WILLIAM WHITAKER was born in 1547, at Holme, in Lancashire, where the families of both his father and mother had long resided. He spent his childhood under the care of his parents, learning the first rudiments of grammar in the school of Bournley, till the age of thirteen; at which time Dr. Alexander Nowell, his uncle, dean of St. Paul’s, sent for him to London, boarded him in his own house, and had him instructed by the master of St. Paul's School, till it was thought proper to send him to the university. At the age of eighteen he was admitted of Trinity College, Cambridge, under the tuition of Mr. West; where he followed his studies with such diligence and improvement, that he was first chosen scholar, and afterwards elected fellow, of that college. Being now in a more conspicuous point of view, he began to shine among those of his own age; and to give no mean specimen of his extraordinary genius and learning: for, in all the scholastic disputations, both in his own college and in the public schools, he always carried off with him extraordinary commendations, and the greatest encomiums on his capacity.
In due time, with universal applause, he took the degree of bachelors and then that of master, in arts. His talents, considerable as they were, gave him no elation of mind; but he adorned them by his doctrine and modesty. He now became more eager in pursuit of knowledge, and followed his studies with the greater assiduity. And that he might exhibit some proof of his labor, as well as his gratitude, he translated into Greek, an excellent catechism of his uncle's, published in Latin, and dedicated this first fruit of his learning to his learned uncle Dr. Nowell. He was desirous also to show his early respect to the church of England; which he did in giving a Latin version of the book of Common Prayer. He also translated into Latin the polemical discourse of the celebrated Bishop Jewel against Harding; a disputation written with the acutest judgement, and illustrated by the most extensive reading, in which twenty-seven questions are argued from Scripture, and from the councils and fathers. This performance likewise met with universal approbation.
At this time the professorship of philosophy being vacant, Whitaker had the honor of that appointment; though he was yet a young man; and though it had been the custom of the university to choose one of the two proctors, who, as it is supposed, on account of their age and standing, were deemed most properly qualified for that important charge. Whitaker was indeed young in years, but old in understanding; and very conversant with the philosophical writers. Therefore this province, he managed with so much zeal, prudence, and success, and as became a philosopher, that, in a manner scarcely to be credited, he struck all with the highest wonder at his learning and eloquence.
At length, leaving Plato and Aristotle, which last he had closely studied for a long time, he betook himself to the diligent study of the Holy Scriptures; to which he always attributed the only authority for determining matters of faith, and for deciding religious controversies. He likewise perused the modern divines, especially the faithful interpreters of God's Word; and being a person of incredible application, he went through almost all the fathers, both Greek and Latin. Whitaker’s great industry and parts struck, the attention and admiration of the head of the college, Dr. Whitgift, at that time Regius professor of divinity, and afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, who admitted him to the closest intimacy and
friendship, not only while he was head of the college, but when he was afterwards bishop of Worcester, recommending to his care and tuition a great number of young persons of the first distinction.
At the Cambridge Commencement, in 1578, he delivered in St. Mary's Church, his first Concio ad Clerum, which was as remarkable for its sound divinity, as for its profound erudition. Having performed the requisite exercises, he took the degree of bachelor in divinity, with the utmost applause. Dr. Chaderton, then Regius professor of divinity, being promoted to the dignity of bishop, and resigning both the presidentship of Queen's College, and the professorship, Whitaker was chosen in his room.[i] His first lectures in the professor's chair, were on the three first chapters of the Gospel of St. Luke; which, having finished, he went through the whole Epistle to the Galatians. Next, he explained the first Epistle of St. Paul to Timothy, from which he deduced many important principles most necessary to be known by students in divinity. Lastly, in his lectures, he descanted upon Solomon's Song.
Some time after this, he seemed to be called, in some measure, to lay aside his commentaries and discourses upon the Scriptures, and to take up the controversy between the Protestants and the Papists; which he began Feb. 17, 1585. The first adversary, that felt the power of Whitaker's abilities, was a conceited Jesuit, Edmund Campian, who, with ten dull arguments, published in 1581, threatened, as with so many battering rams, utterly to undermine, and raze to the foundation, the whole Protestant doctrine. But Whitaker so effectually refuted the arguments of this Thraso, that his threats and his boastings soon ended in smoke to his own confusion. His controversies soon rendered him the distinguished foe of Rome, and one of the first champions of the Reformed religion in Christendom. And accordingly, his adversaries began to increase upon him; but he overcame them all by the soundness of his arguments and the exactness of his reasoning.
He even attacked the great Bellarmine, the stoutest champion of the Popish cause ; whom he met in the aim open field, and began the combat relative to the whole controverted points, and fairly overthrew his adversary.
There still remain several tracts, which it is much to be wished had been published: such are, some Discourses before the Clergy, delivered at the beginning of every year, and attended by a great concourse of the whole university: some short, but judicious, Determinations of the Theological Questions in the public schools, when the annual disputations are made, according to custom, for obtaining degrees; which disputations were numerous, and all written with his own hand. Also a little book against Stapleton, on original sin, fully written out and prepared for the press, in which the sophistry and superstition of Stapleton were displayed. This was the last work he finished before he left the world.
Dr. Whitaker was twice married; for which Stapleton upbraids him, in his book published in the year 1592, as a matter of reproach; not considering the words of the Lord, Matt. 19:11, “All cannot receive this saying;” and of the apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:5, “Have we not all power to lead about a sister, a wife?” etc. and of his directing Timothy as to the office of a bishop, 1 Timothy 3:2. “A bishop must be the husband of one wife.”
In the government of his college he was easy and gentle, agreeable to the mildness of his own disposition and to the liberality of a gentleman and a scholar. He was remote from every suspicion of covetousness, as appears from the attestation of all who lived under his instructions, and the slender income with which he supported himself and family. His first concern was to enlarge the public interest of his college, by all due means; and be really added nothing to his own estate. Yet he performed excellent service for the university, and also for the whole church of England, the peace and unity of which in truth he above all things studied, and employed himself for composing some controversies, very lately sprung up relative to religion, the very last week before he died. He set out for London with the dean of Ely, professor of Queen's College, who treated of the controverted points with Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury, and several other bishops and learned divines, who were all unanimous, and agreed in their doctrine. This was drawn up in the form of the “Nine Articles,” commonly called the “Lambeth Articles,” because Dr. Whitaker drew them up at the palace at Lambeth. They were approved by the archbishops of both provinces, the bishops of London and Bangor, and other bishops and learned men of the church. Dr. Whitaker's journey to London being in the middle of winter, but especially his excessive hard study, and the very little time allotted for sleep, are supposed to have been the causes of the disease under which he labored on the road, and of which, having returned to Cambridge, he soon after died.
In the whole course of his sickness he discovered a great submission to the will of God; expressing himself in prayer in the words of Job, “O Lord my God, though thou killest me, yet, I am sure, with these eyes I shall see thee; for in thee do I hope.” He died Dec. 4. 1595, in the forty-seventh year of his age: having filled the professor's chair about sixteen years, and after being master of St. John’s College almost nine. He was buried with great solemnity and general lamentation in the chapel of the same college; where an epitaph is placed in the wall over his grave.
[i] Some were highly displeased at his election; complaining that so young a man should be preferred to an experienced old man; and pretending to fear that he was not sufficiently qualified for so weighty and important a charge, and that the reputation of the university would suffer. But when it was urged, what he had written, the acuteness of his disputations, and his extensive reading; added to his modesty, piety, and the venerable gravity and prudence of his behavior, equal to that of the ripest age; his adversaries were silenced, and even induced to hope, that the choice would be fully justified by his conduct. Nor were they in the least disappointed; for, his extensive reading, acute judgement, admirable style, sound and solid doctrine, shone forth in Whitaker's first prelections and sermons.
Source: Evangelical Biography Being a Complete and Faithful Account of the Lives, Sufferings and Happy Deaths of Eminent Christians. Vol 4, London: I. Stratford, 1807.