Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ames, William (1576-1633)
AMES, WILLIAM (1576–1633), puritan divine and casuist, was of an ancient family in the county of Norfolk, branches of which still exist in that county and in Somersetshire. He was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he had for his tutor the celebrated William Perkins, a theologian of moderate puritan tendencies, by whose teaching and example his own career was greatly influenced. After his tutor's death in 1602, his zeal led him into indiscretions which rendered him obnoxious to the master of his college, Valentine Cary: he refused to wear the surplice in the college chapel, and in a sermon preached in the university church (1609) attacked the prevalent diversion of card-playing as an offence against the rules of christian life no less censurable than open profanity. For this language he was suspended by the vice-chancellor ‘from the exercise of his ecclesiastical function, and from all degrees taken or to be taken’ (Letter to the Author of a Further Enquiry into the Right of Appeal, p. 32). According to the statement of Nethenus, Ames, who had been elected fellow, would have been chosen master instead of Cary (elected 1610) had he been more conformable to the established discipline. This would sufficiently account for the unfriendly feeling between the two, and for the fact that Ames shortly afterwards quitted the college and the university, persuaded so to do, says Nethenus, by Cary himself, who dared not expel him (Præf. Introd. in edition of Latin Works by Nethenus). On leaving Cambridge Ames sought to settle at Colchester as pastor of the congregation there, but was forbidden to preach by the Bishop of London. Under these circumstances he seems to have gained the sympathy of some opulent English merchants, to whom he was recommended by his doctrinal views, and at their expense was sent, together with one Parker, to Leyden, for the purpose of engaging in controversy with the supporters of the English church. According to one account (see life in Chalmers's Dict.) he was compelled to leave England by the hostility of Archbishop Bancroft; this statement, however, Nethenus (ut supra) declares to have taken its origin in certain misrepresentations of Episcopius. About the year 1613 he became involved in a controversy with Grevinchovius, the minister of the church of the Remonstrants (or Arminians) at Rotterdam; and, according to the assertion of his biographer, obtained so signal an advantage over his antagonist, that the latter became a laughing-stock even to the youngest theological students in the city. About this time Ames married the daughter of Dr. Burgess, chaplain to Sir Horace Vere, the English governor of Brill in Holland, and, on Dr. Burgess resigning his chaplaincy, succeeded to his post. Vere, however, was prevailed upon by the authorities in England to dismiss Ames; and we next hear of the latter as employed by the Calvinistic party, at a salary of four florins a day, to watch the proceedings of the synod of Dort (1618–19), giving his opinion and advice when required. Some theological theses which Ames put forth at this time were severely criticised, owing apparently to their being treated in too scholastic a manner. Mackovius, professor of theology at the university of Franeker, came forward in Ames's defence, and was himself attacked; but after a lengthened controversy, which stirred all theological Friesland, a formal decision (preserved by Nethenus) was eventually given by the recognised authorities in theological doctrine in favour of both. The conclusions of the synod of Dort favoured the Calvinistic party, and when the delegates from Dort repaired to England to present the acts of the synod to King James, occasion was taken to request Abbot, the archbishop, to give his assent to the appointment of Ames as head of a small theological college at Leyden, to which office he had already been nominated. Abbot replied that he was glad to hear that any countryman of his was held worthy of the post of professor in such a distinguished seat of learning, but added that Ames was no obedient son of the church, being a rebel against her authority (Præf. Introd.). An invitation to the theological chair at Franeker now appeared to offer the exiled scholar a permanent retreat; but here again his appointment would have been set aside by the exertions of his enemies, had it not been for the good offices of one Herwood, a military officer, with Prince Maurice. Ames entered upon his duties at Franeker in May 1622, and delivered on the occasion an oration on Urim and Thummim. He was subsequently chosen rector of the university, and his inaugural address on assuming the office (1626), and also that on his retirement from it, are still preserved (Latin Works, ed. Nethenus, v. 48, ii. 407). His tenure of his professorship, which lasted upwards of ten years, must be looked upon as the most important period of his life, his reputation as a theologian and his ability as a teacher attracting students, not only from all parts of the United Provinces, but also from Hungary, Poland, and Russia (Præf. Introd.). The air of Franeker, however, being found unsuited to his health, owing to an asthma from which he suffered, he removed to Rotterdam, with the twofold object of filling the post of pastor to the English church in that city, and of presiding over an English college which it was proposed to found there. Shortly after his arrival Rotterdam was visited by an inundation, and Ames, in effecting his escape from his house by night, contracted an illness through exposure, which resulted in his death in the month of November 1633, in his fifty-eighth year.
By his first wife Ames had no family; but by his second marriage with the daughter of a gentleman named Sletcher he had a son and a daughter. He appears to have died in necessitous circumstances, for his family received assistance from the town council at Rotterdam, and eventually sailed for New England, taking with them his library, which was hailed as an acquisition of great value by the theological students of the youthful colony.
In the opinion of his contemporaries his genius was better adapted for the professor's chair than for the pulpit. In controversy he was distinguished as a champion of Calvinistic views in opposition to the Arminian doctrines which, during the latter part of his life, began to gain ground both in England and abroad; and his ‘Medulla Theologiæ,’ a system of Calvinistic theology, has been frequently reprinted. His ‘Fresh Suit against Roman Ceremonies,’ which was passing through the press at the time of his death, is highly praised by Orme (Life of Baxter, p. 19) as an able exposition from the presbyterian standpoint of the chief points of difference between the puritans and the school of theology represented by Richard Hooker. The work, however, by which Ames chiefly merits to be remembered by posterity is his treatise ‘De Conscientia, ejus Jure et Casibus,’ first published in the year preceding his death. It was an elaborate attempt to make the application of the general principles of christian morality more certain and clear in relation to particular cases, and served to make the name of ‘Amesius’ classical in the schools of moral philosophy. His biographer speaks of it as removing a reproach from the learning of protestantism, and relieving its teachers from the necessity of resorting to ‘the Philistines’ for assistance in the determination of nice points in cases of conscience. Among Ames's other works the chief are his ‘Bellarminus enervatus,’ often reprinted at Amsterdam, London, and Oxford; his ‘Coronis ad Collationem Hagiensem’ (12mo), a confutation of the Arminian arguments against the Calvinistic clergy of the United Provinces; his ‘Antisynodalia’ (Franeker, 12mo, 1629)—against the Remonstrants; and his ‘Demonstratio Logicæ Veræ’ (Leyden, 12mo, 1632). The ‘Puritanismus Anglicanus’ (1610), an exposition of the views of the English puritans, is a Latin version by Ames of an English original by another writer, W. Bradshaw, of which latter no edition appeared until the year 1641. His Latin works were collected and published at Amsterdam in five volumes, 16mo (1658), by his admirer and biographer Nethenus.[Life by Nethenus in Præfatio Introductoria, prefixed to edition of his works above mentioned; Biographia Britannica; Benjamin Hanbury's Historical Memorials, i. 533; Fuller's History of University of Cambridge (ed. Prickett and Wright), p. 301; C. H. Coopers Annals of Cambridge, iii. 34; Neal's History of the Puritans, i. 532.]