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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XIII. Scholars and Antiquaries

§ 4. His Lectures against Atheism

In 1692, when Robert Boyle, eminent as a natural philosopher, had left money to found a lectureship in defence of the Christian religion, Bentley, who had now been ordained, was chosen as the first lecturer. He delivered eight lectures in two London churches, taking as his subject “A confutation of Atheism.” The last three lectures drew arguments from the “origin and frame of the world”; and, for this part of his work, Bentley sought the aid of Isaac Newton, whose Principia had been published five years before. Newton sent full replies to Bentley’s inquiries and expressed satisfaction that his discoveries should be used as an argument against atheism. Bentley showed great power as a controversialist: his argument, acute and logical, is expressed in a style of remarkable force and vigour. The lectures were printed at once and soon translated into Latin, French, German and Dutch.

Bentley was now a man of mark, and, in 1694, he was appointed keeper of the royal libraries, with official lodgings in St. James’s palace. We learn from one of his letters that a small group of his friends were in the habit of meeting there once or twice a week; their names were John Evelyn, John Locke, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton.

From his Boyle lectures, he went back to the Greek poets. John George Graevius, professor at Utrecht and the foremost Latin scholar of the day, was about to issue an edition of Callimachus; and Bentley undertook to collect for this work all the fragments of Callimachus extant in Greek literature. Graevius, who had read the Epistola ad Millium with the keenest enthusiasm, expected much of Bentley and got even more than he expected. For Bentley discovered twice as many fragments as had been previously known; his metrical knowledge enabled him, in many cases, to correct them where corrupt; and his penetration could often point out the relation of one fragment to another. No such collection of the fragments of a classical author had ever been seen. Until his death in 1703 Graevius remained one of Bentley’s heartiest admirers.

The time was now coming when Bentley’s friends were to be put to the proof. By no fault of his own, he became involved in a famous controversy, in which he was supposed, by the ignorant, to have had the worst of it, although, in fact, he was completely victorious over his antagonists and, in the course of his reply, also made an immense contribution to the knowledge of antiquity.