Thomas Gibson, Circa 1680 - 1751
Portrait of the Rev Samuel Clarke, DD Metaphysician, Theologian and Philosopher (1675 - 1729 )
Rev Samuel Clarke, DD Metaphysician andTheologian

inscribed " Samuel Clarke DD rect of /St James Westm"

oil on canvas
76.20 x 63.50 cm. (30 x 25 in.)


Engraved : John Simon


Samuel Clarke,  (1675–1729), theologian and philosopher, was born on 11 October 1675 at Norwich, the son of Edward Clarke, cloth manufacturer and MP, and Hannah, daughter of Samuel Parmenter, a merchant of Norwich.


Clarke was educated at the Norwich Free Grammar School (1685–90) and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, a college with strong Norfolk connections. At Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1691, he laid the foundations for the encyclopaedic knowledge for which he was famed in later life. He was noted for the range of his interests and his attempt to span all fields of knowledge in an age when science, and learning more generally, were increasingly becoming the province of the expert. At Caius, wrote Arthur Sykes, one of his later admirers, he ‘excell'd in natural Philosophy, inMathematicks, in Divinity, in Critique [classical studies], as if he had made but one of them his sole study’ (Elogium, 1, in Whiston, Historical Memoirs).

Clarke first made his mark in the area of natural philosophy. In the disputation held at the completion of his bachelor studies in 1695 he ably defended a proposition drawn from Newton's Principia, a work then understood by few, even within Newton's own university. This performance helped earn for him a fellowship at Caius, a post that he held from 1696 to 1700. His interest in natural philosophy owed much to his tutor at Caius, John Ellis. Although Ellis was a friend of Newton, at this time he largely based his teaching on the more readily accessible Cartesian system. He asked Clarke to translate into Latin Rohault's Traité de physique—a popular French textbook of Cartesian natural philosophy—for the use of students. Clarke responded to the request by including a series of notes based on Newtonianism amending the Cartesian views of the original. As this work passed through three editions (1697, 1702, and 1710) the text and the notes became ever more at variance, so that ‘Clarke's Rohault’ was to play a major part in the eclipse of Cartesian natural philosophy and its replacement by Newtonianism within Cambridge.

Clarke's interest in Newtonianism helped to secure the friendship of his fellow Cambridge graduate William Whiston, Newton's eventual successor as Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Whiston passed on to Clarke about 1698 the position of chaplain to Bishop Moore of Norwich, a scholar whose range of interests paralleled those of Clarke and who recognized the latter's considerable talents. The bishop's good standing as a staunch defender of the protestant succession made him a valuable patron—an early manifestation of his goodwill towards Clarke being the bestowal upon him of the rectorship of Drayton, near Norwich. Clarke then married Katherine Lockwood, daughter of the rector of Little Maningham in Norfolk. The marriage produced seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood, though the only one of whom there is any record is his namesake, Samuel Clarke FRS, who, thanks to Clarke's whig connections, obtained the sinecure of king's waiter in the port of London.

Bishop Moore's huge library enabled Clarke to devote himself largely to pursuing his scholarly and, in particular, his theological interests, in the years before he moved to London. In 1706, however, he moved permanently to the capital to take up the rectorship of St Benet Paul's Wharf and in 1709 the valuable living of St James's, Westminster.


Clarke's first theological publication, Three practical essays on baptism, confirmation, and repentance: containing full instructions to a holy life (1699), though generally uncontroversial, indicated something of the basic tenor of his later work. He opposed both Calvinism and, at the other end of the ecclesiastical spectrum, the high-church preoccupation with religious ritual. In this work, as in his theological writings generally, he implied the relative insignificance of ritual and sacramental practices when compared with those imposed by the moral order. The theme of the primacy of moral over ritual obligations also recurred in his next major theological work, A Paraphrase on the Four Evangelists(1701–2), which, as its title suggests, was intended to render the text of the gospels into a form of prose that conformed to eighteenth-century idiom and sentiments. The text ofMatthew 12: 7 (‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’) prompted Clarke to return to one of his perennial themes with the comment that ‘God every where declares, that he prefers Works of Righteousness and Charity, before Sacrifices and the exactest Performance of all positive Laws and outward Ceremonies’ (Works, 3.45).

It was, however, with his two sets of Boyle lectures delivered in 1704 and 1705 that Clarke achieved the status of one of the Church of England's leading theologians and metaphysicians. It was a considerable distinction in itself to be chosen to deliver such lectures two years in succession. Archbishop Tenison, the chief trustee, argued for Clarke's reappointment in a letter to John Evelyn on the grounds that ‘persons of such abilities in theology, philosophy, and mathematics, are not to be commonly found’ (Diary and Correspondence, 399). The first of Clarke's Boyle lectures—A Demonstration of the being and attributes of God: more particularly in answer to Mr Hobbes, Spinoza and their followers, wherein the notion of liberty is stated, and the possibility and certainty of it proved, in opposition to necessity and fate—was intended to deal with the foundations of natural religion by providing demonstrative philosophical arguments to substantiate a belief in a benevolent Deity. With these premises secured, he then turned in the second set of Boyle lectures—A discourse concerning the unchangeable obligations of natural religion, and the truth and certainty of the Christian revelation—to deal more explicitly with the nature of revealed religion. Such a division of theological labour reflects the view held by Clarke, Locke, and many of their contemporaries that one could distinguish between natural religion open to human reason and a revealed religion that both confirmed and supplemented such a natural religion. As Clarke wrote in one of his 191 published sermons: ‘No man can effectually believe in Christ, except he first believes in God. Natural Religion, is the best Preparation for the reception of the Christian’ (Works,1.3). However, by presenting so starkly the view that natural religion could be derived from reason in contrast to revealed religion, Clarke unintentionally gave some support to the deists and their view that revealed religion could be disposed of altogether. Hence the remark of one of Clarke's freethinking critics that he might have demonstrated the existence of God, but ‘What is this to the Fable of Jesus Christ?’ (Whiston, Historical Memoirs, 105).

Clarke's Demonstration of the being and attributes of God (1705) bears strong marks of his training in Newtonian natural philosophy. In the first place, as befits a student of thePrincipia mathematica, he sought to apply to metaphysics a mathematical style of reasoning. As he wrote in the preface, the argument of the work is ‘as near as Mathematical as the Nature of such a Discourse would allow’ (Demonstration, i). In good Euclidean fashion, he first established his basic premise that there was a ‘Supreme Independent Cause’ (ibid., 42). With this cornerstone in place, he then proceeded to erect his larger metaphysical edifice, taking as his assumption that ‘the Being and Attributes of God, are not only possible or barely probable in themselves, but also strictly demonstrable to any unprejudiced Mind from the most uncontestable principles of Reason’ (ibid., 14).

Along with his mathematical method, Clarke also exhibited a more direct debt to Newtonianism with his attempt to show that Newtonian science served to demonstrate the existence of an intelligent designer who both created and sustains the universe. He pointed, for example, to the demonstration in the Principia of the ‘inexpressible Nicety’ of the balance between the annual motion of the planets and the force of gravitation towards the sun as an instance of a directing Providence (Demonstration, 229–30). The Newtonian conception of gravitation also served as part of Clarke's attack on the view of Spinoza that matter was a necessary being without need of a Creator. For, argued Clarke, ‘if Gravitation be an Universal Quality or Affection of All Matter; then there is a Vacuum; (as is abundantly demonstrated by Mr. Newton:) and if there be a Vacuum, then Matter is not a Necessary Being’ (ibid., 49).

Clarke returned to the theme of the nature of matter a few years later in his controversy with the nonjuror Henry Dodwell, who maintained that the soul came into existence only as a direct result of divine intervention consequent on the sacrament of baptism—a controversy that began with Clarke's A letter to Mr. Dodwell: wherein all the arguments in his epistolary discourse against the immortality of the soul are particularly answered (1706) and continued with four other responses by Clarke (two in 1707 and two in 1708). Though Dodwell was the original declared opponent of Clarke, the latter's arguments were as much directed against the deist Anthony Collins, who entered the fray in support of Dodwell, arguing that thought could be the product of matter. Against the nonjuring Dodwell and the deist Collins, as against the pantheistic Spinoza and the materialist Hobbes, Clarke maintained that the Newtonian conception of gravitation illustrated the limitations of pure matter. For if, as Newton had shown, gravity had no material cause, then this demonstrated the folly of those ‘Materialists [who] would undertake to explain the phaenomena of Nature Mechanically, by the mere Powers of Matter and Motion’ (Works, 3.849). Such an argument supported his more general thesis that matter alone could not explain such phenomena as human thought or, indeed, human free will and the moral choice that it made possible—hence his attack on the materialistic views of human nature expressed by Dodwell and Collins as being ‘totally destructive of Religion’ (ibid., 3.906).

This was a theme to which Clarke, with his abiding preoccupation with the moral dignity of humanity based on the possibility of free will, frequently returned. Thus his defence of human liberty based on the immateriality of the soul occasioned another controversy with Collins in 1717 when Clarke published his response to the latter's Philosophical Inquiry. Clarke sought to impale Collins on the horns of a philosophical dilemma: ‘Either Man has within himself a Faculty or Principle of Self-Motion, that is, a Power of Beginning Motion, or he has not’ (Remarks upon a Book, Entituled, ‘A Philosophical Enquiry Concerning Human Liberty’, 1717, 25). If the latter position (attributed to Collins) is true, then we must trace back the principle of motion ‘till at last we arrive at a Free Agent: And then Liberty is a possible thing: And [if so ] then Man possibly may have Liberty’ (ibid., 43). Clarke had laid the grounds of this ongoing debate in his Boyle lectures, in the first set of which he posed the rhetorical question as to ‘whether there be at all in Man any such Power, as a Liberty of Choice and of Determining his own Actions; or on the contrary his Actions be all as Necessary, as the Motions of a Clock’ (Demonstration, 180).

Having established the philosophical bases of human liberty, and hence of moral choice, Clarke went on, in the second set of Boyle lectures, to examine in more detail the nature of morality and its relations with Christian revelation. True to the traditions of natural law, Clarke was emphatic that morality accorded with the ultimate ordering of Creation rather than being the result of the arbitrary decree of God. He wrote: ‘[T]hat which is Holy and Good … is not therefore Holy and Good, because it is commanded to be done; but is therefore commanded by God, because it is Holy and Good’ (Discourse, 110). It was a conception of morality that, in some ways, lent comfort to his freethinking opponents with their view that morality could be formulated without recourse to a notion of revelation, but, needless to say, Clarke dissented from such a position. Human beings, he urged, were too swayed by their passions or simply too preoccupied to arrive at an acceptable conception of morality through their own reasoning. Moreover, revelation provided an essential element lacking in any system of ethics derived from reason: the assurance of reward or punishment in the next life.

In constructing the case for the truth of Christian revelation, Clarke acknowledged that, in contrast to the arguments about the bases of natural religion in his first set of Boyle lectures, ‘the same demonstrative force of reasoning, and even Mathematical certainty, which in the main Argument was there easy to be obtained, ought not here to be expected; but that such moral Evidence, or mixt Proofs from Circumstances and Testimony’ (Discourse, 14). Thus he set out to demonstrate that Christianity was, of all religions, the most consonant with reason and morality as well as being supported by such internal proofs as the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies in the person of Christ.


Four years after delivering the second set of Boyle lectures Clarke returned to Cambridge to perform the public disputations necessary to obtain his doctorate of divinity. The two topics he chose represented a distillation of the basic themes of his Boyle lectures and of the more general concerns of his philosophical theology, for he defended the propositions that ‘No Article of the Christian Faith delivered in the Holy Scripture, is disagreeable to Right Reason’ and ‘Without the Liberty of Humane Actions there can be no Religion’ (Hoadly, vi). It was a performance long remembered as a virtuoso display of the fast decaying arts of the formal academic disputation. In his late seventies the Reverend Henry Yarborough recounted how ‘he never was so delighted in his life with any academical exercise of that kind’ (GM, 228). Dr Henry James, the regius professor of divinity, paid tribute to Clarke's formidable debating skills but was left uneasy about Clarke's Trinitarian views. The whole drift of Clarke's thinking was to emphasize the transcendence of God, his unity, and his role as the supreme governor of the universe, a position that left little role for traditional Christian doctrines concerning the immanence of God in the person of Christ.

It came as no great surprise, then, when Clarke made plain his doubts about the full divinity of Christ in The scripture-doctrine of the Trinity: wherein every text in the New Testament relating to that doctrine is distinctly considered (1712). Clarke's method of proceeding, with close analysis of some 1251 biblical texts, is testimony to his strongly protestant belief in judging doctrine by scripture alone. As he wrote in one of his many sermons directed against the papal foe: ‘there is no need of an Infallible Guide on Earth, or of an unerring Church. For all necessary Truth is sufficiently made known in Scripture’ (Works, 1.230). For Clarke the history of Christianity was one of corruption, chiefly at the hands of the papacy, of the ‘Simplicity and Purity of Faith and Manners’ of the early Church (ibid., 4.iii). Such a perversion had been largely reversed at the Reformation but, Clarke implied in his Scripture-Doctrine, the principle of sola scriptura had not been applied rigorously enough. Thus he argued, in relation to the vexed issue of subscription to credal formulas such as the Thirty-Nine Articles, that the church could ‘require Men to comply with their respective Forms, upon no other Ground but that of their being agreeable to Scripture, and consequently in such Sense only, wherein they are agreeable to Scripture’ (ibid., 4.x).

Clarke's overall conclusions that ‘The Father Alone is Self-Existent, Underived, unoriginated, Independent’ and that ‘The Son is not self-existent; but derives his Being and All his Attributes From the Father, as from the Supreme Cause’ (Works, 4, chapter headings 5, 12), though expressed in very qualified terms, represented a challenge to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation. His emphasis on the Father paralleled the theological biases of Isaac Newton, especially as reflected in the scholium generale included with the second edition of the Principia. This did not make his views any the less sensitive, and, in a society such as early eighteenth-century England, where church and state were thoroughly intermingled, such heterodoxy had wider political implications. This was especially so during the reign of Anne, when the high-churchmen were in the ascendant. Clarke's friend William Whiston had recently lost his position as Lucasian professor, for publishing his disagreement with the doctrine of the incarnation, and Sir Isaac Newton himself was extremely sensitive that his unconventional approach to the doctrine of the Trinity be kept strictly private. Though Clarke's views, at least in their public expression, were more cautious than either Whiston's or Newton's, they might still have been used to damage the moral credibility of the whig political order which he supported. Such considerations help to explain why, when word of Clarke's forthcoming book Scripture-Doctrine reached them, a number of whig politicians tried to persuade him not to publish it. They appealed to his political loyalties by arguing that ‘The Affairs of the Publick were with Difficulty then kept in the Hands of those that were for Liberty [that is, the whigs]’ (Whiston, Historical Memoirs, 13).

Clarke rejected such overtures but proved more flexible when his work became the subject of a major dispute within convocation in 1714. Faced by the hostility of the lower clergy, Clarke agreed to a compromise form of wording about the nature of his belief in the divinity of Christ. The wording, which was formulated by a number of bishops anxious to avoid division within the church, was studiously ambiguous and left the lower clergy dissatisfied, but there the issue ended as far as the formal proceedings of convocation were concerned. Thereafter Clarke accepted no new preferment except for the position of the mastership of Wigston's Hospital in 1718, since this did not require renewed subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles and its Trinitarian clauses.

Having promised convocation that he would publish no more on the Trinity, Clarke himself disappeared from the centre of the theological battle. However, the pamphlet war continued, with his Cambridge admirers John Jackson and Arthur Sykes acting as his spokesmen, while his main antagonist was his fellow Cambridge whig divine Daniel Waterland. The latter was also to take issue with Clarke's posthumously published An Exposition of the Church-Catechism (1729), in which Clarke returned to a theme that had run throughout all his theological writings: the subordination of church-imposed ‘positive’ duties to the moral duties ordained by the will of God as made manifest in scripture and natural law. Such a view formed part of Clarke's strongly protestant anti-sacerdotalism and hostility to over-ceremonious forms of religion: ‘'Tis the peculiar Excellency and Advantage of the Christian Religion’, he wrote in this work, ‘that it is not burdened, as the Jewish was, with a multitude of external Rites and Ceremonies’ (Works, 3.708). For Waterland such a position challenged the clergy's claim to a divinely sanctioned authority, just as Clarke's views on the Trinity called into question the establishment of the church by Christ. Thus, argued Waterland, Clarke had unintentionally given support to the rise of infidelity, for ‘Deism has sprung up out of the same doctrine about moral and positive institutions’ (The Works of [Daniel Waterland], 1823, 4.99).


Throughout his career Clarke continued to demonstrate his interest in the full span of learning. Thus, together with his involvement in such theological and metaphysical debates, he also contributed to the fields of classical scholarship and natural philosophy. In 1712 he published a lavish edition of Caesar's Commentaries and in 1729 the first volume of an edition of Homer, the second volume being incomplete at the time of his death in the same year. Earlier in his career, in 1699, he had also used his skills as a classicist to attack the aspersions made by John Toland in his Amyntor on the validity of the canon of the New Testament and some of the writings of the early fathers.

In natural philosophy Clarke maintained that close association with Newtonianism for which he had been known as a student—an association that was to be strengthened by his intimate friendship with Newton himself. According to the latter's half-nephew, Benjamin Smith, Newton called Clarke ‘his chaplain’ and of all his friends ‘had the greatest regard for Dr. Clarke’ (Nichols, Illustrations, 4.33). It was to Clarke that Newton turned when he wished to have his Opticks translated into Latin. To this edition of 1706 Newton added a long last query that served as the basis of the famed scholium generale of the second edition of the Principia, the philosophical concerns of which probably owed much to Clarke. The latter also left his mark on the influential preface to the second edition of the Principia by Roger Cotes, who sought Clarke's philosophical counsel when discussing the issue of gravitation (Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 5.412). Moreover Clarke made himself the guardian of Newtonian orthodoxy, using his polemical talents against those who deviated from the views of the master. When, for example, two Dutch Newtonians supported the results of an experiment by the Paduan engineer Giovanni Poleni, which contradicted Newton's view on one aspect of mechanics, Clarke publicly questioned their motives and accused them of seeking to ‘raise a dust against Sir Isaac's philosophy’. When Newton was dying Clarke was offered the mastership of the Royal Mint in his place; he declined the position, considering it inconsistent with his vocation as a clergyman.

It was to Clarke that Newton turned when he needed a philosophical champion to protect himself against the accusation of Leibniz, his old foe, that his work had contributed to a decline in natural religion in England—a particularly wounding charge to Newton and his supporters, who regarded his system as a bulwark of belief in God. Leibniz, in no doubt that in debating with Clarke he was, in effect, debating with Newton himself, wrote to Bernoulli in 1716 ‘that I am now grinding a philosophical axe with Newton or, what amounts to the same thing, with his champion, Clarke, a royal almoner’ (Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 6.355).

To Leibniz's charges that Newton described space as the sensorium of God, thereby making the Creator part of his own Creation, Clarke responded by arguing that ‘Infinite space is immensity but immensity is not God and therefore infinite space is not God’ (Leibniz–Clarke Correspondence, ed. H. Alexander, 1956, 31). Leibniz's second major accusation was that Newton portrayed God as a clumsy watchmaker who had to intervene to correct and regulate his original artefact. On the contrary, responded Clarke, Newton's insistence on the need for God's periodic intervention was a support for natural religion, for ‘whosever contends, that the course of the world can go on without the continual direction of God, the Supreme Governor; his doctrine does in effect tend to exclude God out of the world’ (ibid., 14). Clarke, however, suppressed a more dangerous argument drafted by Newton, namely that ‘if the world could go on to all eternity, then it might have gone on from all eternity, and that is all that the atheists contend for’, no doubt because that would have been seen as undermining the traditional argument from design. More recently, historians studying Newton's papers have found a number of drafts in his hand that look like preparatory material for Clarke's replies to Leibniz. The Leibniz–Clarke correspondence is now seen as a co-operative effort, with Clarke both improving and sharpening up arguments supplied to him by Newton as well as adding new material of his own.

Clarke also countered Leibniz's argument that the Newtonian conception of gravity, with its lack of any mechanical explanation for action at a distance, was a revival of scholastic occult qualities. Once again, Clarke used this philosophical debate to demonstrate that the Newtonian system was compatible with a belief in human liberty and hence moral choice, for, as Hoadly remarked, ‘This Liberty, or Moral Agency, was a Darling Point to Him’ (Hoadly, ix). Leibniz died in the middle of this correspondence, so Clarke allowed himself the last word by adding a ‘fifth reply’, which summed up the argument and addressed the final points made by his now dead opponent. He then published the correspondence as a whole in 1717 with a dedication to the princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, who in 1714 had been the original addressee of Leibniz's letter on the decay of natural religion in her newly adopted homeland. In Germany Caroline had been an admirer of Leibniz, but once in England she more and more transferred her philosophical allegiance to Clarke. She attempted to persuade him to accept a bishopric, and even urged Walpole to win him over, but Clarke declined because of his heterodox beliefs on the Trinity. Voltaire, who had met Clarke during his extended visit to England in the 1720s, later spread the unlikely but delightful story that the bishop of London had stopped Clarke's being made archbishop of Canterbury (on the death of Tenison in 1716) by telling the Queen, approvingly, that he thought Clarke was the best qualified man for the job, though he was not a Christian.

Clarke died in London on 17 May 1729 at the rectory of St James, and was buried on 22 May in the chancel of his church. He was renowned not only within Britain but throughout Europe for his abilities as a theologian and philosopher. Throughout the eighteenth century his reputation remained high, and as late as 1815 a respected commentator, Dugald Stewart, could write in his Dissertation that, to his understanding, all of Kant's philosophy had essentially been anticipated by Clarke. However his reputation declined rapidly in the nineteenth century and today he is chiefly known for his connections with Newton and his importance as a polemicist for the Newtonian position.

John Gascoigne  DNB

Artist biography

Thomas Gibson,  (c.1680–1751), portrait painter, is of obscure origins. He was appointed a founder director of Godfrey Kneller's academy in London in 1711. According to the painter Thomas Highmore, Sir James Thornhill sometimes applied to Gibson to sketch for him in his large pictures figures in action. Vertue, who was on terms of great friendship with Gibson and who was one of his pupils at Godfrey Kneller's academy, recorded that other artists were offended with Gibson because he refused to raise his prices. He also stated that due to serious illness he was obliged to sell his pictures privately among his friends about 1729–30 and to retire from practice to Oxford. He subsequently returned to London about 1732 and is said to have resumed his practice. He died in London on 28 April 1751, aged about seventy-one. At the Society of Antiquaries there is a portrait of Vertue by Gibson, painted in 1723 (engraved by Vertue himself); at the Royal Society a portrait of John Flamsteed the astronomer. A number of his portraits are in Oxford, including portraits of Flamsteed and John Locke (Bodl. Oxf.) and a portrait of Archbishop Wake (Christ Church picture gallery). His last recorded works are a portrait of Augusta, princess of Wales, and a group portrait of her children, painted in 1742. Many of his portraits were engraved by J. Faber, J. Simon, G. White, G. Vertue, and others, including those of Sir Robert Walpole, Admiral Sir Charles Wager, Dr Henry Sacheverell (1710; Magdalen College, Oxford), Robert, Lord Molesworth, and the Revd Samuel Clarke. Further examples of Gibson's work are in the collections of the Society of Antiquaries, the National Maritime Museum, Lambeth Palace, the Royal Society, and Orleans House Gallery, London; and the Bodleian Library, Christ Church, and Magdalen College, Oxford.

L. H. Cust, DNB