Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Atheism in 18th-century Cambridge

Michael Hunter

Tinkler Ducket was expelled from the University of Cambridge in March 1739, being found guilty of ‘the very serious crime of atheism’. The young don’s case had been the subject of a hearing before the Vice-Chancellor’s court of the university, at which Ducket’s courageous appeal to freedom of thought, leading if necessary to atheist conclusions, was rather drowned out by the accusation that he had illicitly proposed extra-marital sex with a local widow, Mary Richards. An account of Ducket’s trial and its context forms one of the case studies in my new book, Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment: The English and Scottish Experience. As I there illustrate, the reaction of the Cambridge authorities oscillated between, on the one hand, a tendency to sensationalise Ducket’s opinions and demeanour, and on the other, a rather complacent presumption of his self-evident guilt.

Now a fresh witness to the affair has come to light in the form of the eccentric Newtonian, William Whiston, who had been ousted from his Lucasian chair at Cambridge in 1710 for his Arian views but who continued an active career as a controversialist thereafter, often attacking the licentious and irreligious attitudes and behaviour that he saw as prevalent in his age. Whiston commented on the Ducket affair in the third of the lectures that he gave in 1750 on the recent earthquakes and other events that he believed portended the restoration of the Jews and the establishment of the millenium; this was included in his Memoirs (2nd edn., 1753).[i] At one point, concerning the recent breaking of the First Commandment (‘Thou shalt have no other Gods before me’), he states: ‘as to this Command, we of Cambridge have had a flagrant Example, beyond that of the vilest Heathen in the Days of Moses, or even till after the Days of Hobbes and Spinoza, a Century ago’.  Though he does not actually name Ducket, it was clearly to that case that he was alluding when he noted how ‘not many Years ago… a Member of that University had directly affirm’d, that there was no God’ – something that Whiston saw as far worse than ‘the Heathens [who] were wholly Idolaters’ or than the Psalmist’s ‘Fools… that said in their Hearts, or wished and hoped that there was no God to punish them’.

What particularly incensed Whiston was the fact that, when the time came for the Vice-Chancellor’s court to banish Ducket ‘for his direct Atheism, and the Proof was undeniable’, Thomas Gooch, Master of Ducket’s own college, Gonville and Caius, ‘would not appear against him’. Gooch was a highly successful ecclesiastical careerist, successively Bishop of Bristol (1737), Norwich (1738) and Ely (1748); he had also become a Whig, which placed him at odds with the predominantly Tory fellowship of Caius, and it was probably for this reason that he acted as he did. Matters were complicated by the fact that, in protest at Gooch’s absence, another head of house, William Towers, Master of Christ’s, also refused to appear, thus leaving the court embarrassingly inquorate. Instead, proceedings had to be adjourned to the Master’s lodge at Trinity College so that the eminent but by now virtually incapacitated scholar, Richard Bentley, could join in Ducket’s condemnation.

Whiston was enraged by Gooch’s failure to join in the prosecution of a man guilty of so heinous a sin. As he put it: ‘This Atheism I esteem a greater Crime than the Idolatry of the first Commandment, or greater than Heathen Idolatry itself’.  Yet it is indicative of the discrepancy between Whiston’s views and contemporary opinion as a whole that the Ducket affair did not achieve much publicity at the time, and neither was Ducket very severely punished for his misdemeanour: his academic and clerical career was abruptly ended, but instead he spent many years in the diplomatic service. The position seems to be that, since atheism was seen as self-evidently wrong, the subject of innumerable ostensibly decisive refutations, less effort was devoted to its eradication than might have been the case. By adopting this outraged but slightly complacent attitude towards the phenomenon, the authorities arguably fostered its spread, as I suggest in the conclusion to my book.

Etched portrait of William Whiston (1667-1752) by Benjamin Wilson, the frontispiece to Whiston’s Memoirs (2nd edn., 1753)
Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment by Michael Hunter
Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment by Michael Hunter

[i] Memoirs of the Life and Writings of William Whiston… to which are added his Lectures on the late Remarkable Meteors and Earthquakes and on the Future Restoration of the Jews (2 vols., 2nd edn., London, 1753), vol. 2, pp. 142ff., on pp. 167-8.

About The Author

Michael Hunter

Michael Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is well known for his publications on Robert Boyle and on...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!