Henry Stubbe, early modern champion of ‘Mahometan Christianity’

  • Themes: History

Henry Stubbe, one of the leading classical scholars of the 17th century, associate of Thomas Hobbes and a radical republican, saw Islam as the ultimate Puritan religion.

Wenceslas Hollar's map of England with scenes from the beginning of the Civil War.
Wenceslas Hollar's map of England with scenes from the beginning of the Civil War. Credit: Historic Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The 17th century was a ‘distracted’ age, marked by sectarian conflict and a struggle of ideas, political, religious and scientific, across Europe. Extraordinary times produced extraordinary figures, none more so than Henry Stubbe. A mysterious, often wisely clandestine character, much of what we know of him we owe to the antiquarian Anthony Wood, the ‘incomparable historian’ of Oxford, who wrote a short biography of Stubbe in his Athenae Oxonienses, published in 1692, 16 years after Stubbe’s death at the age of 44.

Described by Wood as ‘the most noted person of his age that these late times have produced’, Stubbe was born in Lincolnshire in February 1632 to a somewhat lowly Puritan cleric of the same name, deemed ‘anabaptistically inclined’, and his wife Mary Purefoy. I say ‘wife’ advisedly as there were concerns raised at the time about the young Henry’s legitimacy. For whatever reason, the older Henry was ejected from his living and emigrated with his family to Drogheda – a place soon to be marked indelibly on Anglo-Irish history.

Soon after the Irish uprising of 1641, which anticipated civil war in England, the nine-year-old Henry fled with his mother, first to Liverpool, then to London, where she worked as a highly regarded seamstress. The precocious young Henry helped his friends with their schoolwork, and he entered Westminster School in 1642, having made an impression on its headmaster, Richard Busby, who spotted his obvious talent for languages, especially Greek and Latin. Though Busby was regarded as a ‘flogging’ headmaster – as recollections of John Milton’s schooling at St Paul’s suggest, this was hardly unusual for the time – he was also something of an educational innovator and the author of Greek, Hebrew and Latin grammars. He also introduced the study of Arabic to Westminster, an innovation that would have a profound effect on the course of Stubbe’s life.

The 17th-century diarist John Evelyn offers a pen portrait of Busby’s school: ‘I heard and saw such exercises as the election of scholars at Westminster School to be sent to the University in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, in themes and extemporary verses, as wonderfully astonished me in such youths, with such readiness and wit, some of them not above twelve or thirteen years of age.’

Sir Henry Vane the younger, a rising star of Parliament – not least because of his role in the trial and execution of Charles I’s prominent adviser Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford – took him under his wing, paying his school fees – Stubbe became a King’s Scholar – and securing a scholarship to Christ Church Oxford in 1649, the year of the king’s execution. There, academically, he excelled, while revealing a combustible temperament – he was judged to be ‘well-stocked with impudence’. Stubbe’s sharp tongue led to him being ‘kickd and beaten’ by his fellow students, and he was, on at least one occasion, whipped publicly in the Christ Church refectory. It is likely that Stubbe, while at Oxford, carried the Engagement, a declaration of loyalty to the newly established Commonwealth, based on Greek precedent, ‘to be true and faithful to the government established, without King or House of Peers’.

Stubbe’s precocity revealed itself further, with the publication in 1651, while still an undergraduate, of two works: Horae subsecivae, a précis in Greek of two biblical passages, and Miscellanea epigrammata, a translation, again into Greek, of contemporary English poets. Following his graduation in 1653, Stubbe, an increasingly radical Independent – and therefore an opponent of the narrow orthodoxies of Presbyterianism – served with the parliamentary forces in Scotland. He returned to Oxford in 1656, where he was eventually appointed deputy keeper at the Bodleian Library, no doubt thanks to the influence of John Owen, Cromwell’s theological adviser and Dean of Christ Church, another Independent with whom he collaborated on anti-presbyterian polemics. It was around this time that he came into contact with the great political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The friendship between Hobbes, theorist of absolutist sovereignty, and the youthful advocate of radical independency was an unlikely one. Stubbe had already begun, probably with Hobbes’ approval, to translate Leviathan into Latin, which had been written, ironically, in France. Hobbes, the royalist mathematics tutor to the exiled Charles Stuart, made peace with Protectorate England and returned home.

Hobbes became embroiled in a heated argument with John Wallis, Savilian Professor of Geometry. Ostensibly, it was a quarrel about geometry, but matters of politics and religion intruded. The debate was conducted largely in Latin, and Hobbes and Wallis accused one another of linguistic incompetence. This is where Stubbe proved useful to Hobbes. The precocious classicist, who had access to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, was able to check and correct Hobbes’ output while offering a critique of both Wallis’s classical grammar and his allusions.

Though from differing perspectives, Hobbes and Stubbe bonded over a mutual antipathy to Presbyterianism. Wallis was arguably the leading spokesman for the Presbyterian cause at Oxford, and had served as secretary to the Westminster Assembly of Divines, which sought to restructure the Church of England, and had published a great deal on key topics such as the nature of the church, the role of the clergy and the relationship between church and state – all of which interested Hobbes and Stubbe. Wallis, as a presbyterian, believed that clerics derived their power though the apostolic succession: that they claimed their authority and spiritual power through a direct line from God and that they were independent of the state.

Hobbes, as he makes clear in the final section of Leviathan, takes a quite different, indeed opposing view. The church and its representatives must be subject to the civil sovereign, preferably, in Hobbes’ view, a monarch. Christ himself had made it clear that, until the Millennium – until his return to earth – his kingdom was not of this world. Therefore, it was the civil sovereign that should appoint clerics, not the church, a view that had led to the excommunication of the Venetian Republic at the beginning of the century, whose cause appealed to English radicals (as well as James I).

In Hobbes’ view, the presbyterians, though they had abandoned many tenets of Roman Catholicism, continued to share, in the philosopher’s own words, ‘the greatest and main abuse of Scripture’, that is that ‘The Kingdom of God is the present church’. The authors of this ‘darkness in religion’ were not just the Catholic, but also the ‘presbyterian clergy’.

This point is fundamental to Hobbes’ thought: that a church independent of the civil sovereign ‘causeth so great a darkness in men’s understanding, that they see not who it is to whom they have engaged their obedience’. Indeed, Hobbes accused the presbyterians, with their divisive doctrine of clerical authority, of leading England into civil war.

Though Hobbes united with Stubbe against Wallis, how much did the pair have in common? What Hobbes thought of Stubbe is difficult to ascertain, as no letters from him survive; but some from Stubbe to Hobbes do, collected in Noel Malcolm’s edition of Hobbes’ correspondence. From them, we learn that Stubbe sends his draft translations of Leviathan to Hobbes as he completes them. For example, in a letter dated 7 October 1656, Stubbe writes: ‘I have here sent you the residue of the eighth and ninth chapter’, and awaits, presumably, Hobbes’ comments. If only we had them.

Yet Stubbe is also involved in opposing Wallis from within Oxford, supporting the circle around Owen. He tells Hobbes that Owen has asked him to respond to Wallis, who has ‘put out some theses against a branch of independency’. Indeed, he writes that he must take a break from translating Leviathan, as he has received orders, presumably from Owen, ‘to study church-government & a toleration, & so to oppose presbytery’. Stubbe makes it clear that he is hugely dependent upon the patronage and protection of Owen and his circle for – ‘being obnoxious to others (for else the Presbyterians had outed me long ago), I must continue their favour’.

At the Restoration, unsurprisingly, Stubbe’s fortunes dipped. In March 1660, Owen who, despite some misgivings about the connection to Hobbes, had both protected and promoted Stubbe, was ejected from Christ Church. His departure saw the return of Edward Reynolds. Stubbe had claimed a role in the fall of ‘Dr R’, as he called him, and had also been accused of writing A Light shining out of darkness, which expressed damning views of both the clergy and the universities, similar to those of Hobbes. As a result, Stubbe was dismissed both from Christ Church and the Bodleian Library.

To make things worse, his mentor Henry Vane, though not a regicide, was put on trial and executed in 1662 – a rare act of vindictiveness from Charles II. Stubbe, wisely, slipped into the shadows. He moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he practiced as a physician. Unlike Vane, he rapidly made his peace with the new regime, taking the oath of allegiance to the restored Charles II and conforming to the Church of England. The confirmation was taken by George Morley, then the Bishop of Worcester, who may have known Stubbe both at Westminster and Christ Church. Perhaps it is that attachment that secured for Stubbe in 1661 a royal appointment: as a physician in Jamaica – the sole compensation of the Western Design, Cromwell’s catastrophic assault on the Spanish Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Stubbe returned to England in 1665. Publicly, and controversially, he produced a series of pamphlets criticising the Royal Society, posing perhaps disingenuously as a defender of tradition and the established church. In private, he was embarking upon his most extraordinary, and perhaps revealing, work.

Stubbe appears to have begun writing An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism some time after 1671. Just as the Fifth Monarchists, prominent in the Nominated Assembly – the Barebone’s Parliament – that had immediately preceded Cromwell’s Protectorate – saw Christ’s millennium as the fulfilment of a teleology of Empires, Stubbe seems to regard Islam as the perfection of the Abrahamic religions. With Islam, Stubbe claims, arose an empire ‘greater than any of the four so famed Monarchies, erected in a Poor barren Countrey, hemm’d in between two great and potent Princes, one reigning over the Eastern Christians, the other over the Persians, & which very much augments the wonder, all this was accomplished in the compass of a very few years, by a Man of mean state, fiercely opposed & slenderly befriended’.

His work is somewhat more than a history of Islam. Stubbe sees the history of religion as one of a series of revolutions. The first one that Stubbe identifies is the reception of Christ by some Jews as the Messiah, identifying the unlikely contingencies that brought this about. The miseries created by new taxes imposed by the Roman government soon after the birth of Christ, he claims, ‘made the people more credulous… it so happened that there arose about that time sundry false messiahs & the world was big with every expectation raised in every country by the Jews’.

The Apostles and their followers spread the gospel following Christ’s Resurrection, aided by the Jewish diaspora and its extensive trading networks. The ‘principal tenet’, as Stubbe puts it, of these early Christians was the temporal reign of Christ and the union, proposed by Paul, of Jews and Gentiles.

Stubbe is eager to point out, however, that ‘in these primitive times’, as he calls them, Christians did not believe Christ to be the ‘natural son of God’, nor did they believe in the Holy Ghost or the Trinity. The government of the church was loose and disparate, without hierarchy. Congregations were distinct and various, as were the synagogues upon which they were founded. It is a minimal form of Christianity, the ‘religion of Noah’, as Stubbe described it.

The second revolution he identifies took place in the early second century, when Jews in Jerusalem and Antioch rose up against the rule of the Emperor Hadrian. In an act of self-defence, Christians split ideologically from Jews: the Christian Messiah becomes a spiritual figure, a development Stubbe views in a negative light, criticising both ‘the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity’. Christians also begin to employ priests and build churches, all in an attempt, Stubbe argues, to conform to paganism and appease their Roman masters. It was hugely successful – ‘the discipline of the Roman legions being extinct and the armies composed most of foreigners, men of mercenary spirits and no friends to the established religion, these soldiers beheld opulent priests and vestals … with an opulent eye and cared not if a new religion were introduced’.

A third revolution followed, that of Emperor Constantine, who augmented his own authority with that of the Church. He sought a single uniform doctrine – embracing the Nicene Creed – empowered bishops, who acted as ‘spies and checks upon his governors’ and elevated the greatest of them – those of Rome and Alexandria – to the level of princes. Rituals were paganised – taking place upon altars in temples. Yet despite the imperial backing, the religion became divided: into Arians – who believed that Christ did not always exist –  and Trinitarians, for whom the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one and contiguous. Stubbe made his sympathies clear – Arians were people of prosperity and wisdom, Trinitarians were ‘enemies to all human learning’. The final triumph of Justinian led to the victory of the latter: its consequences are described by Stubbe in prose that clearly owes a debt to Hobbes:

Christianity, Stubbe wrote, ‘degenerated into such a kind of paganism as wanted nothing but the ancient sacrifices and professed polytheism, and even as to the latter there wanted not some who made three gods of the Trinity, others made a goddess of the Virgin Mary, the reverence to saints differed little from that of the pagans to their heroes and lesser gods’.

It’s an attack on Rome worthy of an Ulster firebrand.

At the root of this decay – and here we again see the hand of Hobbes – is that Constantine had divided authority between Church and State – the ultimate Hobbesian error. Stubbe, influenced by Hobbes and anticipating Gibbon, does not hold back: ‘When Christianity became generally received, it introduced with it a general inundation of barbarism and ignorance, which overran all places where it prevailed’.

The solution, through the accomplishment of a fourth revolution would arrive from an unlikely source: Islam.

Stubbe’s Muhammad, very much the hero of his tome, creates a religion that is perfectly suited to its geographical location and the needs of its inhabitants. Muhammad has no time for superstitions such as the Trinity. What he does, Stubbe argues, is to take the elegant simplicities of Arian Christianity and package them up with the specific beliefs of the desert people among whom he lived. This accounts to little more, ultimately, than a belief in God and acts of charity towards the poor – there are no priests to profit.

God is essentially incomprehensible. There is no hell. All will be saved having endured punishment in proportion to one’s sins. ‘This is the sum of the Mahometan religion’, declares Stubbe. ‘On the one hand, not clogging men’s faith with the necessity of believing a number of abstruse notions which they cannot comprehend, and which are often contrary to the dictates of reasons and common sense; nor on the other hand loading them with the performance of many troublesome, expensive and superstitious ceremonies, yet enjoining a due observance of religion, as the surest method to keep men in the bounds of their duty both to God and man.’

Stubbe’s Account was not published until 1911, in an edition by the Indian researcher Hafiz Mahmud Khan Shirhani. It is not hard to see why. It is heresy of the first order. Hobbes had thrown himself into the study of heresy when threatened of this capital crime by the Stuart regime. He concluded that ‘heresy’ was simply a minority view. Stubbe, however, was in a minority of one. Anti-trinitarian, a man who favours Islam above Christianity because it is the true revealed religion of Christ and his Apostles. Stubbe’s religious ideal is primitive Christianity as revived by Muhammad.

The historian James Jacob has pointed out some striking similarities between Stubbe’s ‘Mahometan Christianity’, as he calls it, and Hobbes account of natural religion set out in Chapter 31 of Leviathan. Hobbes agrees that men can acknowledge God’s existence and that he is the creator and governor of the universe. He should be worshipped through prayer. But finite beings are incapable of comprehending the infinite. When they do, the consequences are ‘volumes of disputation’, ‘heat not light’.

Both Stubbe and Hobbes incline to a pared-down version of religion, of Christianity, though it is Stubbe alone who reflects on and admires the genius of Muhammad, comparing him critically with Constantine. The spiritual authority granted to the clergy by Constantine had led, so Stubbe argues, to ignorance, superstition and division. It was a mistake Muhammad did not repeat, investing control of religion solely in the hands of the secular ruler. ‘What a discourse might be made’, writes Stubbe, ‘upon Muhammad’s uniting the civil and ecclesiastical powers in one sovereign.’ It mirrors Hobbes’ prescription for the settled and stable state.

There are two other aspects of Islam that Stubbe praises. First is what he perceives as its toleration. Muhammad does not force Islam on conquered peoples, provided their religion was ‘not idolatrous’. Stubbe makes quite a claim: that ‘it is more the interest of the princes & nobles, than of the people, which at present keeps all Europe from submitting to the Turks’.

Second is the Islamic approach to slavery. Stubbe accepts that Muslims subject some people to slavery. But – and Stubbe experienced the charnel house of Jamaica – he insists that the slavery carried out by Europeans in the New World is of a different order. Europeans believe that it is impossible to be both a slave and a Christian at the same time. Therefore, in order to secure the benefit of their labour, the slaveowners ‘debar them and their posterity from the benefits of the Gospel and by shutting them out from that which we think the only door to salvation, we do put their souls in as bad a condition as their bodies, which is a cruelty that Turks and pagans would be ashamed of’.

Stubbe’s Account is both a history of religion – and in terms of invention it owes something to Herodotus – but it is perhaps more a meditation on the state of contemporary Christianity. The nation would be improved if religious authority was vested in the civil sovereign, who should impose a rational religion, whether a return to the primitive Christianity of the Apostolic Christians or the ‘Mahometan Christianity’ of Muhammad. It is Islam as seen through the prism of Hobbes, Stubbe’s own radical independency, and the events of a distracted time. Hobbes wins in one particular way: his preference for a king as civil sovereign seems no longer to be contended by Stubbe, who appears now to be a ‘former’ republican, though, as virtue seems to be a prerequisite of a successful monarch, let us remember who is on the throne at this point.

The Account was not Stubbe’s final offering. In 1673, he attacked in print the marriage of the Duke of York – the future James II – to Mary of Modena, for which he was briefly imprisoned. Throughout, he carried on his practice as a physician in Stratford and, during the season, in Bath. On his way to Bristol to attend to a patient, ‘his head being then intoxicated with bibbing, but more with talking, and snuffing of powder’, he drowned in a shallow river on 12 July 1676. He was 44. His study was sealed and the Bishop of London was expected to appoint a person to inspect papers ‘dangerous to state and church’.


Paul Lay