Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Caroline Divines > William Chillingworth
  Gilbert Sheldon John Hales  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

VI. Caroline Divines.

§ 11. William Chillingworth.


The association had been earlier, and in friendliness: for both Laud and Sheldon were concerned in the conversion from Roman Catholicism of the most conspicuous controversialist of the age of Charles I. This was William Chillingworth, who was an Oxford citizen, Laud’s godson, a scholar of Trinity, a logician and disputant, a friend of the brilliant company which gathered at Great Tew. In an immortal passage, Clarendon has described the wits and theologians who were intimate with the fascinating Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland. In his Oxfordshire house, he loved to consort with scholars of Oxford, he who had been the disciple of the last poets of the Elizabethan age, had himself written pretty verses and, perhaps, more than dabbled in acute theological difficulties. His mother Elizabeth (Tanfield) became a Roman Catholic, and it was in her house that Lucius met Chillingworth, when he, too, in search of an infallible guide, had abandoned his protestantism. Their talk, there is evidence to show, was often of Socinus and his rationalistic treatment of theology, and theological interests became more and more supreme in Falkland’s mind. “His whole conversation,” says Clarendon, “was one continued convivium philosophicum or convivium theologicum”; and the literary result was his Discourse of Infallibility, published after the restoration, in 1660. The literary coterie at Great Tew did not entirely abandon poetry: there was also, indeed, as of old in London, the “session of the Poets.” But the main interests were theological. Lettice, lord Falkland’s wife, was a typical product of the religious revival associated with Charles I’s days. Her Life by her chaplain Duncon, one of the most interesting biographies of the time, shows her exact and scrupulous in all the devotional rules of the church; yet, in her religious, almost ascetic, household, the widest speculation was allowed her thoughtful and impressionable husband. There were Morley and Hammond; the former afterwards a notable bishop, the latter a preacher and devotional writer of singular charm and sweetness; Earle, author of Microcosmographie, who said that he “got more useful learning by his conversation at Tew than he had at Oxford”; Sheldon, Hales and Chillingworth. It is not unnatural to suppose that the foundations of The Religion of Protestants were laid at Great Tew: Falkland’s book shows indebtedness to the same thoughts of rational disbelief in papal infallibility.   15
  The Religion of Protestants a safe way to Salvation; or an Answer to a book Entituled Mercy and Truth or Charity Maintained by Catholiques; which pretends to prove the contrary (1637) was the summing up of a long controversy which was begun as early as 1630 by a Jesuit named Edward Knott. It is hampered by a minute and complicated method, now of defence now of attack; but, out of pages of singularly complicated and involved discussion, there emerges a most clear and dogmatic assertion. Chillingworth’s religion is to be found only in the Bible, insomuch that he will have no anathemas that he cannot find there; and his
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 is indifferent.
A “safe way to Salvation” was to be found in free enquiry. The literary merit of Chillingworth, popular though his work became, is not conspicuous: his style is that of the sledge-hammer, dealing repeated blows. The arrangement of the book depends upon that which it is its aim to attack; we have to wait some time before the author emerges from the clouds that beset him; but, when his own thought comes directly before the reader it is conspicuously clear, and it is expressed very directly, in simple and forcible English, with a limited vocabulary but with trenchant emphasis. He is logical and he is tolerant, and there is in him, at his best, a remarkable breadth of charity. He cries for liberty, liberty which the times denied him and the search for which the puritan persecutor of his deathbed regarded as blasphemous: yet he is content to abide within the English fold and to ratify its apostolic claim. And all this comes out in clear-cut sentences, which men did not readily forget.
The difference between a Papist and a Protestant is this, that the one judges his guide to be infallible, the other his way to be manifest.
  16

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Gilbert Sheldon John Hales  
 
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