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Chillingworth, William (1602–1644), theologian, was born in Oxford in October 1602 ‘in a little house on the north side of the conduit at Quatervois [Carfax]’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.867), the son of William Chillingworth (d. 1653), a prosperous mercer who later became mayor of Oxford, and his wife, Jane, née Penn (d. in or after 1656). At his baptism on 31 October in St Martin's Church his godfather was William Laud (then fellow of St John's College). After education at a grammar school in Oxford, in 1618 he was admitted to Trinity College, Oxford, where his tutor was Robert Skinner. He matriculated on 15 October 1619, aged seventeen, graduated BA on 28 June 1620, proceeded MA on 16 March 1624 and was elected to a fellowship in 1628.

Disputant and informant at Oxford

Chillingworth was noted for his skill in disputation and the pleasure he took in it. According to Anthony Wood ‘he would often walk in the college grove and contemplate, but when he met with any scholar there, he would enter into discourse, and dispute with him, purposely to facilitate and make the way of wrangling common with him’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.87). John Aubrey describes him as ‘the readiest and nimblest Disputant of his time in the university, perhaps none haz equalled him since’ (Brief Lives, 64). Edward Hyde, later earl of Clarendon, a close friend, concurs. He was:
a man of so great a subtilty of understanding, and so rare a temper in debate, that, as it was impossible to provoke him into any passion, so it was very difficult to keep a man's self from being a little discomposed by his sharpness and quickness of argument, and instances, in which he had a rare facility, and a great advange over all the men I ever knew. (Life of … Clarendon, 1.52)
His facility in debate was seen by both friends and opponents as potentially a weakness as well as a strength. Thomas Hobbes, another of his friends during the 1630s, said ‘he was like a lusty fighting fellow that did drive his enemies before him, but would often give his owne party smart back-blows’ (Brief Lives, 64).

Chillingworth's staunch monarchism and his close, continuing relationship with his ‘great friend’ and patron Laud are illustrated in an incident occurring in 1628, where his behaviour has been characterized as ‘discreditable’, ‘the detestable Crime of Treacherie’ (DNB; Brief Lives, 63). According to Aubrey, Chillingworth regularly ‘sent his Grace weekly intelligence of what passed in the University’. In September 1628 Alexander Gill (also of Trinity College) was called before Laud (then bishop of London), severely questioned, and imprisoned on a report that he had drunk the health of John Felton, the assassin of the duke of Buckingham, and had spoken critical words about the late royal favourite and about the king. The chief informant, according to several independent accounts of the incident, was Chillingworth, in a letter to Laud. In later years he continued to defend Buckingham, urging vigilance against seditious utterances:
Consider the bloody effects of railing tongues in the murder of the Duke of B. and tell me whether there be not cause to fear, that if blasphemous mouths be not stopped, violent hands will not be restrained from bringing forth of such tragical examples. (Orr, 193)
Another of Chillingworth's contemporaries at Trinity College, Arthur Wilson, listed him among ‘the Canterburian faction … very active at that time’ in defending royal power and decrying puritanism: ‘Chillingworth was a great man in our College with whom I had often disputes, about absolute monarchy’ (Orr, 186).

Conversion and reconversion

According to Clarendon, Chillingworth in the late 1620s had:
contracted such an irresolution and habit of doubting, that by degrees he grew confident of nothing, and a sceptic, at least, in the greatest mysteries of faith. This made him, from first wavering in religion and indulging to scruples, to reconcile himself too soon and too easily to the church of Rome. (Life of … Clarendon, 1.52)
In 1629 he renounced his adherence to the Church of England and, under the influence of the Jesuit John Fisher, became a Roman Catholic convert. A letter to Gilbert Sheldon, another graduate of Trinity and his closest friend at Oxford, written some time between 1628 and 1630, suggests that the principal motive for his conversion was a desire for certainty in matters of faith which he found lacking in protestantism: ‘Whether it be not evident from Scripture, and Fathers, and Reason; from the Goodness of God, and the Necessity of Mankind; that there must be some one Church infallible in matters of Faith?’ (Des Maizeaux, 8). At Fisher's suggestion Chillingworth left England in 1630 for the Catholic seminary at Douai, but within a year he returned, and for some time remained in a state described by one contemporary as ‘doubting between both communions’: ‘though gone over to the Papists, [he] still came to our Churches’ (Orr, 30). Though no letters from Laud to Chillingworth from this period are extant Laud later claimed that ‘my letters brought him back’ both to England and to protestantism (Orr, 26). Two letters from William Juxon (then president of St John's College) to Laud in March 1632, viewing Chillingworth with considerable suspicion, suggest that he was ‘ambitious to be Bishop Laud's convert, for … all his motives are not spiritual, protest he never so much’ (CSP dom., 1632–3, 288, 290). Wood says, rather cynically, that worldly concerns prompted Chillingworth's return to England, since he found that among the Jesuits he received ‘not that respect that he expected (for the common report among his contemporaries at Trin. coll. was that the Jesuits to try his temper, and exercise his obedience, did put him upon servile duties far below him)’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.89).

Chillingworth's own account of his spiritual wanderings saw his uncertain course during this period as dictated by a ‘love to the Truth’, the promptings of conscience in a spirit of free impartial enquiry:
I know a man that of a moderate Protestant turn'd a Papist, and the day that he did so … was convicted in conscience, that his yesterdaies opinion was an error, and yet thinks hee was no Schismatic for doing so. … The same man afterwards upon better consideration, became a doubting Papist, and of a doubting Papist, a confirm'd Protestant. And yet this man thinks himself no more to blame for all these changes; then a Travailer, who using all diligence to find the right way to some remote Citty, where he had never been, (as the party I speak of had never been in Heaven,) did yet mistake it, and after finde his error, and amend it. (Chillingworth, Religion of Protestants, chap. 5, para. 103, p. 303)
Even after his return to the Anglican fold Chillingworth continued to have conscientious scruples in matters of doctrine. In 1635, through the influence of Laud, he was recommended for preferment to Sir Thomas Coventry, the lord keeper, who ‘express'd a great readiness to oblige him in that particular’ (Des Maizeaux, 59). But in spite of straitened circumstances (‘money comes to me from my father's purse like blood from his veins, or from his heart’; Des Maizeaux, 86), he declined the offer of preferment, on the grounds that he was unable on grounds of conscience to subscribe to two of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. According to a letter to Sheldon dated 21 September 1635 he was unwilling to subscribe to ‘the damning sentences in St. Athanasius's Creed’, considering it to be, as his biographer Pierre Des Maizeaux put it, ‘a great presumption in any man, thus to confine God's mercy’ with such severity (Des Maizeaux, 81, 92). Eventually Chillingworth, after further correspondence with Sheldon, came to the conclusion that subscription to the articles did not necessarily entail ‘Belief or assent’ to every doctrinal detail but was a matter of ‘Peace or union’, a recognition that in the agreed doctrine of the Church of England ‘there is no Error in it, which may necessitate or warrant any Man to disturb the Peace, or renounce the Communion of it’ (Des Maizeaux, 157; Chillingworth, Religion of Protestants, preface, para. 40).

Chillingworth's consistent stance was one of rational scepticism, a distrust of dogmatic certainty:
not willing I confesse to take any thing upon trust, and to believe it without asking my selfe why; no, nor able to command my selfe (were I never so willing) to follow, like a sheepe, every sheepheard that should take upon him to guide me; or every flock that should chance to goe before me: but most apt and most willing to be led by reason to any way, or from it. (Chillingworth, Religion of Protestants, preface, para. 2)
His willingness to flirt with heterodoxy is illustrated by a letter from the 1630s addressed to ‘Harry’ in which he carefully and ‘impartially’ examines the arguments of the Arians (at that time considered heretical), concluding that ‘the Doctrine of Arrius is eyther a Truth, or else no damnable Haeresy’ (Des Maizeaux, 55). His patron Laud was sufficiently wary of his deviations from orthodoxy to write in a letter of March 1637, ‘I am very sorry that the young Man hath given cause, why a more watchful eye should be held over him and his Writings’, and to require Chillingworth to submit his manuscript of The Religion of Protestants before publication to ecclesiastical censors who would make sure he ‘let nothing slip dissonant from … the authorized Doctrine of the Church of England’ (Des Maizeaux, 137, 144). By 1638 Chillingworth, convinced that the Anglican communion allowed considerable latitude in doctrinal matters, felt himself able to accept preferment, and in that year was appointed chancellor of Salisbury Cathedral and master of Wygstan's Hospital in Leicester.

Great Tew and writings on religion

After his return from Douai, Chillingworth had spent much of his time in the company of Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland, at Falkland's country house at Great Tew, Oxfordshire. According to Aubrey, Falkland's ‘House was like a Colledge, full of Learned men’, and Chillingworth was ‘his most intimate and beloved favourite, and was most commonly with my Lord’ (Brief Lives, 56). One of the principal advantages of his periods of residence at Great Tew, besides the conversation of kindred spirits, described by Clarendon as ‘one continued convivium philosophicum, or convivium theologicum, enlivened and refreshed’ by wit and ‘pleasantness of discourse’ (Life of … Clarendon, 1.39), was the excellence of Falkland's library. The Great Tew circle, besides Sheldon, George Morley, and other Oxford friends, included the poet Edmund Waller and the scholar John Hales, whose views on ‘the brawls which were grown from religion’ and ‘the frequent and uncharitable reproaches of heretic and schismatic, too lightly thrown at each other, amongst men who differ in their judgment’ (Life of … Clarendon, 1.50) strongly influenced Chillingworth's own writings.

During this period Chillingworth wrote his major theological work, The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation (1638), as well as a number of shorter polemical works disputing the claims of the Roman Catholic church to infallibility. The best known of these, reprinted several times after the Restoration, is a letter to John Lewgar, a Roman Catholic convert, in which Chillingworth advocates ‘humanity and civility … reason and moderation’ rather than ‘blind zeal’ in controversial writing, and argues that ‘it is sinful credulity to follow every man or every Church, that without warrant will take upon them to guide me’ (Des Maizeaux, 32, 34). Among the tracts included in Chillingworth's Additional Discourses (1687) is ‘A Conference betwixt Mr. Chillingworth and Mr. Lewgar, whether the Roman Church be the Catholick-Church, and all out of her Communion Hereticks or Schismaticks’, which takes the form of an academic disputation, with the arguments on both sides scrupulously set down. Des Maizeaux comments that this highly schematic method, which ‘hath the advantage of bringing a controversy within a narrow compass’, was particularly ‘suited to Mr. Chillingworth's clear, impartial, and strong way of arguing’ (Des Maizeaux, 38). Several other treatises of this period included in Additional Discourses follow a similar pattern, and Chillingworth advances similar arguments against the idea of an infallible guide in unpublished essays included in Lambeth Palace Library, Wharton MS 943.

The Religion of Protestants is an answer to a tract by the Jesuit Edward Knott entitled Mercy and Truth, or, Charity Maintain'd by Catholiques (1634). A substantial work of 436 folio pages, The Religion of Protestants is the fourth in a series of polemical tracts which begins with Knott's Charity Mistaken (1630), answered by the Laudian divine Christopher Potter, provost of Queen's College, Oxford, in Want of charitie justly charged, on all such Romanists, as dare … affirme, that protestantcie destroyeth salvation (1633). Chillingworth's book is thus both a defence of Potter and a refutation of the arguments of Knott, and it takes the form of detailed critical commentary on Knott's Mercy and Truth, quoting Knott's text in full and then answering in turn each of the chapters and each of the paragraphs in part 1 of Knott's book. The method is a common one in controversial writing of this period, exemplified also in John Milton's An apology against a pamphlet call'd ‘A modest confutation of the animadversions of the remonstrant against Smectymnuus’, the very title of which indicates its place in a pamphlet war, though Chillingworth's manner as a controversialist is far more gentle and polite than that of Milton in his polemical prose. Chillingworth's preface, in which he defends himself against charges of Socinianism and apostasy, is an answer to a further work by Knott, A Direction to be Observed by N. N. (1636).

The general position argued in The Religion of Protestants is that doctrinal distinctions among Christians of various persuasions, all arrogantly insisting that they had exclusive possession of truth and anathematizing those who disagreed with them, fractured the unity of Christendom. ‘Presumptuous’ human pride, in ‘Deifying our owne Interpretations, and Tyrannous inforcing them upon others’, is contrasted with a toleration of and respect for the opinions of others:
Take away these Wals of separation, and all will quickly be one. Take away this Persecuting, Burning, Cursing, Damning of men for not subscribing to the words of men, as the words of God; Require of Christians only to believe Christ, and to call no man master but him only; Let those leave claiming Infallibility that have no title to it. (Chillingworth, Religion of Protestants, chap. 4, para. 16, p. 198)
Chillingworth's position is consistently eirenic: Roman Catholics and protestants, he argued, agree in many of the fundamentals of faith, and this common body of belief is far more important than any ‘diversity of opinions’ among ‘the severall Sects of Christians’:
Christians must be taught to set a higher value upon those high points of faith and obedience wherein they agree, then upon these matters of lesse moment wherein they differ, and understand that agreement in those, ought to be more effectuall to joyne them in one Communion, then their difference in other things of lesse moment to divide them. … For why should men be more rigid then God? Why should any errour exclude any man from the Churches Communion, which will not deprive him of eternall salvation? (Chillingworth, Religion of Protestants, chap. 4, paras. 39–40, pp. 209–10)
Chillingworth's ideal was a comprehensive church, open to Christians of widely varying doctrinal beliefs. Unlike Potter, who is explicitly anti-Calvinist, Chillingworth has little to say in The Religion of Protestants about ‘rigidly enforced doctrinal systems’ other than Roman Catholic, and W. K. Jordan has commented on his virtual silence about ‘the relations of dissenting groups to the Established Church and the State’ (Jordan, 2.379, 384). Chillingworth's The Reply of the London Petitioners (1643), written after the outbreak of civil war, strongly criticizes ‘the breach of peace in the Church, by Sectaries unpunished’ which ‘hath begot and nourished Warre in the State’ (sig. A4v). Where Falkland in his speech on episcopacy in the Long Parliament strongly attacked ‘some Bishops and their adherents’ who ‘under pretence of uniformity’ have ‘labourd to bring in an English, though not a Roman popery … a blind dependance of the people upon the clergie, and of the clergie upon themselves’, Chillingworth is at no point critical of the policies of his patron Laud (L. Cary, Lord Falkland, A Speech Made to the House of Commons Concerning Episcopacy, 1641, 3, 7). The presbyterian Francis Cheynell, his bitter enemy, accused Chillingworth of being part of a Laudian conspiracy to promote ‘an Accommodation between Rome and Canterbury’, a reconciliation between ‘true Papists’ and pretended protestants (Cheynell, Rise, 71). But Chillingworth's advocacy of ‘Charity and mutuall toleration’, rather than being narrowly partisan, is applicable to all those who ‘talk of Unity, but aime at Tyranny, and will have peace with none, but with their slaves and vassals’ (Chillingworth, Religion of Protestants, chap. 3, para. 81, p. 180). His position in The Religion of Protestants is closely akin to that of his friend John Hales in A Tract Concerning Schism: ‘not he that separates, but he that occasions the separation is the Schismatick’ (J. Hales, Several Tracts, 1677, 199). Responsibility for the fracturing of Christian unity, Hales and Chillingworth argue, rests with those who seek by ‘worldly power and violence’ to rule over the free conscience—‘not so much because you maintaine Errours and Corruptions, as because you impose them’ (Chillingworth, Religion of Protestants, chap. 5, paras. 40, 96, pp. 267, 297).

The Religion of Protestants prompted a number of hostile responses both from Roman Catholic apologists and Calvinists. Both sides accused Chillingworth of promoting infidelity and, in exalting the role of reason as against obedience to authority, covertly spreading the heresy of Socinianism. Knott's answer to Chillingworth has the title Christianity maintained, or, A discovery of sundry doctrines tending to the overthrowe of Christian religion (1638), and other attacks by the English Jesuits John Floyd and William Lacy appeared in 1638 and 1639, with Knott returning to the fray in 1652, eight years after Chillingworth's death, in Infidelity Unmasked. Cheynell attacked Chillingworth in The Rise, Growth, and Danger of Socinianisme (1643) and, not content with associating him with ‘a desperate designe of corrupting the Protestant Religion’, went on in Chillingworthi novissima, or, The sicknesse, heresy, death, and buriall of William Chillingworth (1644) to pronounce anathema upon author and book:
Get thee gone then, thou cursed booke, which hath seduced so many precious soules; get thee gone, thou corrupt rotten booke, earth to earth, and dust to dust … that thou maist rot with thy Author. (Cheynell, Chillingworthi, sig. E3)

Civil war and royalism

At the outbreak of civil war Chillingworth initially remained in Oxford, the royalist headquarters, and on 1 November 1642 he proceeded DD. In A Sermon Preached … before His Majesty at Christ Church, Oxford, published posthumously in 1644, he unhesitatingly identified himself with ‘the Kings righteous cause’ and condemned as ‘Rebells and Traitors’ those responsible for ‘this bloudy Tragedy, which is now upon the Stage, who have robb'd our Soveraign Lord the King of his Forts, Townes, Treasure’ (11–12). Both in this sermon and in an unpublished tract, ‘Of the unlawfulness of resisting the lawful prince, although of most impious and tyrannical behaviour’, he argued the conservative position that even ‘the most impious and idolatrous princes’, ‘the worst King, the worst man, nay … the worst Beast in the world’ must be obeyed: there can be ‘no pretence whatsoever to justifie resistance of Soveraign power’ (W. Chillingworth, A Sermon … Oxford, 12; Orr, 193–4). In The Apostolicall Institution of Episcopacy (1644), written in 1641 at a time when parliament was debating church government, he defended the Laudian position that episcopacy was ‘the government settled in and for the Church by the Apostles’, where presbyterian church government, ‘a multitude of equalls’, was an unwarranted innovation (2, 4). In further unpublished tracts he attacked Scottish presbyterian claims of ‘reforming religion’ as hypocrisy: ‘your aim is not enjoying the liberty of your own confession, but tyranny over other men's’ (Orr, 192).

Chillingworth's commitment to the royalist cause is evident in The Reply of the London Petitioners (1643), attributed to him by George Thomason, which praises ‘His Majesties peaceable inclinations’, excoriates puritan ministers who under the ‘mask of Religion’ are ‘the loudest Trumpets of Warre’, and accuses parliament of a seditious plot to change ‘this ancient and well founded Monarchy into a popular State’ (sig. A4, A4v, B1). In 1643 he served in the royalist army under Sir Ralph Hopton, and in August he designed ‘engines’ (Wood speaks of his ‘great skill in mathematics’) for use in the siege of Gloucester (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.90, 93). In December 1643 he was captured when the royalist forces at Arundel Castle in Sussex surrendered to Sir William Waller. Seriously ill and too weak to endure the long journey to London with the other prisoners, he was conveyed under military escort to Chichester where he remained in the bishop's palace for a month, growing weaker and weaker. During his last illness he was badgered by his inveterate enemy, Cheynell, who sought to make the dying man abjure his ‘damnable heresies’ and admit the justice of parliament's cause. He died on 30 January 1644 and was buried in Chichester Cathedral, though Cheynell refused to allow him the rites of the Church of England and pursued him beyond the grave with unrelenting hostility in Chillingworthi novissima. In his will Chillingworth gave £400 to the city of Oxford to provide loans to young tradesmen and apprenticeships to poor children of Oxford, with the residue to go to his brother's and sister's children.


Chillingworth's works, especially The Religion of Protestants, were frequently reprinted during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Two editions of The Religion of Protestants were published in 1638, followed by editions in 1664 (along with his Nine Sermons), 1674, and 1684. At the time of the Popish Plot brief extracts were published under the title Mr. Chillingworth's Judgment of the Religion of Protestants (1680), with a preface arguing its contemporary relevance. In 1687, ‘when this Nation was in imminent danger of Popery, Mr. Chillingworth's Book being look'd upon as the most effectual preservation against it’ (Des Maizeaux, 223), John Patrick published an abridged edition of The Religion of Protestants, including for the first time the Additional Discourses. Later editions, reverting to Chillingworth's original text, but including the Discourses, appeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The 1742 edition, with the title The Works of William Chillingworth, includes an introduction by Thomas Birch, and a copy in the British Library (C 126 1.1) contains interesting marginal notes by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

John Locke praised Chillingworth as a model of ‘good temper, and clear, and strong arguing’: ‘I should propose the constant reading of Chillingworth, who by his example will teach both Perspicuity, and the way of right Reasoning, better than any book that I know’ (Des Maizeaux, 370–71). The traditional view of Chillingworth, as advanced in Pierre Des Maizeaux's comprehensive An Historical and Critical Account of the Life and Writings of William Chillingworth (1725) and Jordan's The Development of Religious Toleration in England (1936), as well as in John Tulloch, S. R. Gardiner, Kurt Weber, and the Dictionary of National Biography, see him as a religious liberal and proponent of toleration. More recent studies have seen Chillingworth as a Laudian conservative and Arminian anti-Calvinist, although one view, while recognizing Chillingworth's ardent royalism, sees his principal significance in his emphasis on the role of reason in religion, his consistent insistence that the ‘responsibility for beliefs rests finally with the individual believer, whose duty it is to form judgements from a critical weighing of evidence’ (Orr, 114).

Warren Chernaik


P. Des Maizeaux, An historical and critical account of the life and writings of William Chillingworth (1725) · The life of Edward, earl of Clarendon … written by himself, 2 vols. (1857) · Aubrey's Brief lives, ed. O. L. Dick (1949); repr. (1962) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn · W. K. Jordan, The development of religious toleration in England, 4 vols. (1932–40) · R. Orr, Reason and authority: the thought of William Chillingworth (1967) · N. Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: the rise of English Arminianism, c.1590–1640 (1987); repr. (1990) · Hist. U. Oxf. 4: 17th-cent. Oxf. · R. M. Krapp [Adams], Liberal Anglicanism (1944) · F. Cheynell, Chillingworthi novissima, or, The sicknesse, heresy, death, and buriall of William Chillingworth (1644) · F. Cheynell, The rise, growth, and danger of Socinianisme (1643) · W. Chillingworth, The religion of protestants a safe way to salvation (1638) · W. Chillingworth, Works, ed. T. Birch (1742) · W. Chillingworth, Additional discourses (1687) · DNB · H. McLachlan, Socinianism in seventeenth-century England (1951) · J. Tulloch, Rational theology and Christian philosophy in England in the seventeenth century, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1874) · K. Weber, Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland (1940) · B. Wormald, Clarendon: politics, history and religion, 1640–1660 (1951) · S. R. Gardiner, History of England from the accession of James I to the outbreak of the civil war, 10 vols. (1883–4); repr. (1965) · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · CSP dom., 1628–9; 1632–3 · M. G. Hobson and H. E. Salter, eds., Oxford council acts, 1626–1665, OHS, 95 (1933) · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/197, sig. 14


Bodl. Oxf., MSS Tanner 233, 278, 72, fol. 3 · Bodl. Oxf., MSS Rawl. B. 158.170, B. 400b, B. 66.148, 843.60, 846.258 · LPL, letters, notes, and treatises · LPL, theological and political MSS · St John's College, Oxford


F. Kyte, mezzotint, c.1740, NPG; repro. in J. C. Smith, British mezzotinto portraits, 4 vols. (1878–83), vol. 2, p. 796

Wealth at death  

at least £440: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/197, sig. 14