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Reference group
Hutchinsonians (act. c.1724–c.1770) were a loosely constituted association of eighteenth-century clergy and laity who were unwilling to accept the cultural dominance of Newtonian physics and the latitudinarian theology that was reinforced by it. Though they were often ridiculed by their contemporaries (including Bishop William Warburton, and Tobias Smollett in The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom) and by subsequent historians, scholars have latterly shown interest both in the Hutchinsonians as individuals and in locating their distinctive physico-theology within a broader religious context, seeing them as ‘a group who tried to support a Trinitarian Protestant Christianity from the Old Testament’ (Gurses, 394).

The eponymous founder, John Hutchinson, did not have a conventional academic background; he was steward to the duke of Somerset and later ‘riding purveyor’ to George I on a salary of £200 p.a. His employment afforded him leisure to write a stream of volumes between 1724 and his death, the most famous of them being Moses's Principia, published in two volumes in 1724 and 1727 respectively. Hutchinson intended both to refute the natural philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton and to offer a physics that was genuinely grounded in scripture. He argued that the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament (written in God's own language) contained, in symbolic form, a complete system of natural philosophy, one that disclosed and confirmed the truth of the Trinitarian Christianity he considered to be under widespread assault. To recover this true meaning the orthography of the Masoretes (based on vowel points) was to be rejected and replaced by a new structure of meanings for the unpointed, consonantal roots of the Hebrew language. For Hutchinson nature had to be viewed in the light of scripture. To fail to do so, as Hutchinson thought Newton had done, led only to the deceptions of natural religion, which by itself, unaided, constituted the ‘Religion of Satan’. He identified Moses as the first natural philosopher whose teachings revealed how the physical universe was a perfect mechanism divinely governed by means of the instruments of ‘the names’, fire, light, and air (spirit), which also symbolized the three persons of the Trinity.

Hutchinson's writings caught the attention of several gifted individuals who, in their different ways, were as dissatisfied with the new Newtonian orthodoxies as he was, and who looked to the author of Moses's Principia to point the way to a different intellectual world. His Hebraic revisionism was the inspiration for Alexander Stopford Catcott to look again at the etymology of the Hebrew word Elahim in his pamphlet The Supreme and Inferior Elahim (1736), one that disclosed the Trinitarian insistence of early Hutchinsonianism. In the 1730s Hutchinsonianism was not the sole preserve of high churchmen and tories, and Hutchinson had never intended that it should be. Thus Duncan Forbes of Culloden, the lord advocate of Scotland and a member of Robert Walpole's government, was fascinated by and published explications of the founder's thought with an emphasis on his cosmology. His Letter to a Bishop (1732) attracted new adherents to Hutchinson's physico-theology including Samuel Johnson, president of King's College, New York.

In this decade the priority for Hutchinson's enthusiastic followers was to spread the word and to produce a complete edition of his writings. But this last objective was no easy process and it was not until 1748–9 that Robert Spearman, a gentleman from co. Durham, and Julius Bate, a Sussex clergyman, produced the twelve volumes of Hutchinson's Philosophical and Theological Works. It was an impressive achievement and brought Hutchinson's writings into full academic circulation. What it revealed, however, was the relative inaccessibility of Hutchinsonianism to the ordinary reader and the difficulty for his disciples of ever securing a popular following. Spearman remained committed to Hutchinson's insights, and his major work, An Enquiry after Philosophy and Theology (1755), is an attempt to demonstrate the inadequacies of Newton's discoveries for an explanation of the universe.

But Catcott, Forbes, Spearman, and Bate were isolated authors rather than part of a widespread movement. The nearest Hutchinsonianism came to being a concentrated force was at Oxford University during the 1750s, as a result of continued exchanges in pamphlets and in the press between followers and opponents of Hutchinson's biblical exegesis and, more particularly, tutorial influence on gifted undergraduates. Four dons in particular were important in this intellectual transmission: Benjamin Holloway, Thomas Patten, George Watson, and Walter Hodges (1695–1757). All of them were high churchmen and moderate tories and had few expectations of preferment outside the university because of these loyalties. They were also scholars looking for a system of scriptural interpretation that might re-emphasize the centrality of Christian revelation and Trinitarianism in explaining the nature and operation of the created order. They thought they had discovered the key to doing so in the collected writings of John Hutchinson and his teachings on the fixed and certain unpointed Hebrew text of the Old Testament.

Hodges and Watson taught at University College, Oxford, and the latter had a profound influence in inducing students to discover what he perceived as Hutchinson's intellectual depths. Two in particular can be described as converts: William Jones of Nayland and George Horne, both lifelong friends. Jones was a vigorous controversialist even as a young man, determined to defend the related causes of credal orthodoxy and respect for the church as a divinely established institution. He singled out Arians and Socinians as insidious enemies of Christianity, those who had infiltrated the Church of England through the artful connivance of such prelates as John Tillotson and Benjamin Hoadly, and they were roundly condemned in his Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity (1756). Jones's doctrinal orthodoxy was underpinned by Hutchinson's physico-theology and he had no hesitation in proclaiming Hutchinson the intellectual superior of Newton.

It was not a perspective that commended itself to majority Oxford opinion, and Jones was put on the defensive in polemical exchanges with scholars like Benjamin Kennicott, who devoted his career to collating all the Old Testament manuscripts. Like a majority of other Hebraists, Kennicott believed that Hutchinson's presentation of Hebrew syntax was profoundly misleading and that the rest of his intellectual system was therefore unreliable. In Kennicott's opinion the Hutchinsonians despised ‘Reason and Learning … [and] make Words signify what they want, [thus] turn the plainest History into sublime Prophecy’ (A Word to the Hutchinsonians, 1756, 42). Similarly, Archdeacon Thomas Sharp in his Two Dissertations Concerning the Meaning of the Hebrew Words Elohim and Berith (1751) believed that the Hutchinsonian method was unpersuasive in justifying their claims for the Trinitarian anticipations of the Old Testament. The debate between Julius Bate and Kennicott received much publicity in the Gentleman's Magazine and elsewhere. Kennicott's onslaughts were not enough to prevent Jones remaining throughout his life something of a disciple of Hutchinson, whereas his friend George Horne (later dean of Canterbury, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, and bishop of Norwich), who had ably seconded his efforts in the Hutchinsonian cause in Oxford during the 1750s, gradually distanced himself from intellectual indebtedness to Hutchinson in his own mature writings. In his second attack on Kennicott in 1760 the young Horne had declared that the latter's method of dealing with the Old Testament would open the door to scepticism and infidelity ‘which all the art of man will never be able to shut again’ (A View of Mr Kennicott's Method of Correcting the Hebrew Text, 1760, 24). The mature Horne would not have ventured such a verdict, recognizing that this argument had been lost.

By the 1760s Hutchinsonianism was on the wane in its intellectual influence, and evidence of new networks beyond Oxford University is hard to come by. George Horne, as president of Magdalen, did not foster the creation of a new generation of devotees in his college, although it is apparent that Hutchinson's theological insights did influence young Methodist and evangelical students at the university. Thus when six undergraduates were sent down from St Edmund Hall in 1766 for breaching university regulations their reputation as Hutchinsonians as well as their Methodism was adduced against them. The besetting problem for Hutchinsonianism in the later eighteenth century was that its founder's distinctive reading of Hebrew letters had been fatally undermined by Kennicott's scholarship. Thereafter the physics tended to be downplayed while the theology still remained pertinent, especially for high churchmen concerned about the perceived spread of Arianism, Socinianism, and outright unbelief in the churches and society at large. Thus in Scotland there were many followers among the Episcopalian clergy, largely owing to the influence of John Skinner the elder and his son, John Skinner, bishop of Aberdeen, who had extensive contacts with like-minded high churchmen south of the border. Against excessive rationalism they insisted on respect for the Christian mysteries and orthodox Trinitarian belief.

The French Revolution and the spread of revolutionary ferment (not least dechristianization) across Europe in the 1790s renewed interest in Hutchinsonianism as a serviceable element of the counter-revolutionary response. Jones of Nayland prophetically led the way in conjunction with his friend, biographer, and editor, William Stevens, the treasurer of Queen Anne's Bounty (and cousin of George Horne). Together with other like-minded laity and clergy they set up the Society for the Reformation of Principles. Jones's The Scholar Armed against the Errors of the Time (1795) was a collection of tracts that reprinted several pieces with a Hutchinsonian dimension. Once again, latitudinarian theology was singled out as an insidious dissolvent of a stable, divinely sanctioned society. This critique was not enough in itself to create anything resembling a distinctive, second-wave Hutchinsonian movement, though men who were sympathetic to it made up many of the members of the Club of Nobody's Friends, a dining society of high churchmen founded in honour of Stevens in 1800; their respect for Hutchinson and his distinctive insights was usually blended with tory politics and a range of other intellectual influences. Hutchinsonianism was also a component of the high-church Hackney Phalanx in the early nineteenth century (among whom Bishop William Van Mildert of Durham was prominent), and then of the founders of the Oxford Movement. They honoured John Hutchinson and his followers less for any specific theological beliefs than for his commitment to an uncompromisingly Christological emphasis at a juncture in the life of the church when it was perceived to have fallen out of favour.

Nigel Aston


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