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Hugh James Rose’s Anglican Critique of Cambridge: Science, Antirationalism, and Coleridgean Idealism in Late Georgian England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 June 2017

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On Commencement Sunday in the summer of 1826, Hugh James Rose ascended the pulpit of the University Church at Cambridge to deliver a sermon. As Rose surveyed the assembled crowd, he would have been well aware that before him sat the future of English political, religious, and intellectual life—present and future members of Parliament, the leaders and local prelates of the Church of England, and the next generation of Cambridge scholars. While commencement addresses today are rather formulaic in their celebratory character, the sermon Rose had prepared for that day was far from uplifting. Rose had chosen to preach on Ecclesiastes chapter eleven, verse five: “No man can find out the work, which God maketh, from the beginning to the end.” Using this passage as a decree upon the limits of human knowledge, Rose launched into a blistering attack on the University and the educational philosophy that he believed it espoused. Far from praising the University and its graduates, Rose called into question much of what Cambridge had been doing to educate its students. The essence of Rose’s critique was that the University had lost its way as a religious institution and had become dominated by the search for “knowledge of the material Universe.” Pursuing this end, Rose warned, was a tremendous danger, because in so doing Cambridge was failing to provide a proper moral and religious foundation for those who would guide the nation. Naturally, Rose’s sermon came as a shock to many of those gathered before him, especially since it not only took the University to task but also implicitly seemed to indict some of Rose’s closest friends. His sermon battered one of the girders of Cambridge intellectual and religious life, and of Anglican theology more generally: the notion that natural philosophy was an appropriate handmaiden to religion. The tradition of reasoning up from nature to the Creator had long flourished at Cambridge in the hands of both men of science and theologians. Most at Cambridge took for granted the compatibility between the study of God’s creation and religious faith. For the previous three decades Cambridge had made the works of alumnus William Paley, replete with the ways nature manifested the wisdom and goodness of God, a cornerstone of undergraduate instruction. Ironically, many of Rose’s acquaintances from his own undergraduate days at Cambridge were themselves involved in scientific and mathematical pursuits and were generally sympathetic to Natural Theology. His dearest friend at the University was William Whewell, an intellectual polymath who excelled in mathematics, physics, and mineralogy, as well as moral philosophy, history, and theology. Rose also was a close associate of John Herschel and Charles Babbage, men who were renowned for their astronomical and mathematical work. Himself a fairly accomplished mathematician a decade earlier, Rose even had considered publishing some work to support Herschel and Babbage’s efforts to revitalize Cambridge mathematics during his undergraduate days.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2001

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Thanks to George W. Stocking, Jr., Robert J. Richards, and Jan Goldstein for their helpful criticisms during the early stages of this work, and to Frank M. Turner whose detailed and insightful comments improved the final version of the paper. Kathy J. Cooke read and commented upon this essay numerous times during its many revisions.


1 Rose, Hugh James, “The Tendency of Prevalent Opinions about Knowledge Considered,” Works, 4 vols., (London, 1829-1831), 2:223Google Scholar. The scriptural passage is incorrectly identified in the printed edition as Eccles. iii.2.

2 Ibid., 2:228.

3 The origins of the alliance at Cambridge between natural philosophy and religion in the seventeenth century are discussed in Tumbleson, Raymond D., ‘“Reason and Religion’: The Science of Anglicanism,” The Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (1996): 132–33Google Scholar. On the prestige of science in Anglican circles in the late 18th century see Haas, J. W. Jr., “John Wesley’s Views on Science and Christianity: An Examination of the Charge of Antiscience,” Church History 69 (1994): 381–86Google Scholar. The enduring appeal of natural theology in England is discussed in Brooke, John Hedley, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 192203, and Gascoigne, John, Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1989), p. 300Google Scholar.

4 Paley wrote a three book series on natural religion, revealed religion, and moral philosophy. These were Natural Theology, A View of the Evidences of Christianity, and Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. The latter two were commonly the basis of questions on the Senate House exam beginning in the early 1800s. See Fyfe, Aileen, “The Reception of William Paley’s Natural Theology in the University of Cambridge,” British Journal for the History of Science 30 (1997): 321–35Google Scholar; Clark, M. L., Paley: Evidences for the Man (London, 1974), pp. 89100Google Scholar; Brooke, , Science and Religion, pp. 192–93, and Garland, Martha McMackin, Cambridge Before Darwin (Cambridge, 1980), pp.112Google Scholar.

5 Whewell later wrote one of the Bridgewater Treatises that were commissioned as exercises in Natural Theology to demonstrate the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in the Creation. Rose shared Whewell’s enthusiasm for many fields while they were undergraduates, and they continued to be close friends and frequent correspondents for the next decade. See Whewell, William: A Composite Portrait, ed.Fisch, Menachem and Schaffer, Simon (Cambridge, 1991)Google Scholar.

6 Whewell discussed Rose’s interest in publishing a mathematical work in a letter to John Herschel of 6 March 1817, reprinted in Isaac Todhunter, ed., Whewell, William, D.D., Master of Trinity College Cambridge: An Account of his Writings with Selections from his Literary and Scientific Correspondence, 2 vols. (London, 1876), 2:16Google Scholar. Rose and Whewell also worked on a translation of a textbook by French mathematician S. F. Lacroix. See Becher, Harvey W.Radicals, Whigs, and conservatives: the middle and lower classes in the analytical revolution at Cambridge in the age of aristocracy,” British Journal for the History of Science 28 (1995): 424.Google Scholar

7 Clark, J. C. D., English Society, 1688-1832 (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 247–58Google Scholar.

8 Nockles, Peter, The Oxford Movement in Context (Cambridge, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hylson-Smith, Kenneth links this High Church revival to the debates between Samuel Horsley and Joseph Priestly during the 1790s (High Churchmanship in the Church of England [Edinburgh,1993], p. 98)Google Scholar. This debate in some ways prefigured Rose’s attack on science at Cambridge. Turner’s, Frank M. reinterpretation of the social, economic, and political linkages of science and Natural Theology in this period also sheds light on aspects of Rose’s anti-scientific perspective (Contesting Cultural Authority [Cambridge, 1993], pp. 105–11)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 This meeting, retrospectively termed the “Hadleigh Conference,” makes an appearance in almost every account of the Oxford Movement. Insight into the historiographical shadow cast over Rose are suggested in Turner, Contesting Cultural Authority, pp. 11-14.

10 Biographical information on Rose’s early life is from Dictionary of English Church History, ed. Ollard, Sidney Leslie and Crosse, Gordon (London, 1912), p. 526, and Burgon, John, The Lives of Twelve Good Men, 2 vols. (London, 1891), 1:68-69, 118–23.Google Scholar

11 Fyfe, “The Reception of William Paley’s Natural Theology,” p. 327. The rise of mathematics in the Senate House exams is discussed in Gascoigne, Cambridge in the Age of Enlightenment, ch. 9.

12 Whewell to Rose, 7 September 1818, Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, R.2.99.11. David B. Wilson undertakes an extensive analysis of this article’s foundations in Loekean sensationalism and in Natural Theology (“Convergence: Metaphysical Pleasure Versus Physical Constraint,” in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, ed. Fisch and Schaffer, pp. 235-37.)

13 William Whewell to Hugh James Rose, 14 September 1817, reprinted in Todhunter, ed., Literary and Scientific Correspondence, 2:17-18.

14 Burgon, , Twelve Good Men, 1:6869Google Scholar.

15 Whether and when to marry was a decision further complicated by the requirement that Cambridge Fellows remain celibate. For some insights into this dilemma see Young, B. W.The Anglican Origins of Newman’s Celibacy,” Church History 65 (1996): 1527Google Scholar. Rose married within a year of failing to win a Fellowship and subsequently entering the Church.

16 On the shift in Church patronage appointments toward men of “learning and merit” like Rose, see Gibson, WilliamThe Tories and Church Patronage: 1812-1830,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 41 (1990): 267–68Google Scholar. Much of Rose’s career can be understood in the context of his struggle to improve his position. He relied heavily throughout his career on contacts he had made while an undergraduate at Cambridge with some of Cambridge’s leading High Churchmen, including the Master of Trinity College, Christopher Wordsworth.

17 Rose worked on his classical translations diligently, often enlisting Whewell to aid him in obtaining books he needed, and he eventually produced a large volume. Rose to Whewell, 10 December 1820. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Add. Ms.a.211.130. Rose apparently desired to gain an international reputation in the field, and established contact with scholars in Paris. Rose to Monsieur Hughes, 29 February 1821, Huntington Library Ms. CD454, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

18 Whewell and Rose discussed the “great spirit of reform about the University” in 1819 that led to the expectation that professors would routinely lecture as part of their regular duty. Whewell to Rose, 17 March 1819. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, The actual practice of some of the science Professors at the University in this era is discussed in Becher, “Voluntary Science,” pp. 60-72.

19 Rose and Whewell carried out an extensive correspondence over twenty years that demonstrates both Rose’s ongoing interest in Cambridge and their deep friendship.

20 Whewell to Rose, undated [1819], Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, In 1826, only a few months after Rose delivered his sermon attacking Cambridge, Whewell put forward Rose’s name for membership in the Philosophical Society. This might have been part of an effort by Whewell to moderate Rose’s view of science. Minutes of the Cambridge Philosophical Society General Meeting, 11 December 1826. C.P.S. Archives, Science Periodicals Library, Cambridge.

21 Rose to Whewell, 24 November 1819. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, Add. Ms.a.211.129.

22 Whewell to Rose, 18 November [1819?]. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge,

23 Adrian Desmond discusses the scientific underpinnings of many of the challenges to the social and political order in the 1820s. He notes Henry Brougham’s hope that the founding of the London University in 1826 would stake a “finishing blow to the High Church Bigots,” among whom Brougham would have counted Rose. This might also help explain Rose’s growing opposition to science (The Politics of Evolution [Chicago, 1989], p. 25).

24 Rose to Whewell, 24 November 1819. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, Add. Ms.a.211.129.

25 Rose competed in this three-way election against his friend Julius Hare. The two, both excellent Classicists, may well have split the vote and led to Scholefield’s victory ( Distad, Merrill Guessing at Truth: The Life of Julius Charles Hare [1795-1855] [Shepherdstown, 1979], pp. 4950)Google Scholar.

26 The millenarian views of Samuel Horsley, are discussed in Mather, F. C., High Church Prophet: Bishop Samuel Horsley (1733-1806) and the Caroline Tradition in the Later Georgian Church (Oxford, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; on the Established Church crisis, see Clark, , English Society, ch. 4Google Scholar.

27 Recent scholarship on the High Church response to these crises is summarized in Nockles, , Oxford Movement in Context, pp. 143Google Scholar; on the approach to these problems by the “Hackney Phalanx” see Corsi, Pietro, Science and Religion: Baden Powell and the Anglican Debate, 1800-1860 (Cambridge, 1988), p. 1320CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Bentham, Jeremy, Church-of-Englandism and its Catechism Examined (London, 1818), pp. 519, 43Google Scholar, and Appendix, No. IV. For an analysis of Bentham’s views of religion see Crimmins, James E., “Bentham on Religion: Atheism and the Secular Society,” Journal of the History of Ideas 47 (1986): 95110Google Scholar. Crimmins argues that Bentham’s attack on the Church was central to his utilitarian vision of society, a position similar to that taken by Rose in his own critique of Bentham.

29 Rose to Whewell, 14 May [?] 1818. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, Add. Ms.a.211.128.

30 >Rose, >Hugh James, “Preface” to A Critical Examination of those Parts of Mr. Bentham’s ‘Church-of-Englandism’ which relate to the Sacraments and the Church Catechism (London, 1819), p. iiGoogle Scholar.

31 Rose, , Mr. Bentham’s ‘Church-of-Englandism’’, p. 86Google Scholar.

32 In the late nineteenth century John Burgon credited this work—and Rose more generally—as the origination of the “great Catholic Revival” in the Church of the 1830s, although Burgon’s view was somewhat skewed by his personal feelings for Rose. These were especially strong since Burgon’s sister had married Rose’s only brother, Henry John Rose. Burgon, The Lives of Twelve Good Men, 1:158-59. Peter Nockles’s work has explored the diversity and the strength of High Church sentiments similar to Rose’s in the era prior to the Oxford movement. See in particular his “Church or Protestant Sect? The Church of Ireland, High Churchmanship, and the Oxford Movement, 1822-1869,” The Historical Journal 41 (1998): 462-66, and ‘“Our Brethren of the North’: The Scottish Episcopal Church and the Oxford Movement,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47 (1996): 659-60.

33 Rose, Hugh James, Internal Union the Best Safeguard Against the Dangers of the Church (London, 1822), pp. 6, 1517Google Scholar.

34 Whewell to Rose, 11 April 1817. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, In this letter they are apparently discussing a work by Heyne, Christian translated into English under the title The Pretended Tomb of Homer (London, 1795)Google Scholar.

35 Whewell to Rose, 21 May 1817. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge,

36 Whewell to Rose, 20 August 1817. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, R.2.99.7.

37 Whewell to Rose, 1 November 1818. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge,

38 One modern philosopher argues for the destructiveness of the philosophies of Locke and Hume in a manner similar to that expressed by Rose. See Hanratty, Gerald, Locke, Hume, and Berkeley Revisited (Dublin, 1995), chs. 12Google Scholar. Hanratty’s view of Berkeley’s work as a generally successful effort to “stem the tide of Enlightenment and vindicate…the indispensable foundations of European culture and civilisation” (p. 69) was clearly not shared by Rose.

39 Rose to Whewell, 2 September 1822. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, Add. Ms.a.211.133.

40 Whewell to Rose, 24 September 1822, ibid. Ms.

41 Rose to Whewell, 5 October 1822, ibid. Add. Ms.a.211.134.

42 Ibid.

43 Whewell to Rose, 24 September 1822, ibid. R.2.99.17.

44 Whewell to Rose, 31 July 1817, ibid. R.2.99.6.

45 Rose, Hugh James, The State of the Protestant Religion in Germany (Cambridge, 1825), p. 39Google Scholar.

46 Somewhat odd was Rose’s omission of Hermann Reimarus, whose Apologie oder Schutzschrift fur die vernunftigen Verehrer Gottes took rational religion to its logical conclusion by asserting that revelation could not be reconciled with a completely rational religion. A thorough exposition of the theological complexities of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century rationalistic theology is found in Pelikan, Jaroslav, Christian Doctrine and Modem Culture (since 1700) (Chicago, 1989), pp. 101–17Google Scholar. Dillenberger, John provides a detailed analysis of Wolffs efforts to achieve infallible theological truth through the methods of mathematics in Protestant Thought and Natural Science (New York, 1960). pp. 167–71Google Scholar.

47 Rose, , The State of the Protestant Religion, pp. 1, 3Google Scholar.

48 Ibid., p. 58.

49 Ibid., pp. 102-03.

50 In a brief synopsis of Rose’s book, Walter H. Conser, Jr. stresses Rose’s focus on the lack of clear authority in the German Church, and its general poor state of health. Conser, Walter H. Jr., Church and Confession: Conservative Theologians in Germany, England, and America, 1815-1866 (Mercer, Ga., 1984), pp. 184–85Google Scholar.

51 This debate raged especially at the universities, where it merged with debates over religious restrictions for university degrees, Catholic Emancipation, and the Reform Bill. It also occasionally reached a wide audience. Adam Sedgwick’s well-known “Discourse on the Studies of the University” from 1832, for example, echoed Rose’s attack on the evils of utilitarianism and the deficiencies of Locke and Paley as components of the Cambridge curriculum. John Stuart Mill answered Sedgwick in a famous essay in the April 1835 edition of the London Review. Garland, Cambridge Before Darwin, pp. 52-69 addresses this debate but skirts Rose’s role in touching it off.

52 Rose, , Prevalent Opinions about Knowledge Considered, 2:226Google Scholar.

53 Ibid., 2:224.

54 Ibid., 2:230.

55 Some of the larger implications of Whewell’s response to Rose are discussed in Yeo, RichardWhewell’s Philosophy of Knowledge,” in William Whewell, ed.Fisch, andSchaffer, , pp. 178–80Google Scholar.

56 Whewell to Rose, 18 November 1826. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, R.2.99.26. Whewell would reiterate this point even more strongly in a subsequent letter (Whewell to Rose, 12 December 1826. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, R.2.99.27).

57 Whewell to Rose, 12 December 1826. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, R.2.99.27.

58 Advertisement to Rose, Prevalent Opinions about Knowledge Considered, 2:221.

59 Ibid., 2:222.

60 Rose, , Prevalent Opinions about Knowledge Considered,2: 236–37. More and Mede were seventeenth-century Cambridge scholars. More and Ralph Cudworth were the two most prominent Cambridge Platonists, see Dictionary of National Biography, 22 vols. (Oxford, 1917), 13:868Google Scholar. Mede was a Biblical scholar and natural philosopher who was renowned for his humility and lack of personal ambition. Ibid., p. 178.

61 Coleridge, Samuel T. to Rose, Hugh James, 17 and 20 September 1816, in The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed.Griggs, Earl, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1956) 4:670–71Google Scholar.

62 Rose to Whewell, 2 September 1822. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, Add. Ms.a.211.133. Rose clearly was aware of the tradition of the Cambridge Platonists as illustrated by his mentioning of More during his sermon. He did not, however, refer to them in his correspondence with Coleridge or Whewell on philosophical matters, perhaps because of their latitudi-narianism, a position that Rose’s sermon sought to undermine. Gascoigne, , Cambridge in the age of the Enlightenment, pp. 4051Google Scholar.

63 Rose to Whewell, 2 September 1822. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, Add. Ms.a.211.133.

64 Although never completed, the Biographia Literaria and arguably the Aids to Reflection were envisioned as preludes to this major work. Jasper, David, Coleridge as Poet and Religious Philosopher (London, 1985), p. 135Google Scholar.

65 Coleridge, S. T., Preface, to Aids to Reflection, in The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 7 vols. (New York, 1853), 1:114Google Scholar.

66 Ibid.; Jasper, , Coleridge as Poet, p.95Google Scholar.

67 Barth, J. Robert S.J., Coleridge and Christian Doctrine (Cambridge, 1969), p. 51CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Storr, Vernon F., English Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 1800-1860 (London, 1913), p. 322Google Scholar.

68 On these aspects of Coleridge see Pym, David, The Religious Thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York, 1979)Google Scholar, ch. 5. In The Friend, for instance, Coleridge had attacked “Mechanical Philosophy” as a symptom of a disturbing “epoch of division and separation” but had also relied heavily on Germanic religious conceptions. See Kipperman, Mark, “Coleridge, Shelley, Davy, and Science’s Millennium,” Criticism 40 (1998): 425Google Scholar.

69 Rose, Prevalent Opinions about Knowledge, 2:234. This position paralleled the view of T. Robert Malthus and other Christian political economists, who saw some of the apparently harsh economic and demographic aspects of God’s creation as a means to achieving a moral end. Among others both Whewell and another old Cambridge friend of Rose, William Jones, tried to shape debates in political economy along these lines. See Winch, Donald, Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750-1834, esp. part 3Google Scholar.

70 Rose, , Prevalent Opinions about Knowledge, 2:238Google Scholar.

71 Ibid., 2:241.

72 Ibid., 2:244. On Condorcet’s vision of the moral sciences see Baker, Keith Michael, Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics (Chicago, 1975)Google Scholar.

73 Corsi, , Science and Religion, ch. 1. Brooke, , Science and Religion, pp. 223–24Google Scholar.

74 On Marsh’s criticism of the evangelicals and their attempts to break apart education and the Established Church, see Brown, Ford K., Fathers of the Victorians: the Age of Wilberforce (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 298316CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On Marsh’s place in the Anglican Establishment, see Corsi, , “Sciences in Cultures,” Isis 70 (1979): 593–95Google Scholar.

75 Corsi, , Science and Religion, pp. 1516.Storr, , English Theology, pp. 8183Google Scholar.

76 Corsi, Science and Religion, p. 19, n29.

77 Rose, , Advertisement to Prevalent Opinions about Knowledge, 2:221–22Google Scholar.

78 For a discussion of a parallel movement in American religious thought during the 1830s, see Bozeman, Theodore Dwight, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill, 1977), pp. 13436Google Scholar.

79 Church, R. W., The Oxford Movement: Twelve Years, 1833-1845 (London, 1892), pp. 9495Google Scholar.

80 For example, Rose had come into direct conflict with Pusey who had written to defend the German rationalist theologians against Rose’s 1825 critique. This debate became somewhat nasty, since Rose believed that Pusey had plagiarized a seventeenth-century book in his response. He wrote to Whewell: “[D]o not think that I am base enough to have a pleasure in proving Pusey a plagiarizer—but it is the main part of my argument against him.” Rose to Whewell, 28 September 1828. Whewell Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, Add. Ms.a.211.140. Rose reported to Whewell that Pusey subsequently tried to justify himself. Rose to Whewell, 7 October 1828, ibid., Add. Ms.a.211.141.

81 Although they had areas of serious disagreement, they shared similar views on many issues. For example, Newman’s seventy-third Tract was an attack on “rationalism.” Richards, Joan L., “The Probable and the Possible in Early Victorian England,” in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman (Chicago, 1997), p. 56Google Scholar.

82 On the political and religious debates surrounding evolutionary theory, see Desmond, The Politics of Evolution, esp. ch. 1 and the Afterword.