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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XII. Divines of the Church of England 1660–1700

§ 4. Isaac Barrow: his Sermons and his Treatise On the Pope’s Supremacy

A greater writer than any of these, Isaac Barrow, lived only to be fortyseven, but rose to the mastership of Trinity college, Cambridge, and left a mark of originality upon the theology of his age. Charles II, who had the means of learning which are at the disposal of kings, said that he was “the best scholar in England”; but, though Aubrey tells us that he was “pale as the candle he studied by,” his writings show little of the wearisome preciseness of the pedant. He had spent five years, from 1655 to 1659, abroad, and, at Constantinople, he had made a longer stay than, in those days, was dared by most Christians who were not on an embassy or a trading venture: when he lay dying, “the standers-by could heare him say softly, ‘I have seen the glories of the world.’;” It was this width of experience, as well as the extent of his learning—he said that he used tobacco to “regulate his thinking”—which gave him the mingled strength and richness that made him greatly admired by critics of taste so different as were the elder Pitt and Henry Hallam. His manner of writing, which has been considered hasty and almost extemporaneous, has been shown to have been elaborated with the most extraordinary care, his manuscripts being revised, rewritten and subjected to continual addition or correction. The ease with which he appears to write is the result of prolonged labour; the sentences are smooth, if often lengthy; the meaning is direct in reaching the reader, and behind all, there is unquestionable strength. Throughout, his appeal is to the reason rather than to the heart or the ear; but, though he argues like a mathematician, he writes like a classical scholar. He is never extravagant; he does not aim at beauty or search for conceits; his characteristic merits are completeness, coherence, consecutiveness; and, thus, his chief influence was exercised upon those who wished to argue or to think—upon Locke and Warburton and the elder and the younger Pitt. It is not easy to find a passage which satisfactorily illustrates his style, for he treats every subject which he approaches so lengthily that it is difficult to disentangle a few sentences from the web of argument or exposition. But a few sentences from his sermon on the beauty of thankfulness (occupying nearly a hundred octavo pages in his Works) may afford an example of the clearness and simplicity which, under his influence, began to mark the prose of the later seventeenth century.

  • And verily could we become endowed with this excellent quality of delighting in others’ good, and heartily thanking God for it, we needed not to envy the wealth and splendour of the greatest princes, nor the wisdom of the profoundest doctors, nor the religion of the devoutest anchorets, no, nor the happiness of the highest angels; for upon this supposition, as the glory of all is God’s, so the content in all would be ours. All the fruit they can conceive of their happy condition, of what kind soever, is to rejoice in it themselves, and to praise God for it. And this should we do then as well as they. My neighbour’s good success is mine, if I equally triumph therein: his riches are mine, if I delight to see him enjoy them: his health is mine, if it refresh my spirit: his virtue mine, if I by it am bettered, and have hearty complacence therein. By this means a man derives a confluence of joy upon himself, and makes himself, as it were, the centre of all felicity; enriches himself with the plenty, and satiates himself with the pleasure, of the whole world; reserving to God the praise, he enjoys the satisfaction of all good that happens to any.
  • In this, there are touches which recall the writers of the earlier Caroline age; but the general manner of writing is an anticipation of Addison, and even suggests something of the style of Butler.

    In his sermons, Barrow avoided controversy and preached morals; but he was also a controversial writer of great weight, and that chiefly against the papacy, whose followers, according to his biographer, Abraham Hill, he had seen “militant in England, triumphant in Italy, disguised in France.” His treatise On the Pope’s Supremacy, published by his executor, Tillotson, in 1680, was a masterpiece, in the manner of the time, seeking logic rather than bitterness and completeness rather than venomous polemic. Side by side with this may be placed Cosin’s Historia Transubstantionis Papalis, which was also published posthumously, in 1675, but was based on

  • a Declaration of the Ancient Catholic Faith and Doctrine of the Fathers Concerning the Real Presence … showing that the doctrine of Transubstantiation (as it was first set forth by Pope Innocent III … and afterwards by Pope Pius the Fourth), was not the faith or doctrine in the Catholic Church in any age before them,
  • written by him in 1647. Cosin had experience of endeavours to convert Englishment to Roman Catholicism in Charles I’s time and, in consequence, had studied theology with a special bent. Barrow, with similar experience abroad, and knowledge of the Greek church to confirm his resistance to Rome, saw that a period of acute controversy was imminent in England. His Exposition of the Creed, Decalogue and Sacraments may be regarded as a dogmatic support for his fellow churchmen; but its influence was eclipsed by the work, on rather different lines, of his contemporary John Pearson, whom he succeeded as master of Trinity.