Peirce, James

Peirce, James a learned English Dissenting divine, is noted for the part he took in the Exeter Disputes of the last century, which resulted in the weakening of Presbyterianism in England and the establishment of Unitarianism. He was born in the city of London in 1673. Losing his parents early, he was placed under the care of Mr. Matthew Mead (one of the ejected ministers of 1662, and then pastor of a Nonconformist congregation at Stepney), who had him educated, along with his own sons, under his own roof; after which Peirce went to Utrecht, where he had his first academical instruction. He afterwards removed to Leyden, where he studied for some time; and having passed between five and six years at these two celebrated universities, attending the lectures of Witsius, Leydecker, Graevius, Spanheim, and other learned men, he returned to England. On his arrival he took up his abode for some time in London, and set up a Sabbath-evening lecture at Miles's Lane, which he continued for two years, when he accepted an invitation from a congregation of Dissenters at Cambridge to become their pastor. In 1713 he was unanimously invited by the three dissenting congregations in Exeter to succeed one of their ministers, lately deceased, the surviving ministers joining the people in the invitation. He accepted the offer, and accordingly settled in that city, where his residence, for the first three years, proved exceedingly agreeable to him. During this period he published his Vindication of the Protestant Dissenters, written first in Latin, but by him translated into English, and published with large additions (Lond. 1717, 8vo). Peirce compares the constitution of the Established Church, its forms and ceremonials, its ritual, and the origin of the administration of its revenues, with the practices which prevailed in the early ages of Christianity. The work became in a brief period the most popular defense of Nonconformity, and was one of two subsequently recommended by Doddridge for the education of Nonconformists. But, notwithstanding his popularity, Peirce was much suspected of Arian principles; and when in 1718 the excitement ran high, not only in Exeter but also in London, on the Trinitarian doctrine, and Peirce did not so clearly pronounce himself as to be beyond the suspicion of heresy, and even refused to sign a document clearing himself from the charge, he was ejected from his chapel by the trustees, although the majority of his congregation were opposed to it. These summary proceedings against him and others implicated in a like charge had a tendency to arouse public opinion in their favor, and a chapel was promptly built for him and the other ejected ministers. Those who had hoped to break up Arian sentiments had by their rash measures only strengthened it, and at Exeter in a very short time very little was known of Presbyterianism. It is needless to add here that the same course pursued in other parts of England finally resulted in the dismemberment of the Presbyterian Church in England. SEE PRESBYTERIANISM. Peirce continued to preach at Exeter until his death in 1726. He is charged with double-dealing. But there seems to be no reasonable ground for so severe an accusation. He was probably semi- Arian in tendency, but not in principle. At a conference of ministers, when all were asked to give individually their declaration on the Trinitarian doctrine, Peirce said: "I am not of the opinion of Sabellius, Arius, Socinus, or Sherlock. I believe there is but one God, and can be no more. I believe the Son and Holy Ghost to be divine persons, but subordinate to the Father; and the unity of God is, I think, to be resolved into the Father's being the fountain of the divinity of the Son and the Spirit." Opposition drove him into Latitudinarianism (q.v.), and finally he came out a Unitarian. His publications are numerous, amounting in all to about twenty-four; but that by which he is best known is his continuation of Mr. Hallett's Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Lond. 1733, 4to). This work was translated into Latin by Michaelis, and published at Halle in 1747. That great divine speaks in the highest terms of admiration of the profound learning and acute discernment of Peirce. He also gave to the public a volume containing Fifteen Sermons on various Occasions, and an Essay on the Ancient Practice of giving the Eucharist to Children. See Jones, Christ. Biog. s.v.; Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Auth. s.v.; Bogue and Burnett, History of Dissenters, vol. iii; Skeats, Hist. of the Free Churches of England, p. 302-10; Prot. Dissenter's Magazine, vol. ii.

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