This very learned man was a native of the county of Suffolk. He became a student of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1577. He was elected Greek lecturer for that College, being but nineteen years of age. His election was strenuously, but vainly opposed by Dr. Reynolds, partly on account of his youth, and on the ground of some irregularity in his appointment. Perhaps this opposition was also to be ascribed to the fact, that young Spencer early attached himself to that party in his College which dreaded Puritanism quite as much as Popery. In 1579, he was chosen Fellow of the same College.
He was the fellow-student, and, like Saravia, and Savile, and Reynolds, the intimate friend of Richard Hooker, the author of that famous work, “The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.” This work, in the preparation of which Spencer was constantly consulted, as was even said to have “had a special hand” as in part its author, and which he edited after Hooker’s death,--this work is to this day the “great gun” on the ramparts of the Episcopal sect. Its argument, however, is very easily disposed of. It is thus described by Dr. James Bennett; --”The architecture of the fabric resembles Dagon’s temple; for it rests mainly upon two grand pillars, which, so long as they continue sound, will support all its weight. The first is, ‘that the Church of Christ, like all other societies, has power to make laws for its well-being;’ and the second, that ‘where the sacred Scriptures are silent, human authority may interpose.’ But if some Samson can be found to shake these pillars from their base, the whole edifice, with the lords of the Philistines in their seats, and the multitude with which it is crowded, will be involved in one common ruin. Grant Mr. Hooker these two principles, and his arguments cannot be confuted. But if a Puritan can show that the Church of Christ is different from all civil societies, because Christ had framed a constitution for it, and that where the Scriptures are silent, and neither enjoin nor forbid, no human association has a right to interpose its authority, but should leave the matter indifferent; in such a case, Hooker’s system would not be more stable than that of the Eastern philosopher, who rested the earth on the back of an elephant, who stood upon a huge tortoise, which stood upon nothing.”
After the death of Hooker in 1600, his papers were committed to Dr. Spencer, the associate and assistant of his studies, to superintend their publication. He attended carefully to this literary executorship, till the translation of the Bible began to engross his attention, when he committed the other duty, though still retaining a supervisory care, to a young and enthusiastic admirer of Hooker. The publication was not completed at the time of Dr. Spencer’s death, and the papers of Hooker passed into other hands.
When he became Master of Arts, in 1580, John Spencer entered into orders, and became a popular preachers. He was eventually one of King James’s chaplains. His wife a pupil of Hooker’s, as well as her brothers, George and William Cranmer, who became diplomatic characters, and warm patrons of their celebrated teacher. Mrs. Spencer was a great-niece of Thomas Cranmer, that Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Queen Mary burnt at the stake for his Protestantism. In 1589, Dr. Spencer was made Vicar of Alveley in Essex, which he resigned, in 1592, for the vicarage of Broxborn. In 1599, he was Vicar of St. Sepulchre’s, beyond Newgate, London. He was made President of Corpus Christ College, on the death of Dr. Reynolds, in 1607. Dr. Spencer was appointed to a prebendal stall in St. Paul’s, London, in 1612. His death took place on the third day of April, 1614, when he was fifty-five years of age. Of his eminent scholarship there can be no question. He was a valuable helper in the great work of preparing our common English version. We have but one publication from his pen, a sermon preached at St. Paul’s Cross, and printed after his decease, of which Keble, who is Professor of Poetry at Oxford, says, that it is “full of eloquence, and striking thoughts.”