Rev. William Dodd

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 12:147-53.

DR. WILLIAM DODD, an ingenious divine, of unfortunate memory, was born in 1729, at Bourne in Lincolnshire; of which place his father, of the same names, was many years vicar. After being educated at a private school in classical learning, he was admitted a sizar of Clare-hall in Cambridge in 1745, where he gave early proofs of parts and scholarship, and so early as in 1747 began to publish little pieces of poetry. In this year he published (without his name) "A Pastoral on the Distemper among the horned cattle;" in 1749, "The African prince, now in England, to Zara at his father's court," and "Zara's answer;" in 1750, "A day in Vacation at College," a mock-heroic poem in blank verse; abridgments of Grotius "De jure belli et pacis," and of Clarke on the being and attributes of God, with sir Jeffrey Gilbert's Abstract of Locke on the human understanding, all inscribed to Dr. Keene, then vice-chancellor of the university, and afterwards bishop of Ely, under the title "Synopsis compendiaria Librorum H. Grotii de jure belli et pacis, S. Clarkii de Dei existentia et attributis, et J. Lockii de intellectu humano." He published also, while at Cambridge, "A new Book of the Dunciad, occasioned by Mr. Warburton's edition of the Dunciad complete," in which Warburton is made the hero. About the same time he published proposals for a translation, by subscription, of the Hymns of Callimachus, the fragments of Orpheus, &c. from the Greek; and wrote a tragedy, with choruses, called "The Syracusan." He continued to make frequent publications in this light way, in which there were always marks of sprightliness and ingenuity; but at the same time imbibed that taste for expence and dissipation which finally proved his ruin. In January 1750 he took the degree of B.A. with reputation; and that of master in 1757. Before he was in orders he had begun and finished his selection of "The Beauties of Shakspeare," which he published soon after in 2 vols. 12mo, and, at the conclusion of the preface, tells us, as if resigning all pursuits of the profane kind, that "better and more important things henceforth demanded his attention:" nevertheless, in 1755, he published his translation of the hymns of Callimachus, in English verse; in the preface to which he was assisted by Mr. (afterwards Dr.) Horne, bishop of Norwich. Happy would it have been, had he remained longer in the friendship of that excellent man, whom, however, he soon disgusted by his vanity and unbecoming conduct. His "Callimachus" was dedicated to the duke of Newcastle, by the recommendation of Dr. Keene, bishop of Chester; who, having conceived a good opinion of Dodd at the university, was desirous of bringing him forward into the world.

In 1753 he received orders; and, being now settled in London, soon became a very popular and celebrated preacher. He obtained several lectureships; that of West-Ham and Bow, that of St. James Garlickhithe, and that of St. Olave Hart-street; and was appointed to preach a course of lady Moyer's lectures: and he advanced his theological character greatly, by an almost uninterrupted publication of sermons and tracts of piety. And farther to keep up the profession of sanctity, and increase his popularity, he was very zealous in promoting and assisting at charitable institutions, and distinguished himself much in regard to the Magdalen hospital, which was opened in August 1758: he became preacher at the chapel of this charity, for which he was allowed yearly £100. But, notwithstanding his apparent attention to spiritual concerns, he was much more in earnest, and indeed in earnest only in cultivating his temporal interests; but all his expedients were not successful, and his subservient flattery was sometimes seen through. In 1759 he published in 2 vols. 12mo, bishop Hall's Meditations, and dedicated them to Miss Talbot, who lived in the family of archbishop Secker; and, on the honour the marquis of Granby acquired in Germany, addressed an ode to the marchioness: His dedication to Miss Talbot was too extravagant a piece of flattery not to miss its aim, and gave such offence to the archbishop, that, after a warn epistolary expostulation, his grace insisted on the sheet being cancelled in all the remaining copies.

Dr. Squire, who in 1760 was made bishop of St. David's, had published the year before a work entitled "Indifference for Religion inexcusable:" on the appearance of which, Dodd wrote a sonnet, and addressed it to the author, who was so well pleased with this mark of his attention, that in 1761 he made him his chaplain, and in 1763 procured for him a prebend of Brecon. He also egregiously flattered this prelate in "The Public Ledger," in which he then wrote: and about the same time he is supposed to have defended the measures of administration, in some political pieces. From 1760 to 1767 he superintended and contributed largely to "The Christian's Magazine," for which he received from the proprietors £100 yearly. By all these employments and contrivances he earned money enough to support a man of moderate expences but a very considerable fortune would have been too small for the luxurious style of living in which he delighted to indulge, and which in him may have been reckoned original, as he never lived in any situation where he could have acquired the habit.

Still, however, he preserved theological appearances; and he now meditated a design of publishing a large commentary on the Bible. In order to give the greater eclat to this undertaking, and draw the public attention upon it, it was announced, that lord Masham presented him with MSS. of Mr. Locke, found in his lordship's library at Oates; and that he had helps also from MSS. of lord Clarendon, Dr. Waterland, Gilbert West, and other celebrated men. He began to publish this commentary, 1765, in weekly and monthly numbers; and continued to publish it regularly till it was completed in 3 vols. folio. It was dedicated to his patron bishop Squire, who died in May the year following, 1766; and was lamented (we believe very sincerely) by our commentator, in a funeral sermon dedicated to his widow. This year he took the degree of LL.D. at Cambridge, having been made a chaplain to the king some time before. His next publication was a volume of his poems, in 8vo. In 1769 he published translation from the French, of "Sermons preached before Lewis XV. during his minority, by Massillon, bishop of Clermont." They were called "Sermons on the duties of the great," and inscribed to the prince of Vales. In 1771 he published "Sermons to Young Men," 3 vols. 12mo. These he dedicated to his pupils Charles Ernst and Philip Stanhope, now earl of Chesterfield, he having become tutor to the latter, by the recommendation of bishop Squire.

In 1772 he was presented to the living of Hockliffe in Bedfordshire but such a preferment was of little avail in supplying his wants. The habits of expence had gained an irresistible ascendancy over him: he was vain; he was pompous; which persons emerging from low situations in life are apt to be; and thus became involved and sinking under debts. To relieve himself, he was tempted to a step which ruined him for ever with those who had not before seen through his character; and this was, to procure by indirect means the rectory of St. George's, Hanover-square. On the preferment of Dr. Moss to the see of Bath and Wells, in 1774, that rectory fell to the disposal of the crown; on which, Dodd caused an anonymous letter to be sent to lady Apsley, offering the sum of £3000 if by her means he could be presented to the living: the letter was immediately communicated to the chancellor; and, after being traced to the sender, laid before the king. His name was ordered to be struck out of the list of chaplains; the press abounded with satire and invective; he was abused and ridiculed in the papers of the day; and, to crown the whole, the transaction became a subject of entertainment, in one of Foote's performances at the Haymarket. All the answer he made was a short letter in the newspapers, requesting the public to suspend their opinions, and promising an elucidation of the affair, which never appeared.

Stung with shame, if not remorse, he decamped for a season; and went to his pupil then at Geneva, who added to Hockliffe the living of Winge in Buckinghamshire: but his extravagance continued undiminished, and drove him to schemes which covered him with infamy. He now became the editor of a newspaper, and is said to have attempted a disengagement from his debts by a commission of bankruptcy, in which, however, he failed. From this period every step led to complete his ruin. In the summer of 1776 he went to France; and, as if he had a mind to wanton in folly, paraded in a phaeton at the races on the plains of Sablons, tricked out in all the foppery of French attire. He returned in the beginning of winter, and proceeded to exercise his function with the same formality and affected earnestness as formerly, particularly at the Magdalen chapel, where his last sermon was preached, Feb. 2, 1777. Two days after this, he signed a bond, which he had forged as from his pupil lord Chesterfield, for the sum of £4200 and, upon the credit of it, obtained a considerable sum of money: but detection instantly following, he was committed to prison, tried and convicted at the Old Bailey, Feb. 24, and executed at Tyburn, June 27, where he exhibited every appearance of penitence. The unusual distance between the pronouncing and executing of his sentence was owing to a doubt for some time, respecting the admissibility of an evidence, whose testimony had been made use of to convict him.

Before concluding this part of his history, we shall enumerate such of his publications as remain unnoticed. These were, "An Elegy on the death of the Prince of Wales;" "The Sisters, or the History of Lucy and Caroline Samson," 2 vols. 12mo, a work very unfriendly to morals; several occasional Sermons; three on "The Wisdom and Goodness of God in the Vegetable Creation," preached before the Apothecaries' Company;" "Thoughts on the glorious Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ," a poem, 1758; "Sermons on the Parables and Miracles;" "Account of the Rise, Progress, &c. of the Magdalen Charity;" "A Familiar Explanation of the Poetical Works of Milton," 1762; "Reflections on Death," 1763; "Comfort for the Afflicted under every affliction, with suitable devotions," 1764, 12mo; "The Visitor," a collection of essays originally printed in the Public Ledger, 1766, 2 vols. 12mo; an edition of what is called "Locke's Common-place book to the Bible," 4to; and in 1776 he issued proposals for a History of Free-Masonry, to he comprized in 2 vols. 4to; and had projected an edition of Shakspeare, from which he had great expectations. But of all his works the most curious are, his "Thoughts in Prison, in five parts, viz. the Imprisonment, the Retrospect, public Punishment, the Trial, Futurity:" to which are added, his speech in court before sentence was pronounced on him; his last prayer, written the night before his death; the convict's address to his unhappy brethren, and other miscellaneous pieces, some of which were written for him by Dr. Johnson. Prefixed to the MS. is the ensuing note by himself: "April 23, 1777. I began these thoughts merely from the impression of my mind, without plan, purpose, or motive, more than the situation and state of my soul. I continued them on a thoughtful and regular plan: and I have been enabled wonderfully — in a state, which in better days I should have supposed would have destroyed all power of reflection — to bring them nearly to a conclusion. I dedicate them to God, and to the reflecting serious amongst my fellow-creatures; and I bless the Almighty for the ability to go through them, amidst the terrors of this dire place, and the bitter anguish of my disconsolate mind. — The thinking will easily pardon all inaccuracies, as I am neither able nor willing to read over these melancholy lines with a curious and critical eye. They are imperfect, but the language of the heart; and, had I time and inclination, might and should be improved. But — W. D."

This wretched man was married so early as April 1751, even before he was in orders, or had any certain means of supporting himself; but his wife, "though largely endowed with personal attractions, was certainly deficient in those of birth and fortune." She survived to the year 1784. Dr. Dodd exhibits the most awful instance known in our days of the miserable consequences of indulging habits of gaiety and expence in a profession to which the world looks for a more edifying example. His life, by his own confession, was for many years fearfully erroneous. But the most remarkable part of his history was the uncommon interest excited in the public mind, and the numerous petitions presented to the throne in his favour. Even the talents of Dr. Johnson were engaged to give a fair colouring to his case, and to combine with public sympathy a high opinion of the talents of which the world was about to he deprived. For this purpose the pen of that eminent writer was employed in writing those papers and documents which, to be any thing, ought to have been written by Dodd himself, but which, being immediately known to be Johnson's, could only be considered as a part of that literary quackery which Dodd had so often practised. Dr. Johnson appears indeed in this instance to have been more swayed by popular judgment, than he would perhaps have been willing to allow. The cry was, the honour of the clergy; but if the honour of the clergy was tarnished, it was by Dodd's crime, and not his punishment; for his life had been so long a disgrace to his cloth, that he had deprived himself of the sympathy which attaches to the first deviation from rectitude, and few criminals could have had less claim to such a display of popular feeling.