Wilkins, John

, an ingenious and learned English bishop, was the son of Mr. Walter Wilkins, citizen and goldsmith of Oxford, and was born in 1614, at Fawsley, near Daventry, in Northanvptonshire, in the house of his mother’s father, the celebrated dissenter Mr. John Dod. He was taught Latin and Greek by Edward Sylvester, a teacher of much reputation, who kept a private school in | the parish of All-Saints in Oxford and his proficiency was such, that at thirteen he entered a student of New-innhall, in 1627. He made no long stay there, but was removed to Magdalen-hall, under the tuition of Mr. John Tombes, and there took the degrees in arts. He afterwards entered into orders; and was first chaplain to William lord Say, and then to Charles count Palatine of the Khine, and prince elector of the empire, with whom he continued some time. To this last patron, his skill in the mathematics was a very great recommendation. Upon the breaking out of the civil war, he joined with the parliament, and took the solemn league and covenant. He was afterwards made warden of Wadham-college by the committee of parliament, appointed for reforming the university; and, being created bachelor of divinity the 12th of April, 1648, was the day following put into possession of his wardenship. Next year he was created D. D. and about that time took the engagement then enjoined by the powers in being. In 1656, he married Robina, the widow of Peter French, formerly canon of Christ-church, and sister to Oliver Cromwell, then lord-protector of England: which marriage being contrary to the statutes of Wadham-college, because they prohibit the warden from marrying, he procured a dispensation from Oliver, to retain the wardenship notwithstanding. In 1659, he was by Richard Cromwell made master of Trinity-college in Cambridge; but ejected thence the year following upon the restoration. Then he became preacher to the honourable society of Gray’s-inn, and rector of St. Lawrence-Jewry, London, upon the promotion Dr. Seth Ward to the bishopric of Exeter. About this time, he became a member of the Royal Society, was chosen of their council, and proved one of their most eminent members. Soon after this, he was made dean of Rippon; and, in 1668, bishop of Chester, Dr. Tillotson, who had married his daughter-in-law, preaching his consecration sermon. Wood and Burnet both inform us, that he obtained this bishopric by the interest of Villiers duke of Buckingham; and the latter adds, that it was no stnall prejudice against him to be raised by so bad a man. Dr. Walter Pope observes, that Wilkins, for some time after the restoration, was out of favour both at Whitehall and Lambeth, on account of his marriage with Oliver Cromwell’s sister; and that archbishop Sheldon, who then disposed of almost all ecclesiastical preferments, opposed his | promotion; that, however, when bishop Ward introduced him afterwards to the archbishop, he was very obligingly received, and treated kindly by him ever after. He did not enjoy his preferment long; for he died of a suppression of urine, which was mistaken for the stone, at Dr. Tiilotson’s house, in Chancery-lane, London, Nov. 19, 1672. He was buried in the chancel of the church of St. Lawrence Jewry; and his funeral sermon was preached by Dr. William Lloyd, then dean of Bangor, who, although Wilkins had been abused and vilified perhaps beyond any man of his time, thought it no shame to say every thing that was good of him. Wood also, different as his complexion and principles were from those of Wilkins, has been candid enough to give him the following character “He was,” says he, “a person endowed with rare gifts he was a noted theologist and preacher, a curious critic in several matters, an excellent mathematician and experimentist, and one as well seen in mechanisms and new philosophy, of which he was 3 great promoter, as any man of his time. He also highly advanced the study and perfecting, of astronomy, both at Oxford while he was warden of Wadham-college, and at London while he was fellow of the Royal Society; and I cannot say that there was any thing deficient in him, but a constant mind and settled principles.

Wilkins had two characteristics, neither of which was calculated to make him generally admired: first, he avowed moderation, and was kindly affected towards dissenters, for a comprehension of whom he openly and earnestly contended: secondly, he thought ‘it right and reasonable to submit to the powers in being, be those powers who they would, or let them be established how they would. And this making him as ready to swear allegiance to Charles II. after he was restored to the crown, as to the usurpers, while they prevailed, he was charged with being various and unsteady in his principles; with having no principles at all, with Hobbism, and every thing that is bad. Yet the greatest and best qualities are ascribed to him, if not unanimously, at least by many eminent and good men. Dr. Tillotson, in the preface to some “Sermons of Bishop Wilkins,” published by him in 1682, animadverts upon a slight and unjust character, as he thinks it is, given of the bishop in Mr. Wood’s “Historia & Antiquitates Universitatis Oxoniensis;” “whether by the author,” says he, “or by some other hand, I am not curious to know:” and | concludes his animadversions in the following words: “Upon the whole, it hath often been no small matter of wonder to me, whence it should come to pass, that so great a man, and so great a lover of mankind, who was so highly valued and reverenced by all that knew him, should yet have the hard fate to fall under the heavy displeasure and censur6 of those who knew him not; and that he, who never did any thing to make himself one personal enemy, should have the ill fortune to have so many. I think I may truly say, that there are or have been very few in this age and nation so well known, and so greatly esteemed and favoured, by so many persons of high rank and quality, and of singular worth and eminence in all the learned professions, as our author was. And this surely cannot be denied him, it is so well known to many worthy persons yet living, and hath been so often acknowledged even by his enemies, that, in the late times of confusion, almost all that was preserved and kept up, of ingenuity and good learning, of good order and government in the university of Oxford, was chiefly owing to his prudent conduct and encouragement: which consideration alone, had there been no other, might bave prevailed with some there to have treated his memory with at least common kindness and respect.” The other hand, Dr. Tillotson mentions, was Dr. Fell, the dean of Christ church, and under whose inspection Wood’s Athenæ Oxonienses“was translated into Latin and who, among other alterations without the privity of that compiler, was supposed to insert the poor diminishing character of bishop Wilkins, to be found in the Latin version. The friendship which subsisted between our author and Dr. Tillotson is a proof of their mutual moderation, for Wilkins was in doctrine a strict and professed Calvinism We need quote no more to prove this, than what has been already quoted by Dr. Edwards in his” Veritas Redux,“p. 553.” God might (says Dr. Wilkins) have designed us for vessels of wrath; and then we had been eternally undone, without all possible remedy. There was nothing to move him in us, when we lay all together in the general heap of mankind. It was his own free grace and bounty, that madehim to take delight in us, to chuse us from the rest, and to sever us from those many thousands in the world who shall perish everlastingly.“Gift of Prayer, c, 28. In hisEcclesiastes,“section 3, he commends to a preacher, for his best authors, Calvin, Jiuiius, P. Martyr. | Musculus, Pargeus, Piscator, Rivet, Zanchius, &c. 9” most eminent for their orthodox sound judgement.“Burnet, in his Life of Sir Matthew Hale, printed irt 1682, declares of Wilkins, that” he was a man of as great a mind, as true a judgement, as eminent virtues, and of as good a soul, as any he ever knew “and in his” History“he says, that, though” he married Cromwell’s sister, yet he made no other use of that alliance but to do good offices, and to cover the university of Oxford from the sourness of Owen and Goodwin. At Cambridge he joined with those who studied to propagate better thoughts, to take men off from being in parties, or from narrow notions, from superstitious conceits, and fierceness about opinions. He was also a great observer and promoter of experimental philosophy, which was then a new thing, and much looked after. He was naturally ambitious, but was the wisest clergyman I ever knew. He was a lover of mankind, and had a delight in doing good.“The historian mentions afterwards another quality Wilkins possessed in a supreme degree; and that was, says he,” a courage, which could stand against a current, and against all the reproaches with which ill-natured clergymen studied to load him."

All the works of bishop Wilkins are esteemed ingenious and learned, and many of them particularly curious and entertaining. His first publication was in 1638, when he was only twenty-four years of age, of a piece, entitled “The Discovery of a new World or, a Discourse tending to prove, that it is probable there may be another habitable World in the Moon with a Discourse concerning the possibility of a passage thither,” in 8vo. The object of this singular work may appear from the fourteen propositions which he endeavours to establish, some of which have often been quoted in jest or earnest by subsequent wits*


Among others the famous duchess of Newcastle objected to Dr. Wilkins, the want of baiting-places in his way to the new world, when the doctor ex pressed his surprise that this objection should be made by a lady who had been all her life employed in building castles in the air.

or philosophers. He contends, I. That the strangeness of this opinion is no sufficient reason why it should be rejected, because other certain truths have been formerly esteemed ridiculous, and great absurdities entertained by common consent. II. That a plurality of worlds does not contradict any principle of reason or faith. III. That the heavens do not consist of any such pure matter, which can | privilege them from the like change and corruption, as these inferior bodies are liable unto. IV. That the moon is a solid compacted opacous body. V. That the moon hath not any light of her own. VI. That there is a world in the moon, hath been the direct opinion of many ancient, with some modern mathematicians, and may probably be deduced from the tenets of others. VII. That those spots and brighter parts, which by our sight may be distinguished hi the moon, do shew the difference betwixt the sea and land in that other world. VIII. That the spots represent the sea, and the brighter parts the land. IX. That there are high mountain^ deep vallies, and spacious plains in the body of the moon. X. That there is an atmosphere, or an orb of gross vaporous air immediately encompassing the body of the moon. XI. That as their world is otv moon, so our world is their moan. XII. That it is probable there may be such meteors belonging to that world in the moon as there are with us. XIII. That it is probable there may be inhabitants in this other world; but of what kind they are, is uncertain. XIV. That it is possible for some of our posterity to find out a conveyance to this’Other world j and if there be inhabitants there, to have. commerce with them. Under this head he observes, that " if it be here inquired, what means there may be conjectured for our ascending beyond the sphere of the earth’s magnetical vigour; I answer, says he, 1. it is not perhaps impossible, that a man may be able to rlye by the application of wings to his owne body; as angels are pictured, and as Mercury and Daedalus are fained, and as hath been attempted by divers, particularly by a Turke in Constantinople, as Busbequius relates. 2. If there be such a great Ruck in Madagascar, as Marcus Polus the Venetian mentions, the feathers in whose wings are twelve foot long, which can scope up a horse and his rider, or an elephant, as our kites doe a mouse; why then it is but teaching one of these to carry a man, and he may ride up thither, as Ganyined does upon an eagle, 3. Or if neither of these ways will serve, yet I doe seriously and upon good grounds affirme it possible to make a flying chariot; in which a man may sit, and give such a motion into it, as shall convey him through the aire. And this perhaps might be made large enough to carry divers men at the same time, together with foode for their viaticum, and commodities for traffique. It is not the bignesse of any thing in this kind, | that can hinder its motion, if the motive faculty be answerable thereunto. We see a great ship swimme as well as ar small corke, and an eagle flies in the aire as well as a little gnat. This engine may be contrived from the same principles by which Archytas made a wooden dove, and Regiomontanus a wooden eagle. I conceive it were no difficult matter, if a man had leisure, to shew more particularly the meanes of composing it. The perfecting of such an invention would be of such excellent use, that it were enough, not only to make a man, but the age also wherein he lives. For besides the strange discoveries, that it might occasion in this other world, it would be also of inconceivable advantage for travelling above any other conveiance that is now in use. So that notwithstanding all these seeming impossibilities, ’tis likely enough, that there may be a meanes invented of journying to the moone. And how happy shall they be, that are first successefull in this attempt?

" - Foelicesq; Animae, quas nubila supra,

Et turpes fumos, plenumq vaporibus orbem,

Inseruit Coelo sancti scintilla Promethei."

Having thus finished this discourse, I chanced upon a late fancy to this purpose under the fained name of Domingo Gonzales, written by a late reverend and learned bishop (Godwin); in which (besides sundry particulars, wherein this later chapter did unwittingly agree with it) there is delivered a very pleasant and well contrived fancy concerning a voyage to this other world."

Two years after, in 1640, appeared his “Discourse concerning a new Planet; tending to prove, that it is probable our Earth is one of the planets.” In this he maintains; I. That the seeming novelty and singularity of this opinion can be no sufficient reason to prove it erroneous. 2. That the places of Scripture, which seem to intimate the diurnal motion of the sun or heavens, are fairly capable of another interpretation. 3. That the Holy Ghost in many places of Scripture does plainly conform his expressions to the error of our conceits, and does not speak of sundry things as tjiey are in themselves, but as they appear untt> us. 4. That divers learned men have fallen into great absurdities, whilst they have looked for the grounds of philosophy from the grounds of Scripture. 5. That the words of Scripture in their proper and strict construction do not any where affirm the immobility of the earth. 45.- That there is | not any argument from the words of Scripture, principles of nature, or observations in astronomy, which can sufficiently evidence the earth to be in the center of the universe. 7. It is probable that the sun is the center of the world. 8. That there is not any sufficient reason to prove the earth incapable of those motions, which Copernicus ascribes unto it. 9. That it is more probable the earth does move, than the heavens. 10. That this hypothesis is exactly agreeable to common appearances.

His name was not put to either of these works; but they were so well known to be his, that Langrenus, in his map of the moon, dedicated to the king of Spain, calls one of the lunar spots after Wilkins’s name. His third piece, in 1641, is entitled “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,” in 8vo. His fourth, -in 1648, “Mathematical Magic; or, the Wonders that may be performed by Mechanical Geometry,” in 8vo. All these pieces were published entire in one volume, 8vo, in 1708, under the title of “The Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right reverend John Wilkins,” &c. with a print of the author and general title-page handsomely engraven, and an account of his life and writings. To this collection is also subjoined an abstract of a larger work, printed in 1668, folio, and entitled “An Essay towards a real Character and a philosophical Language.” This he persuaded Ray to translate into Latin, which he did, but it never was published; and the ms. is now in the library of the Royal Society. These are his mathematical and philosophical works. He was also the inventor of the Perambulator, or Measuring wheel. His theological works are, 1. “Ecclesiastes; or, a Discourse of the Gift of Preaching, as it falls under the rules of Art,1646. This no doubt was written with a view to reform the prevailing taste of the times he lived in; from which no man was ever farther than Wilkins. It has gone through nine editions, the last in 1718, 8vo. 2. “Discourse concerning the beauty of Providence, in all the rugged passages’ of it,1649. 3. “Discourse concerning the Gift of Prayer, shewing what it is, wherein it consists, and how far it is attainable by industry,” &c. 1653. This was against enthusiasm, and fanaticism. These were published in his life-time; after his death, in 1675, Tillotson published two other of his works. 4. “Sermons preached on several occasions| and, 5. “Of the principles and duties of Natural Religion,” both in 8vo. Tillotson tells us, in the preface to the latter, that “the first twelve chapters were written out for the press in his life-time; and that the remainder hath been gathered and made up out of his papers;1


Biog. Brit. —Ath. Ox. vol. II. Burnet’s Own Times. Birch’s Life of Tillotson, &o.