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High Churchmanship, as it was commonly understood in Queen Anne's reign, did not possess many attractive features. Its nobler and more spiritual elements were sadly obscured amid the angry strife of party warfare, and all that was hard, or worldly, or intolerant in it was thrust into exaggerated prominence. Indeed, the very terms 'High' and 'Low' Church must have become odious in the ears of good men who heard them bandied to and fro like the merest watchwords of political faction.

It is a relief to turn from the noise and virulence with which so-called Church principles were contested in Parliament and Convocation, in lampoons and pamphlets, in taverns and coffee-houses, from Harley and Bolingbroke, from Swift, Atterbury, and Sacheverell, to a set of High Churchmen, belonging rather to the former than to the existing generation, whose names were not mixed up with these contentions, and whose pure and primitive piety did honour to the Church which had nurtured such faithful and worthy sons. If, at the opening of the eighteenth century, the English Church derived its chief lustre from the eminent qualities of some of the Broad Church bishops, it must not be forgotten that it was also adorned with the virtues of men of a very different order of thought, as represented by Ken and Nelson, Bull and Beveridge. Some of them, it is true, had been unable to take the oaths to the recently established Government, and were therefore, as by a kind of accident, excluded, if not from the services, at all events from the ministry of the National Church. But none as yet ventured to deny that, saving the question of political allegiance, they were thoroughly loyal alike to its doctrine and its order.

It is proposed in this chapter to make Robert Nelson the central figure, and to group around him some of the most distinguished of his Juror and Nonjuror friends. A special charm lingers around the memory of Bishop Ken, but his name can scarcely be made prominent in any sketch which deals only with the eighteenth century. He lived indeed through its first decade, but his active life was over before it began. Nelson, on the other hand, though he survived him by only four years, took an active part throughout Queen Anne's reign in every scheme of Church enterprise. He was a link, too, between those who accepted and those who declined the oaths. Even as a member of the Nonjuring communion he was intimately associated with many leading Churchmen of the Establishment; and when, to his great gratification, he felt that he could again with an easy conscience attend the services of his parish church, the ever-widening gap that had begun to open was in his case no hindrance to familiar intercourse with his old Nonjuring friends.

Greatly as Robert Nelson was respected and admired by his contemporaries, no complete record of his life was published until the present century. His friend Dr. Francis Lee, author of the 'Life of Kettlewell,' had taken the work on hand, but was prevented by death from carrying it out. There are now, however, three or four biographies of him, especially the full and interesting memoir published in 1860 by Mr. Secretan. It is needless, therefore, to go over ground which has already been completely traversed; a few notes only of the chief dates and incidents of his life may be sufficient to introduce the subject.

Robert Nelson was born in 1656. In his early boyhood he was at St. Paul's School, but the greater part of his education was received under the guidance of Mr. Bull, afterwards Bishop of St. Davids, by whose life and teaching he was profoundly influenced. The biography of his distinguished tutor occupied the labour of his last years, and was no doubt a grateful offering to the memory of a man to whom he owed many of his best impressions. About 1679 he went to London, where he became intimate with Tillotson, then Dean of Canterbury. In later years this intimacy was somewhat interrupted by great divergence of views on theological and ecclesiastical subjects; but a strong feeling of mutual respect remained, and, in his last illness, Tillotson was nursed by his friend with the most affectionate love, and died in his arms. In 1680 Nelson went to France with Halley, his old schoolfellow and fellow member of the Royal Society, and during their journey watched with his friend the celebrated comet which bears Halley's name. While in Paris he received the offer of a place in Charles II.'s Court, but took the advice of Tillotson, who said he should be glad 'if England were so happy as that the Court might be a fit place for him to live in.'[1] He therefore declined the offer, and travelled on to Rome, where he made the acquaintance of Lady Theophila Lucy and married her the next year. It was no light trouble to him that on their return to London she avowed herself a Romanist. Cardinal Howard at Rome, and Bossuet at Paris, had gained her over to their faith, and with the ardour of a proselyte she even entered, on the Roman side, into the great controversy of the day. Robert Nelson himself was entirely unaffected by the current which just at this time seemed to have set in in favour of Rome. He maintained, indeed, a cordial friendship with Bossuet, but was not shaken by his arguments, and in 1688 published, as his first work, a treatise against transubstantiation. Though controversy was little to his taste, these were times when men of earnest conviction could scarcely avoid engaging in it.[2] Nelson valued the name of Protestant next only to that of Catholic, and was therefore drawn almost necessarily into taking some part in the last great dispute with Rome.[3] But polemics would be deprived of their gall of bitterness if combatants joined in the strife with as much charity and generosity of feeling as he did.[4]