The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 6. Whately

Richard Whately, the ablest and the most typical of the group, consistently repudiated any such ambition; in 1843, he wrote to Lady Osborne,

  • Is it getting up a faction for me you are after? No, I’ll have no Whatelyites.… Anyone who tries to imitate me, is sure to be unlike me in the important circumstance of being an imitator; and no one can think as I do who does not think for himself.
  • He showed a touch of his quality in his first literary venture, published anonymously in 1819, Historic Doubts relative to Napoleon Buonaparte, a reductio ad absurdum of the method of Hume’s Essay on Miracles. Whately, on his solitary walks, “chopping logic by himself,” or in company disallowing any inexact use of terms (even on his death-bed he took his chaplain to task for misquoting St. Paul), is a rather formidable figure, a little disdainful of lesser minds. But, if his reasoning powers were alarming, he, too, had his limitations: “He was the least equipped with books,” said J. S. Mill of him, “among any of the great thinkers of his times.” There was no room for poetry or mysticism, and little room for awe in his somewhat arid mind; and he grievously failed to do justice to “the tractites.”

    Yet Whately’s anonymous Letters on the Church, By an Episcopalian (1826) had given his pupil, Newman, the latter’s first conception of the church as a spiritual society independent of the state. Whately’s ruling commonsense made him equally dislike the extremes of what he called “the doubting school,” and he lived long enough to denounce Essays and Reviews in the House of Lords. But, in his Oxford days, and even after he became archbishop of Dublin in 1831, he brought into English theology a wholesome breath of commonsense. Many cobwebs of speculative divinity were blown away, when he insisted that the Bible “has no technical vocabulary,” and that it is more important to get the drift of a whole passage than to build upon isolated texts.