Nelson, Robert

, a learned and pious English gentleman, was born June 22, 1656, at London. He was the son of Mr. John Nelson, a considerable Turkey merchant of that city, by Delicia his wife, sister of sir Gabriel Roberts, also a London merchant. His father dying when he was but two years old, he was committed to the care of his mother, and her brother sir Gabriel, who was appointed his guardian. His first education was at St. Paul’s school, London; but, after some time, his mother wishing to have him more under her eye, took him home to her house at Dryfield, near Cirencester, in Gloucestershire, and procured the learned Dr. George Bull, then rector of Suddington in that neighbourhood, to be his tutor. As soon as he was fit for the university, he was sent to Trinity college, Cambridge, first as pensioner, and afterwards was admitted a fellow commoner. It is not improbable, that Dr. (afterwards archbishop) Tillotson was consulted on this occasion, as he was intimately acquainted with the guardian, sir Gabriel Roberts: however, it is certain that Mr. Nelson was early known to that eminent divine, and very much esteemed by him.

In 1680 he was chosen F. R. S. probably by the introduction of his friend and school-fellow, Dr. Halley, for whom he had a particular regard, and in whose company he set out on his travels the same year. In the road to Paris they saw the remarkable comet which gave rise to the cometical astronomy of sir Isaac Newton; and our author, apparently by the advantage of his fellow-traveller’s instructions, sent dean Tillotson a description of it. Before he left Paris he received a letter from a friend | in the English court, suggesting to him to purchase a place there, and promising his assistance in it. But although Nelson had a great affection for king Charles and the duke of York, and was at first pleased with the thoughts of aU taching himself to the court, on which, however, at that time, he was more likely to confer honour, than to derive any from it, yet he could not resolve upon an affair of such consequence without the approbation of his mother and uncle. He first, therefore, applied to Tillotson to obtain their opinion, with assurances of determining himself by their and the dean’s advice; but, finding no encouragement from either of the parties, he relinquished his intention, and pursued his journey with his fellow-traveller to Rome. Here he became acquainted with a lady considerably older than himself, the lady Theophila Lucy, widow of sir Kingsmili Lucy, of Broxburne, Herts, bare, and second daughter of George earl of Berkeley, who soon discovered a strong passion for him, which concluded in a marriage, after his arrival in England, in 1682. His disappointment was, however, very great, when he found that she had deceived him in one very essential point, that of her having been won over to the popish religion while on this tour; and it was some time before she confessed this change, which was owing to her acquaintance with Bossuet, and conversations at Rome with cardinal Philip Howard, who was grandson of the earl of Arundel, the collector of the Arundelian marbles, &c. and had been raised to the purple by Clement X. in May 1675. Nor was this important alteration of her religious sentiments confined to her own mind, but involved in it her daughter by her first husband, whom she drew over to her new religion; and her zeal for it prompted her even to become a writer in one of the controversies so common at that time. She is the supposed authoress of a piece printed in 1686, 4to, under the title of “A Discourse concerning a Judge of Controversy in matters of Religion, shewing the necessity of such a judge.

This misfortune touched her husband very nearly, and he employed not only his own pen, but those of his friends Tillotson and Hickes, to recover her. Tillotson addressed a, long letter to her on the subject; and Hickes, on her account, published le A Collection of his Letters," which passed between him and a popish priest in 1675, 8vo; in which is inserted, p. 328, a letter to an English priest of | the Romish communion at Rome, written by Mr. Nelson for his lady’s use. But all proved ineffectual, and she continued in the communion of the church of Rome till her death, in 1705. She was a person of considerable talents and sense. Dr. Tillotson particularly laments her case on that account; and even seems not to be entirely free from all apprehensions of the influence she might have upon her husband in this important affair. But Nelson’s religion was too much the result of his learning and reason to be shaken by his love, which was equally steady and inviolable. Her change of religion made no change in his affections for her; and, when she relapsed into such a bad state of health as required her to go to drink the waters at Aix, he attended her thither in 1688; and being dissatisfied with the prospect of the revolution, and the removal of James II. from the crown, he proceeded to Italy a second time with his lady, and her son and daughter by her former husband. He returned through Germany to the Hague, where he stayed some time with lord Dursley, who was married to his wife’s sister.

From the Hague he arrived in England in 1691, confirmed in his dislike of the change of government. He had, while abroad, shewn his regard for king James by holding a correspondence with the earl of Melfort, his majesty’s ambassador to the pope, after the revolution; and now declared himself a nonjuror, and left the communion of the church of England, although, we think, without being fully decided. He had, indeed, consulted Tillotson, and followed his opinion, who thought it no better than a trick, detestable in any thing, and especially in religion, to join in prayers where there was any petition which was held to be sinful. On this subject, however, we shall soon find that Nelson changed his opinion. The friendship between him and Tillotson remained the same; and the good archbishop expired in his friend’s arms in 1694, after which Nelson was very instrumental in procuring Mrs. Tillotson’s pension from the crown to be augmented from 400l. to 600l. per annum. *


See his letter to lord Somers on this occasion, in Tillotson’s Life. It is very remarkable, that the great regard he had always shewn to Tillotson, added to his own reputation for learning, judgment, and candour, induced Dr, Barker, who published the arch bishop’s posthumous sermons, to consult our author on that occasion. Among the manuscripts, there was found one discourse where the archbishop took occasion to complain of the usage which he had received from the nonjuring party, and to expose, in


return, the inconsistency of their own conduct; remarking particularly, that, upon a just comparison of their principle of non-resistance with their actual non-assistance to king James II. they had little reason to boast of their loyalty to him: and yet, severe as this discourse was upon that party, Mr. Nelson, notwithstanding his attachment to them, was very zealous to have it printed, alleging, that they deserved such a rebuke for their unjust treatment of so good a man. The sermon, however, was after all suppressed, and is now probably lost.

Life of Tillotson.

| Mr. Nelson’s new character unavoidably threw him into new connections, among whom was Mr. Kettlewel), who had resigned his living at Coleshill in Warwickshire, on account of the new oaths, and afterwards resided in London. This pious and learned divine was of his opinion as to leaving the communion of the established church; yet persuaded him to engage in the general service of piety and devotion; observing to him, that he was very able to compose excellent books of that kind, which too would be apt to do more good, as coming from a layman. This recomdation was highly agreeable to Mr. Nelson; and indeed it was their agreement in this, rather than in state-principles, that first made Kettleweli admire our author, who, in return, is said to have encouraged Kettleweli to proceed in that soft and gentle manner, in which he excelled, in managing the nonjurors’ controversy; and animated him besides to begin and prosecute some things for the public good, which otherwise would not have seen the light. Mr. Kettlewell died in 1695, and left Mr. Nelson his sole executor and trustee in consequence of which he published his posthumous piece entitled “An Office for Prisoners,” &c. in 1697. He also published five other of his friend’s posthumous pieces, and furnished the chief materials for the account of his life afterwards.

At th’e same time he engaged zealously in every public scheme for propagating the faith, and promoting the practice of true Christianity, both at home and abroad; and was eminently active in forwarding the building, repairing, and endowing churches, and establishing charity-schools, then a matter of very great importance in counteracting the seductions of the popish party. Nelson, we have remarked, was not fully decided in quitting the communion of the church of England; and upon the death of Dr. Lloyd, the deprived bishop of Norwich, in the end of 1709, he returned to it again. Dr. Lloyd was the last survivor of the deprived bishops, except Dr. Kenn, by whose advice Mr. Nelson was determined in this point. It had been a | case in view some time, and had been warmly argued on both sides, whether the continuance of their separation from the church should be schismatical or no; and our author had some conferences upon it with Dr. Hickes, who was for perpetuating the nonjuring church, and charging the schism upon the church established .*


See an account of this dispute, with some letters that passed between them on the occasion, in “The Constitution of the Catholic Church, and the nature and consequences of Schism set forth, in a collection of papers written by the late George Hickes, D. D.1716, 8vo.

Mr. Nelson’s tutor, Dr. George Bull, bishop of St. David’s, dying before the expiration of this year, he was easily prevailed upon, by that prelate’s son, to draw up an account of his father’s life and writings. He had maintained a long and intimate friendship with the bishop, which gave him an opportunity of being acquainted with his solid and substantial worth; had frequently sate at his feet, as he was a preacher, and as often felt the force of those distinguishing talents which enabled him to shine in the pulpit. But, above all, he had preserved a grateful remembrance of those advantages, which he had received, from him in his education and he spared no pains to embalm his memory. The life was published in 1713. He had, for some time, laboured under an asthma and dropsy in the breast; and the distemper grew to such a height soon after the publication of that work, that, for the benefit of the air, he retired at length to his cousin’s, Mrs. Wolf, daughter of sir Gabriel Roberts, a widow, who lived at Kensington, where he expired Jan. 16, 1714-15, aged fifty-nine .

Mrs. Berkeley, in her preface to her Son’s Poems, p, 448, says, “she has frequently heard Mr. Cherry relate the following, she thinks, curious anecdote of her excellent intimate friend Robert Nelson, Esq. When dying, he lay several hours speechless, perfectly composed, taking no nourishment, shewing no signs of life, but it was perceptible that he continued to breathe. About four in the afternoon the day preceding his death, he suddenly put back the curtain, raised his head, and uttered the following sentence: `There is a very great fire in London this night;’ then closed his eyes, and lay some few hours as before.” It appears that there was about this time a fire in Thames-street, near the Custom-house, which narrowly escaped. It began in the night of the thirteenth, and continued burning till noon next day. It was of vast extent; but whether Mr. Nelson saw, or dreamt of a fire, our readers must determine.

He was interred in the cemetery of St. George’s chapel, now a parochial church, in Lamb’s-Conduit Fields, where a monument is erected to his memory, with a long and elegant Latin inscription, written by bishop Smalridge. He was the first person buried in this cemetery and | being done to reconcile others to the place, who had taken an insurmountable prejudice against it, it had the desired effect. He published several works of piety, and left his whole estate to pious and charitable uses, particularly to charity-schools. A good portrait of him was given by Mr. Nichols, in 1779, to the Company of Stationers, and is placed in the parlour of their public hall. After the death of sir Berkeley Lucy, Mr. Nelson’s library was sold by auction in 1760, together with that of sir Berkeley, forming, united, a most extraordinary assemblage of devotion and infidelity. Several of Mr. Nelson’s original letters, highly characteristic of his benevolence, may be seen ia the “Anecdotes of Bowyer.

His publications were, 1. “Transubstantiation contrary to Scripture; or, the Protestant’s Answer to the Seeker’s Request, 1688.” This was at the same time that his lady engaged on the popish side of the controversy. 2. “A. Companion for the Festivals and Fasts, 1704,” 8vo, and large impressions of it several times since. 3. “A Letter on Church Government, in answer to a pamphlet entitled The Principles of the Protestant Reformation,1705, 8vo. 4. “Great duty of frequenting the Christian Sacrifice,” &c. 1707, 8vo. Dr. Waterland observes, that, in this piece, our author, after Dr. Hickes, embraced the doctrine of a material sacrifice in the symbols of the eucharist, which was first stated among the protestants in 1635, by the famous Mede, and, having slept for some years, was revived by Dr. Hickes, in 1697. Waterland’s Christian Sacrifice explained,“&c. p. 37, 42d. edit. 1738, 8vo. 5.” The Practice of true Devotion, &c. with an office for the Communion,“1708, 8vo. 6.” Life of Bishop Bull,“&c. 1713, 8vo. 7.” Letter to Dr. Samuel Clarke,“prefixed to” The Scripture doctrine of the most holy and undivided Trinity vindicated against the misrepresentations of Dr. Clarke,“1713, 8vo. To this Clarke returned an answer; in which he highly extols Mr. Nelson’s courtesy and candour; which he had likewise experienced in a private conference with him upon this subject. 8.” An Address to Persons of Quality and Estate,“&c. 1715, 8vo. 9.” The whole Duty of a Christian, by way of question and answer, designed for the use of the charity-schools in and about London.“10. Thomas a Kempis’s Christian Exercise.” 11.“The archbishop of Cambray (Fenelon’s) Pastoral Letter.” 12. “Bishop Bull’s important points of Primitive Christianity | maintained” and other posthumous pieces of that learned prelate. 1


Biog. Brit.—Birch’s Tillotson.—Life of Kettlewell.—Knight’s Life of Colet. —Nichols’s Bowyer.—Seward’s Anecdotes.