Benjamin Whichcote was a man who refused to subscribe to the National Covenant in 1650 and nevertheless held on to his post at Cambridge. In the Restoration he was quite ready to accept the Act of Uniformity, but still lost his position at the university. This cannot be said of many of his contemporaries, principled or unscrupulous. His student days were at Emanuel College, a Cambridge college set up to nurture Puritans where he managed to be in an odd season; his tutor was a Laudian, and Whichcote, as a result, came out no Puritan.

One of the masters of Emanuel was Anthony Tuckney, a Presbyterian who was one of the divines of the Westminster Assembly. During the protectorate, when John Owen was vice-chancellor of Oxford, Whichcote became vice-chancellor of Cambridge (Cromwell was chancellor of both) and in due season delivered the commencement address. Tuckney, who had harbored misgivings about Whichcote, finally resolved to dash off a letter, snatching some time from his busy Puritanizing in order to express his concern about certain things Whichcote had said.

Whichcote replied at length. Tuckney replied at greater length, with comments about how this was taking away from his sermon preparation. This second letter summoned from Whichcote one yet more copious, much of which consisted of Latin dictums and sententia (among which my favorite is: ad nauseam recoquere cramben) strung together with English. The full blaze of his learning shone in 17th Century splendor. Tuckney took Whichcote’s second reply and enumerated throughout the points he wanted to reply to, using the alphabet. He worked through the alphabet once, began again with A2, etc, and also started through a third time, marking these  points of disagreement. That’s close to 70 points in Whichcote’s reply Tuckney wanted to contest. Post scriptum he asked Whichcote to send both letters back when he was finished, as he had no other copy. It means that if Whichcote wanted a copy, he would have to be the one going to the trouble of copying out both letters.

I have to read through the whole thing with some care again, but my impression so far is that Tuckney is kind of oily and prone to including somewhat ridiculous unhelpful addenda. Not that either one is polishing the letters a whole lot by the third round. The paragraphs go on for more than a page sometimes, the writing is turgid, and apparently the marginalia is somewhat dense. Whichcote began to lose patience in his reply to this third letter, including a rather insulting strikethrough, several uncomplimentary epithets, and deploring persons who break the ninth commandment. Post-scriptum came a wish to have his letter returned at the earliest possible convenience as well. (Apparently, this letter survives in a copy made in Tuckney’s hand).

After three rounds, Tuckney wrote back a fourth time in brief, sourly yielding a few points and saying that if only he had time he would reply about the things he still thought were wrong. Whichcote ended the correspondence by dispatching a note to say that he had written everything he had to say, implying not only was there no point in dragging out further what had become tedious and fruitless, but that getting through to Tuckney was not something he believed could be accomplished.

What had goaded Tuckney originally (and others, so there was probably a conversation or two behind Tuckney’s screwing himself to the sticking place) was that he believed Whichcote was going soft on him, embracing positions that were tolerant of Papists, Arminians and Socinians. You might think that those three categories were used in order to cast a wider net, but I myself do not so think. I think Tuckney mentioned them in the same breath not because they represent widely divergent opinions but because they all lay equally beyond the pale of acceptable orthodoxy (in his mind). Tuckney was a Presbyterian. If you read the documents produced at the Westminster Assembly, you will realize the role of the Magistrate involved in enforcing religion was by Presbyterians of that age assumed. Church and state unity and religious intolerance were denominational distinctives of the Presbyterian persuasion in the 17th Century.

Whichcote’s situation while a student at Cambridge seems to me indicative of why he did what he did, as well as his principled rejection of the National Covenant. He deplored controversy and sought terms under which he could avoid it, advocating toleration. He was  inclined to  suspect divisive doctrinal formulation; his antagonist was suspicious of pagan philosophy. Tuckney was not optimistic about human reason, and Whichcote very much was. His biblicism (an almost no-creed-but-the-bible kind of approach, which he probably did not intend quite as some have) smelled a lot like Socinianism, though he satisfied Tuckney that his affirmations were orthodox. What Whichcote was, more than anything, was a Platonist, probably in the vein of Richard Hooker, with Hooker’s take on natural and supernatural law, natural and special revelation (that’s something still to prove). He was a continuation of the Humanism of the early 16th Century, which drew on the Florentine Platonists. Ficinio and Ficino’s Plotinus as well as Plotinus’ Plato were important figures in the intellectual world of Benjamin Whichcote. (Coleridge once remarked that the Cambridge Platonists should be called Cambridge Plotinists, in fact.) Whichcote was the beginning of a phenomenon known as the Cambridge Platonists. The correspondence is instructive for understanding the germ of what would flower in Whichcote’s more illustrious followers.


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