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Bishop Smalridge of Bristol should be referred to, however briefly, in connection with the truly worthy man who is the main subject of this paper. He was constantly associated with Nelson in his various works of charity, especially in forwarding missionary undertakings, in assisting Dr. Bray's projects of parochial lending libraries, and as a royal commissioner with him for the increase of church accommodation. Nelson bequeathed to him his Madonna by Correggio 'as a small testimony of that great value and respect I bear to his lordship;'[78] and to his accomplished pen is owing the very beautiful Latin epitaph placed to his friend's memory in St. George the Martyr's, Queen Square.[79] Under the name of 'Favonius,' he is spoken of in the 'Tatler' in the warmest language of admiring respect, as a very humane and good man, of well-tempered zeal and touching eloquence, and 'abounding with that sort of virtue and knowledge which makes religion beautiful.'[80] Bishop Newton has also spoken very highly of him, and adds that he was a man of much gravity and dignity and of great complacency and sweetness of manner. In reference to this last feature of his character, it was said of him, when he succeeded Atterbury as Dean of Carlisle, that he carried the bucket to extinguish the fires which the other had kindled. His political sympathies, however, accorded with those of Atterbury, and brought him into close relation with the Nonjurors. Although he had submitted to the new Constitution, he was a thorough Jacobite in feeling. His Thirtieth of January sermons were sometimes marked with an extravagance of expression[81] foreign to his usual manner; and he and Atterbury, with whom he had recently edited Lord Clarendon's History, were the only bishops who refused to sign the declaration of abhorrence of the Rebellion of 1715.[82]

Smalridge and Nelson had a mutual friend,[83] whom they both highly valued, in Dr. Ernest Grabe, a Prussian of remarkable character and great erudition, who had settled in England under the especial favour of King William. Dissatisfied as to the validity of Lutheran orders, he had at first turned his thoughts to Rome, not unaware that he should find in that Church many departures from the simplicity of the early faith, but feeling that it possessed at all events that primitive constitution which he had learnt to consider essential. He was just about to take this step, when he met with Spener, the eminent leader of the German Pietists, to whom he communicated his difficulties, and who pointed out to him the Church of England as a communion likely to meet his wants. He came to this country[84] at the end of the seventeenth century, received a royal pension, took priest's orders, and continued with indefatigable labour his patristic studies. It became the great project of his life to maintain a close communication between the English and Lutheran Churches,[85] to bring about in Prussia a restoration of episcopacy, and to introduce there a liturgy composed upon the English model. It cannot be said that the general course of theological thought in England was at this time very congenial to his aspirations; but his great learning and the earnest sincerity of his ideas were widely appreciated, and within a somewhat confined circle of High Churchmen and Nonjurors he was cordially welcomed, and his services highly valued. He pushed his conformity to what he considered the usages of the Primitive Church to the verge of eccentricity. Yet 'indeed,' says Kennet, without any sympathy in his practices, but with a kindly smile, 'his piety and our charity may cover all this.'[86]

Dr. Thomas Bray may stand as a fit representative of another class of Nelson's friends and associates. So far from agreeing with Nelson in his Nonjuring sentiments, the prospect of the constitutional change had kindled in him enthusiastic expectations. 'Good Dr. Bray,' remarks Whiston, 'had said how happy and religious the nation would become when the House of Hanover came, and was very indignant when Mr. Mason said that matters would not be mended.'[87] He accepted a living which had been vacated by a Nonjuring clergyman, but spent alike his clerical and private means in the benevolent and Christian hearted schemes to which the greater part of his life was dedicated.[88] It is not the purpose of this chapter to discuss the missionary and other philanthropical activities which at the close of the seventeenth and the opening of the eighteenth centuries resulted in the formation of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and other kindred associations. It may be sufficient here to repeat the warm-hearted encomium of his fellow labourer in this noble work:--'I am sure he has been one of the greatest instruments for propagating Christian knowledge this age has produced. The libraries abroad, our society (the S.P.C.K.), and the Corporation (the S.P.G.), are owing to his unwearied solicitations.'[89] In organising the American Church, in plans for civilising and christianising the Indians, in establishing libraries for the use of missionaries and the poorer clergy in the colonies, on shipboard, in seaport towns, and in the secluded parishes of England and Wales, in translations of the Liturgy and other devotional books, in the reformation of prisons, in measures taken for the better suppression of crime and profligacy,--Bray and Nelson, with General Oglethorpe and other active coadjutors, helped one another with all their heart. They met in the board-room of the two great societies, in one another's houses, and sometimes they may have talked over their projects with Bishop Ken at the seat of their generous supporter, Lord Weymouth.[90]

The names of many other men, more or less eminent in their day for piety or learning, might be added to the list of those who possessed and valued Robert Nelson's friendship; among them may be mentioned--Dr. John Mapletoft, with whom he maintained a close correspondence for no less than forty years: a man who had travelled much and learnt many languages, a celebrated physician, and afterwards, when he took orders, an accomplished London preacher; Francis Gastrell, Bishop of Chester, Mapletoft's son-in-law;[91] Sir Richard Blackmore, another physician of note, and, like Mapletoft, most zealous in all plans for doing good, but whose unlucky taste for writing dull verses brought down upon him the unmerciful castigation of the wits; John Johnson of Cranbrook, with whose writings on the Eucharistic Sacrifice Nelson most warmly sympathised; Edmund Halley, the mathematician, his school playmate and life-long friend; Ralph Thoresby, an antiquarian of high repute, a moderate Dissenter in earlier life, a thoughtful and earnest Churchman in later years, but who throughout life maintained warm and intimate relations with many leading members of either communion; Dr. Charlett, Master of University College, Oxford; Dr. Cave, the well-known writer of early Church History, to whose literary help he was frequently indebted; John Evelyn; Samuel, father of John and Charles Wesley, whose verses, written on the fly-leaf of his copy of the 'Festivals and Fasts,' commemorative of his attachment to Nelson and of his reverence for his virtues, used to be prefixed to some editions of his friend's works; nor should the list be closed without the addition of the name of the eminent Gallican bishop Bossuet, with whom he had become acquainted in France, and had kept up the interesting correspondence already noticed in connection with Bishop Bull.

The group composed of Nelson and his friends, of whom he had many, and never lost one, would be pleasant to contemplate, if for no other reason, yet as the picture of a set of earnest men, united in common attachment to one central figure, varying much on some points of opinion, but each endeavouring to live worthily of the Christian faith. From one point of view the features of dissimilarity among his friends are more interesting than those of resemblance. A Churchman, with whom Jurors and Nonjurors met on terms of equal cordiality, who was intimate alike with Tillotson and Hickes--whose love for Ken was nowise incompatible with much esteem for Kidder, the 'uncanonical usurper' of his see--and who consulted for the advancement of Christian knowledge as readily with Burnet, Patrick, and Fowler, as with Bull, Beveridge, and Sharp--represents a sort of character which every national Church ought to produce in abundance, but which stands out in grateful relief from the contentions which embittered the first years of the century and the spiritual dulness which set in soon afterwards.