditations, the first volume of which appeared in 1746, and the second in 1747. He appears to have formed the plan of this work during his residence in Devonshire, his Meditations among the Tombs being suggested to him by a visit to the church-yard of Kilkhampton, in Cornwall.
After his accession to his father's livings, he graduated M.A. at Clare Hall, Cambridge; and about the same time published Remarks on Lord Bolingbroke's Letters on the Study and Use of History, which, observes Simpson, in his Plea, "contains many pious and satisfactory observations on the history of the Old Testament, especially on, the writings of Moses."
In 1753, he published his Theron and Aspasio, in three volumes, octavo, the success of which nearly equalled that of his Meditations, whilst it brought him into a controversy with the famous Wesley, who opposed him on account of his Calvinistic sentiments.
The life of this excellent man was now drawing to an end, which his great exertions in the pulpit and the study materially contributed to hasten. He died of a decline, after extreme suffering, which he bore with singular fortitude, on the 25th of December, 1758.
The subject of our memoir was at once an elegant scholar, a learned divine, and a Christian, in the strict sense of the word. The bias of his mind may be collected from the following passage in a letter to a friend, a short time previous to his death: — "I have been," he says "too fond of reading every thing valuable and elegant that has been penned in our language; and been peculiarly charmed with the historians, orators, and poets of antiquity: but were I to renew my studies, I would take my leave of those accomplished trifles: would resign the delight of modern wits, amusements, and eloquence, and devote my attention to the Scriptures of Truth. I would sit with much greater assiduity at my divine Master's feet, and desire to know nothing in comparison of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified."
His mode of preaching was peculiarly simple and impressive, and no minister ever took a more anxious interest in the spiritual welfare of his parishioners, at whose houses he was a frequent and familiar visitor. His generosity and bounty scarcely left him a sufficient sum for his own subsistence; the profits arising from the sale of his Meditations, which amounted to £700, he devoted entirely to charitable purposes; and the little left by him at his death, he directed might be laid out in the purchase of clothing for the poor.
In addition to the publications already mentioned, he was the author of several letters and sermons, all of which are to be found in the genuine edition of his works, in six volumes, octavo. He has been charged with carrying his Calvinistic notions to the verge of Antinomianism, with respect to the imputed righteousness of Christ; but his writings on this subject have never been considered as seriously objectionable. His Meditations have furnished many of our poets with beautiful ideas; and, notwithstanding their somewhat too flowery style, will probably always retain their original popularity.