Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkins, John
WILKINS, JOHN (1614–1672), bishop of Chester, was the son of Walter Wilkins, an Oxford goldsmith, ‘a very ingeniose man with a very mechanicall head. He was much for trying of experiments, and his head ran much upon the perpetuall motion.’ He married a daughter of John Dod [q. v.] ‘the decalogist,’ at whose house at Fawsley in Northamptonshire John Wilkins was born in 1614. Walter Wilkins appears to have died when his son was young, and his widow, by a second marriage, became the mother of Walter Pope [q. v.]
John Wilkins's early education was directed by his grandfather; he was then sent to a private school in Oxford kept by Edward Sylvester, ‘the common drudge of the university,’ whence, at the early age of thirteen, he was entered at New Inn Hall on 4 May 1627. Migrating to Magdalen Hall, where his tutor was John Tombes [q. v.], he graduated B.A. in 1631 and M.A. in 1634. After acting as a tutor at Oxford for a few years he took orders, and became in 1637 vicar of his native parish of Fawsley; but, on realising that he could promote his interests better by attaching himself to persons of influence, he resigned his benefice, and became successively private chaplain to William Fiennes, first viscount Saye and Sele; George, eighth lord Berkeley; and to the prince palatine, Charles Lewis, nephew of Charles I, and elder brother of Prince Rupert, who, deprived of his hereditary dominions, was residing in England in the hope of obtaining help to recover them. Wilkins is said to have been made his chaplain on account of his proficiency in mathematics, to which and to scientific pursuits he devoted all his leisure. In 1638 he published anonymously his first work, wherein he attempted to prove that the moon was a habitable world. In a subsequent edition he added a chapter on the possibility of it being reached by volitation. A second work, showing the probability of the earth being a planet, appeared in 1640. During his stay in London as a chaplain he was an active promoter of the weekly meetings which, as early as 1645, were held by ‘divers worthy persons inquisitive into natural philosophy and other parts of human learning, and particularly of what hath been called the new philosophy or experimental philosophy.’ These gatherings of philosophers, the ‘Invisible College’ of Robert Boyle, were the beginnings of the Royal Society.
Wilkins adhered to the parliamentary side during the civil war and took the covenant. In April 1648, having previously qualified himself by taking his B.D. degree, he was made warden of Wadham College, in the place of the ejected Dr. John Pitt, by the visitors appointed by parliament to reform the university of Oxford. He did not graduate D.D. till 18 Dec. 1649, having been dispensed from taking this degree within the statutable time ‘in consequence of his attendance on the prince elector.’ Then, or at a later period, Wilkins visited Heidelberg to wait upon the prince, who had been restored to his dominions by the peace of Westphalia.
Wilkins at once took a leading position in the government of the university. He became a member of the various delegacies and committees appointed to carry out the will of the party in power. His subscription to the engagement had secured him the support of the independents, and on 16 Oct. 1652 he was made one of the five commisioners named by Cromwell to execute the office of chancellor, John Owen and Thomas Goodwin being among his colleagues. In 1656 he increased his influence by marrying Robina, widow of Peter French, canon of Christ Church, and sister of Cromwell, from whom he obtained a dispensation to retain his wardenship, in spite of a statute against marriage.
As warden of Wadham Wilkins exercised a wise and beneficent rule. The college quickly became the most flourishing in the university. The cavaliers gladly placed their sons under the care of one who strove to be tolerant. Youths of promise were attracted by his learning and versatility. During his wardenship the college numbered among its alumni Christopher Wren, Seth Ward, John, lord Lovelace, Sir John Denham, Sir Charles Sedley, Thomas Spratt, Samuel Parker, and William Lloyd. Musical parties were held in the college and foreign artistes welcomed there. Several of the London ‘philosophers’ having migrated to Oxford, the weekly meetings were resumed within the warden's lodgings. The London society regularly corresponded with the Oxford branch, which counted among its members ‘the most inquisitive’ members of the university. Prominent among these were Seth Ward, Robert Boyle, Sir W. Petty, John Wallis, Jonathan Goddard, Ralph Bathurst, and Christopher Wren. Of this brilliant group Wilkins was the centre; and he deserves, more than any other man, to be esteemed the founder of the Royal Society.
Many royalists were deeply attached to Wilkins. ‘He is John Evelyn's “deare and excellent friend,” with whom he sups at a magnificent entertainment in Wadham Hall (10 July 1654); whom he goes to hear at St. Paul's, when he preached in the presbyterian fashion before the lord mayor (10 Feb. 1656), and to whom, at Sayes Court, he presents his “rare burninge glasse.” Wilkins's services to the university were considerable, and Evelyn observes that “he tooke great pains to preserve the universities from the ignorant, sacrilegious Commanders and Soldiers, who would faine have demolish'd all places and persons that pretended to learning.”’
On 3 Sept. 1659 Wilkins resigned the wardenship of Wadham on his appointment, by parliament, on the petition of the fellows, to the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge (17 Aug. 1659). He had been incorporated at Cambridge in 1639; he was reincorporated as D.D. on 18 March 1659. At Trinity ‘he revived learning by strict examinations at elections; he was much honoured there and heartily loved by all.’ At the Restoration, notwithstanding an earnest petition from the fellows of his college, he was deprived of his mastership, which had been promised to Henry Ferne [q. v.] many years before.
Wilkins lost no time in making his peace with the royalist party. His moderation and gentleness in the past had secured him many powerful friends at court. He was made a prebendary of York on 11 Aug. 1660, and in the same year rector of Cranford, Middlesex; and became in 1663 dean of the collegiate church of Ripon (cf. Sloane MS. 1326, f 40, b; the date of 1668 given elsewhere is wrong); he vacated the rectory of Cranford in 1662 on being presented by the king to the vicarage of St. Lawrence Jewry. He became preacher to Gray's Inn in 1661. He had to contend for a while with the not unnatural dislike of Sheldon, the chief dispenser of the royal preferment; but, by the intervention of Ward, now bishop of Exeter, this was to a great extent removed. In 1666 he was made vicar of Polebrook, Northamptonshire, in 1667 prebendary and precentor of Exeter, and in 1668 prebendary of Chamberlain Wood in St. Paul's Cathedral.
During the early years of Charles II's reign Wilkins took a leading part in the foundation of the Royal Society. The founding of a ‘Colledge for the promotion of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning’ was discussed at a meeting at Gresham's College on 28 Nov. 1660, when Wilkins was appointed chairman, and a list of forty-one persons judged likely and fit to join the design was drawn up. At the next meeting the king's approval of the scheme was notified, and on 12 Dec. it was resolved that the number of the society should be fixed at fifty-five. In October 1661 the king offered to become a member, and next year the society was incorporated under the name of the ‘Royal Society,’ the charter of incorporation passing the great seal on 15 July 1662. Wilkins was its first secretary.
There are numerous references to Wilkins at this period of his life in Evelyn's and Pepys's ‘Diaries.’ In July 1665 Evelyn writes: ‘I called at Durdans, where I found Dr. Wilkins, Sir W. Petty, and Mr. Hooke contriving chariots, a wheel for one to run races in, and other mechanical inventions; perhaps three such persons together were not to be found elsewhere.’ In 1666 Wilkins's vicarage-house, goods, and valuable library, as well as the manuscript of his work on the ‘Real Character,’ were destroyed by the Great Fire of London.
In 1668, by the influence of George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, Wilkins was made bishop of Chester. At his consecration (15 Nov.) Tillotson, who had married his stepdaughter, Elizabeth French, was the preacher. Afterwards there was 'a sumptuous dinner, where were the Duke of Buckingham, judges, secretaries of state, lord-keeper, council, noblemen, and innumerable other company, who were honourers of this incomparable man, universally beloved by all who knew him' (Evelyn). With his bishopric he held the rectory of Wigan in commendam.
As a bishop, Wilkins showed great leniency to the nonconformists. Pliant himself to the requirements of the Act of Uniformity, he exerted his influence with considerable success to induce the ejected ministers to conform. 'Many ministers were brought in by Wilkins's soft interpretation of the terms of conformity.' He joined with Sir Matthew Hale and other moderate men in 1668 in an abortive attempt to bring about a comprehension of the dissenters. In the same year he and Cosin of Durham were the only bishops who supported the act for the divorce of Lord Roos. In 1670 he opposed the second conventicle act in a long speech at the risk of losing the royal favour, in which he stood so high that it was reported that the king purposed to make him lord treasurer (Pepys, Diary, 16 March 1669).
Wilkins died of suppression of the urine at Tillotson's house in Chancery Lane on 19 Nov. 1672. He was buried in St. Lawrence Jewry on 12 Dec., William Lloyd (afterwards bishop of St. Asaph's) preaching the funeral sermon. Tillotson was appointed executor to the bishop's will, wherein legacies were left to the Royal Society and Wadham College.
'Wilkins had two characteristics, neither of which was calculated to make him generally admired: first, he avowed moderation, and was kindly affected towards dissenters, for a comprehension of whom he openly and earnestly contended; secondly, he thought it right and reasonable to submit himself to the powers in being, be those powers who they would, or let them be established how they would. And this making him ready to swear allegiance to Charles II after he was restored to the crown, as to the usurpers while they prevailed, he was charged with being various and unsteady in his principles, with having no principles at all, with Hobbism and everything that is bad. Yet the greatest and best qualities are ascribed to him, if not unanimously, at least by many eminent and good men.' Tillotson says of him: 'I think I may truly say that there are or have been few in this age and nation so well known and greatly esteemed and favoured by so many persons of high rank and quality and of singular worth and eminence in all the learned professions.' Burnet speaks equally highly of him. 'He was a man,' he says, 'of as great a mind, as true a judgement, as eminent virtues, and of as good a soul as any I ever knew. … Though he married Cromwell's sister, yet made no other use of that alliance but to do good offices, and to cover the university of Oxford from the sourness of Owen and Goodwin. At Cambridge he joined with those who studied to propagate better thoughts, to take men off from being in parties or from narrow notions, from superstitious conceits and fierceness about opinions. He was also a great preserver and promoter of experimental philosophy. He was naturally ambitious, but was the wisest clergyman I ever knew. He was a lover of mankind, and had a delight in doing good.' Anthony à Wood says: 'He was a person endowed with rare gifts; he was a noted theologist and preacher, a curious critic in several matters, an excellent mathematician and experimentist, and one as well seen in mechanisms and new philosophy, of which he was a great promoter, as any man of his time. He also highly advanced the study and perfection of astronomy both at Oxford and London; and I cannot say that there was anything deficient in him, but a constant mind and settled principles.'
In person Wilkins was 'lustie, strong growne, well sett, and broad-shouldered' (Aubrey), and in his manners refined and courteous. There are several portraits of him; two original paintings being at Wadham, and a third painted by Mary Beale belonging to the Royal Society. There are engravings by A. Blooteling, R. White, and Sturt.
Wilkins's works are as follows:
- 'The Discovery of a World in the Moone, or a Discourse tending to prove that 'tis probable there may be another Habitable World in that Planet,' 1638; to the third edition (1640) is added a 'Discourse concerning the Possibility of a Passage thither.' Wilkins obtained several hints from the notable 'Man in the Moone' (1638) of Bishop Francis Godwin [q. v.] . There can be little doubt that the hero of Robert Paltock's 'Peter Wilkins' derived his surname from our author. A French translation, entitled 'Le Monde dans La Lune,' was published at Rouen by Le Sieur de la Montagne in 1655 (note from G. Maupin of Nantes).
- 'A Discourse concerning a new Planet, tending to prove that 'tis probable our Earth is one of the Planets,’ 1640. This appeared as a second book to the ‘Discovery.’
- ‘Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger, showing how a Man may with Privacy and Speed communicate his Thoughts to a Friend at any Distance,’ 1641; a very ingenious work on cryptography and modes of rapid correspondence.
- ‘Ecclesiastes, or a Discourse concerning the Gift of Preaching, as it falls under the Rules of Art,’ 1646.
- ‘Mathematical Magick, or the Wonders that may be performed by Mechanical Geometry,’ 1648.
- ‘A Discourse concerning the Beauty of Providence in all the Rugged Passages of it,’ 1649.
- ‘A Discourse concerning the Gift of Prayer; showing what it is, wherein it consists, and how far it is attainable by Industry,’ 1653; a French translation by Le Sieur de la Montagne appeared in 1665.
- ‘An Essay towards a real Character and a Philosophical Language,’ to which was appended ‘An Alphabetical Dictionary wherein all English Words according to their various significations are either referred to their places in the Philosophical Tables, or explained by such Words as are in those Tables,’ 1668. This is Wilkins's most important work, in preparing which he was assisted by John Ray, Francis Willughby, and many others. It was suggested by the ‘Ars Signorum’ of George Dalgarno. The author of this work ‘was a learned man, but with a vein of romance about him’ (De Quincey, i. 66–7).
- ‘On the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion,’ two books, 1678, with a preface by Tillotson. In this work there are thoughts which anticipate the argument of Butler's ‘Analogy.’
- ‘Sermons (15) preach'd upon several occasions,’ 1682, with a preface by Tillotson, wherein he vindicates Wilkins's character against Wood.
Wilkins also published a few separate sermons, some of which were reprinted together at different dates, and contributed a ‘Dissertatiuncula de Animalibus in arcâ Noachi conservatis,’ in vol. 1 of Poole's ‘Synopsis,’ 1669. Wilkins's mathematical and philosophical works, comprising 1, 2, 3, 5, and an abstract of 8, were published in one volume in 1708, with a short life of the author. They were reprinted in two volumes in 1802. The preface to Seth Ward's ‘Vindiciæ Academiarum,’ 1654, is either by Wilkins or John Wallis [see Webster, John, (1610–1682)].
[Aubrey's Lives; Burnet's History of his own Times and Life of Sir M. Hale; Wood's Athenæ and Life and Times; Pope's Life of Seth Ward; Evelyn's Diary and Works; Pepys's Diary; Memorials of Ripon, vol. ii. (Surtees Soc.); Bridgeman's Hist. Church and Manor of Wigan; Le Neve's Fasti; Foster's Alumni Oxonienses; Sprat's, Birch's Weld's, and Thomson's Histories of the Royal Society; Hearne's Langtoft and Diaries; Martindale's Life; Angiers's Life; Henry's Life; Calamy's Account and Continuation; Willughby's Life; Echard's Hist. of England; Gardiner's Registers of Wadham; Jackson's Hist. of Wadham College; Boyle's Works; Cal. State Papers; Hist. MSS. Comm. Reports.]