“Which-who?” (Excerpt from Minds More Awake, Revised Edition)

We see that we, too, live in a great age and a great country, in which there is plenty of room for heroes; and if these should be heroes in a quiet way, who the world never hears of, that does not make much real difference.

Ourselves Book I, p. 37

Who was Benjamin Whichcote, and what is the purpose of that short quotation of his that comes before the Principles of Education? And, while we’re on that subject, what does Charlotte mean when she mentions the “old divines?”

The second question is the easiest to answer: a “divine” is a clergyperson whose theological writings became influential in the church. Author-scholar-priests, we might say. Benjamin Whichcote, who lived through most of the seventeenth century, was one of these. He was one of a group of Anglican theologians at Cambridge University who were later referred to as the Cambridge Platonists. In the book The Panther and the Hind: A Theological History of Anglicanism, Aidan Nichols, OP, attempts to explain exactly where they stood on the various lines of philosophy, theology, and natural science; let’s just say that it was complicated. What I think it helps us to know is that the seventeenth century was a sort of weird space between old ideas and new; and there was a lot of “new,” especially in science. Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1687, right after Benjamin Whichcote’s death. Nicolas Steno, who made great contributions to the study of geology, found that most of the opposition to his work came not from the church (as it had for Galileo), but from other academics. To keep all this short, there was a huge and growing interest in knowledge, how we know things, what we can know, and what part God plays in that. These particular “Cambridge divines” rebelled against certain doctrines of both Calvinism/Puritanism and Roman Catholicism; for instance, they refused to accept a doctrine of total depravity, believing instead that human beings retained something of God’s nature (they called it the “Candle of the Lord”). They tried to find a theological middle ground which would also make room for rational, scientific thought, though not letting the “rational” side of things overpower the “revelation”; but that was a bit of a losing battle, as the Age of Reason was coming into its own. And, interestingly, the theological pushback to this “middle” position soon went the other way, with the Great Evangelical Awakening and its emphasis on the heart rather than the mind. So historians think of this group, if they do think of them at all, as part of a transition rather than an explosive force themselves; a few thoughtful people standing at a crossroads between several powerful worldviews (and Godviews), and trying to make sense of it all.

But something about their way of thinking, their interest in knowledge, their belief that people were born with possibilities for good and evil, and their vision of a God who influences and accesses our intellects as much as He does our hearts, struck a chord with Charlotte Mason. This particular passage by Whichcote obviously meant a great deal to her, as she used the first part to begin the Principles:

No sooner doth the truth of God come into the soul’s sight but the soul knows her to be her first and oldest acquaintance. Though they have been, by some accident, unhappily parted a great while, yet having now, through the divine Providence, happily met, they greet one another and renew their acquaintance as those that were first and ancient friends. Nothing is more natural to man’s soul than to receive truth. (Benjamin Whichcote, quoted in The Panther and the Hind)

Look at her last principle:

20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and “spiritual” life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

We probably envision the Cambridge theologians as living in an academic/theological ivory tower, where the table-talk was more likely to be about the fine points of church practice, or perhaps some controversial discovery in physiology. Very highbrow, right? And what does that have to do with a child’s arithmetic teaching or habit training or pinecone examining?

All the interests, duties and joys of life.”

Because education is the science of relations. And “nothing is more natural” than loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths.

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