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After Kettlewell's death, no one was so intimate with Robert Nelson as Dr. George Hickes. They lived near together[41] in Ormond Street, and for the last eleven years of Nelson's life met almost daily. In forming any estimate of Hickes's character, the warm-hearted esteem with which Nelson regarded him[42] should not be lost sight of. Whatever were his faults, he must have possessed many high qualities to have thus completely won the heart of so good a man. The feeling was fully reciprocated; and those who knew with what intensity of blind zeal Hickes attached himself to the interests of his party, must have been surprised that this intimacy was not interrupted even by his sore disappointment at Nelson's defection from the nonjuring communion. In Hickes there was nothing of the calm and tempered judgment which ruled in Nelson's mind. From the day that he vacated his deanery, and fixed up his indignant protest in Worcester Cathedral,[43] he threw his heart and soul into the nonjuring cause. Unity might be a blessing, and schism a disaster; but it is doubtful whether he would have made the smallest concession in order to attain the one, or avoid the other. Even Bishop Ken said of him that he showed zeal to make the schism incurable.[44] A good man, and a scholar of rare erudition, he possessed nevertheless the true temper of a bigot. In middle life he had been brought into close acquaintance with the fanatic extravagances of Scotch Covenanters, his aversion to which might seem to have taught him, not the excellence of a more temperate spirit, but the desirability of rushing toward similar extremes in an opposite direction. He delighted in controversy in proportion to its heat, and too often his pen was dipped in gall, when he directed the acuteness and learning which none denied to him against any who swerved, this way or that, from the narrow path of dogma and discipline which had been marked with his own approval. Tillotson was 'an atheist,'[45] freethinkers were 'the first-born sons of Satan,' the Established Church was 'fallen into mortal schism,'[46] Ken, for thinking of reunion, was 'a half-hearted wheedler,'[47] Roman Catholics were 'as gross idolaters as Egyptian worshippers of leeks,'[48] Nonconformists were 'fanatics,' Quakers were 'blasphemers.'[49] From the peaceful researches, on which he built a lasting name, in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian antiquities, he returned each time with renewed zest to polemical disputes, and found relaxation in the strife of words. It was no promising omen for the future of the nonjuring party, that the Court of St. Germains should have appointed him and Wagstaffe first bishops of that Communion. The consecration was kept for several years a close secret, and Robert Nelson himself may probably have been ignorant[50] of the high dignity to which 'my neighbour the Dean' had attained.

One other of Nelson's nonjuring friends must be mentioned. Francis Lee, a physician, had been a Fellow of St. John's, Oxford, but was deprived for declining the oaths. At the end of the seventeenth century, after travelling abroad, he joined[51] one of those societies of mystics which at that time abounded throughout Europe. A long correspondence with Dodwell ensued, and convinced at last that he had been in error, he not only left the brotherhood and its presiding 'prophetess' (it appears to have been a society of a somewhat fanatical order), but published in 1709, under the title of 'A History of Montanism, by a Lay Gentleman,' a work directed against fanaticism in general. He writes it in the tone of one who has lately recovered from a sort of mental fever which may break out in anyone, and sometimes becomes epidemic, inflaming and throwing into disorder certain obscure impulses which are common to all human nature.[52] He became intimate with Nelson, and subscribes one of his letters to him, 'To the best of friends, from the most affectionate of friends.'[53] He helped him in his devotional publications; took in hand, at his instigation, and from materials which Nelson and Hickes had collected, the life of Kettlewell; and took an active part in furthering the benevolent schemes in which his friend was so deeply interested. It was he who suggested[54] to him the founding of charity schools after the model of the far-famed orphanage and other educational institutions lately established by Francke and Spener at Halle, the centre of German pietism. In other ways we see favourable traces of his earlier mystical associations. He had been cured of fanaticism; but the higher element, the exalted vein of spiritual feeling, remained, and perceptibly communicated itself to Nelson, whose last work--a preface to Lee's edition of Thomas a Kempis--is far more in harmony with the general tone of mystical thought than any of his former writings. During the last few months of Nelson's life, they were much together. One of the very last incidents in his life was a drive with Lee in the park, when they watched the sun 'burst from behind a cloud, and accepted it for an emblem of the eternal brightness that should shortly break upon him.'[55]

Nelson was more or less intimate with several other Nonjurors; such as were Francis Cherry, of Shottisbrooke, a generous and popular country gentleman, whose house was always a hospitable refuge for Nonjurors and Jacobites;[56] Brokesby, Mr. Cherry's chaplain, author of the 'Life of Dodwell,' and of a history of the Primitive Church, to whom Nelson owed much valuable help in his 'Festivals and Fasts;' Jeremy Collier, whom Macaulay ranks first among the Nonjurors in ability; Nathanael Spinckes,[57] afterwards raised to the shadowy honours and duties of the nonjuring episcopate, Nelson's trustee for the money bequeathed by him to assist the deprived clergy; and lastly, Charles Leslie, an ardent and accomplished controversialist, whom Dr. Johnson excepted from his dictum that no Nonjuror could reason.[58] It may be added here, that when Pepys, author of the well-known 'Diary,' cast about in 1703, the last year of his life, for a spiritual adviser among the nonjuring clergy, Robert Nelson was the one among his acquaintances to whom he naturally turned for information.

The decision of many a conscientious man hung wavering for a long time on the balance as he debated whether or not he could accept the new oath of allegiance. Friends, whose opinions on public matters and on Church questions were almost identical, might on this point very easily arrive at different determinations. But the resolve once made, those who took different courses often became widely separated. Many acquaintances, many friendships were broken off by the divergence. Some of the more rigid Nonjurors, headed by Bancroft himself, went so far as to refuse all Church communion with those among their late brethren who had incurred the sin of compliance; and it was plainly impossible to be on any terms of intimacy with one who could be welcomed back into the company of the faithful only as 'a true penitent for the sin of schism.'[59] There were some, on the other hand, who were fully aware of the difficulties that beset the question, and had not a word or thought of condemnation for those who did not share in the scruples they themselves felt. They could not take the oath, but neither did they make it any cause of severance, or discontinue their attendance at the public prayers. But for the most part even those Nonjurors who held no extreme views fell gradually into a set of their own, with its own ideas, hopes, prejudices, and sympathies. They could scarcely help making a great principle of right or wrong of that for which most of them had sacrificed so much. It was intolerable, after loss of home and property in the cause, as they believed, of truth and duty, to be called factious separatists, authors of needless schism. Hence, in very self-defence, they were driven to attach all possible weight to the reasons which had placed them, loyal Churchmen as they were, in a Nonconformist position, to rally round their own standard, and to strive to the utmost of their power to show that it was they, and not their opponents, not the Jurors but the Nonjurors, who were the truest and most faithful sons of the Anglican Church. Under such circumstances, the gap grew ever wider which had sprung up between themselves and those who had not scrupled at the oath. Even between such friends as Ken and Bull, Nelson and Tillotson, a temporary estrangement was occasioned. But Robert Nelson was not of a nature to allow minor differences, however much exaggerated in importance, to stand long in the way of friendship or works of Christian usefulness. He lived chiefly in a nonjuring circle; but even during the years when he wholly absented himself from parochial worship, he was on friendly and even intimate terms with many leading members of the establishment, and their active co-operator in every scheme for extending its beneficial influences.

First in honour among his conforming friends stood Bishop Bull, his old tutor and warm friend, to whom he always acknowledged a deep debt of gratitude. Three years after his death Nelson published his life and works, shortening, it is said, his own days by the too assiduous labour which he bestowed upon the task. But it was a work of love which he was exceedingly anxious to accomplish. In the preface, after recording his high admiration of his late friend's merits, he solemnly ends with the words, 'beseeching God to enable me to finish what I begin in His name, and dedicate it to His honour and glory.'[60]