John Thornton (philanthropist)

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Portrait of John Thornton (Thomas Gainsborough)

John Thornton (1720–1790) was a British merchant and Christian philanthropist.


Thornton was the son of Robert Thornton of Clapham, Surrey, a merchant who became a director of the Bank of England.

He invested heavily in the Russian and Baltic trade and acquired wealth that he donated to Christian ministry causes. A devout Anglican, he espoused evangelical causes, regardless of denomination, and his extensive giving included evangelical ministries in various parts of the world. He is best known as having partly sponsored John Newton, the ex-slave ship trader who became an Anglican priest at Olney, Buckinghamshire from 1764 to 1780, giving him £200 a year. In 1780, he offered Newton the living of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street – the fashionable London church where Newton became established as a noted preacher for over twenty years, and where he ended his days. He also aided Lady Huntingdon in setting up her training college with an interest-free loan.

Thornton was the treasurer of a fund raised in England from 1766 to 1768 by American colonial preachers Samson Occom and Nathaniel Whitaker for Moor's School, an Indian charity school founded by Eleazar Wheelock in Lebanon Crank, Connecticut. Wheelock applied the fund to establish Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and in 1829 the school named one of its main buildings Thornton Hall. Thornton donated his own money so that Wheelock could build a mansion for the college president in 1771. It still stands at 4 West Wheelock Street.

Thornton travelled extensively and contributed to churches in different parts of the country, including Holy Trinity, Clapham, which was to become the centre for the so-called Clapham Sect of Christian social reformers.

On 28 November 1753 Thornton married Lucy Watson (1722–1785), daughter of Samuel Watson of Hull. They had four children, including Samuel Thornton (1754–1838) a Member of Parliament), and Henry Thornton (1760–1815), banker, economist and Member of Parliament.

John Thornton sustained a fatal injury as a result of an accident at Bath and died on 7 November 1790.


  • Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (Pan Macmillan, 2005)
  • Stephen, Leslie (1898). "Thornton, Henry" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 56. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Welch, Edwin. John Thornton in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)