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Great Tew, Continued

In response to:

Great Tew: An Exchange from the June 16, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

I am sorry to prolong a tedious historical controversy, but Mr. Adams really must not be allowed to get away with the arguments to which he now resorts [Letters, NYR, June 16].

His whole criticism of my thesis rests on the assumption that John Prideaux, in endorsing the imprimatur for Chillingworth’s book The Religion of Protestants, yielded to pressure from Archbishop Laud; and that he did so because he was “a very vulnerable victim.” Asked to explain in what way Prideaux, an established academic dignitary, was “vulnerable,” he now replies that Prideaux was a pluralist: he held a few vicarages in addition to his college headship and regius professorship at Oxford. Thus, we are told, he was “flagrantly guilty” on “a major issue of the Laudian program”; for Laud was “actively engaged in a wide-ranging campaign against pluralism in the Church.” “That,” Mr. Adams concludes triumphantly, “is what I mean by ‘vulnerable.”’

Now, first, it will be observed that this whole argument consists in the imputation of dishonourable motives, rhetorically expressed. Laud, a “persecutor,” “a master of pressure tactics,” being reduced to “desperation,” blackmails Prideaux; Prideaux, conscious that he is “flagrantly guilty” of greed and impropriety, perhaps also of “fraud and deception,” weakly yields and gives a false testimonial to Chillingworth; and Chillingworth, who pretends to be independent, is in fact the secret “agent, accomplice, spy, informer, intriguer,” etc., etc., of the Machiavellian archbishop. Thus all parties (according to Mr. Adams) behave in a thoroughly dishonourable way. This scenario, unsupported by any evidence, does not suggest that Mr. Adams approaches the problem without prejudice.

Secondly, I must point out that the reason which Mr. Adams now triumphantly produces to show that Prideaux was “very vulnerable” is complete rubbish. There was no such “wide-ranging campaign” as he ascribes to Laud, and Prideaux had no need to feel “guilty” of anything.

It is true that Laud did not like pluralism in the Church and, ideally, would have been happy to see its more extreme forms (in Ireland) “dissolved,” at least for bishops, who, ideally, should have adequate incomes from their sees; but he recognized that “as the times are, this cannot well be thought on”: it was a project for the distant future when the finances of the Church should have been reorganized. For Heads of Colleges he did not even contemplate the possibility: there pluralism was the normal and necessary system. If Prideaux, Rector of Exeter College and Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, held a few vicarages in Oxford-shire, he was in good company and no danger: the Laudian John Cosin, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and Dean of Peterborough, held an archdeaconry and three livings in distant Durham, and the Calvinist Samuel Ward, Master of Sidney Sussex College, and Lady Margaret, Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, collected a whole string of supplementary benefices. Every Head of a College, including Laud himself when President of St. John’s College, Oxford, was maintained in this way, and every historian of the period knows it.

I have read Prideaux’s Latin lecture of which Mr. Adams makes so much, and do not find in it a “flat contradiction” of Chillingworth’s views. All Mr. Adams’s copious abuse of Chillingworth comes—exaggerated by him—from enemies in the heat of revolution and civil war. His brief imprisonment in the tower, in December 1641, came at a particularly tense moment. The radical leaders of the House of Commons were outraged because, in private conversation, he had justified those who had protested against the Grand Remonstrance. That does not seem so outrageous (except to Mr. Adams) in 1988.

Hugh Trevor-Roper

Didcote, England

Robert M Adams replies:

That Professor Trevor-Roper has now read Dr. Prideaux’s lecture of July 10, 1637, is a step in the right direction; that he cannot see any contradictions with The Religion of Protestants shows that a few more steps are needed. They are plain and easy.

Chillingworth said in his book that God has made the essentials of religion so clear that the meanest understanding, without the help of any church, may gain salvation. When more cannot be had, he says, God will be satisfied with a minimum of belief, which is: that God exists and is a rewarder of them that seek him (Religion of Protestants, Chapter III, p. 13). The way to religious peace, he says, is for all men “really and sincerely to submit their judgments to scripture, and to require no more of any man than to do so.” Prideaux, on the other hand, held that a church through its synods, councils, and powers of admonition could, and for the salvation of its members should, require specific beliefs and practices beyond the minimum. He compared this control to a parent’s power over his children.

Chillingworth held that men who have believed the necessary minimum (defined above) will gain eternal life whether or not they have read the Bible or belonged to a Christian church. Prideaux flatly denied both positions. In a later essay he denounced as radically deficient the exact formula used by Chillingworth, “that God exists and is a rewarder of them that seek him.” See Fasciculus controversiarum (Oxford, 1649), pp. 128–129, 163–165.

Prideaux denied that the private judgment of individual believers, even when characterized as “the judgment of the Holy Ghost speaking in the Scripture,” could satisfactorily resolve controversies in faith and religion; Chillingworth had used the identical words in affirming that private judgment could reach a satisfactory resolution of controversies (Religion of Protestants, Chapter II, paragraphs 13–23).

These and similar points all spring from the basic contradiction that Chillingworth denied, while Prideaux affirmed, the authority of the church in matters of faith and religion. They are not trifling matters of peripheral speculation—matters indifferent, as the seventeenth century called them. They are basic questions of doctrine and discipline. In themselves, such extreme differences make it impossible that Prideaux’s imprimatur could have been given bona fide to Chillingworth’s book.

But there is other evidence. When Prideaux named among the enemies of church authority “the Socinians, who create a tribunal of reason in order that questions of faith may be determined by the uncertain judgment of nature,” that phrase clearly implied the inclusion of Chillingworth. Prideaux, obviously, thought that a world of difference lay between his belief in church authority and Chillingworth’s belief in private reason. That was why he called on his hearers to “bind and vanquish” such insidious enemies of the faith. That was why Archbishop Ussher, Prideaux’s friend and ally, denounced in a thundering sermon at Oxford in 1640 certain “strange conceits and strange divinity,” which he described as follows:

that if a man does as much as lies in him, and what he is of himself able to do; nay, farther, though he be a heathen that knows not Christ, yet if he doth the best he can; if he live honestly toward men according to the conduct of his reason, and hath a good mind towards God, it is enough, he need not question his eternal welfare. A cursed and desperate doctrine they conclude hence. Why, say they, may not this man be saved as well as the best? But if it be so, I ask such, What is the benefit and advantage of the Jew more than the Gentile? What is the benefit of Christ? of the church? of faith? of baptism? of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper?

James Ussher, The Whole Works, ed. Elrington, Vol. XIII, pp. 66–67

This is unmistakable; without naming Chillingworth (as Prideaux had not in his lecture), Ussher denounced the core tenet of his book, the book that Dr. Prideaux had licensed with many expressions of approval. If the imprimatur had been given in good faith, Prideaux and Ussher could not have remained friends; but they did remain intimate friends. The conclusion is obvious; the imprimatur was a momentary insincerity for which there must have been specific, exterior reasons.

Professor Trevor-Roper says in his essay (p. 188) that “in the wide sense” Chillingworth and perhaps others of the Great Tew set were Socinians; by “the narrow sense” he means simply denial of the Trinity. (That is in fact only one of the narrow senses of the term, only one possible consequence of following individual reason.) But if Chillingworth was a Socinian in any sense of the word, he must have been so in the only book he published; and if there’s no difference between that book and the lecture, then Prideaux and his friend Ussher must have condoned Socinianism “in the wide sense,” even as they were denouncing the creed in all senses. This position makes absolutely no sense.

The exchange of letters published on June 16 proved that Chillingworth was not by any means a man of good faith—that his record included a long list of activities as spy, informer, and equivocal deceiver.* Now we have settled that Prideaux’s imprimatur could not possibly have been affixed to The Religion of Protestants in good faith. Remains only to ask, in the classic phrase, how much did Archbishop Laud know about all this, and when? If he knew a good deal, as seems pretty sure, and actually had a hand in directing the actors—as is likely, but not yet definite—what ends did he have in mind? That is the question to which my proposed answer is, I hope, only the first of many speculations. But in this entire matter from first to last, I protest on conscience I have had no other motive than to lay bare the truth so far as it can be found. If people have been hurt by it, too bad; I do not think the historian I described in the first paragraph of my original review would want it otherwise.

  1. *

    The episode of late 1641 was recorded by conservative Sir Symonds D’Ewes, and was not—veridically speaking—trivial. Under cover of an imaginary situation in France, Chillingworth had been insinuating that Parliament was plotting the deposition of Charles I. This at the time of the Grand Remonstrance was absolutely untrue.

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