He was the son of a respectable clergyman, who was curate and lecturer of St. John's, Westminster. He was educated at Westminster School, and entered of Trinity College, Cambridge, but not being disposed
O'er crabbed authors life's gay prime to wast,
Or cramp wild genius in the chains of taste,
he left the university abruptly, and coming to London made a clandestine marriage in the Fleet. His father, though much displeased at the proceeding, became reconciled to what could not be remedied, and received the imprudent couple for about a year under his roof. After this young Churchill went for some time to study theology at Sunderland, in the north of England, and having taken orders, officiated at Cadbury, in Somersetshire, and at Rainham, a living of his father's in Essex, till upon the death of his father, he succeeded in 1758 to the curacy and lectureship of St. John's, Westminster. Here he conducted himself for some time with a decorum suitable to his profession, and increased his narrow income by undertaking private tuition. He got into debt, it is true; and Dr. Lloyd, of Westminster, the father of his friend the poet, was obliged to mediate with his creditors for their acceptance of a composition; but when fortune put it into his power, Churchill honourably discharged all his obligations. His Rosciad appeared at first anonymously, in 1761, and was ascribed to one or other of half the wits in town; but his acknowledgement of it, and his poetical Apology, in which he retaliated upon the critical reviewers of his poem, (not fearing to affront even Fielding or Smollett,) made him at once famous and formidable. The players, at least, felt him to be so. Garrick himself, who though extolled in the Rosciad was sarcastically alluded to in the Apology, courted him like a suppliant; and his satire had the effect of driving poor Tom Davies, the biographer of Garrick, though he was a tolerable performer, from the stage. A letter from another actor, of the name of Davis, who seems rather to have dreaded than experienced his severity, is preserved in Nichols's Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, in which the poor comedian deprecates the poet's censure in an expected publication, as likely to deprive him of bread. What was mean in Garrick might have been an object of compassion in this humble man; but Churchill answered him with surly contempt, and holding to the plea of justice, treated his fears with the apparent satisfaction of a hangman. His moral character, in the mean time, did not keep pace with his literary reputation. As he got above neglect he seems to have thought himself above censure. His superior, the Dean of Westminster, having had occasion to rebuke him for some irregularities, he threw aside at once the clerical habit and profession, and arrayed his ungainly form in the splendour of fashion. Amidst the remarks of his enemies, and what he pronounces the still more insulting advice of his prudent friends upon his irregular life, he published his epistle to Lloyd, entitled Night, a sort of manifesto of the impulses, for they could not be called principles, by which he professed his conduct to be influenced. The leading maxims of this epistle are, that prudence and hypocrisy in these times are the same thing! that good hours are but fine words; ant that it is better to avow faults than to conceal them. Speaking of his convivial enjoyments he says
Night's laughing hours unheeded slip away,
Nor one dull thought foretells approach of day.
In the same description he somewhat awkwardly introduces
Wine's gay God, with TEMPERANCE by his side,
—Whilst HEALTH attends.
How would Churchill have belaboured any fool or hypocrite who had pretended to boast of health and temperance in the midst of orgies that turned night into day.
By his connexion with Wilkes he added political to personal causes of animosity, and did not diminish the number of unfavourable eyes that were turned upon his private character. He had certainly, with all his faults, some strong and good qualities of the heart; but the particular proofs of these were not likely to be sedulously collected as materials of his biography, for he had now placed himself in that light of reputation where a man's likeness is taken by its shadow and darkness. Accordingly, the most prominent circumstances that we afterward learn of him are, that he separated from his wife, and seduced the daughter of a tradesman in Westminster. At the end of a fortnight, either from his satiety or repentance, he advised this unfortunate woman to return to her friends; but took her back again upon her finding her home made intolerable by the reproaches of a sister. His reputation for inebriety also received some public acknowledgements. Hogarth gave as much celebrity as he could to his love of porter, by representing him in the act of drinking a mug of that liquor in the shape of a bear; but the painter had no great reason to congratulate himself ultimately on the effects of his caricature. Our poet was included in the general warrant that was issued for apprehending Wilkes. He hid himself, however, and avoided imprisonment. In the autumn of 1764 he paid a visit to Mr. Wilkes at Boulougne, where he caught a fever, and expired in his thirty-third year.
Churchill may be ranked as a satirist immediately after Pope and Dryden, with perhaps a greater share of humour than either. He has the bitterness of Pope, with less wit to atone for it; but no mean share of the free manner and energetic plainness of Dryden. After the Rosciad and Apology he began his poem of the Ghost, (founded on the well-known story of Cocklane,) many parts of which tradition reports him to have composed when scarce recovered from his fits of drunkenness. It is certainly a rambling and scandalous production, with a few such original gleams as might have crossed the brain of genius amidst the bile and lassitude of dissipation. The novelty of political warfare seems to have given a new impulse to his powers in the Prophecy of Famine, a satire on Scotland, which even to Scotchmen must seem to sheath its sting in its laughable extravagance. His poetical Epistle to Hogarth is remarkable, amidst its savage ferocity, for one of the best panegyrics that was ever bestowed on that painter's works. He scalps indeed even barbarously the infirmities of the man, but, on the whole, spares the laurels of the artist [quotations omitted].
The general tenor of his later works fell beneath his first reputation. His Duellist is positively dull; and his Gotham, the imaginary realm of which he feigns himself the sovereign, is calculated to remind us of the proverbial wisdom of its sages. It was justly complained that he became too much of an echo of himself, and that before his short literary career was closed, his originality appeared to be exhausted.