John Spencer (Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

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John Spencer (1630–1693) was an English clergyman and scholar, Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. An erudite theologian and Hebraist, he is now remembered as the author of De Legibus Hebraeorum, a pioneer work of comparative religion, advancing the thesis that Judaism was not the earliest of mankind’s religions.[1]


He was a native of Bocton, near Blean, Kent, where he was baptised on 31 October 1630. He was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, became king's scholar there, and was admitted to a scholarship of Archbishop Parker's foundation in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on 25 March 1645. He graduated B.A. in 1648, M.A. in 1652, B.D. in 1659, and D.D. in 1665. He was chosen a fellow of his college about 1655.[2]

After taking holy orders he became a university preacher, served the cures first of St. Giles and then of St. Benedict, Cambridge, and on 23 July 1667 was instituted to the rectory of Landbeach, Cambridgeshire, which he resigned in 1683 in favour of his nephew and curate, William Spencer. On 3 August 1667 he was unanimously elected master of Corpus Christi College, a post he held for twenty-six years. He was appointed a prebendary in the first stall at Ely in February 1671-2, and served the office of vice-chancellor of the university in the academic year 1673-4, during which he delivered a speech addressed to the Duke of Monmouth on his installation as chancellor of the university.

He was admitted, on the presentation of the king, to the archdeaconry of Sudbury in the church of Norwich on 5 September 1667; and was instituted to the deanery of Ely on 9 September 1677. He died on 27 May 1693, and was buried in the college chapel, where a monument with a Latin inscription was erected to his memory. He was a major benefactor to the college.


In 1669 he published a 'Dissertatio de Urin. et Thummin' (Cambridge, 8vo), in which he referred those mystic emblems to an Egyptian origin. (See Urim and Thummim.) The tract was republished in the following year, and afterwards, in 1744, by Blasius Ugolinus in 'Thesaurus Antiquitatum.' He contributed verses to the Cambridge University Collection on the death of Henrietta Maria, queen dowager, 1669.

In 1685 appeared Spencer's major work, his De Legibus Hebraeorum, Ritualibus et earum Rationibus libri tres (Cambridge, 1685; The Hague, 1686). In this work Spencer derived nearly all his data from classical writers of Greece and Rome, the Church Fathers, the works of Josephus, or from the Bible itself. Among his adverse critics were Hermann Witsius in his Aegyptiaca in 1683, Joannes Wigersma,[3] Ibertus Fennema,[4] Andreas Kempfer and Joannes Meyer,[5] John Edwards (1637–1716), and John Woodward. Later writers hostile to Spencer's thesis were William Jones of Nayland, and Archbishop Magee, who rebuked William Warburton for defending Spencer against Witsius. Later works on comparative religion, such as Julius Wellhausen's History of Israel (1878) and Cornelis Petrus Tiele's Histoire Comparée des Anciennes Religions de l'Egypte et des Peuples Sémitiques, developed the lines of thought in Spencer. A second edition of Spencer's work appeared at Cambridge in 1727, (revised by Leonard Chappelow), and another at Tübingen, 1732. Given the religious views at the time, it was indexed in The Bibliographer's Manual of English Literature: K.Q (by William Thomas Lowndes, published by W. Pickering, 1834, See p. 1722) as "a very learned but dangerous work, the great object of which is to show that the Hebrew ritual was almost entirely borrowed from the Egyptians".

Spencer also wrote A Discourse concerning Prodigies, wherein the vanety of Presages by them is reprehended, and their true and proper Ends asserted and vindicated, London, 1663; 2nd edit., 'to which is added a short Treatise concerning Vulgar Prophecies,' London, 1665.

Jan Assmann suggests that Spencer was influenced by Maimonides and that Karl Leonhard Reinhold took the same approach.[6]


He married Hannah, daughter of Isaac Puller of Hertford, and sister of Timothy Puller. She died in 1674, leaving one daughter (Elizabeth) and one son (John).

Corpus Ghost

Although not meant to be Spencer himself, an apparition of his daughter is said to walk the courts of Corpus Christi on Christmas Eve.

In 1667, while Spencer was Master, his daughter was entertaining a young undergraduate when her father interrupted them. She hid the student in a wardrobe (which college records state only opened from the outside) where he was left for a long time and asphyxiated. Elizabeth, in a fit of grief, committed suicide.[7][8]

See also


  1. Margaret T. Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1971), p. 330.
  2. "Spencer, John (SPNR645J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Wigersma, Johannes". Retrieved 10 January 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. [1][dead link]
  5. [2][dead link]
  6. Höfele, Andreas, Renaissance Go-betweens: cultural exchange in early modern Europe edit by Andreas Höfele, Werner von Koppenfels, 2005, ISBN 3-11-018215-7 , See section: Moses as Go-Between: John Spencer's Theory of Religious Translation by Jan Assmann
  7. Rackham, Oliver (2002). Treasures of Silver at Corpus Christi College. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-81880-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. [3][dead link]


Academic offices
Preceded by
Francis Wilford
Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
William Stanley