John Thornton, 18thc. British Evangelical Layman –An Exploration of His Religious Identity. Introduction. The Church of England saw the rise of the Evangelical Movement from the first half of the 18th century. This vigorous activity had its plus points but nevertheless resulted in conflicts and sectarianism. Friction arose between the Church and the dissenters, Anglicans and Methodists, all resulting in the eroding of the vitality of religion. John Thornton (1720-90), a British evangelical layman was a unique personage who lived in that era and was very active on the religious and commercial scene.
This essay explores his religious identity against the backdrop of the age that he lived in. Thornton background. Milton M. Klein, Emeritus History Professor at the University of Tennessee, in his biography of John Thornton points out that the evangelical layman was the richest person in Britain, and the second richest in Europe during the 18th century. He was an only son and inherited £100,000 and valuable partnerships from his father, Robert Thornton, a merchant who was with the Russia Company. When he died, John’s estate was valued at £600,000.
Klein is of the opinion that during John’s lifetime his wealth was likely to have been considerably more but the man donated a great deal of it for various good causes, earning the reputation of having been the leading philanthropist of his time. Klein laments that John Thornton has been forgotten and that there is hardly any mention of him in the plethora of books about the Evangelical Movement. It is surprising that the references about such an important person like Thornton are scanty in the written coverage of the Church history of Britain.
Abbey & Overton have this to say of the Thornton family: “Of the two Thorntons [John and Henry] little need be said, except that they were wealthy merchants who in very truth looked upon their riches not as their own, but as talents entrusted to them for their Master's use. The princely liberality of these two good men was literally unbounded. It has been seen that the Evangelical clergy were almost to a man debarred from the emoluments of their profession, and lived in very straitened circumstances. The extent to which their lack was supplied by John and Henry Thornton is almost incredible” (395).
Henry was the son of John. Character and activities. We know from the meager sources available that John Thornton lived a frugal life in spite of his immense wealth. He wrote in his journal: “Better than wealth is personal frugality and wide generosity” (Thornton MSS). It would appear that half his annual profits were contributed to worthy causes. Part of it went to religious activities, which we shall deal with later on in this essay. Some people considered him as eccentric and impulsive.
According to a paper presented at the Church History Seminar, Cambridge University (anonymous. Hereinafter referred to as Church Seminar Paper), Thornton belonged to 18 societies. One of them was the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. He was the Treasurer of the Marine Society, which persuaded many unemployed youth of London to join the Royal Navy by offering inducements. In 1759 Thornton was active along with the Troop Society to raise funds for the wounded in the Minden and Quebec wars and supporting the dependents of the soldiers who took part in them.
Dr. Wheelock’s Indian schools in the United States, which later became the Dartmouth College, benefited considerably from a fund that had Thornton as co-trustee. The evangelist also collected over L8, 000 and two fire engines for Montreal after that city was devastated by a fire. Among those who gained from his generosity were the chimney sweep boys of London.