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White, John [called Century White] (1590–1645), politician and lawyer, was born on 29 June 1590, the second son of Henry White of Rhoscrowther, Pembrokeshire, and Jane, daughter of Richard Fletcher of Bangor. He was descended from a family of wealthy merchants associated with the town of Tenby, and both his father and grandfather served as sheriffs of Pembrokeshire. On 20 November 1607 White matriculated with his elder brother Griffith from Jesus College, Oxford. In 1610 he entered the Middle Temple, where he was called to the bar in 1618. Griffith was sheriff of Pembrokeshire in 1626.

Probably by this time White had married Katherine, daughter of Edward Barfoot of Lambourne Hall, Essex; they had one surviving daughter, Winifred, who later married Richard Blackwell of Bushey, Hertfordshire. Katherine Barfoot was a kinswoman of the Winthrops, and White himself was associated with a number of puritan colonizing ventures and had interests in the Virginia Company, the Dorchester Company, and also the Massachusetts Bay Company, whose charter he has been credited with drawing up. He acted as counsel for William Coryton when charges were drawn against him for his conduct in the 1629 session of parliament. On 30 August 1631, as a widower, White was licensed to marry Mary, eldest daughter of Thomas Stiles or Style of Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire; the wedding took place on 1 September at St Stephen, Coleman Street, London, a church with a strong puritan reputation. A long-term critic of Arminianism and episcopacy, White was described by the earl of Clarendon as ‘a grave lawyer, but notoriously disaffected to the Church’ (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 1.264). He was one of the founding members of the feoffees for impropriations, formed with the intention of buying impropriate tithes in order to make better provision for a preaching ministry. Testifying in 1644 at the trial of Archbishop William Laud, White claimed that Laud, while bishop of London, had for these activities attacked him as ‘an enemy of the Church, an underminer of religion’ (Prynne, 386–7). He had then replied that the feoffees intended only the better maintenance of preachers and that they took pains to ensure the clerics they supported were conformists; he had also offered to remove any of the feoffees and replace them with men approved by Laud. This had been to no avail. In 1632 Attorney-General William Noy filed an information against the group in the court of exchequer, and on 11 February 1633 the court decreed the dissolution of the feoffees and the confiscation of their funds and patronage to the use of the king.

In the autumn of 1640 White was returned to parliament as the junior member for Southwark with his Middle Temple associate Edward Bagshaw; he is not to be confused with his namesake John White (c.1599–1655), MP for Rye. He took the protestation in 1641. As MP for Southwark, White was among the delegation sent on 4 February 1642 to thank local women for their petition for church reform, although ‘there was no precedent for a petition from women’ (Coates, Young, and Snow, 277). He also chaired a number of important committees including the committee for scandalous ministers and, after Sir Edward Dering was disabled from sitting in the Commons, the committee for printing. White actively supported church reforms and opposed the canons of 1640 as ‘utterlie against law’, arguing that the so-called ‘etc oath’ attached to the canons was ‘verie dangerous and enacted uniustlie, in which he shewed many particulars’ (Journal, ed. Notestein, 71). In June 1641, during the debate on the first Bishops Exclusion Bill, White advocated that bishops should be excluded from parliament, because all their powers, over and above their ministerial authority, were by jure humano and not by divine right. He insisted that the ‘Spirituall Monarchy’ of the bishops was inclined to return to ‘Popery, and the Religion of Antichrist’, which he detected in the altar policy of the 1630s, the restraint on preaching about predestination and against Arminian tenets, and the condition of the parish clergy. Eight out of ten ministers, White argued, were ‘Idoll, idle or scandalous’. He desired that the powers of the bishops should be reformed and reduced to a ‘condition and state agreeable to the word of God’ (A Speech of John White, 1641). On 31 December White was named to the committee to consider treason charges against twelve bishops. In the ensuing debate he accused the bishops and their adherents as ‘the greatest and chiefest authors of our miseries … favourers of the Romish and Arminian faction’, who had tyrannized the consciences of ‘free subjects’ in the exercise of their religion and had orchestrated division between ‘the Prince and his people, [and] between the Prince and his Parliaments’. He depicted the bishops as agents of the devil and urged the Commons to reduce their powers and to bring the bishops speedily to trial.

In 1643 White took the covenant and developed the themes of his speeches in his major publication The First Century of Scandalous, Malignant Priests (1643). The work, which earned him the nickname ‘Century White’, detailed the complaints against negligent, immoral, and ‘ceremonious’ clergy, which were used by parliament to eject them from their livings. Many of the allegedly ‘malignant’ priests were also accused of preaching or speaking out against parliament. In the introduction White characterized the sequestered ministers as ‘priests of Baal, of Bacchus, of Priapus’, who promoted the ‘errours of Popery and Arminianism’ and were given to ‘cursing, swearing, drunkennesse, whoredome [and] sodomie’. He justified the sequestrations because they provided parliament with the opportunity to replace ‘scandalous’ ministers with ‘godly, learned, orthodox Divines’, who were ‘diligent preachers of the word of God’ (sig. A2–4). White reiterated his demands for church reform and declared that the will of God was manifest in the calling of parliament to effect reformation. The first of the ensuing 100 sequestrations from areas under parliamentarian control, especially Essex, Suffolk, and Kent, concerned a case of bestiality from Sussex, and the last concerned the efforts of an Essex vicar to compromise the chastity of the widows in his parish. Sandwiched in between were ninety-eight assorted instances of negligent, alcoholic, Laudian, and royalist ministers. White had single-handedly invented the popular press concept of the ‘naughty vicar’ and, according to Anthony Wood, his intention to publish a subsequent volume was never realized, because White was persuaded that it would bring scandal to the whole body of the clergy (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.144).

On 10 June 1642 White had offered £100 to the parliamentarian war effort. That year he was appointed as a lay member of the Westminster assembly of divines. He chaired the committee to consider the assembly's proposals on ordination in September 1644 and introduced the bill for introducing the Directory for the Publique Worship of God to replace the Book of Common Prayer. White was also a member of various committees set up to combat idolatry, including the committee chaired by Sir Robert Harley, which drew up the ordinances of 1643 and 1644 for the demolishing of ‘monuments of idolatry and superstition’. He was also actively involved in the trial of William Laud and was a member of the committee appointed to manage evidence against the archbishop. In addition to his evidence at the trial about the dissolution of the feoffees, he related the circumstances surrounding the removal of Edward Bagshaw in 1640 as reader at the Middle Temple following a lecture attacking the temporal powers of the clergy. White's final activities in the Commons were as a manager and reporter at the conference on the peace propositions on 8 November 1644.

White died on 29 January 1645, survived by his second wife, four of their sons, and four of their daughters. He was buried on 1 February at the Temple Church, London, near the altar, his funeral being attended by members of the House of Commons. According to Wood, his memorial inscription contained the following lines: ‘Here lyeth a John, a burning shining light, His name, life, actions were all White’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.146).

Jacqueline Eales

Sources  

Keeler, Long Parliament · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, vol. 3 · N&Q, 160 (1931), 437–8 · JHC, 2–3 (1640–44) · I. M. Calder, Activities of the puritan faction of the Church of England, 1625–33 (1957) · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 1.264 · W. H. Coates, A. Steele Young, and V. F. Snow, eds., The private journals of the Long Parliament, 1: 3 January to 5 March 1642 (1982) · The journal of Sir Simonds D'Ewes from the beginning of the Long Parliament to the opening of the trial of the earl of Strafford, ed. W. Notestein (1923) · W. Prynne, Canterburies doome, 1646 · HoP, Commons, 1640–60 [draft]