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Ames, William

Ames, William

(b. Ipswich, Suffolk, England, 1576; d. Rotterdam, Netherlands, I November 1633)

theology, natural philosophy.

Ames was the son of a prosperous Ipswich merchant, William Ames, and his wife, Joan Snelling. His parents died during his childhood, and he was brought up by an uncle, Robert Ames, at Oxford. He proceeded to Cambridge, where he matriculated as a pensioner at Christ’s College in 1593/1594, obtaining his B.A. in 1597/1598 and his M.A. in 1601. As a fellow of Christ’s college from 1601 until 1610, Ames took up the controversial theological position of his tutor, the celebrated Puritan William Perkins (1558–1602). Ames became a central figure in Puritan agitation at Cambridge, with the result that, in 1609, he was suspended from his degrees and expelled from his college and the university.

For a short time Ames preached at Colchester, but the opposition of George Abbot, bishop of London, caused him to emigrate to the Netherlands in 1610. There he occupied minor clerical positions at Leiden and The Hague, and became chaplain to Sir Horace Vere, English governor at Brill, succeeding another well-known Puritan, John Burgess, whose daughter became Ames’s first wife. She died childless shortly after the marriage.

Ames achieved prominence at the Synod of Dordrecht (1618), where he advised the Calvinist faction. As a result of his success in the theological debates emanating from the synod, he was appointed to the chair of divinity at the University of Franeker in Friesland, in 1622. There, his erudition and abilities as a teacher attracted students from many parts of Europe, one of them the future first head of Harvard College, Nathaniel Eaton. Ames was rector of the university from 1626 to 1632. During this Franeker period he wrote most of his philosophical and theological works. He was not entirely settled in Holland, however, for the climate did not favor his health. Plans were made for emigration to New England (1629), but instead he became minister and lecturer to the English congregation at Rotterdam(1633). Among his colleagues there were Huge Peter and Thomas Hooke, both of whom eventually settled in America. Soon after his arrival at Rotterdam, Ames died of a fever contracted after his house was flooded. His second wife, Joan Fletcher Ames, a relation of Governor John Winthrop, and their three children went to New England in 1637. Two sons were educated at Harvard College.

As the numerous editions of Ames’s works indicate, he occupied a prominent role in the Protestant theology of the first half of the seventeenth century, systematizing and developing certain aspects of the Calvinist theology of Perkins. Two particular points-practical divinity and Ramist philosophymake Ames significant, not only for theology but also for the general intellectual history of the seventeenth century.

First, he stressed the role of “practical divinity,” in reaction against the tendency of contemporary Dutch philosophers to divorce ethics from theology. By analyzing the nature of conscience, it could be shown that the tenets of theology and ethics had the same origin. The unity of theology and ethics was also proved by their mutual reliance on the Scriptures. Ames’s resultant system of divinity paid the greatest attention to the rules of personal behavior and organization of the community. Like Bacon, Ames directed all Christians to the practical reform of society. This practical divinity certainly influenced the scientific outlooks of such figures as John Winthrop, Jr., Samuel Hartlib, and Robert Boyle, directing them to problems of social usefulness.

One of the reasons for the enormous popularity of Ames’s writings was their strict logical organization. Through Alexander Richardson, George Downham, and Perkins, Ames had become an enthusiastic exponent of Ramist philosophy: his Demonstratio logicae verae and Theses logicae were commentaries or Romus’ Dialecticae libri duo. His theological works were organized according to the Ramist dichotomies, and the Ramist logic was applied to the interpretation of the dictates of conscience and the Scriptures. In this system, the scholastic boundaries of knowledge were broken down. Theology impinged on natural philosophy, and mathematics and physics were seen as having inherent moral and spiritual value. These three subjects, the artes speciales, took their place alongside the three artes generales— dialectic, grammar, and rhetoric. All were subject to logical analysis, and all amalgamated into an encyclopedic system, the Technometria.

The apprehension of the principles of the arts was seen as an important moral duty. Ames adopted an empirical approach to this problem, believing that these principles were derived from a knowledge of the objects of nature, by a process of observation and experiment that he recognized as akin to the philosophy of induction announced in Bacon’s Novum organum (Technometria, §§ 69,70). This encyclopedic and empirical view of nature appealed greatly to the Puritan educationalists of New England, and Ames’s works became the dominant forces in the curriculum of the newly founded college of Harvard, as well as in Cambridge, the Low Countries, and Transylvania. Because of the influence of such authors as Ames, there was constant interaction between theology, ethics, and natural philosophy in the areas of Calvinist influence during the seventeenth century.


1.Original Works. Philosophemata (Leiden, 1643; Cambridge, 1646; Amsterdam, 1651) is the collected edition of Ames’s philosopohical writings. Certain theological works are included in The Works of the Reverend and Faithfull Minister of Christ William Ames (London, 1643). Ames’s collected works are Opera, quae Latine scripsit omnia, Matthias Nethemus, ed., 5 vols. (Amsterdam, 1658), with a biographical account in the Preface; the philosophical writings are in Vol. V.

Some of Ames’s individual works are Medulla theologia (Franeker, 1623; Amsterdam, 1627, 1659), translated into English as The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, Drawne Out of the Holy Scriptures, and the Interpreters Thereof (London, ca. 1638, 1643); De Conscientia et eius iure vel casibus libri quinque (Amsterdam, 1631, 1670), translated into English as Conscience With the Power and Cases Thereof (London [?], 1639 [?], 1643); Demonstratio logicae verae Leiden, 1632; Cambridge, 1646); Disputatio theologica adversus metaphysicam Leiden, 1632; Hanau, 1640; Cambridge, 1646); Technomertria, omnium singularum artium fines addequate circumscribens (Amsterdam–Leiden, 1632, 1633); and Theses logicae (CAmbridge, 1646).

II.Secondary Literature. See “William Ames,” in Biographia Britannica, A. Kippis, ed., I (London, 1747), 135–137; J. Bass Mullinger, “William Ames,”in Dictionary of National Biography, I (London, 1885), 355–357; Paul Dibon, La philosophie néerlandaise au siécle d’or, I (Amsterdam, 1954), 151–154; G.L. Kittredge,” A Note on Dr. William Ames,” in Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 13 (1910/1911), 60–69; Perry Miller,The New England Mind (New York, 1939); S.E. Morison, The Founding of Harvard College (Cambridge. Mass., 1935), and Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1936), I, 164–165; George L. Mosse, The Holy Pretence (Oxford, 1957), ch. 5; Nieuw Nederlandsch biographisch Woordenboek (Amsterdam, 1911– 1937), VI, 36; J. Piele, Biographical Register of Christ’s College, 2 vols. (Cambridge. 1910), I, 211–212; Karl Reuter, Wilhelm Amesius der f hrende Theologe des erwachenden reformierten Pietismus (Neukirchen, 1940); Keith L. Sprunger,”Technometria: a Prologue to Puritan Theology,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 29 (1968), 115–122; and Hugo Visscher, Gulielmus Amesius. Zijn Leven en Werken (Haarlem, 1894), theology thesis, Leiden University.

Charles Webster

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