Thornton, John

honorific(s): Esq.
Birth: April 1, 1720 in Yorkshire, England
Death: November 7th, 1790

Anglican Church; Treasurer of the English Trust






Merchant, philanthropist

  • Yorkshire, England (from 1720 to 1790-11-07)
  • Clapham Common, England

Fundraising Tour of Great Britain

Marital status

In 1753, John Thornton married Lucy Watson, with whom he had four children. Two of these children (Samuel and Henry) went on to join Parliament.


John Thornton was born in Yorkshire on April 1, 1720. As a young man, Thornton inherited money from his father Robert Thornton, who was the Director of the Bank of England, which he used to begin his career as a merchant. In 1753, Thornton married Lucy Watson, with whom he had four children. Watson had a Christianizing influence on Thornton, which ultimately led to his 1754 conversion to evangelical Anglicanism under Henry Venn, the curate of Clapham. Thornton's and Venn’s sons would continue their fathers’ religious traditions, going on to form the “Clapham sect,” an influential group of evangelical Christians who championed social reforms. As a result of his conversion, Thornton pursued charity just as much as trade, a major part of which involved managing the English Trust that oversaw the funds Occom and Whitaker collected for Wheelock’s Indian Charity School. Thornton met and hosted Occom several times during his stay in England, and eventually became the Treasurer of the Trust. After Wheelock moved the School to Hanover, however, he focused on the establishment of Dartmouth College to educate Anglo-American men as missionaries, and was accused of using the Trust's funds to this end. This shift in focus contributed to the rift that developed between Occom and Wheelock upon Occom’s return to America –- a rift Thornton tried to repair. Thornton thought of Occom as an equal and, in his role as Treasurer of the Trust, often reminded Wheelock of Occom's vital role in securing the funds that made the School possible. Thornton financed Occom's further missionary activities and insured that Wheelock did not forget Occom's hard work and Christian morals. In addition, Wheelock –- who knew that Occom respected Thornton –- often called upon the merchant when he himself could not convince Occom to undertake further missionary activity. The exchanges between Wheelock and Thornton ended once Wheelock had used up the funds that Occom had raised in England, yet Occom and Thornton kept in touch up through the Revolutionary War, with Thornton remaining one of Occom's most prominent supporters. He died on November 7th, 1790 as one of the wealthiest men in England, despite giving away nearly half his salary each year. In 1828, Thornton's role in the establishment of Dartmouth was memorialized in the College's naming of Thornton Hall.


Childs, Francis. "A Dartmouth History Lesson for Freshman Students." Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 1957. Jaskoski, Helen. Early Native American Writing: New Critical Essays. Cambridge University Press 2009. The National Archives. "The Thornton Papers." Accessed 9/2/2014. Online Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900. "Henry Thornton." Accessed 8/31/2014. Peyer, Bernd. "The Betrayal of Samson Occom." Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 1998. The Spirit of Wilberforce. "Biographies: John Thornton." Accessed 8/31/14.