William Chillingworth

From Academic Kids

William Chillingworth (October 12, 1602 - January, 1644) was a controversial English churchman.

He was born at Oxford. In June 1618 he became a scholar of Trinity College, Oxford, of which he was made a fellow in June 1628. He gained a reputation as a skillful debater, excelled in mathematics, and also became known as a poet. The marriage of Charles I with Henrietta Maria of France had stimulated the propaganda of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jesuits made the universities their special point of attack. One of them, "John Fisher," who had his sphere at Oxford, succeeded in converting Chillingworth, and persuaded him to go to the Jesuit college at Douai.

Influenced by his godfather, William Laud, then Bishop of London, Chillingworth decided to make an impartial inquiry into the claims of the two churches. After a short stay he left Douai in 1631 and returned to Oxford. On rational and scriptural grounds he eventually decided on Protestantism, and wrote, in 1634, an unpublished work arguing against the ideas which had led him to Catholicism. This paper was lost; another was written on the same subject.

His theological sensitiveness appears in his refusal of a preferment offered to him in 1635 by Sir Thomas Coventry, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He was in difficulty about subscribing the Thirty-Nine Articles. As he informed Gilbert Sheldon, then warden of All Souls College, Oxford, in a letter, he was fully resolved on two points--that to say that the Fourth Commandment is a law of God appertaining to Christians is false and unlawful, and that the damnatory clauses in the Athanasian Creed are most false, and in a high degree presumptuous and schismatical. To subscribe, therefore, he felt would be to “subscribe his own damnation."

At this time his principal work was far towards completion. It was undertaken in defence of Dr. Christopher Potter, provost of the Queen's College, Oxford, who had for some time been carrying on a controversy with a Jesuit known as Edward Knott, but whose real name was Matthias Wilson. Potter had replied in 1633 to Knott's Charity Mistaken (1630), and Knott retaliated with Mercy and Truth, which Chillingworth attempted to answer. Knott, hearing about this and hoping to prejudice the public, hastily brought out a pamphlet tending to show that Chillingworth was a Socinian who aimed at perverting not only Catholicism but Christianity.

Laud, now Archbishop of Canterbury, was anxious about Chillingworth's reply to Knott, and at his request, as "the young man had given cause why a more watchful eye should be held over him and his writings," it was examined by the vice-chancellor of Oxford and two professors of divinity, and published with their approval in 1637, with the title The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation. The main argument is a vindication of the sole authority of the Bible in spiritual matters, and of the free right of the individual conscience to interpret it. In the preface Chillingworth expresses his new view about subscription to the articles. "For the Church of England," he there says, "I am persuaded that the constant doctrine of it is so pure and orthodox, that whosoever believes it, and lives according to it, undoubtedly he shall be saved, 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 my opinion, is all intended by subscription."

In the following year (1638), he was promoted to the chancellorship of the church of Sarum, with the prebend of Brixworth annexed to it. In the English Civil War, he wrote a criticism of the Scots, and was in the king's army at the siege of Gloucester, inventing certain engines for assaulting the town. Shortly afterwards he accompanied Ralph Hopton, general of the king's troops in the west, in his march; and, being taken ill at Arundel Castle, he was captured by the parliamentary forces under Sir William Waller. As he was unable to go to London with the garrison, he was conveyed to Chichester, where he died. His last days were harassed by the diatribes of the Puritan preacher, Francis Cheynell.

Besides his principal work, Chillingworth wrote a number of smaller anti-Jesuit papers published in the posthumous Additional Discourses (1687), and nine of his sermons have been preserved. He was a zealous Royalist, asserting that even the unjust and tyrannous violence of princes may not be resisted, although it might be avoided in terms of the instruction, "when they persecute you in one city, flee into another." His writings long enjoyed a high popularity. The Religion of Protestants is characterized by much fairness and acuteness of argument, and was commended by John Locke as a discipline of "perspicuity and the way of right reasoning." The charge of Socinianism was frequently brought against him, but, as John Tillotson thought, "for no other cause hut his worthy and successful attempts to make the Christian religion reasonable." His creed, and the whole gist of his argument, is expressed in a single sentence, "I am fully assured that God does not, and therefore that men ought not to, require any more of any man than this, to believe the Scripture to be God's word, and to endeavour to find the true sense of it, and to live according to it."

A Life by Rev. T Birch was prefixed to the 1742 edition of Chillingworth's Works.



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