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Sherlock, Thomaslocked

  • Colin Haydon

Thomas Sherlock (1677–1761)

by James Macardell, 1757 (after Jean Baptiste van Loo, 1740)

Sherlock, Thomas (1677–1761), bishop of London, was born in London on 20 November 1677, the son of William Sherlock (1639/40–1707), subsequently master of the Temple and dean of St Paul's, and his wife, Elizabeth Gardner (d. 1715?). He was baptized on 16 December. In 1689, as a King's scholar, Sherlock entered Eton College (where he became known as a strong swimmer). He was admitted pensioner at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, in January 1694 and matriculated in 1695. He took the degrees of BA (1698), MA (1701), and DD (1714), and was elected a fellow of St Catharine's in 1698.

Sherlock was presented to the living of Therfield, Hertfordshire, in 1702. When, in 1705, his father resigned the mastership of the Temple, he succeeded him, following which he became famous as a preacher and only surrendered the position in 1753. His career advanced rapidly thereafter. In 1711 he was appointed chaplain to Queen Anne, and in 1713 a prebendary of St Paul's. From 1714 to 1719 he was master of St Catharine's, Cambridge, and in 1714–15 was vice-chancellor of the university, in which capacity he upheld certain university privileges vis-à-vis the claims of the archdeacon of Ely, Richard Bentley. He now displayed his support for the Hanoverian dynasty. In A Sermon Preach'd at the Temple-Church he told his audience to show 'a cheerful and steddy Obedience to the Prince whom God has set over us' (p. 23). The following year he was selected to preach before the Commons on the thanksgiving for the Jacobite rising's suppression, and argued '[i]f … we have any Concern for the Peace and Happiness of our Country … we must detest this Rebellion, and with sincere Hearts adore the Goodness of God, who hath wrought this Deliverance for us' (T. Sherlock, A Sermon Preach'd before the Honourable House of Commons, 18). In November 1715 Sherlock had been made dean of Chichester but he was ambitious for a bishopric. He became bishop of Bangor in 1728 but observed, in a letter to Thomas Gooch, ''Tis a pity the Bprick shou'd only be a bridge to a better' (Carpenter, 27). He was promoted to Salisbury in 1734 and, in 1748, raised to London, the see which he held until his death in 1761.

By upbringing and conviction Sherlock was a tory. For this reason Edmund Gibson, bishop of London, had no wish to advance him in the church. Sherlock was, however, perfectly willing to work with the royal family. Under George I he cultivated the favour of the prince of Wales and of Princess Caroline; it was therefore natural for the latter to support Sherlock's elevation to Bangor, after her husband's accession, and his subsequent appointment to Salisbury. None the less relations with Queen Caroline cooled after Sherlock's opposition to the Quakers Tithe Bill and, following her death in 1737, his standing at court waned.

Sherlock took his political duties seriously though, as time went on, his attendance in the Lords declined. In parliament he was occasionally willing to speak on secular as well as religious subjects, and the duke of Newcastle valued his opinions. He supported Sir Robert Walpole's ministry over the pension bill (1731) and the South Sea inquiry (1733). However, he opposed the ecclesiastical courts and mortmain bills, and joined with Gibson in opposing the Quakers Tithe Bill (1736), in respect of which he produced a pamphlet, The Country Parson's Plea. He supported Walpole in the difficult early period of the War of the Austrian Succession, in 1745 he preached against the Jacobite rising, and he entered the debate on the treatment of the highlands following the rising's suppression. He could be forceful in debate. In 1743 he described the Spirituous Liquors Bill as 'the most unchristian Bill that was ever thought of by any government' and therefore concluded: 'I think it incumbent upon me as a christian bishop, to give my testimony against it in the most open and express manner I can' (Cobbett, Parl. Hist., 12, 1743, 1236).

It was regrettable that Sherlock's elevation to the episcopate came so late in life since, as his remaining years passed, he became increasingly incapable of discharging his duties effectively. He went to Bangor and, except in 1731 and 1734, held ordinations in the cathedral. He also enforced the duty of residence through the consistory court. While bishop of Salisbury he lived in the city during the summer and annually held an ordination—and in some years two or more ordinations—at his palace. He conducted a visitation in 1736, of which the Old Whig reported that he 'obliged the Clergy throughout his Diocese to make a competent Provision for their Curates; and not only so, but had strictly enjoin'd the Non-Residents, hence forward to see to it that they do reside on their respective Cures' (23 Sept 1736).

In the 1740s Sherlock's health deteriorated. In the 1750s he became increasingly sick, having suffered 'a very dangerous Illness, from which indeed he recovered, but with almost the total Loss of the Use of his Limbs … [with] soon after his Speech failing him' (Nicolls, 25). In 1754 Edmund Pyle was appalled at his condition, and in 1755 he appeared near death. He ordained until June 1753 but thereafter other bishops had to undertake this duty for him. In 1759 he produced a charge to the London clergy, which was printed and which denounced non-residence. If a living were neglected, 'the People of the Parish, who are religiously disposed, will probably go to the Meeting-house, if there be one near; those who are not religiously disposed, will probably go to the Ale-house' (T. Sherlock, A Charge Delivered to the Clergy, at a Visitation Held for the Diocese of London, 36). It caused some controversy since Sherlock himself had been so obvious a pluralist.

On his promotion to London in 1748, Sherlock became alarmed about the see's oversight of the American colonies. He was, he observed in 1752, 'bishop of a vast country, without power, or influence, or any means of promoting true religion: sequestered from the people over whom I have the care, and must never hope to see' (Taylor, Whigs, bishops and America, 337). He suggested that the work should be split among several English bishops but then concluded that the establishment of a resident American episcopate would serve the church's interests more effectively, maintaining that it would be 'the glory of my life, if I c'd be the instrument … of putting the Ch. abroad upon a true and primitive foot' (ibid., 341). He produced his 'Considerations … relating to ecclesiastical government in America' (LPL, Fulham MSS, 4, fol. 273) but, while the bishops wanted the reform, the government proved unwilling to support it in case it engendered religious strife. To Sherlock's dismay the ministers killed it by prevaricating and then letting the matter drop.

Sherlock was greatly concerned about the social and moral problems of his age. He saw drunkenness as a great social evil, hence his opposition to the Spirituous Liquors Bill, which he believed would facilitate excessive drinking. In his Letter … on Occasion of the Late Earthquakes (1750) he denounced idleness and frivolous activities. Wanting moral regeneration, he maintained:

Blasphemy and horrid Imprecations domineer in our Streets, and poor Wretches are every Hour wantonly and wickedly calling for Damnation on themselves and others, which may be ('tis much to be feared) too near them already. Add to this the Lewdness and Debauchery that prevail amongst the lowest People, which keeps them idle, poor, and miserable.

pp. 7–8

He also wished to suppress blasphemous or lewd books.

Imbued with traditional views Sherlock was a formidable controversialist. At the time of the Bangorian controversy he was chosen as chairman of the lower house of convocation's committee to report on Bishop Benjamin Hoadly's sermon, and he entered into the pamphlet war on the issues. In 1718 he produced his Vindication of the Corporation and Test Acts, which defended the established church's privileges. He was deeply disturbed by the growth of non-traditional and deist ideas; in two of his books, The Use and Intent of Prophecy (1725) and The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus (1729), he countered such positions, arguing the traditional case with great clarity. The former work discussed the Old Testament prophecies relating to Christ, and adopted a liberal, rather than a literal, interpretation. And in The Tryal, by using conventional and accepted methods of cross-examination and historical investigation, Sherlock sought to prove the veracity of the scriptural accounts of Christ's resurrection. 'His Zeal was warm and fervent in explaining the great Doctrines and Duties of Christianity, and in maintaining and establishing it upon the most solid and sure Foundations', Samuel Nicolls stated in his memorial sermon. 'Witness those Discourses written purposely in Defence of Christianity, in which the Argument for the Truth of the Christian Religion is carried to its utmost Height' (Nicolls, 28–9). Sherlock's Letter … on Occasion of the Late Earthquakes sold in prodigious numbers. In addition many of his sermons and the discourses that he preached at the Temple Church were published.

Sherlock married Judith Fountayne, of a Yorkshire family, in 1707; she survived him and died in 1764. They had no children. According to Samuel Nicolls, '[n]o Man was ever more happy in domestic Life, and no one could shew greater Gentleness, Good-nature and Affection to all around him' (Nicolls, 30–31), though it was also noted, in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1773, that '[h]e could bear no opposition in his own house' (p. 385). His portrait at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, shows a man of elegant appearance, intelligent and commanding, with astute eyes and delicate fingers. In later prints his appearance is solemn, his face full. The Gentleman's Magazine observed: '[h]is aspect was rather austere, heavy, and forbidding; but, when he was pleased and smiled, he shewed the most amiable change of features'. As for his voice:

[though it] was not melodious, but accompanied rather with a Thickness of Speech, yet were his Words uttered with so much Propriety, and with such Strength and Vehemence, that he never failed to take Possession of his whole Audience, and secure their Attention.

Nicolls, 22

His later life was dogged by gout and mounting ill health; on this account he declined the see of York and that of Canterbury, in 1743 and 1747 respectively. He died on 18 July 1761 and was buried in Fulham churchyard. He left most of his fortune of £140,000 to his wife and to his nephew Sir Thomas Gooch, and his library to St Catharine's, Cambridge.

Sherlock owed his advancement to his personal abilities, his steadfast religious convictions, his connections, and his shrewd and flexible political behaviour. It is revealing that, in the age of the whig supremacy, the Church of England, backed by the political establishment, could accommodate in its highest echelons a man with both a tory political outlook and high clerical views.


  • parish register, London, St George, Botolph Lane, GL, microfilm 4793
  • Lincs. Arch., PD 1702/42
  • will, 1761, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/867
  • S. Nicolls, A sermon preached at the Temple Church, on Sunday, November 15, 1761 (1762)
  • GM, 1st ser., 43 (1773), 385–6
  • A. Hartshorne, ed., Memoirs of a royal chaplain, 1729–1763 (1905)
  • The Old Whig: or, the Consistent Protestant, 81 (23 Sept 1736)
  • E. Carpenter, Thomas Sherlock, 1678–1761 (1936)
  • S. Taylor, ‘Whigs, bishops and America: the politics of church reform in mid eighteenth-century England’, HJ, 36 (1993), 331–56
  • S. Taylor, ‘Sir Robert Walpole, the Church of England, and the Quakers Tithe Bill of 1736’, HJ, 28 (1985), 51–77
  • S. Taylor, ‘The bishops at Westminster in the mid-eighteenth century’, A pillar of the constitution: the House of Lords in British politics, 1640–1784, ed. C. Jones (1989), 137–63
  • W. Sterry, ed., The Eton College register, 1441–1698 (1943)
  • E. B. Fryde and others, eds., Handbook of British chronology, 3rd edn, Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks, 2 (1986)
  • G. Hennessy, Novum repertorium ecclesiasticum parochiale Londinense, or, London diocesan clergy succession from the earliest time to the year 1898 (1898)


  • CUL, collections relating to University of Cambridge lands, privileges, and property
  • Wilts. & Swindon HC, corresp. and MSS relating to Salisbury
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Hardwicke, Add. MSS 35586–35909, passim
  • BL, corresp. with duke of Newcastle, Add. MSS 32688–32917, passim
  • LPL, Fulham MSS, American corresp., London diocesan administration MSS, and MSS
  • Yale U., Farmington, Lewis Walpole Library, letters to Edward Weston


  • Lelius, mezzotint, 1737 (after ‘Jones’), BM, NPG
  • S. F. Ravenet, line engraving, 1756 (after J. Vanderbank), BM, NPG
  • J. Macardell, mezzotint, 1757 (after J. B. van Loo, 1740), BM [see illus.]
  • Jones, oils, St Catharine's College, Cambridge
  • J. Vanderbank, oils, St Catharine's College, Cambridge
  • J. Vanderbank, oils, Fulham Palace, London

Wealth at Death

£140,000: Carpenter, Thomas Sherlock

Historical Journal
Guildhall Library, London
J. Venn & J. A. Venn, , 2 pts in 10 vols. (1922–54); repr. in 2 vols. (1974–8)
W. Cobbett & J. Wright, eds., , 36 vols. (1806–20)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Gentleman's Magazine
Lincolnshire Archives, Lincoln