John Langhorne was the son of a beneficed clergyman in Lincolnshire. He was born at Kirkby Steven, in Westmoreland. His father dying when he was only four years old, the charge of giving him his earliest instruction devolved upon his mother, and she fulfilled the task with so much tenderness and care, as to leave an indelible impression of gratitude upon his memory. He recorded the virtues of this parent on her tomb, as well as in an affectionate monody. Having finished his classical education at the school of Appleby, in his eighteenth year, he engaged himself as a private tutor in a family near Rippon. His next employment was that of assistant to the free-school of Wakefield. While in that situation he took deacon's orders; and, though he was still very young, gave indications of popular attraction as a preacher. He soon afterward went as a preceptor into the family of Mr. Cracroft, of Hackthorn, where he remained for a couple of years, and during that time entered his name at Clare-hall, Cambridge, though he never resided at his college, and consequently never obtained any degree. He had at Hackthorn a numerous charge of pupils, and as he has not been accused of neglecting them, his time must have been pretty well occupied in tuition; but he found leisure enough to write and publish a great many pieces of verse, and to devote so much of his attention to a fair daughter of the family, Miss Anne Cracroft, as to obtain the young lady's partiality, and ultimately her hand. He had given her some instructions in the Italian, and probably trusting that she was sufficiently a convert to the sentiment of that language, which pronounces that "all time is lost which is not spent in love," he proposed immediate marriage to her. She had the prudence, however, though secretly attached to him, to give him a firm refusal for the present; and our poet, struck with despondency at the disappointment, felt it necessary to quit the scene and accepted of a curacy in the parish of Dagenham. The cares of love, it appeared, had no bad effect on his diligence as an author. He allayed his despair by an apposite ode to Hope; and continued to pour out numerous productions in verse and prose, with that florid facility which always distinguished his pen. Among these, his Letters of Theodosius and Constantia made him, perhaps, best known as a prose writer. His Letters on Religious Retirement were dedicated to Bishop Warburton, who returned him a most encouraging letter on his just sentiments in matters of religion; and, what was coming nearer to the author's purpose, took an interest in his worldly concerns. He was much less fortunate in addressing a poem, entitled The Viceroy, to the Earl of Halifax, who was then lord-lieutenant of Ireland. This heartless piece of adulation was written with the view of obtaining his lordship's patronage; but the viceroy was either too busy, or too insensible to praise, to take any notice of Langhorne. In his poetry of this period, we find his Visions of Fancy; his first part of the Enlargement of the Mind; and his pastoral Valour and Genius, written in answer to Churchill's Prophecy of Famine. In consequence of the gratitude of the Scotch for this last poem, he was presented with the diploma of doctor in divinity by the university of Edinburgh. His profession and religious writings gave an appearance of propriety to this compliment, which otherwise would not have been discoverable, from any striking connection of ideas between a doctorship of divinity and an eclogue on Valour and Genius.
He came to reside permanently in London in 1764, having obtained the curacy and lectureship of St. John's Clerkenwell. Being soon afterward called to be assistant-preacher at Lincoln's-inn chapel, he had there to preach before an audience, which comprehended a much greater number of learned and intelligent persons than are collected in ordinary congregations; and his pulpit oratory was put to, what is commonly reckoned, a severe test. It proved to be also an honourable test. He continued in London for many years, with the reputation of a popular preacher and a ready writer. His productions in prose, besides those already named, were his Sermons, Effusions of fancy and Friendship, Frederick and Pharamond, or the Consolations of Human Life, Letters between St. Evremond and Waller, A Translation of Plutarch's Lives, written in conjunction with his brother, which might be reckoned a real service to the bulk of the reading community, Memoirs of Collins, and A Translation of Denina's Dissertation on the Ancient Republics of Italy. He also wrote for several years in the Monthly Review. An attempt which he made in tragedy, entitled The Fatal Prophecy, proved completely unsuccessful; and he so far acquiesced in the public decision, as never to print it more than once. In an humbler walk of poetry he composed the Country Justice, and the Fables of Flora. The Fables are very garish. The Country Justice was written from observations on the miseries of the poor, which came home to his own heart; and it has, at least, the merit of drawing our attention to the substantial interests of humanity.
In 1767, after a courtship of several years, he obtained Miss Cracroft in marriage, having corresponded with her from the time he had left her father's house; and her family procured for him the living of Blagden, in Somersetshire; but his domestic happiness with her was of short continuance, as she died of her first child — the son who lived to publish Dr. Langhorne's works.
In 1772 he married another lady of the name of Thomson, the daughter of a country gentleman, near Brough, in Westmoreland: and shortly after their marriage, he made a tour with his bride through some part of France and Flanders. At the end of a few years he had the misfortune to lose her, by the same fatal cause which had deprived him of his former partner. Otherwise his prosperity increased. In 1777 he was promoted to a prebend in the cathedral of Wells; and in the same year was enabled to extend his practical usefulness and humanity in being put in the commission of the peace, in his own parish of Blagden. From his insight into the abuses of parochial office, he was led at this time to compose the poem of The Country Justice, already mentioned. The tale of Owen of Carron was the last of his works. It will not be much to the advantage of this story to compare it with the simple and affecting ballad of Gill Morrice, from which it was drawn. Yet having read Owen of Carron with delight when I was a boy, I am still so far a slave to early associations as to retain some predilection for it.
The particular cause of Dr. Langhorne's death, at the age of forty-four, is not mentioned by his biographers, further than a surmise that it was accelerated by intemperance. From the general decency of his character, it may be presumed that his indulgencies were neither gross nor notorious, though habits short of such excess might undermine his constitution.
It is but a cheerless task of criticism, to pass with a cold look and irreverent step, over the literary memories of men, who, though they may rank low in the roll of absolute genius, have yet possessed refinement, information, and powers of amusement, above the level of their species, and such as would interest and attach us in private life. Of this description was Langhorne; and elegant scholar, and an amiable man. He gave delight to thousands, from the press and the pulpit; and had sufficient attraction, in his day, to sustain his spirit and credit as a writer, in the face of even Churchill's envenomed satire. Yet, as a prose writer, it is impossible to deny that his rapidity was the effect of lightness more than vigour; and, as a poet, there is no ascribing to him either fervour or simplicity. His Muse is elegantly languid. She is a fine lady, whose complexion is rather indebted to art than to the healthful bloom of nature. It would be unfair not to except from this observation several plain and manly sentiments, which are expressed in his poem On the Enlargement of the Mind, and some passages in his Country Justice, which are written with genuine feeling.