Chillingworth, William (DNB00)
|←Chillingworth, John (d.1445)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 10
CHILLINGWORTH, WILLIAM (1602–1644), theologian, was the son of a well-to-do citizen of Oxford, who afterwards held the office of mayor, and must have been a man of literary or theological interests, as Laud, at that time fellow of St. John's College, acted as godfather to his son William. Under these circumstances it was natural that Chillingworth should be destined to a university career. He was educated at a grammar school in Oxford, and in 1618 was made a scholar of Trinity College. He took his degree of B.A. in 1620, and owing to his growing reputation as a scholar was elected fellow of his college on 10 June 1628.
Chillingworth's connection with Laud led to an episode which is discreditable to them both. Alexander Gill, an usher in St. Paul's School, was in the habit of visiting old friends at Oxford, and in the heat of a convivial conversation in the grove of Trinity College used some strong expressions against the king, and praised Felton's murder of the Duke of Buckingham. For this he was called before the Star-chamber on 6 Nov., was degraded from the ministry, deprived of his university degree, and sentencea to lose his ears. Aubrey (Lives of Eminent Men, ii. 285) says that Chillingworth sent Laud 'weekly intelligence of what passed in the university,' and it is exceedingly probable from the nature of the evidence against Gill that the information in his case came from Chillingworth (Masson, Life of Milton, i. 178 note). If so, Chillingworth's communications to Laud must have been singularly indiscreet, and Laud must have used them unscrupulously; and it was well for Chillingworth that he was turned from political interests to ecclesiastical controversy.
To the discussion of the religious questions which agitated the university at that time Chillingworth brought an impartial and well-balanced mind, a large store of learning, and a keen power of dialectics. He delighted in argument and discussion, and his talents won him the intimacy of such men as Sir Lucius Cary, John Hales, and Gilbert Sheldon (afterwards archbishop of Canterbury). The question which was uppermost in Oxford was the controversy against the church of Rome, and into this Chillingworth plunged with ardour. He measured swords with a Jesuit, who went by the name of John Fisher, who was busied in Oxford with the defence of the Roman position. Frequent arguments with Fisher led Chillingworth to doubt the logical basis of the Laudian theology, which was then prevalent among his Oxford friends. The Laudian school insisted upon ecclesiastical order and ecclesiastical authority; Chillingworth was not satisfied with the evidence for the continuity of the protestant church. He was acutely susceptible to the Jesuit arguments against Luther as a schismatic who had no evidence of a commission, human or divine, for his revolutionary action; he was keenly conscious of the excesses of some protestant bodies, and saw in protestantism no machinery for suppressing heresy or restoring the unity of the church (Knott, in 'Directions to be observed by N. N.,' p. 37, gives Chillingworth's summary of his reasons for joining the church of Rome, and this summary is acknowledged to be genuine by Chillingworth, 'Preface to the Author of Charity Maintained'). In short, Chillingworth, as he wrote to Sheldon, was attracted by the idea of an infallible church, and saw no other church save that of Rome which claimed infallibility in matters of faith. Wearied by the perpetual controversies in which he had hitherto lived, he sought a refuge in the Roman church.
Chillingworth's conspicuous abilities made him an important convert, and the Jesuits determined to find him employment. In 1630 he went to the college ot Douay, where he was urged to put in writing an account of the motives which had led him to make his religious change. Perhaps this was hardly judicious treatment of one who sought above all things relief from inward questionings. However, Chillingworth undertook the task imposed upon him, and with a sense of new responsibility his intellectual fairness again revived. He felt it his duty to weigh afresh the arguments of his former friends, and Laud, then bishop of London, began a series of letters to his godson, which had the effect of turning his mind to a new line of inquiry (Wharton, Hist. of the Troubles and Trial of William Laud, p. 227). The result was that Chillingworth, as he says himself, 'upon better consideration became a doubting papist.' He left Douay in 1631 and returned to Oxford, where he pursued his theological inquiries with an impartial mind, till in 1634 he again declared himself to be a protestant, and published a statement of the motives which induced him to become a Romanist, together with a confutation of them (a later summary of this paper is in his 'Additional Discourses,' No. 8).
Though Chillingworth abandoned the church of Rome, he did not at once return to the church of England. His mental struggles had led him to seek an intellectual basis for belief which rested on something deeper than any ecclesiastical system. He had left the church of England because the church of Rome seemed to offer a firmer foundation for a system which was capable of logical expression. When he found that this also was open to objections, he slowly worked through the prepossessions 'which by his education had got possession of his understanding,'and sought for a reasonable basis of belief. He rested upon scripture interpreted by reason, and did not seek to discover any perfect system of dogma or practice. He was not interested in setting up the church of England against the church of Rome, but was contented to convince himself that a man, honestly in search of truth, could find it in the scriptures, and that no claims of infallibility could be maintained against the right of the enlightened conscience to bring everything to the test of learning and rational investigation. Tried by these tests he found nothing erroneous in the teaching of the church of England, but he declined to take orders because he was not convinced that every proposition contained in the Thirty-nine Articles could be proved from scripture, and he regarded the articles themselves as an 'imposition on men's consciences,' resembling the authority claimed by the church of Rome to utter infallible definitions of dogma (Des Maizeaux, Letters to Sheldon, p. 78, &c.)
It was natural that the Romanists should attack with some bitterness a convert from whom they had hoped much, whose conduct had been marked by such apparent irresoluteness; while, at the same time, Chillingworth's new position did not commend itself to protestant zealots. The divines of the Laudian school, however, combined great doctrinal tolerance with a love for outward order, and treated Chillingworth with consideration while they strove to overcome his scruples. They recognised his value as a controversialist, and, however much Chillingworth may have wished to hold aloof from controversy, it was forced upon him. His former friends among the Romanists assailed him with reproaches, which he answered by temperate arguments against the chief positions on which they rested their attacks. Thus he wrote to John Lewgar, a convert to Romanism, a letter giving 'Reasons against Popery,' and further held a conference with Lewgar in which they discussed the Roman claims of infallibility and catholicity. The same controversy also seems to have given rise to a short treatise of Chilling worth's, 'A Discourse against the Infallibility of the Roman Church.' About the same time he engaged in a similar controversy with a Jesuit known as Daniel, whose real name was John Floyd, against whom Chillingworth took up the formal ground that the contradictions involved in several of the Roman doctrines were a conclusive proof against the infallibility of the church. A third disputation was held before Lord Digby and Sir Kenelm Digby with Mr. White, the author of 'Rushworth's Dialogues,' on the subject of tradition. A summary of all these controversies is contained in the detached pieces which were published in 1687 under the title of 'Additional Discourses of Mr. Chillingworth.'
All this, however, was but preparatory to Chillingworth's great work, which was the result of accidental circumstances, and suffers from its accidental form. Rarely has a work of such importance been weighted by so much extraneous matter, for Chillingworth is not only answering an enemy, but defending a friend at the same time. The controversy to which Chillingworth brought all his learning and all his thought arose from the publication in 1630 of a book called 'Charity mistaken, with the want whereof Catholics are unjustly charged for affirming, as they do with grief, that Protestancy unrepented destroys salvation.' The writer was a Jesuit, Edward Knott, who was answered by Dr. Potter, provost of Queen's College, Oxford, in a book called 'Want of Charity justly charged on all such Romanists as dare (without truth or modesty) affirm that Protestancie destroyeth salvation ' (1633). The jesuit replied in 1634 in a work entitled 'Mercy and Truth, or Charity maintained by Catholics.' The nature of the controversy is sufficiently indicated by these titles, and the question thus raised was precisely the one which interested Chillingworth most deeply. He had become a Romanist through his longing for certainty; he found that a more logical organisation gave no greater certainty, but made more demands upon the intellect; he had abandoned Romanism because he discovered that the problem was an individual problem, and that a universal solution was unattainable. He accordingly undertook to spare Dr. Potter the trouble of replying to Knott's pamphlet, and set to work to answer it himself. For this purpose he went to the house of his friend, Sir Lucius Cary (then Lord Falkland), at Great Tew in Oxfordshire. There he found a well-stocked library and a man of congenial temper, with whom he might discuss the various points in the argument which he was preparing.
The news of this intention of Chillingworth caused some stir; it was a great point for the Anglicans that their champion was one who knew the ways of the Jesuits, and could answer them from personal experience. Knott, in the heat of the fray, adopted an unworthy means of putting his adversary at a disadvantage. In 1636 he issued a pamphlet, 'A Direction to be observed by N. N. if hee meane to procede in answering the book entitled Mercy and Truth, or Charity maintained by Catholicks.' In this he tried to put Chillingworth out of court by accusing him of Socinianism. This personal attack still further complicated Chillingworth's book; not only had he to defend Dr. Potter, and to refute Knott's arguments, but he had also to clear his own reputation.
It would seem that Knott's attack on Chillingworth's orthodoxy caused some apprehension in the mind of Laud, who desired that Chillingworth's book should be submitted to the revision of some sound divines before it was published. It was accordingly revised by Richard Baily, the vice-chancellor, and John Prideaux and Samuel Fell, divinity professors in the university of Oxford, and it appeared in 1637 with their imprimatur, so that Chillingworth claimed that he had 'made it pass through the fiery trial of the exact censures of many understanding judges.'The book bore the title of 'The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way of Salvation; or, an answer to a book entitled Mercy and Truth, or Charity maintained by Catholiques.' It began with a 'preface to the author of Charity maintained, with an answer to his pamphlet entitled A Direction to N. N.' It then proceeded to quote the preface and various chapters of the treatise 'Charity maintained,' and answer their arguments point by point.' Charity maintained' consisted of two parts, but Chillingworth contented himself with answering only the first part, which dealt with the general principle involved in the controversy; and did not pursue the points of detail opened out by the second part, for reasons which he gives in the 'conclusion.'
Thus Chillingworth's book is inextricably involved in extraneous matter, and owes its unity only to the lofty conceptions of its author, which animate all his arguments. He came forward not to attack Romanism or defend Anglicanism, but to maintain the right of free inquiry and the necessity of personal conviction. He spoke with an entire detachment from 'all contending systems: 'My desire is to go the right way to eternal happiness; but whether this way lie on the right hand, or on the left, or straightforward; whether it be by following a living guide, or by seeking my direction in a book, or by hearkening to the secret whisper of some private spirit, to me it is indifferent.' Henceh e proceeded on the principle of 'damning no man nor doctrine without express and certain warrant from God's word.' He attacked the Romanist assumption of certainty by a keen analysis of the grounds of belief, which he regarded primarily as intellectual assent; he drew clear distinctions between different kinds of evidence, between probable and necessary inferences, between moral and intellectual error. He argued on behalf of free inquiry as the great principle of protestantism, and limited himself to prove that if this principle was honestly followed, even though it led to intellectual errors on some points, it could not exclude from a participation in God's promises, and was therefore 'a safe way of salvation.'
Chillingworth's book at once attracted attention by its conspicuous ability, and a second edition was demanded within five months. But Chillingworth's position and arguments, though interesting to the learned and cultivated, were regarded with abhorrence by zealots on every side. His Jesuit antagonist, Knott, attacked him in a pamphlet, 'Christianity maintained ; or, a Discovery of sundry Doctrines tending to the Overthrow of the Christian Religion' (1638), and in 1639 two other works were issued from St. Omer denouncing Chillingworth as an atheist, whose principles were subversive of all religion. Even nine years after Chillingworth was dead, Knott still continued his protest in 'Infidelity unmasked, or a confutation of a book published by Mr. William Chillingworth ' (Ghent, 1652), Nor was the puritan party much better pleased with Chillingworth's arguments. In their eyes also he was imperilling religion by resolving faith into reason, and his intellectual tolerance had no charm for them when they were striving for supremacy. But Chillingworth's opinions were acceptable to Charles I and Laud, and Sir Thomas Coventry, keeper of the seal, offered him a benefice which he refused because he could not subscribe the articles. He expressed himself in his book 'that the doctrine of the Church of England is pure and orthodox, and that there is no error in it which may necessitate or warrant any man to disturb the peace or renounce the communion of it. This, in nay opinion, is all intended by subscription.' Laud had no fault to find with this definition of subscription, which was also held by Sheldon. Probably in consequence of their representations, and after this public announcement of his meaning, Chillingworth agreed to sign the articles, as a basis of peace and union, not as a token of entire assent. After this, in July 1638, he was made chancellor of Salisbury, with the prebend of Brixworth in Northamptonshire annexed, and soon afterwards was made master of Wigston's Hospital in Leicester. In 1640 he was elected proctor in convocation by the chapter of Salisbury, and sat in that assembly, which incurred the wrath of parliament, so that its members wore threatened with a heavy fine.
All other subjects were now thrown into the background by the outbreak of the struggle between king and parliament. It is not surprising that men like Chillingworth and Falkland, who saw the hope of the future lie in the prevalence of right reason, should have shrunk before the immoderate pretensions of parliament and joined the king's side, in the interests of order and peace. He used his pen in the king's behalf, chiefly to criticise the Scottish declaration, a task which was doubtless congenial to the bent of his penetrating mind. This naturally brought upon him retaliatory attacks, and Chillingworth wrote to excuse himself for writing against rebels (Des Maizeaux, Life of Chillinworth, p. 300).
Moreover, Chillingworth joined the royal army, whether as a chaplain through choice or as a soldier through necessity cannot be said. In August 1643 he was with the king's forces before Gloucester, where his learning suggested an engine for assault after the fashion of the Roman testudo (Rushworth, Historical Collections, iv. 236). Before his device could be used effectively the siege of Gloucester was raised in consequence of the advance of the Earl of Essex. Chillingworth accompanied the royalist troops to Arundel Castle, where he was taken ill. Being left at Arundel, he was one of the prisoners who fell into the hands of Waller when the castle surrendered on 9 Dec. Chillingworth's illness was so severe that he was not sent to London with the other prisoners, but obtained leave to retire to Chichester, where he was lodged in the bishop's palace. The privations of the siege and the anxiety of his captivity told upon a delicate constitution. He was pestered, moreover, by the exhortations of the puritan officers, and especially of a puritan clergyman, Francis Cheynell [q. v.], which were suppposed by his friends to have shortened his days. He died on 30 Jan. 1643-4, and was buried in Chichester Cathedral. Certainly Cheynell's conduct at his funeral was calculated to produce the impression that he had harassed Chillingworth's last hours. Though, as a great favour, Chillingworth was allowed to be buried according to the Anglican ritual, Cheynell appeared, and, after a long speech denouncing his heresies, flung a copy of his 'Religion of Protestants' into the grave that it might 'rot with its author and see corruption.' Moreover, Cheynell carried his zeal so far as to publish a work called 'Chillingworthi Novissima; or the Sickness, Heresy, Death, and Burial of William Chillingworth, (in his own phrase) clerk of Oxford, and in the conceit of his fellow-soldiers, the queen's arch-engineer and grand intelligencer; set forth in a letter to eminent and learned friends: a relation of his apprehension at Arundel, a discovery of his errors in a brief catechism, and a short oration at the burial of his heretical book' (1644). The title of the work is enough to show the spirit in which it was written. By the extreme parties, of Romanists and puritans alike, Chillingworth was regarded with suspicion and hatred; and both did their utmost to blacken his reputation even after his death.
The spread of Chillingworth's ideas may be curiously illustrated by the dates of the editions of his work. The year of its publication, 1638, saw two editions (Oxford and London); but while the great conflict was raging no one had time to listen to the voice of reason and moderation. The third edition appeared in 1664, the fourth in 1674, the fifth 1684. The apprehensions of a Romanist classical revival led to a popular and condensed edition in 1687, by John Patrick, 'made more generally useful by omitting personal contests, but inserting whatsoever concerns the common cause of protestantism, or defends the church of England.' At the same time were published other controversial writings of Chillingworth under the name of 'Additional Discourses.' These were incorporated in subsequent editions, which quickly followed in 1704, 1719, 1722, 1727, and 1742 with a life by Rev. Thomas Birch. In short, the ideas of Chillingworth revived gradually after the Restoration, and were dominant after the revolution, when they found full expression in such men as Burnet and Tillotson.
On the purely literary side the merits of Chillingworth are very great. His argumentative clearness was regarded by Locke as a model, and although his book is the criticism of another treatise, he has contrived to give it unity by the impress of the order of his own mind. Sustained and dignified his argument moves steadily on; he is never captious nor sophistical; he never strains a point against his adversary, but overwhelms him by the massiveness of his learning and the loftiness of his intellectual attitude. Yet Chillingworth's learning never overmasters him, and there is no display of erudition: in fact he does not rest on precedents, but on the reasonableness of his conclusions in themselves. The nature of Chillingworth's argument was more important than the way in which it was stated, and marked an epoch in English theology. His own experience led him to find certainty not in any dogmatic system, but in the use of his own reasoning powers, carefully trained and disciplined. What he had done for himself he was willing that others should also do for themselves, and he recognised that the result of each man's investigation would probably find a different expression according to his education, prejudices, and his moral earnestness. He abandoned the search for any absolute system, and was contented to discover one which in his opinion was free from serious error. Hence, on the one hand, he argued for a greater emancipation of the individual reason from authority than had hitherto been claimed; on the other hand, he set up toleration as the necessary 'element' for the intellectual life of reasonable men. On both these points, however, Chillingworth's position was purely intellectual, and he did not face the practical issues which immediately opened before him. His conception of the articles, as articles of peace and union, not necessarily articles of belief, paid no heed to the church as an organised society, and would have destroyed its corporate unity. His plan for toleration was founded upon the impossibility of any man attaining to more than relative certainty, and would have rendered zeal and enthusiasm impossible. In fact, Chillingworth's views, lofty as they were, laboured under the defects of an academic thinker whose experience of intellectual problems was larger than his knowledge of the world and of human nature. Still, he put forward a conception of rationalism which was destined to influence other branches of speculation besides theology, and he stated an idea of toleration which was soon fruitful of results.
The early editions of Chillingworth's works have been already mentioned. Besides these is an edition, Dublin, 1762, London, 8 vols. 1820; and the best modem edition, Oxford, 3 vols. 1838. In the Lambeth MSS. Codd. Miscell. No. 943, there are eighteen short papers of Chillingworth, chiefly on points of controversy, and in the Bodleian, Tanner 233, are a few others.[Wood's Athenae Oxon. ii. 20, &c.; Des Maizeaux, Historical and Critical Account of the Life of William Chillingworth (Lond. 1725); Life by Rev. Thomas Birch, prefixed to the edition of Chillingworth's Works, 1742; article on Chillingworth in Biographia Britannica, ii. 1322, &c.]