Queens’ Old Library’s current exhibition, The Age of Reason, Religion and Ridicule in the Library of the Revd David Hughes (c.1704-77), explores the vast compilation of pamphlets bequeathed to the college by former Queens’ Fellow and Vice President, David Hughes. Collected and collated in eighteenth-century Cambridge by Hughes himself, and subsequently bound into volumes, these pamphlets offer a fascinating insight into the city’s debate culture during the Enlightenment and the role of its many key players. One heavily annotated pamphlet from the collection, Palaeographia sacra: or, Discourses on monuments of antiquity that relate to sacred history (London, 1737) [P.10(13)], written by William Stukeley (1687-1765), highlights both the conflicting ideas printed in these publications and the active discussion they generated. Part One of this blog will explore the contents and philosophical context of Stukeley’s pamphlet, whilst Part Two will examine the physical document and what it tells us about debate culture in Cambridge at the time.

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Title page of Hughes’ copy of Palaeographia sacra [P.10(13)] All but the last page were cropped during binding, obscuring much of the annotation

William Stukeley, who studied at Bene’t College, Cambridge from 1703 (now Corpus Christi College), was a clergyman, antiquarian, physician and natural philosopher. Although perhaps best known now for his contribution to scholarly investigation of Stonehenge and Avebury, Stukeley addresses religious issues in this pamphlet.

stukeley_william wiki commons

William Stukeley (1687-1765) ©WikiCommons

An emphasis on ‘reason’ typified by Enlightenment thinking, coupled with a desire to dissociate religion from the preceding century of religious conflict in Europe (most notably the Thirty Years War), spawned debate on the origins of true faith. Like many natural philosophers of the time (including Isaac Newton (1) and William Whiston (2), both of whom were his friends) Stukeley advocated the use of classical and heathen texts to prove his own beliefs. It was argued that these early manuscripts contained the original truth from the establishment of the Judaeo-Christian religion, and so could be used as sources of the correct Christian doctrine. However, individual interpretation of the texts’ contents typically led to wildly differing perspectives. Whiston notably used them to argue against the Trinity – a position which saw him expelled from his Lucasian professorship at Cambridge University, in 1710. In complete contrast, Stukeley utilises them in this pamphlet for his pro-Trinity stance.

The Trinity issue generated considerable Enlightenment debate since the concept of a God who was, at once, both a single entity and three distinct persons who were individually that same entity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) defied ‘reason’. Furthermore, the idea that this knowledge was conveyed to mankind through a form of Revelation confounded scientific explanation. In the early 4th century, Arius, a priest, had argued that since the son of God was ‘born’, logically there was an earlier time when this aspect of the Trinity did not exist, and hence could not be an equal member.

This argument had undermined Trinitarian belief, and Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (c. 296-373 AD), had stepped in to defend Christian doctrine. Some of Stukeley’s contemporaries – notably Samuel Clarke (3) and William Whiston – argued that there was no scriptural reference to Trinitarian doctrine pre-Athanasius, and so his defence represented the invention of the concept. By extension, this meant that the Trinity did not originate in the real sources of the Christian religion and so was false.


Samuel Clarke, from Thomas Birch’s The heads of illustrious persons of Great Britain [R.1.6(1)]

Stukeley’s principal argument in favour of the Trinity, on the other hand, was that ‘heathen’ druids, who predated Christianity, had reached the same conclusions as Christian scripture without any form of Revelation. For example, in his pamphlet Stukeley draws comparisons between two odes, arguing that the ‘heathen’ Bacchus is the same as Jehovah in the Jewish faith. Using another parallel with Bacchus, he further asserts that the ‘heathens’ knew that the Messiah was the son of God:


The antients had a notion of the Messiah, the God-man, immortal hero, Bacchus, the most perfect of human race, the god of wine… but they knew likewise that he was to be born of a virgin.

Moreover, he claims that

we find the heathen had some knowledge [that Jesus was the son of God] by making their Bacchus the son of Jupiter (meaning the supreme) and Semele; which, as we observ’d before, is one of the divine names.

The use of a heathen text in this way was interesting because it suggested that belief in Jesus as the son and equal of God predated not just Christian scripture but also Athanasius, thus dismissing the Nontrinitarian arguments.

Stukeley used his antiquarian studies to support these religious claims in other publications. Between 1718 and 1724 he conducted surveys, and later published studies, of Stonehenge and Avebury (Stonehenge: a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids (1740) and Abury: a Temple of the British Druids (1743)). These studies were impressive in terms of the discoveries made: Stukeley was first to discover the astronomical alignment of the stones at Stonehenge, for example, and his studies at Avebury recorded for posterity stone circles in the process of being destroyed for building materials. Beyond this, though, he argued that druids had built Stonehenge, and that they, in turn, believed in the Trinity – once more without Revelation, and pre-dating both Athanasius and scripture. Although amended in recent years through archaeological investigation, Stukeley’s antiquarian theories (and, hence, associated theological arguments) were highly significant both in his lifetime and beyond. Part Two of this blog will explore what Stukeley’s pamphlet in Queens’ Old Library reveals about how these beliefs were debated by his contemporaries in Cambridge.

By Isobel Goodman, Library Graduate Trainee

Queens’ Old Library exhibition will be open to the public 4th-22nd March, 1.30-4.30pm, Monday to Friday. More information: queensoldlibrary.org/Events.

Key figures

(1) Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a celebrated mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian and natural philosopher, whose ground-breaking contributions to classical mechanics, optics and infinitesimal calculus made him a key figure of the scientific revolution. The immediate impact of his theories concerning universal gravitation and the laws of motion, as outlined in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), is confirmed by his enduring fame. Yet, in contrast, Newton’s nontrinitarian views were seemingly expressed more privately during his lifetime. Extensive research published posthumously reveals that he firmly believed Christ to be a ‘divine mediator’, subordinate to the Father. Newton was a Fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, as well as Member of Parliament for Cambridge University in 1689-90 and 1701-2. He served as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint from 1696 to 1727, was President of the Royal Society 1703-27, and was knighted in 1705.

(2) William Whiston

William Whiston (1667-1752) was a theologian, historian and mathematician, as well as a prominent supporter of Isaac Newton’s theories. Remembered particularly for his efforts to instigate the Longitude Act and for his important translations, Whiston was also a leading exponent of Arianism, as outlined in his book A New Theory of the Earth (1696). His conclusion that Trinity teaching was a pagan invention ultimately led to his dismissal as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1710.

(3) Samuel Clarke

Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) was an Anglican clergyman and philosopher, educated at Caius College, Cambridge. As a personal friend of William Whiston and fellow supporter of Newton’s nontrinitarian views, he translated and revised works for both men, before embarking on a public correspondence in defence of Newton with prominent German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, in 1715-16. Clarke became known for his efforts to demonstrate the existence of God and, controversially, for his subordinationist views as outlined in The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712).


Boyd Haycock, William Stukeley: Science, Religion and Archaeology in eighteenth-century England (Woodbridge, UK, 2002), p. 213

Boyd Haycock, ‘Stukeley, William (1687-1765), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-26743

D. Snobelen, ‘Whiston, William (1667-1752), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-29217

S. Westfall, ‘Newton, Sir Isaac (1642-1727), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-20059