Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Culverwel, Nathanael

CULVERWEL, NATHANAEL (d. 1651?), divine, was entered as a pensioner at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 5 April 1633, when he is described as of Middlesex. He became B.A. in 1636, M.A. in 1640, was elected a fellow in 1642, and died not later than 1651. Nothing else is known of his life. A Nicholas Culverwel, who was a citizen of London in the reign of Elizabeth, had two daughters married to Laurence Chaderton [q. v.], master of Emmanuel, and to William Whitaker [q. v.], master of St. John's College, Cambridge. Nicholas had two sons, Ezekiel and Samuel. Ezekiel, educated at Emmanuel, was successively rector of Stambridge and vicar of Felstead, Essex; he was suspended for nonconformity in 1583; and published a ‘Treatise on Faith,’ 1623, which reached a seventh edition, edited by his nephew, William Gough, after his death. Samuel is said by Clark to have been a ‘famous preacher.’ Nathanael Culverwel was presumably a member of this family. His works were all college sermons or exercises. In 1651 William Dillingham (who in 1642 became fellow, and in 1653 master of Emmanuel) published ‘Sacred Optics,’ a discourse by Culverwel on 1 Corinthians xiii. 12. In 1652 Dillingham published ‘An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature, with several other Treatises, viz. the Schism, the Act of Oblivion, the Child's Return, the Panting Soul, Mount Ebal, the White Stone, Spiritual Optics, the Worth of Souls, by Nathanael Culverwel, M.A., and lately fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.’ To this were prefixed commendatory letters by Dillingham and Richard Culverwel, the author's brother (d. 1688, aged 67, after being rector of Grundisburg, Suffolk, forty years). From some phrases in them it appears that Culverwel had suffered from ill-health, and that some people had been inclined to charge him with conceit. The ‘Light of Nature’ was republished in 1654, 1661, and 1669. It was edited by John Brown, D.D., of Edinburgh in 1857, with a critical essay by John Cairns of Berwick. In this edition the numerous classical and Hebrew citations, which are supposed to have frightened former readers, are replaced by translations.

Culverwel's ‘Light of Nature’ is a treatise of remarkable eloquence, power, and learning. Culverwel, brought up in the great puritan college, was a contemporary of Cudworth, Whichcote, and John Smith, all members of the same college. His sympathies were clearly with the puritans during the civil war (see Mount Ebal, p. 89), and he belonged theologically to the remarkable school of Cambridge platonists. His writings were among the first of that school; his learning is great, and he is as familiar with Bacon, Descartes, Lord Herbert, and Lord Brooke as with the scholastic writers. His style, however, is vivid and forcible in spite of frequent citations and occasional quaintness; and is free from the fanciful neo-platonism of some of his successors. The chief interest of his book is in his theory of knowledge, which coincides remarkably with that of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. He quotes Herbert with cordial appreciation, though disapproving his freethinking tendencies. While strongly maintaining the existence of ‘clear and indelible principles’ stamped and printed upon the being of man, he argues against connate ‘ideas’ much in the vein of Locke. Upon this question he approves the teaching of Herbert. His ethical and theological doctrine is nearly the same as that of Cudworth. An excellent account of Culverwel's treatises is in Tulloch's ‘Rational Theology.’

[Information from the Master of Emmanuel; preface to Light of Nature (1857), by John Brown; Sir W. Hamilton on Reid's Works, p. 782; Herbert's Autobiography, ed. by S. Lee (1886), pp. li, lii; Tulloch's Rational Theology (1874), ii. 410–26.]

L. S.