Joseph Butler was born at Wantage, England, May 18th, 1692, the youngest of eight children. The biographies of that day were few and meagre; and in few cases is this so much to be regretted as in Butler’s. It would have been both interesting and profitable to trace the development and occupations of one of the mightiest of human minds. But no cotemporary gathered up the incidents of his life, and now all efforts to elicit them have been without success.
His father was a prosperous dry-goods merchant, who, at the time of his son’s birth, had retired from business with a competency, and resided in a suburban mansion called “The Priory,” still in existence.
Being a non-conformist, he educated Joseph at a “dissenting” academy at Gloucester, under Samuel Jones, a gentleman of great ability, and a skilful instructor, who raised up some of the greatest men of their day.
It was while a member of this academy, and about the age of twenty-one, that Butler disclosed to the world his wonderful power of abstract reasoning, in his famous correspondence with Samuel Clarke, in relation to that eminent author’s “Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God.” This correspondence is now generally inserted at the end of that work.
Mr. Butler having deliberately adopted Episcopal views, and resolved to unite himself with the Established Church, his father, with praiseworthy liberality, sent him to Oxford, where he entered Oriel College, March, 1714. Of his college life there is no account; nor of the time and place of his ordination. He removed to London in 1718, on receiving the appointment of “Preacher at the Rolls.” His famous Fifteen Sermons were preached in that chapel, and published before resigning the place, with a dedication to Sir Joseph Jekyl, “as a parting mark of gratitude for the favors received during his connection with that learned society.”
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