In middle age, when Defoe was taunted with his want of learning, he retorted that if he was a blockhead it was not the fault of his father, who had “spared nothing in his education that might qualify him to match the accurate Dr. Browne, or the learned Observator.” His father was a Nonconformist, a member of the congregation of Dr. Annesley, and the son was originally intended for the Dissenting ministry. “It was his disaster,” he said afterwards, “first to be set apart for, and then to be set apart from, that sacred employ.” He was placed at an academy for the training of ministers at the age, it is supposed, of about fourteen, and probably remained there for the full course of five years. He has himself explained why, when his training was completed, he did not proceed to the office of the pulpit, but changed his views and resolved to engage in business as a hose-merchant. The sum of the explanation is that the ministry seemed to him at that time to be neither honourable, agreeable, nor profitable. It was degraded, he thought, by the entrance of men who had neither physical nor intellectual qualification for it, who had received out of a denominational fund only such an education as made them pedants rather than Christian gentlemen of high learning, and who had consequently to submit to shameful and degrading practices in their efforts to obtain congregations and subsistence. Besides, the behaviour of congregations to their ministers, who were dependent, was often objectionable and un-Christian. And finally, far-flown birds having fine feathers, the prizes of the ministry in London were generally given to strangers, “eminent ministers called from all parts of England,” some even from Scotland, finding acceptance in the metropolis before having received any formal ordination.
Though the education of his “fund-bred” companions, as he calls them, at Mr. Morton’s Academy in Newington Green, was such as to excite Defoe’s contempt, he bears testimony to Mr. Morton’s excellence as a teacher, and instances the names of several pupils who did credit to his labours. In one respect Mr. Morton’s system was better than that which then prevailed at the Universities; all dissertations were written and all disputations held in English; and hence it resulted, Defoe says, that his pupils, though they were “not destitute in the languages,” were “made masters of the English tongue, and more of them excelled in that particular than of any school at that time.” Whether Defoe obtained at Newington the rudiments of all the learning which he afterwards claimed to be possessed of, we do not know; but the taunt frequently levelled at him by University men of being an “illiterate fellow” and no scholar, was one that he bitterly resented, and that drew from him many protestations and retorts. In 1705, he angrily challenged John Tutchin “to translate with him any Latin, French, or Italian author, and after that to retranslate them crosswise for twenty pounds each book;” and he