• Clerke Gilbert

    Clerke Gilbert

       Clerke Gilbert  was the son of John Clerke, Schoolmaster, of Uppingham, in the county of Rutland. He was admitted into Sydney College, Cambridge, in the year 1641, being then scarcely fifteen years of age. Seven years after this he was made Fellow of the House, having taken the degree of Master of Arts. After three years more, being then about five-and-twenty, he received Presbyterianordination; and his allowance in the College was augmented, according to the Statutes, which required such augmentation for those who were ordained Priests. The next year he was appointed Proctor of the University. He left his Fellowship after the Commencement, in 1655, refusing to take his degree of Bachelor of Divinity, to which the Statutes obliged him. His withdrawal from College, and his refusal to take this degree, were occasioned by conscientious scruples, which prevented him from performing any act, which involved the least sacrifice of principle. After quitting the University, he retired into Northamptonshire, according to Nelson: but we learn from the author of "The Grounds and Occasions of the Controversy concerning the Unity of God," that he lived for a long time at Stamford, well known and highly esteemed by Dr. Cumberland, Bishop of Peterborough, who was in the habit of calling him "Honest Gilbert." His elder brother dying, he succeeded to a small patrimonial estate, worth about forty pounds per annum, which kept him above want, and was regarded by his friends as a providential blessing. He was an excellent mathematician, of which his book upon Mr. Oughtred's " Clavis Mathematica" affords ample proof. Whiston, in his Memoirs of his own Life and Writings, referring to a visit which he paid to a friend at Stamford, says, that he got acquainted there with " that great mathematician, Mr. Gilberth, Clerk" (an evident mistake of the printer for Gilbert Clerke); and gained some light from him into the first Elements of Astronomy, at the end of the year 1687, and the beginning of 1688.

    It is chiefly to Robert Nelson, Esq., the biographer of Bishop Bull, that we are indebted for the few particulars, which have come down to us respecting Gilbert Clerke. Mr. Nelson's account of him is, on the whole, as favourable as could have been expected: but when this writer has occasion to allude to the controversy respecting the belief of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, the admiration, which he never fails to display for his great oracle, leads him to speak slightingly of Mr. Clerke's "Ante-Nicenismus," and "Brevis Responsio." It was in the latter of these, published A. D. 1695, that Mr. Clerke attacked the arguments advanced by Bishop Bull, in his "Defensio Synodi Nicaenae;" and he could not long have survived that time, because, within three years, we find him mentioned, with several other defenders of the Unitarian doctrine, in " The Grounds and Occasions of the Controversy concerning the Unity of God," as not then living. An answer to Gilbert Clerke was found among the papers of Dr. Grabe, partly in the handwriting of Bishop Bull, and was published in the third volume of his Lordship's Sermons and Discourses, 1714, 8vo., entitled "Breves Animadversiones," &c.; or, as the title of the translation, which precedes the Latin work in the volume, runs, " The Consubstantiality and the Coeternity of the Son of God, with the Father, asserted; or some few Animadversions on a Treatise of Mr. Gilbert Clerke, entituled 'Ante-Nicenismus,' so far as the said Author pretends to answer Dr. George Bull's 'Defence of the Nicene Faith.'" Mr. Nelson says, that both Mr. Clerke's works were published with his name, "as not being ashamed or afraid to own what he had vritten, because he took it to be the very cause of God, and of his Unity against all sorts of Polytheists."

    No account is given of Gilbert Clerke in the Biographical Dictionaries, except where his name is cursorily mentioned in connexion with that of Bishop Bull. But, what is still more remarkable, Mr. Lindsey has entirely overlooked him, in his "Historical View of the State of the Unitarian Doctrine and Worship, from the Reformation to our own Times." This oversight was pointed out to Mr. L. by his friend, the Rev. W. Hopkins, Vicar of Cuckfield, in Sussex, who says, "As I have the tract of Mr. Clerke, upon which Bishop Bull made animadversions, I compared them together many years ago, and I find this observation in a vacant space before the title-page, 'The famous Bull wrote animadversions upon this treatise, but he has left many arguments without the least appearance of an answer, which strongly support the Unitarian cause; this cause, indeed, is founded upon such powerful evidence, as cannot be overthrown by the wit of man.' I am inclined to judge, that Bull saw something which he could not answer, and this raised his indignation. I entirely agree with Mr. Clerke, that Bull, in the last section of his Defence, relative to the subordination, had yielded great part of the question up to the Unitarians, or rather, had given it quite up. Subordination, in any sense, absolutely demolishes the Athanasian system." (Vide infra, No. 6.)

    We learn from Mr. Nelson, that, among his contemporaries, Gilbert Clerke "was esteemed a good Grecian, and a good Scripturist;" but that "he chiefly consulted the modern criticks, when he read the Bible, not omitting the Polonians, or else trusted to his own invention and sagacity in that part of Divinity, without ever advising with the ancients, of whom he had a very low esteem." He regarded the controversy between the Church of England and the Church of Rome, as unworthy of his attention. The errors of the latter appeared to him so gross and palpable, as not to deserve the least consideration. This led him to study the writings of the Socinians, whose views he deemed more rational and scriptural: but he did not adopt all their opinions with an implicit faith, or symbolize with them in their notions concerning the divine attributes. Hence, he was in the habit of saying, that he was no Socinian. But when others spoke ill of the Socinians, he was not tardy or lukewarm in defending their cause. Baxter, in his "Cure of Church Divisions," having classed Socinians and Mahometans together, "honest Gilbert" sought a private interview with him, and made this classification a subject of remonstrance. About five years later than this, we find him renewing his expostulation by letter. "I see," says he, in an epistolary communication to that eminent Presbyterian Divine, "that both you and Dr. Stillingfleet make no scruple to reckon Socinians (as they are commonly called, who own not Socinus for a master, but a fellow-servant) with Turks, Atheists and Papists. You should do well to consider of this point a little better than I doubt you have, before you censure so much: upon impartial search you may find them to be (as I believe they are) the best sort of Christians, and the best reformed, although Socinus had his errors, especially about God's prescience of future contingents; and did not Luther err foully in the point of Consubstantiation? But, Sir, you may remember what a hideous name an Arminian was lately, and now they are the prime sons of the Church of England, and very few are now offended for difference in those opinions: why might not a little more time bring the Socinians (who believe in God through Christ as offering a sacrifice of suffering obedience for the sins of the world, and as an exalted Saviour) into some tolerable favour, if such as you did not so stigmatize them? Some are so uncharitable, or so ignorant, as to say that Socinians are scarce Christians, although they believe Jesus to be the Christ, and therefore in St. John's judgment are born of God: they place the divinity of Christ in his unction, not much opposing human additions, but as they obscure this, or seem to be inconsistent with it; and therefore in Justin Martyr's opinion may be reckoned amongst orthodox Christians. I have gone under that name I confess, but upon fuller acquaintance, I have not found much dislike from the better sort, nor would any of our Ministers scruple to get me to preach for them, and therefore sure had somewhat a better opinion of me than a Mahumetan or an Atheist. As for their opinion about the Trinity, which hath given the most offence, as I remember yourself in your former answer to Dr. Stillingfleet doth dislike the damnatory part of the Creed of Athanasius, so doth Mr. Alsop in his answer, so doth Dr. Taylor in his 'Liberty of Prophesying:' and some Divines of the Church of England do refuse to read it. Can anything be more certain and evident than this, viz. that the Father is before the Son, and the Son before the Holy Spirit, who speaketh not of himself, but what he heareth? Whatever quirks, or scholastic niceties may be invented, such was the opinion of the ancients, as a man so well versed in antiquity as you are cannot but know, I mean before the Nicene Council." It is uncertain when the letter containing this remonstrance was written; but it probably had some effect in softening down Baxter's prejudices against the Socinians.

    Mr. Nelson informs us, that some of Gilbert Clerke's personal friends mentioned the doctrine of Satisfaction, as one of the points, on which he differed from the Socinians; and that he seemed to hold some particular notions of his own upon this subject. What those notions were, we shall be best able to judge, from the following statement of them by himself, in the forementioned letter. "I will not deny but that although the Socinians do acknowledge the death of Christ as the slaying of the sacrifice to be offered in heaven, and the desert of sin from thence to be gathered, yet that they do speak too lankly and jejunely as to the immediate ends of Christ's dying: but they say not so much amiss as they who have (indeed, heretofore more than now) been always harping upon a rigorous legal satisfaction to vindictive justice to the utmost farthing, and some said in Hell itself; insomuch as many of their hearers, of themselves have took it for a gravelling question, how that doctrine could consist with God's free grace, or the necessity of man's holiness; and some have justified Socinus his charge, running into downright antinomianism and libertinism." The same interesting document brings us acquainted with the views of Gilbert Clerke on some other controverted points. "A catholick governing Church" he pronounces "a Popish chimaera," denying that there is "any such thing as a national governing Church." "Original Sin, as to the corruption of nature, or vicious inclinations," he says, "should be propounded rather as a curse than a sin; as part of God's curse for Adam's transgression, and the wickedness of the world, rather than so properly a sin as our own voluntary sins are." The Baptism of Infants, he admits, may, by possibility, be simply lawful; but he denies, that it is more scriptural than Adult Baptism, or, as Article xxvii. of the Church of England says, that "it is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ." Had the subscription been only negative, "possibly," says he, "I might have been content to hold my tongue." He thinks that the Primitive Christians, for a time, circumcised their children, whatever may have been the ancient practice with regard to Infant Baptism.

    On the whole, perhaps, Mr. Nelson does not err widely from the truth, in the following estimate of the character of Gilbert Clerke. "He was a man of an open and frank disposition, but withal too bold, and easily to be heated; otherwise, the conduct of his life was sober and regular, not blemished with any remarkable immorality, but rather abounding with good works, which he earnestly pressed. He was very busy and zealous, in defending those new principles, which he had taken up, and which the gross absurdities of the Antinomian system, then much in vogue, had contributed more than a little to fling him into." The following works are known to have proceeded from his pen.

    1. De Plenitudine Mundi. Lond. 1660, 8vo.

    2. De Restitutione Corporum. Lond. 1662, 8vo.

    3. The Spot Dial. Lond. 1687, 4to. The titles of the three preceding works are taken from Watt's Bibliotheca.

    4. Finalis Concordia. The author himself alludes to this "little writing," in his correspondence with Baxter; and says, that among other ends of Christ's death, he has explained it "as an expiatory sacrifice of suffering obedience."

    5. Ante-Nicenismus, sive Testimonia Patrum, qui scripserunt ante Concilium Nicenum, unde colligi potest Sensus Ecclesiae Catholicse, quoad Articulum de Trinitate. Cosmopoli, Anno 1694, 8vo. This valuable collection of testimonies from the Ante-Nicene Fathers contains internal evidence of having been composed without any special reference to the writings of Bishop Bull. It seems rather to have been the result of an independent perusal of the early Christian writers, with a view to satisfy the author's own mind as to the nature of the testimony which they give, on the great controverted questions of his own times, irrespectively either of Bull on the one hand, or of Zwicker and Sandius on the other. When it was written, the author had no copy of the works of Clemens Alexandrinus at hand; and what he says (p. 16) respecting the testimony of that Father is said from memory, and contained within the short compass of ten lines.

    6. Brevis Responsio ad Domini D. Georgii Bulli 'Defensionein Synodi Nicenae:' in qua praecipua Capita Defensionis refutantur. A.D. 1695, 8vo. At the beginning of this Brief Reply to Bishop Bull's "Defence of the Council of Nice," the author gives the substance of Clemens Alexandrinus's testimony at considerable length, by way of supplement to the " Ante-Nicenismus." He then informs his readers, that when he had made this addition to his former treatise, he procured a copy of Dr. Bull's "Defensio Fidei Nicaenae," and read it carefully through. It appears, that he had been called to account by a friend, for writing on the subject of the Ante-Nicene faith, and taking no notice of what that confessedly great man had before written on the same subject. The reason which he assigns for this apparent neglect is, that Dr. Bull, in the 4th Section of his "Defensio Fidei Nicaenae," which treats of the subordination of the Son to the Father, had conceded the main point in dispute. He says, however, that on receiving the above admonition from his friend, he read over that author attentively, and saw no reason to expunge a single line of the "Ante-Nicenismus," although he acknowledges that Dr. Bull's acquaintance with the writings of the Fathers is greatly superior to his own, and that he has perused them with attention and discrimination. "I say nothing," he observes, "of his intercourse with learned men, and of his access to an infinite store of books; since he lives, as I hear, not far from Oxford. But, however, as regards the principal Fathers, whose testimonies I have cited, I have no doubt but I am able to defend what I have written; for the power of truth is very great. With regard to the suspected Fathers, and those petty writers, whose testimonies are derived from the works of later authors, I should not consider it worth my while to examine them, even if I were surrounded with books: but if any one else chooses to do so, I have no objection." He then proceeds with his answer to Dr. Bull, into the particulars of which our limits will not permit us to enter.

    7. Oughtredus explicatus, sive Commentarius in ejus Clavem Mathematicam; cui additae sunt Planetarum Observationes, et Horologiorum Constructio: Authore Gilberto Clerk. Londini, 1682, 8vo. This work has been much valued by some of our ablest Mathematicians. The Commentary upon Oughtred's "ClavisMathematica" occupies 160 pages, and is dedicated to Sir Justinian Isham, Bart. The Observations on the Planets, &c, under the general title "Astronomica Specimina," fill 24 pages more, and are dedicated to Sir Walter Chetwynd, Knight.


    (Vidend. Nelson's Life of Bishop Bull, Sect, lxxxiii. pp. 499—513. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. William Whiston, containing Memoirs of several of his Friends also: written by himself. Lond. 1749, p. 250. The Grounds and Occasions of the Controversy concerning the Unity of God, &c. p. 17. Belsham's Memoirs of the late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey, M.A. Lond. 1812, 8vo. pp. 511. 513. Monthly Repository, Vol. XVIII. pp. 65—71; Vol. XIX. pp. 452—455. 577—580. 726—730. Baxter MSS. in Dr. Williams's Library, RedCross Street, London. Voyt, Catal. Libr. Rarior. p. 35.)


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