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Conyers Middleton

Conyers Middleton (December 27, 1683 - July 28, 1750), English divine, was born at Richmond in Yorkshire.

He graduated at Cambridge, took orders, and in 1706 obtained a fellowship, which he soon resigned upon contracting an advantageous marriage. In 1717 a dispute with Richard Bentley, who made an extortionate demand on the occasion of Middleton's being created D.D., involved him in an acrimonious controversy. He wrote several trenchant pamphlets, among them the" Remarks" and "Further Remarks" on Bentley's Proposals for a New Edition of the Greek Testament, an endeavour to visit his grievances upon the text of the New Testament.

In 1723 he was involved in a lawsuit by personalities against Bentley, which had found their way into his otherwise judicious tract on library administration, written on the occasion of his appointment as university librarian. In 1726 he offended the medical profession by a dissertation contending that the healing art among the ancients was only exercised by slaves or freedmen. Between the dates of these publications he visited Italy, and made those observations on the pagan origin of church ceremonies and beliefs which he subsequently embodied in his Letter from Rome (1729). This cogent tract probably contributed to prepare the storm which broke out against him on his next publication (1731).

In his remonstrance with Daniel Waterland on occasion of the latter's reply to Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation, Middleton takes a line which in his day could hardly fail to expose him to the reproach of infidelity. He gives up the literal truth of the primeval Mosaic narratives; and, in professing to indicate a short and easy method of confuting Tindal, lays principal stress on the indispensableness of Christianity as a mainstay of social order. This was to resign nearly everything that divines of the Waterland stamp thought worth defending. Middleton was warmly assailed from many quarters, and retreated with some difficulty under cover of a sheaf of apologetic pamphlets and a more regular attendance at church.

His next important publication was a Life of Cicero (1741), largely told in that statesman's own words. Though Middleton's reputation was much enhanced by this piece of work, there is no doubt that he drew largely from the scarce book of William Bellenden, De tribus luminibus Romanorum. The work was undertaken at the instance of Lord Hervey, in correspondence with whom also originated his disquisition on The Roman Senate, published in 1747.

The same year and the following produced the most important of all his writings, the Introductory Discourse and the Free Inquiry "concerning the miraculous powers which are supposed to have subsisted in the church from the earliest ages." In combating this belief Middleton indirectly established two propositions of capital importance. He showed that ecclesiastical miracles must be accepted or rejected in the mass; and he distinguished between the authority due to the early fathers' testimony to the beliefs and practices of their times, and their very slender credibility as witnesses to matters of fact. Some individual grudge seems to have prompted him to expose, in 1750, Bishop Sherlock's eccentric notions of antediluvian prophecy, which had been published 25 years before. On the 28th of July 1750 he died at Hildersham, near Cambridge.

Middleton's most ambitious work is obsolete from no fault of his, but his controversial writings retain a permanent place in the history of opinion. In his more restricted sphere he may not inappropriately be compared with Lessing. Like Lessing's, the character of his intellect was captious and iconoclastic, but redeemed from mere negation by a passion for abstract truth, too apt to slumber until called into activity by some merely personal stimulus. His diction is generally masculine and harmonious. Pope thought him and Nathaniel Hooke the younger the only prose writers of the day who deserved to be cited as authorities on the language. Samuel Parr, while exposiing his plagiarisms, heaps encomiums on his style. But his best qualities, his impatience of superstition and disdain of mere external authority, are rather moral than literary.

The best general view of his intellectual character and influence is to be found in Sir Leslie Stephen's English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, ch. vi. A handsome edition of his works, containing several posthumous tracts, but not including the Life of Cicero, appeared in 4 vols. in 1752 and in 5 vols. in 1755.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.