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(Kingsteignton’s Non-Conformist Divine)



A great man is not less great because he made his name a long time ago. Today, Theophilus Gale is virtually unknown in Devon - not even a blue plaque honours his name - yet in his time, his ideas shook the world and gave scholars discussion material for years.


In the United States, Theophilus Gale is honoured and remembered for his link with Harvard University - in this article, Richard Harris brings him  back to Devon and in particular, to the village of Kingsteignton where his extraordinary life began.


Whatsoever I thankfully receive, as a token of God's love to me,

I part with contentedly as a token of my love to Him”.
Theophilus Gale 1628-1678


Theophilus Gale was born in Kingsteignton in 1628, the son of Theophilus and Bridget Gale. His father served the parish as its vicar and was also a prebendary of Exeter Cathedral. From his early childhood Theophilus was brought up in an atmosphere filled with discussions of spiritual matters so it is not surprising that he was destined to follow a career as a theologian.


His education commenced at home with a private tutor and thence at a local grammar school before gaining admission to Magdalen Hall Oxford in 1647.


At the time of Gale’s admission to Oxford, Protestantism was firmly established and the stricter discipline of Puritanism had gained support in both Parliament and parts of the Church. Magdalen Hall was attracting numerous students with Calvinist views such as William Conway and John Cudmore. Its radicalism was furthered by the appointment of Henry Wilkinson in 1648 who was to figure prominently in city life during the Civil War and the Protectorate. Other leading radicals who occupied important positions at Oxford included Thomas Goodwin, who became president of Magdalen College in 1650, and John Owen, who headed a commission to which Cromwell passed the position of Chancellorship of the University.


John Owen
John Owen


Following a Parliamentary Visitation in 1648 Gale’s Puritan leanings were rewarded with funding to continue his studies at Magdalen College and he gained a BA degree in 1649. A year later he was made a Fellow and Tutor of the college and went on to gain his MA in 1652. Appointments to the posts of Junior Dean of Arts and Senior Dean of Arts followed in 1657 and 1658, by which time he had been made a preacher at Winchester Cathedral, where other leading radical theologians also preached.


By the time the Civil War ended, many in the country had grown tired of the strictures of the Puritan emphasis on intelligent piety. The restoration of King Charles II brought to the throne a king who blamed the regicide of his father on supporters of Puritanism. The pendulum which had swung in favour of Puritanism was now reversed and with it the fortunes of those who supported Puritan doctrines.


The Act of Uniformity of 1662 decreed that all clergy must use the Book of Common Prayer and declare allegiance to the authority of bishops. The hierarchy of bishops had long been a focal point of dissent amongst Puritans and Gale, along with approximately one fifth of the clergy, refused to submit to the Act. As a consequence he was ejected from his post at Winchester Cathedral.  The Act also contained stipulations that permanently excluded Gale from University teaching, government employment and ministry within the Church of England. Thus, not only did he lose his post at Winchester, but he was forced to resign his Fellowship at Magdalen College.


He found a new post as tutor to the sons of Lord Wharton, a dissenting Member of Parliament for Buckinghamshire. The new post enabled Gale to travel to Caen in Normandy with his pupils to study at the Huguenot College. There he met the celebrated Professor Bochart, a leading Huguenot scholar.


Gale returned to England in 1665 with Wharton’s sons and stayed at the family estate for twelve moths before moving to London to set up an Academy at Stoke Newington for the education of sons of Dissenters. On his approach to London Gale found the city ablaze and Edmund Calamy records that it was only by a stroke of luck that much of Gale’s work was not destroyed by the Great Fire. Apparently he had deposited his manuscripts at a friend’s house before moving to France and it was only by chance that the desk containing them was loaded onto a cart when his friend vacated the house to escape the fire.


Not long after he had set up his academy Gale took up another position as assistant to John Rowe, a non conformist minister of a large Independent church in Holborn. Like Gale, Rowe was a Devonian by birth, hailing from the town of Crediton. It was during the period as assistant to Rowe that Gale was able to continue with writing his many philosophical works.


The cover of one of Gale's most important books


 His principal work, The Court of the Gentiles, was published in four parts between 1669 and 1671. Gale set out to show that all of mankind’s knowledge was passed down from God through the Jews. He considered that the superior cultural elements in the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome could all be traced back to ideas they obtained from the Jews and devoted much discussion to the Jewish influence on Pythagoras and especially on Plato’s concept of Utopia. Gale considered that the original truths handed down through the Jews had been corrupted by pagan influences and the Catholic Church.


To understand Gale’s pro Jewish stance, one must appreciate that The Puritans, especially under Cromwell, promoted the idea of a theocratic state as they saw it manifest in the Old Testament.  The Puritan admiration of the Old Testament theocracy, based on Jewish Unitarianism, may explain why some Puritans adopted Unitarianism as a philosophy and rejected the traditional Trinitarian philosophy of the mainstream Christian churches.


Although the publication received savage criticism from the scholars of the Established Church, many writers say it permanently changed the intellectual landscape of English religious dissent. Much of the criticism was directed at the rambling style of the text. This was due in part to Gale's insistence that each idea discussed should be verifiable using the highest academic references. The result was that most pages contained numerous references to previous works which were included as part of the text rather than recorded as footnotes, a style which had yet to become widely adopted.




The text on this page is the copyright property of Richard Harris


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