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Chillingworth, William

CHILLINGWORTH, WILLIAM (1602-1644), English divine and controversialist, was born at Oxford in October 1602. In June 1618 he became a scholar of Trinity College, Oxford, and was made a fellow of his college in June 1628. He had some reputation as a skilful disputant, excelled in mathematics, and gained some credit as a writer of verses. 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 making a convert of young Chillingworth, and prevailed upon him to go to the Jesuit college at Douai. Influenced, however, by his godfather, Laud, then bishop of London, he resolved 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 grounds of Scripture and reason he at length declared for Protestantism, and wrote in 1634, but did not publish, a confutation of the motives which had led him over to Rome. This paper was lost; the other, on the same subject, was probably written on some other occasion at the request of his friends. He would not, however, take orders. 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, 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 Queen's College in 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. This work Chillingworth engaged to answer, and Knott, hearing of his intention and hoping to bias the public mind, 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 not a little solicitous 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 approbation 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." His scruples having thus been overcome, he was, in the following year (1638), promoted to the chancellorship of the church of Sarum, with the prebend of Brixworth in Northamptonshire annexed to it. In the great civil struggle he used his pen against 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 Lord Hopton, general of the king's troops in the west, in his march; and, being laid up with illness at Arundel Castle, he was there taken prisoner by the parliamentary forces under Sir William Waller. As he was unable to go to London with the garrison, he was conveyed to Chichester, and died there in January 1644. 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. In politics 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 Locke as a discipline of "perspicuity and the way of right reasoning." The charge of Socinianism was frequently brought against him, but, as Tillotson thought, "for no other cause but 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.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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