This unfortunate divine was born on the 29th of May, 1729, at Bourne, in Lincolnshire, of which his father was rector. After passing the early part of his youth at a private school, he was admitted, in 1745, a sizar of Clare hall, Cambridge, where he soon became conspicuous for his application and accomplishments. He took the degree of B.A., with great credit, in 1750; and, having previously commenced writing for the press, soon afterwards proceeded to London, where, although solely dependent on his pen for support, he "followed every species of amusement with the most dangerous avidity." In the spring of 1751, he imprudently married a young lady of considerable beauty, but no fortune, the daughter of one of Sir John Dolben's domestics, named Perkins; and immediately took and furnished a large house in Wardour street; which, however, in consequence of the remonstrances of his father, he gave up before the ensuing winter; and, on the 19th of October, was ordained deacon, by the Bishop of Ely.
About this time, his Beauties of Shakspeare were published; towards the close of his preface to which, he announced his intention of abandoning belles lettres for "better and more important things." He now officiated, for some time, at West Ham, where, to increase his income, he received a few pupils. In 1752, he obtained the lectureship of St. James's, Garlick hill, which he exchanged, two years afterwards, for that of St. Olave, Hart street; and, about the same period, preached Lady Mover's lectures at St. Paul's. On the establishment of the Magdalen, in 1758, he contributed materially, by his discourses, to its success. In 1759, he took the degree of M.A.; and, in 1763, he was appointed chaplain in ordinary to the king. He was next created prebendary of Brecon, by Dr. Squires, Bishop of St. David's; at whose recommendation he also became tutor to the Earl of Chesterfield's godson and heir. In 1764, he was made chaplain to George the Third; and, in 1766, took the degree of LL.D. Being disappointed in his expectations of succeeding to the rectory of West Ham, he quitted that place, and resigning, at the same time, his lectureship in the city, took a country house at Ealing, as well as a town house in Southampton street, and commenced living in a style of extravagance which his income could not support, although he had several pupils, besides Lord Chesterfield's godson, who, it is said, "were, in general, persons of family and fortune."
About this time, he obtained a prize of £1,000 in the state lottery; and engaged with a builder for the erection of a chapel at Buckingham gate, where he seems to have been so confident of the attendance of some of the junior branches of the royal family, that he had a pew fitted up expressly for the heir-apparent; to whom, it is said, he aspired to be preceptor; but George the Third objected to him, because a sufficient reliance could not be placed upon his principles. None of the royal children joined his congregation; nor does the success of the chapel, or that of another in Charlotte street, Bloomsbury square, with which he had also become connected, appear to have equalled his sanguine expectations; the emoluments of both, though for some time very beneficial to him, being, with other sources, it is said, "much inferior to his then expensive habits of living." In 1765, he commenced publishing, in weekly and monthly parts, his Commentary on the Bible; in which, it was announced, he had permission to avail himself of the manuscripts of Locke, Clarendon, Waterland, Gilbert West, and other eminent authors.
In 1772, he obtained the rectory of Hockliffe, and the vicarage of Chalgrave, in Bedfordshire: on his return to town from which, shortly afterwards, he was stopped, near Pancras, by a highwayman, who discharged a pistol into his carriage, but without doing him any injury. The delinquent was afterwards taken, and, on Dr. Dodd's evidence, convicted and hung.
Early in 1773, he was appointed chaplain to his pupil, Mr. Stanhope, who had then succeeded to the earldom of Chesterfield. His popularity as a preacher, had now attained its zenith. Although culpably extravagant, he was not only admired, but respected and beloved; and he would, probably, have soon obtained further preferment, had he not, with extraordinary imprudence, early in 1774, sent an anonymous letter to Lady Apsley, offering her £3,000 if she would prevail on her husband, the lord-chancellor, to appoint him to the valuable rectory of St. George's, Hanover square, which was then vacant. Lady Apsley immediately handed the letter to the chancellor, who, after tracing it to the writer, laid it before the king. Dr. Dodd's name was, consequently, struck out of the list of royal chaplains; and, the whole affair being made public, he was not only assailed with bitter invectives by the press, but Foote severely ridiculed him, in a farce, called The Cozeners; of which, Mrs. Dodd, under the name of Mrs. Simony, was the heroine.
Withdrawing from England, where he had now become an object of contempt, Dr. Dodd proceeded to Geneva, for the purpose of seeking an asylum with his former pupil, Lord Chesterfield, who received him there with great kindness, and presented him to the living of Winge, in Buckinghamshire, which he held, by dispensation, with that of Hockliffe. But this addition to his means failed to relieve him from his embarrassments, which still continued to increase. On his return to this country, he became editor of a newspaper; and attempted, but in vain, to liberate himself from his debts by a collusive commission of bankruptcy. In 1776, he visited France; and, it is said, "with little regard to decency, appeared in a phaeton at the races on the plains of Sablons, dressed in all the foppery of the kingdom in which he then resided." He was still popular as a preacher, at the Magdalen, where he delivered his last discourse on the 2nd of February, 1777, from the following remarkable text: — "And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest; but the Lord shall give thee a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind; and thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life."
Only two days afterwards, he forged the name of Lord Chesterfield to a bond for £4,200, on the security of which he obtained a considerable loan. Detection of the fraud speedily ensued, and he was taken, tried at the Old Bailey, and convicted before the close of the month; but sentence upon him was postponed until the opinion of the twelve judges could be obtained as to the admissibility of some parts of the evidence against him; which, however, it was determined had been properly received. Being placed at the bar again, on the 25th of May, and asked the usual question why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon him, he read an address to the court, in which, after confessing his offence, committed, as he said, at a moment when temptation surprised and overwhelmed him, he alluded to the exertions he had made in the cause of charity; protested that he did not intend to be finally fraudulent; alleged that his sufferings had almost equalled his guilt; and owning that he was not prepared to die, declared that, amidst shame and misery, he yet wished to live: — he, therefore, most humbly entreated, that he might be recommended to the clemency of the king.
Although condemned to suffer death, he still entertained hopes of obtaining a commutation of punishment. His friends were indefatigable in his behalf; the members of those charities to which he had been a benefactor, and the city of London, in its corporate capacity, on account of the advantages which the public had derived from his exertions, earnestly solicited that his sentence might not be carried into effect. Dodd himself, with his unhappy wife, entreated that mercy might be accorded to him; and Dr. Johnson, who had assisted him in the composition of his pathetic address to the court, on the 25th of May, in order still further to arouse popular feeling in his favour, published, in the public journals, some observations , in which he insisted, that as the petitions for clemency had been signed by above thirty thousand persons, Dr. Dodd had evidently done more benefit to the community than any previous criminal; that, as those who were protected by the law had prayed, that, in the present case, its rigour might be relaxed, government could not, if the offender were spared, be charged with consequences which the people had brought upon themselves; that, as Dodd's case was without precedent, it would, probably, be for many ages without example; and that justice might reasonably be satisfied with his imprisonment, infamy, exile, penury, and ruin. The privy-council, however, on the principle, that if Dodd were saved, the two Perreaus, who had recently suffered for the same offence, were unjustly executed, recommended that his sentence should be carried into effect on the 26th of June.
His behaviour, during his last moments, was truly admirable: he expressed the greatest contrition for the scandal which he had brought upon his order, and the offence which he had committed against his fellow-creatures. When bound, the ordinary offered to assist him through the yard; but he replied, "No! I am as firm as a rock." On approaching the street where he had formerly dwelt, he was, however, so affected that he shed tears; which, he said, were not the effect of cowardice, but of a weakness that he could not help. "I hope," added he, "that I am going to a better home." At the place of execution, he prayed for himself, his wife, and a youth who suffered with him. "Declaring," says Villette, the ordinary, "that he died in the true faith of the gospel of Christ, in perfect love and charity with all mankind, and with thankfulness to his friends, he was launched into eternity, imploring mercy for his soul, for the sake of his blessed Redeemer." His remains were interred at Cowley, in Buckinghamshire.
He appears to have been a man of considerable ability; and, though dissipated, of uncommon industry. As a writer, his talents were respectable; and, as a preacher, attractive. However derogatory the general tenor of his conduct may have been to the character of a divine, in his ministry he is said to have been sincere. He zealously laboured to promote charity: he projected, but could not carry into effect, an establishment for the loan of money, without interest, to industrious tradesmen; to him has been attributed the institution of the society for the relief of persons imprisoned for small debts; and he seems to have been one of the earliest supporters, if not the founder, of the Magdalen. His prevailing, errors he has admitted with much candour. "I was led astray," he says, "from religious strictness, by the delusion of show, and the delights of voluptuousness. I never knew, or attended to the calls of frugality, or the needful minuteness of painful economy. Vanity and pleasure, into which I plunged, required expense disproportionate to my income; expense brought distress upon me; and distress-importunate distress urged me to temporary fraud."
Dr. Dodd was rather a voluminous writer. In 1750, he published his Synopsis Compendaria; H. Grotii de Jure belli et pacis; S. Clarkii de Dei Existentia et Attributis; et J. Lockii de Intellectu humano: in the following year, An Elegy on the Death of the Prince of Wales; in the next, Beauties of Shakspeare; in 1754, Hymns of Callimachus, translated from the Greek; in 1758, Thoughts on the glorious Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, a poetical essay; in 1759, Four Volumes of Sermons on the Parables and Miracles, and An Account of the Rise and Progress of the Magdalen Charity; in 1761, Bishop Hall's Contemplations, with his Life; in the following year, A Familiar Explanation of the Poetical Works of Milton; in 1763, Reflections on Death; in 1764, Comfort for the Afflicted; in 1766, A New Edition of Locke's Commonplace Book to the Bible; in 1767, A Volume of Poems; in 1769, Sermons on the Duties of the Great, translated from the French of Massillon; in 1770, A Commentary on the Bible; in the following year, Sermons to Young Men; in 1772, The frequency of Capital Punishments inconsistent with Justice, sound Policy, and Religion; and, in 1776, An Oration at the Dedication of Freemason's Hall. From 1760 to 1767, he contributed largely to the Christian's Magazine; from the proprietors of which, during that period, he received £100 per annum. He was also the author of A New Book of the Dunciad, of which Warburton was the hero; A Day in Vacation at College; The Visitor, a collection of Essays, originally printed in the Public Ledger, and some other pieces; besides his celebrated Prison Thoughts, a work which he commenced "without plan, purpose, or motive, more than the situation and state of his soul," on the evening of the day subsequent to his conviction.