Atterbury, Francis bishop of Rochester, was born March 6th, 1662, at Milton-Keynes, Bucks, where his father was rector. SEE ATTERBURY, LEWIS, below. He began his studies at Westminster, and finished his course at Christ Church, Oxford. He first distinguished himself by the publication, at Oxford, in 1687, of a "Reply to some Considerations on the Spirit of Martin Luther, and the Original of the Reformation," a tract written by Walker, master of University College. In the same year he took the degree of Master of Arts, and became tutor to the earl of Orrery's son. In 1690 he married, and soon after went to London, and established so high a reputation by his preaching that he was made almoner to the king. In 1700 he published a vindication of the rights, powers, and privileges of the Lower House of Convocation, which occasioned a warm controversy with Archbishop Wake and others, and raised up a host of adversaries (see Hook, Ecclesiastical Biography, 1, 358, and Lathbury, History of Convocation). The University of Oxford, however, testified its approval of his work by granting him the degree of D.D. without the usual fees. In 1704 he became dean of Carlisle. In 1706 he had a controversy with Hoadley as to "the advantages of virtue with regard to the present life." In a funeral sermon he had asserted that, "if the benefits resulting from Christianity were confined to our present state, Christians would be, of the whole human race, the most miserable." Hoadley, on the contrary, maintained, in a printed letter to Atterbury, that it was a point of the utmost importance to the Gospel itself to vindicate the tendency of virtue to the temporal happiness of man. In 1707 he had another controversy with Hoadley concerning "passive obedience." Under Queen Anne, Atterbury was in high favor, and in 1713 was made bishop of Rochester and dean of Westminster, and was on the point of being made archbishop of Canterbury, when George I, who had justly conceived a strong prejudice against him, came to the throne. From this time he opposed the house of Hanover, and used all his energies to secure the return of the Stuarts. In 1715, when an attempt was made to restore the Stuarts, the archbishop of Canterbury drew up an address to the bishops of his province, exhorting them to excite the devotion of the clergy of their dioceses toward the house of Brunswick. This address Atterbury, and Smalridge, the bishop of Bristol, refused either to sign or to publish in their dioceses.; and this conduct rendered him suspected at court. In 1722 he was accused of being in correspondence with "the Pretender," and was seized and sent to the Tower. No proof was alleged sufficient to warrant the charge; but, on the 9th of April, 1723, a bill of attainder was introduced into the House of Lords, and he was called upon to make his defense, which he did in the most admirable manner, in a speech abounding in eloquence. The court influence, however, was too great: a special law was introduced against him and passed, and he was condemned to be stripped of all his places and dignities, and to be banished from his country forever. On the 18th of June he left England for Calais. He retired first to Brussels, and afterward to Paris, where he died, February 15th, 1732.
The fame of Atterbury rests chiefly on his sermons, which are both argumentative and unaffectedly eloquent, and on his epistolary correspondence with Pope. His familiar letters, for their ease and elegance, are preferred to the more labored efforts of his correspondent, Pope. As a controversialist, his parts were splendid; but his prejudices were too strong, and his judgment not sufficiently cool to entitle him to a high rank among the inquirers after truth. It was, however, thought at the time that no man understood better than he the points in dispute between the Church of England and the Church of Rome, as well as the dissenters of all denominations. Atterbury has been somewhat absurdly charged, on the strength of an improbable anecdote which Dr. Maty says Lord Chesterfield related to him, with having been, at least in early life, a skeptic; but the whole tenor of his conduct, and every reference in his private as well as public writings, contradict such a supposition. He was a worldly minded and ambitious man, but that he firmly believed the religious truths which he so eloquently defended there can be no reasonable doubt. (See a refutation of this story, in detail, in the New and General Biographical Dictionary, 1784, 1:389.) The conduct of Atterbury with reference to the Stuart dynasty is the great blot on his public career, and though perhaps illegally convicted, he was undoubtedly guilty of the treason for which he was condemned. But it was for no selfish ends that he adhered to its desperate fortunes, nor was his conduct wholly inconsistent with his position as a prelate of the English Church. The plan on which he had fixed his hope of securing the restoration of the Stuarts was that of inducing James to educate his son in the Protestant faith; an absurd expectation undoubtedly, but it was characteristic of Atterbury to overlook obstacles when he had set his heart on accomplishing a great purpose. Hook (Eccles. Biography, 1, 374) calls him "an ecclesiastical politician and intriguer, devoting himself, not-to the establishment of a principle, but to the mere triumph of a party. Great principles were injured by his advocacy of them, since he gave to them a party coloring, and made what was heavenly appear earthly." In private life the haughtiness and asperity of the politician and controversialist wholly disappeared, and no man ever succeeded in winning a more affectionate attachment from friends as well as relatives. As a preacher, a speaker, and a writer, he had few rivals; and Lord Mahon (Hist. of Eng. c. 12) hardly exaggerates his literary merits when he says that "few men have attained a more complete mastery over the English language than Atterbury; and all his compositions are marked with peculiar force, elegance, and dignity of style" (English Cyclopoedia). Doddridge (Lectures on Preaching, 4, 18) calls him the "glory of English pulpit orators." Wesley (Works, 7, 420) says that in Atterbury "all the qualities of a good writer meet." The Tatler (No. 66), having observed that the English clergy too much neglect the art of speaking, makes a particular exception with regard to Atterbury, who "has so particular a regard to his congregation that he commits to his memory what he has to say to them, and has so soft and graceful a behavior that it must attract your attention. His person," continues this author, "it is to be confessed, is no small recommendation; but he is to be highly commended for not losing that advantage, and adding to propriety of speech (which might pass the criticism of Longinus) an action which would have been approved by Demosthenes. He has a peculiar force in his way, and has many of his audience who could not be intelligent hearers of his discourse were there no explanation as well as grace in his action. This art of his is used with the most exact and honest skill. He never attempts your passions till he has convinced your reason. All the objections which you can form are laid open and dispersed before he uses the least vehemence in his sermon; but when he thinks he has your head, he very soon wins your heart, and never pretends to show the beauty of holiness till he has convinced you of the truth of it." His writings include Sermons (Lond. 1740, 4 vols. 8vo, 5th ed.): — Correspondence and Charges (Leond. 1783-87, 4 vols. 8vo); besides many controversial tracts and pamphlets of temporary interest. See Stackhouse, Memoirs of Atterbury, 1727, 8vo; Burnet, History of his Own
Times; Allibone, Dictionary of Authors, 1, 80; Hook, Eccesiastical Biography, 1, 350 sq.