- Edmund Venables
- , revised by M. C. Curthoys
Parsons, John (1761–1819), bishop of Peterborough and college head, was the son of Isaac Parsons, butler of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and his wife, Alice (both of whom are buried in the cloisters of that college). The family were prominent bankers in Oxford; his brother, Herbert, and cousin, John Parsons, were both mayors of the city. Born in the parish of St Aldates, Oxford, he was baptized in St Aldates Church on 6 July 1761. He received his early education, first at the school attached to Christ Church, and subsequently at Magdalen College School. He was admitted at Wadham College on 26 June 1777, and was elected a scholar there on 30 June 1780. He graduated BA in 1782, MA in 1785, and BD and DD in 1799.
Having taken holy orders, Parsons was elected fellow of Balliol on 29 November 1785. He was a regular contributor to the Monthly Review and was responsible for the preliminary work on the Oxford edition of Strabo (published in 1807). In July 1797 he was presented by the college to the united livings of All Saints' and St Leonard's, Colchester. On 22 January 1798 he married Elizabeth Parsons (d. 1827), probably a cousin, at St Aldates Church, and on 14 November 1798 he was elected master of Balliol. He held that office until his death. From 1807 to 1810 he was vice-chancellor of the university.
With Parsons's mastership the real revival of Balliol, and, it may be said, of the university generally, began. He made the college examination a reality, and thus, in conjunction with John Eveleigh, provost of Oriel, he gave the lead to the university in making the examinations, which had degenerated into a discreditable farce, also a reality. With Eveleigh he elaborated the new examination statute of 1801, by which university honours were for the first time awarded for real merit, and he was one of the first examiners, the earliest class list under the new system appearing in 1802. He was for many years 'the leading, or rather the working, member' of the hebdomadal council. By the success of the experiment at Balliol he may be said to have laid the foundation of the collegiate tutorial system. He had great sympathy with the undergraduates, and he was much respected by them. Benjamin Jowett recalled that when Parsons first became master:
the junior common room was reported to be in a very bad state. He sent for the ‘book of rules’, and, after examining it, put it on the fire, sending for the leading members of the junior common room to see it burning, and thus put an end to the institution.
Richard Jenkyns, who succeeded him as master, was tutor under him, and when Parsons was made a bishop was appointed vicegerent, vigorously seconding his administration of the college.
Although he was a warm advocate of all reforms calculated to promote the welfare of his college and of the university, Parsons held strong tory principles. He was vigorously opposed to all 'innovations', either in the university or in national politics. He was the senior of the three heads of houses who, on the death of the duke of Portland in 1809, proposed the tory Lord Eldon for the chancellorship of the university, to which the whiggish Lord Grenville was elected.
This and other services rendered to the tory party in the university marked Parsons out for preferment. In 1810 he was appointed dean of Bristol, and in 1812 he was presented to the chapter living of Weare in Somerset, which he held until his death. In 1813, mainly through Eldon's influence, he was raised to the bishopric of Peterborough. Both as dean of Bristol and as bishop of Peterborough, Parsons was active in the establishment and promotion of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor. In conjunction with Eveleigh he advanced its interests at Oxford; and, together with Joshua Watson, he is credited with drawing up in 1812 the terms of union for the district committees of the provincial schools. In September 1818 he was appointed one of the commissioners for inquiring into educational charities.
Parsons seldom spoke in the House of Lords, but he was very useful on committees, and especially improved the Consolidation Bill and the Church Building Bill. He died at Oxford on 12 March 1819, of rheumatic gout, and was buried, quietly, by his own desire, in the chapel of Balliol College, where there is a monument to him. He left no children.
Parsons was a preacher of a high order, with a dignified and emphatic delivery, though only his sermons to the Commons (20 March 1811) and to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (1818) were published. All his manuscript sermons were burnt after his death, by his express request. In the acrimonious controversy concerning the Bampton lectures of Dr Joseph White, the Arabic professor, of which the Revd Samuel Badcock was asserted to have been the author, and portions of which were claimed by Dr Samuel Parr, Parsons was appointed one of the arbitrators, but declined to act; it was believed that he also had 'a considerable right of property in the lectures, which his honour or his kindness obliged him to dissemble', and that Parr in some of his claims was 'trespassing on ground he knew to be his own' (De Quincey's Works, 157).
Parsons is described by the Revd E. Patteson, in a letter to Sir William Scott, as 'a second founder' of his college, 'a reformer of the abuses of the university, an enforcer of its discipline, an able champion of its privileges, and a main pillar of its reputation' (Annual Biography, 1820, 431). He had vigorous colloquial powers, and was both witty and gay when conversing with congenial companions; but in general society he was grave and reserved.
- Annual Biography and Obituary, 4 (1820)
- Christian Remembrancer, 1 (1819), 384–5, 670–72
- GM, 1st ser., 88/2 (1818), 525
- GM, 1st ser., 89/1 (1819), 481
- G. V. Cox, Recollections of Oxford (1868)
- J. Britton, The history and antiquities of the abbey and cathedral church of Peterborough (1828)
- E. Churton, ed., Memoir of Joshua Watson, 2 vols. (1861)
- C. J. Abbey and J. H. Overton, The English church in the eighteenth century, 2 vols. (1878)
- De Quincey's works, ed. D. Masson, 2nd edn, 16 vols. (1862–71), vol. 5
- private information (1895)
- J. Jones, Balliol College: a history, 1263–1939 (1988)
- Bodl. Oxf., accounts, corresp., diaries, and papers
- BL, corresp. with Lord Grenville, Add. MS 69111
- W. Owen, oils, exh. RA 1818, Balliol Oxf.; copy, Wadham College, Oxford