Wilkins, John

(1614-1672), theologian and natural philosopher

by John Henry

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Wilkins, John (1614-1672), theologian and natural philosopher, was probably born at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, the eldest of the five children of Walter Wilkins (d. 1625), an Oxford goldsmith, and Jane (d. 1633), daughter of the noted puritan divine John Dod. After his father's death, his mother married another Oxford man, Francis Pope. She gave birth to a daughter, who did not survive childhood, and to Walter Pope, who became close to her eldest son and was the successor to Christopher Wren as professor of astronomy at Gresham College.

Education and early career
Wilkins entered Edward Sylvester's grammar school in Oxford at the age of nine. He matriculated at New Inn Hall, Oxford, in May 1627, but soon transferred to Magdalen Hall; he took the degrees of BA in 1631 and MA in 1634, and for a brief period was a tutor in his college. His moderate puritan background may have influenced his move to Magdalen Hall, where Laudian Arminianism was resisted longer than at other colleges. Even there, however, Laudianism prevailed, and this may have precipitated Wilkins's decision to leave Oxford in 1637. In view of his mature theological position it seems reasonable to infer that he was influenced early on by his grandfather John Dod. Described as a passive nonconformist, Dod focused on the unanimity of certain beliefs rather than on those things that caused difference and strife, and (like Wilkins later) he emphasized the importance of practical morality.

Wilkins was instituted as vicar of Fawsley, near Daventry, Northamptonshire, on 2 June 1637, and ordained as a priest at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, on 18 February 1638. The previous vicar at Fawsley was John Dod, who took up the post again shortly after, when Wilkins resigned to become private chaplain to William Fiennes, first Viscount Saye and Sele, a leading puritan and anti-Laudian. Wilkins's brief tenure at Fawsley, while his grandfather stepped down, may have been a stratagem to circumvent a Laudian policy of limiting ordination to those granted a benefice (to prevent would-be puritan clerics from becoming lecturers and private chaplains).

By 1641 Wilkins was in London acting as private chaplain to George, eighth Lord Berkeley, a moderate in both religious and political outlook. In late 1644 he entered the service of Charles Louis, prince elector palatine, but their rapport seems to have been based more on mutual scientific interests than on a similarity of religious perspective. He must also have made a reputation for himself as a theologian or preacher by this time, because he was appointed preacher to Gray's Inn in 1645 and also seems to have been a regular preacher at the Savoy Chapel. His first published religious work, Ecclesiastes (1646), was subtitled A Discourse Concerning the Gift of Preaching, and was intended as a handbook for preachers.

Scientific interests, 1638-1648
Wilkins's interest in the latest developments affecting natural philosophy was apparent in his earliest publications. In 1638 he published The discovery of a new world, or, A discourse tending to prove, that ('tis probable) there may be another habitable world in the moon. He added to this in 1640 his Discourse concerning a new planet; tending to prove, that ('tis probable) our earth is one of the planets. Powerful and influential works of popularization, these books aimed to expound and defend the new world picture developed by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. The first book argued that the earth was not uniquely different from other heavenly bodies, while the second tried to remove philosophical and religious objections to the earth's motion and show how it might be physically possible.

In 1641 Wilkins published Mercury, or, The secret and swift messenger: shewing how a man may with privacy and speed communicate his thoughts to a friend at any distance. Concerned primarily with means of encoding or otherwise protecting the secrecy of communications, orally or in writing, it also discussed how messages may be secretly and swiftly conveyed over great distances. In the course of this work Wilkins briefly considered the possibility of a 'Universal Character' that would be legible to readers in any language. This was a theme to which he would later return.

While in London, Wilkins became a regular member of a group devoted to the study of natural philosophy and the sciences related to it, such as geometry, mechanics, magnetism, chemistry, and medicine. This group has been seen as one of the forerunners of the Royal Society. Its principal convener may have been Theodore Haak, but it seems clear that Wilkins was a leading member of the group as it broke up in 1648, at about the time that he moved to Oxford. Shortly after this Wilkins became a prominent member of a similar group that began to meet in Oxford with some of the same personnel as the London group.

In 1648 Wilkins published Mathematical Magick, or, The Wonders that may be Performed by Mechanical Geometry. The first part of the book, on mechanical powers, showed how simple machines like the lever, pulley, and screw could be used to bring about remarkable effects, while the second part, on mechanical motions, discussed among other things flying machines, the submarine, automata, and perpetual motion. Offered as a practical manual rather than as a work of theoretical exposition, it can nevertheless be seen as a foreshadowing of the mechanical philosophy and of the increasing importance of the geometrical approach to an understanding of nature. It was influenced by the work of Guidobaldo del Monte and Marin Mersenne, and formed an attractive and highly effective medium of popularization.

Warden of Wadham College, 1648-1659
Wilkins was chosen in 1648 as warden of Wadham by the visitors appointed by parliament to reform the University of Oxford. The committee included Lord Saye, Lord Berkeley, and Richard Knightley, another of Wilkins's early patrons, but why they should have thought of Wilkins in this connection remains a mystery. The warden was required to be a doctor of divinity, but Wilkins was given a year's dispensation because of his service to the elector palatine. He took the degrees of BD in April 1648 and DD in December 1649. In the interim he accompanied the elector palatine to The Hague and Heidelberg.

Wilkins proved to be an excellent warden and Wadham thrived under his direction. It was during this period that the practical implications of his latitudinarian theological outlook became evident. Under his tolerant and conciliatory regime Wadham became a place where scholars of different political and religious persuasions could live and work together. Because of Wilkins the college also became attractive to scholars with an interest in the new philosophy. Seth Ward and Lawrence Rook left Cambridge to take up fellowships at Wadham, while John Wallis, Jonathan Goddard, William Petty, Ralph Bathurst, Thomas Willis, and Robert Boyle moved to Oxford to attend the scientific meetings that Wilkins encouraged as a continuation of those he used to attend in London. He also attracted some brilliant students, most notably Christopher Wren, but also his stepbrother, Walter Pope, William Neile, Thomas Sprat, William Lloyd, and Samuel Parker. He created a formal garden at Wadham, which included a number of scientific instruments, a statue that appeared to talk, and transparent apiaries from which the honey could be extracted without the bees' being killed.

Wilkins was also influential in the university at large. In October 1652 he was appointed to a five-man committee to which Cromwell effectively delegated his powers as chancellor. Wilkins used this position to fight against the visitors for the restoration of the independence of the university and the colleges, to mediate between contending factions within the university, and to defend the university from outside threats. The most visible example of the last was Vindiciae academiarum (1654), a response written by Wilkins and Seth Ward to John Webster's Academiarum examen (1654). Representing radical sectarian views of a rather antinomian and illuminist kind, Webster called for an end to the standard university education of clergymen: in its place he called for a reformed curriculum that would concentrate on a practical utilitarian knowledge of nature. Wilkins and Ward responded to both of these issues, defending the role of education in fitting men for the ministry and refuting Webster's charges about the inadequacy of the scientific and mathematical education available at Oxford.

During this period Wilkins published two further religious works. A Discourse Concerning the Beauty of Providence of 1649 was a sermon intended to bring comfort to those adversely affected by the recent upheavals in church and state. Showing the influence of Senecan Stoicism, Wilkins advocated patient submissiveness to Providence in times of suffering. A discourse concerning the gift of prayer: shewing what it is, wherein it consists and how far it is attainable by industry (1651), like the earlier Ecclesiastes, was intended as an advice manual to aid in the organization of thoughts and in effective communication between man and God. These three religious works proved highly influential in the contemporary shift to a plainer, clearer, and more simply ordered style in sermons and other forms of writing.

In 1656 Wilkins married the lord protector's youngest sister, Robina (d. 1689), and became stepfather to her two daughters. Robina was the recent widow of Peter French, canon of Christ Church, who was, like Wilkins, one of the five men to whom Cromwell delegated his powers as chancellor. The marriage seems to have been an opportunistic move by Wilkins, some said to preserve or promote the university's interests, others suggested it was for his own. Even Wilkins himself (though admittedly after the Restoration) implied that he married Robina under duress, but he did not make clear who was exerting this pressure.

When Richard Cromwell was appointed chancellor of the university in 1657, Wilkins became his closest adviser at Oxford. Late in 1658 there were rumours that Wilkins would be appointed provost of Eton or that he would be made vice-chancellor at Oxford, but these came to nothing. He was, however, appointed as master of Trinity College, Cambridge, on 17 August 1659 (he resigned from Wadham on 3 September). Although this may have been initiated by Richard Cromwell, the new lord protector, it was the fellows of Trinity who petitioned for Wilkins to be appointed master, and this was granted by parliament. Wilkins immediately began reforms at Trinity and made such a success of his mastership that the fellows petitioned Charles II for his retention after the Restoration. Charles, however, was obliged to fulfil a promise made by his father to Henry Ferne, who replaced Wilkins on 3 August 1660. At the end of that same month, however, Wilkins was installed as dean of Ripon Cathedral, and was also made a prebendary of York Minster.

Activities after the Restoration
After leaving Cambridge Wilkins took up residence in London and again became preacher at Gray's Inn. Lord Berkeley granted him the living of Cranford in Middlesex at the end of 1661, and in April 1662 he became vicar of St Lawrence Jewry, London. Effectively excluded from active participation in ecclesiastical politics (since he seemed a turncoat to all sides), Wilkins unhesitatingly accepted the Act of Uniformity in 1662 and tried to persuade moderate dissenters like Richard Baxter, John Howe, and Edmund Calamy that it was in the best interests of the church. He now began to emerge as the leader of the growing latitudinarian party, which argued in favour of allowing a broad measure of theological and philosophical dissent where there was agreement on key basic principles, formulated so as to gain the ready assent of the majority of ordinary Christians.

Wilkins was also influential once again in the organization of natural philosophy in England, being a founder member and extremely active fellow of the newly formed Royal Society of London. He chaired the initial meeting on 28 November 1660 to discuss the nature of the society, and was subsequently elected fellow (22 April 1663) and one of the society's two secretaries, a position he held until leaving London for Chester in 1668. He was a council member until just before his death, and was even sometimes referred to as the society's vice-president (an unofficial title). He was not only an active contributor to the scientific meetings and an indefatigable member of the various investigative committees that were a prominent feature of the society, but was also a busy administrator and fund-raiser. Furthermore, he was one of the leading shapers of the society's characteristic experimental method. Perhaps the most influential way in which he did this was through his close and detailed supervision of Thomas Sprat's official History of the Royal Society (1667), which was not so much a history (Sprat and Wilkins began work on it as early as 1663) as a manifesto of the society's aims and methods.

During these years Wilkins also produced what is perhaps his most significant work, his Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. This was published in 1668, though it seems that he began work on it with the help of Seth Ward shortly after their collaboration on Vindiciae academiarum. Calls for a universal language had increased as a result of the flourishing of vernacular literature and an increasing dissatisfaction with Latin, partly with regard to the difficulty of learning it, but also with regard to its ambiguities and complexities. Wilkins rejected the approach of those who believed that the supposed language of Adam might be recovered, but tried to develop an artificial equivalent based upon a classification of knowledge. The vocabulary of this new language was to be built up by systematic modifications of the basic generic terms that were deemed to cover all the major categories of existence. A knowledge of the system would enable the reader, or listener, not just to recognize the signification of a word but also to understand how the referent fitted into the entire scheme of things. This is what made Wilkins's artificial language 'philosophical', not just universal in the sense that a unanimously agreed upon lingua franca would be.

During the final stages of work on his Essay Wilkins lost his house, and most of his belongings and papers, in the great fire of London, but being eager to complete his scheme he enlisted the help of John Ray and Francis Willoughby to improve the botanical and zoological nomenclature. This was a major factor in stimulating Ray to develop his own classificatory studies. Similarly, Samuel Pepys reported that he helped to draw up a table of naval terms, such as the names of rigging. Even with this and other help, Wilkins admitted his scheme's shortcomings and called upon the Royal Society to improve it. Although various fellows of the society spoke highly of the scheme for a while, only Robert Hooke showed any lasting commitment to it, and the committee established to improve on the Essay never reported. Scholars have argued about the major influences upon Wilkins's linguistic studies. There is little evidence that the universal language schemes of Amos Comenius played any significant role; Mersenne may have been an inspiration but George Dalgarno, to help whom Wilkins had begun to draw up classificatory tables of knowledge after 1657, was a more direct influence.

Wilkins re-entered ecclesiastical politics after the fall of Clarendon. Supported by the duke of Buckingham, he drew up proposals for the comprehension of dissenters within the framework of church and state, based on the principles of the declaration of Breda (1660). Thanks largely to information supplied by Wilkins's close friend Seth Ward, parliamentary opposition was able to organize itself and reject the proposals in February 1668. In spite of the damage this did to Wilkins's reputation in the eyes of the high-church party he continued to find favour with Buckingham and the king. He had been appointed as one of the king's chaplains in July 1667 and by May 1668 it was widely believed that he would be made a bishop at the next opportunity.

On 15 November 1668 Wilkins was consecrated bishop of Chester. The diocese was a stronghold of both Roman Catholicism and Presbyterianism, but the bishop's tolerant and conciliatory approach to dissenters succeeded in bringing some nonconformists back to the Church of England, and ensured good relations with those who remained recalcitrant. During this period Wilkins lived in the episcopal palace in Chester, though he occasionally made protracted visits to Wigan, a rich parish that supplemented the bishop's income. He was also active in the House of Lords, and served on at least fifty parliamentary committees before his death. He was a major organizer of opposition to the Conventicle Act of 1670. He still managed to maintain his scientific interests: Ray and Willoughby were frequent visitors to Chester, and he continued to support the Royal Society.

With Buckingham's continued patronage and the flourishing of latitudinarianism, it was often assumed that Wilkins would rise above Chester, if only to a more lucrative and important diocese, but ill health overtook him. Having suffered throughout 1672 from what were supposed to be 'fits of the stone' (though this was not confirmed at autopsy), he died on 19 November in London, at the house in Chancery Lane of John Tillotson, husband of Wilkins's stepdaughter Elizabeth French. On his deathbed he was said to have declared himself to be 'prepared for the great experiment'. He was buried at St Lawrence Jewry, London, on 12 December 1672. His widow was buried there on 17 June 1689. He bequeathed about £700 to his widow, £400 to the Royal Society, and £200 to Wadham.

Wilkins's last book, Of the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion, was prepared for publication in 1675 by Tillotson. Arguing that the existence of God, knowledge of his attributes, and the requirement of a suitable demeanour towards him could all be established by the use of reason, the book also included a discussion of religious epistemology. Wilkins insisted that 'moral certainty', as opposed to physical or mathematical certainty, is all that can be expected in religion. The book was a major statement of latitudinarian principles.

Wilkins was described by Aubrey as 'lustie, strong growne, well sett, and broad-shouldered', and even those who opposed or disapproved of him acknowledged his considerable talents and merits. He made a profound contribution to English ecclesiastical history and theological method, being a major figure in the forging and the promotion of latitudinarianism and one of the earliest contributors to the English tradition of natural theology. He also played a crucially important role in the establishment of the Royal Society's self-professed experimental methodology, and thus in the establishment of the characteristic method of English scientific empiricism. Finally, as a result of his strong interest in and commitment to the development of so-called universal language schemes, he made an important contribution to the history of linguistics.


B. J. Shapiro, John Wilkins, 1614-1672: an intellectual biography (1969)
H. Aarsleff, 'Wilkins, John', DSB
J. L. Subbiondo, ed., John Wilkins and 17th-century British linguistics (1992)
M. M. Slaughter, Universal languages and scientific taxonomy in the seventeenth century (1982)
J. Knowlson, Universal language schemes in England and France, 1600-1800 (1975)
J. Wilkins, Mercury, or, The secret and swift messenger, 3rd edn (1708), pt 3 of The mathematical and philosophical works of ... John Wilkins ; repr. with introduction by B. Asbach-Schnitker (1984), ix-cix
M. Cohen, Sensible words: linguistic practice in England, 1640-1785 (1977)
V. Salmon, The study of language in 17th-century England (1979)
H. R. McAdoo, The spirit of Anglicanism: a survey of Anglican theological method in the seventeenth century (1965)
H. G. Van Leeuwen, The problem of certainty in English thought, 1630-1690 (1963)
parish register (burial), 17 June 1689, St Lawrence Jewry
Corrections and additions to the Dictionary of National Biography, Institute of Historical Research (1966)
P. B. Wood, 'Methodology and apologetics: Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society', British Journal for the History of Science, 13 (1980), 1-26

M. Beale, oils, c.1668, Wadham College, Oxford
M. Beale, oils, 1670-1672, Bodl. Oxf. [see illus.]
M. Beale, oils, 1670-1672, RS
A. Blooteling, line engraving (after M. Beale, 1668), BM, NPG
Sturt, engraving
R. White, engraving
oils, Wadham College, Oxford

Wealth at death  
over £1300: Shapiro, John Wilkins, 303

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