Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 7. Robert Forbes; Bingham

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

XV. Divines

§ 7. Robert Forbes; Bingham

As may seem natural for men who found themselves compelled to live more and more apart from the general religious and even the social life of their day, the nonjurors turned to antiquarianism as a solace for their seclusion as well as a support for their doctrines. The older race of those who withdrew from communion with the national church were often men of great learning as well as steadfast principle. Henry Dodwell is a typical example. He held a fellowship at Trinity college, Dublin, but resigned it, being unwilling to take holy orders. He then resided in England, in London or Oxford at first, in later years in Berkshire. From 1688 to 1691, he was Camden professor of history at Oxford. He was deprived because he would not take the oaths; but William III is said to have declared that he would not make him a martyr—“He has set his heart on being one and I have set mine on disappointing him.” Hearne considered him “the greatest scholar in Europe when he died,” and even such an opponent as White Kennett respected his learning. His writings are partly “occasional” and vehement, partly deliberate and scholastic. To the former class belongs what he wrote about the schism; to the latter, his work on Irenaeus and on ancient history in general. It cannot be said that he left any permanent impression on English literature or scholarship, though his writings were long remembered and utilised by lesser men. His friends Nelson, Hearne, Cherry and the rest preserved his memory in their circle of devout ecclesiasticism. But the whole mass of the nonjurors’ literary output, even work so good as that of Brett and Leslie, belongs to a backwater in English letters. One fragrant survival, however, may be mentioned here for its exquisite and simple pathos, A Pattern for Young Students in the University, set forth in the Life of Mr. Ambrose Bonwicke, sometime Scholar of St. John’s College in Cambridge (1729). It is the record of a young nonjuror’s life, told by his father, in an unaffected, but deeply touching, manner which no man of letters of the day could have surpassed. One is tempted to put beside it, for their record of devotion to duty in circumstances very different, the Journals of the Scottish bishop Robert Forbes (in 1762 and 1770), a divine whose “primitive piety” and ecclesiastical principles were supported by the same doctrines of church obedience as directed the life of the young Cambridge scholar. Men such as these must in all ages live remote from public haunt. Joseph Bingham, the greatest ecclesiastical antiquary of his time and for long after it, was incessantly active as a writer, but (save that he was unjustly stigmatised as a heretic and had to resign his fellowship at Oxford in consequence) was entirely neglected by those whose business it should have been to know what scholars wrote. His Origines Ecclesiasticae, or The Antiquities of the Christian Church (published in successive volumes from 1708 to 1722) is a mine of learning, to which writers everywhere had recourse till the Cambridge scholars of the later nineteenth century began the critical rewriting of the history of the early church. Bingham, it may be said, did for church history what Pearson did for the creed. He showed what it meant at the time of its beginning and he illustrated its growth by a store of learning which none in his own time could rival, and few since have surpassed. At the beginning of the eighteenth century it was, certainly, in learning rather than in pure letters that the clerus Angliae preserved its reputation.