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The knowledge of Christ crucified

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Historical Introduction and Notes

by Graham Windsor, 369 Pump Lane, Gillingham, Kent ME8 7TJ, UK. Tel.: 01634  388567

Henry Wilkinson (1616-1690), preacher of this sermon, was principal of Magdalen Hall, Oxford from 1648 to 1662. He was then something of an academic, at a time (the Commonwealth period), when Puritan ideas and practices were alive and well in Oxford. Magdalen Hall, whose buildings lay just outside the present Magdalen College on the High Street, was a distinct institution from the College (by which it was eventually taken over in the 19th century). It was in fact even more popular than the College in the first half of the 17th century, thanks not least to its active principal during those years. He was John Wilkinson, Henry's uncle.

Henry was the son of William Wilkinson, curate of Adwick -le -Street in Yorkshire. Adwick, to which Henry refers in his sermon, was about 8 miles NW of Doncaster on the main through road which is now the A1. He is thus one of the many north country men who made such an impact on English religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Owing no doubt to his uncle's influence, Henry went down to Oxford for some schooling under Edward Sylvester. He matriculated (i.e. his name was entered for study) at Magdalen Hall , 10 October, 1634. At 18 he was already a fairly mature beginner (for those days), so he received his B.A. on 28 November, 1635, and his M.A. on 26 May, 1638. An academic career perhaps beckoned, for he was respected as a tutor, and as dean of his "house" at the Hall. However, the Civil War was about to break, with Oxford the main royalist centre. Henry was on Parliament's side, so he took the Covenant and was installed in 1642 as lecturer at Buckminster, a few miles S of Grantham, Leicestershire. Thence he became vicar of Epping 30 Oct. 1643. Epping, 25 miles NE of London, still sported its ancient forest.

That he was still in touch with Oxford affairs is shown by this sermon, and it wasn't long before he returned to the University in May 1647 as one of its "Visitors" or inspectors. He was able to resume his academic career, beginning on 14 April, 1648, with the B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity) which was the next logical step in the course of honours.  This was followed immediately by his appointment as Fellow and vice-principal of Magdalen College, from which it was a short step (literally) to his old college, Magdalen Hall, where he replaced his uncle John as principal.

24 March, 1649, he was appointed Whyte's Professor of moral philosophy. Shortly afterwards, on May 19, he entertained Cromwell, Fairfax and other victorious commanders (the king having been recently executed), where he is said to have publicly "prayed hard" for the army. The Church of England was still limping along, hence his appointment as prebendary of Worcester Cathedral in July 1652, a post to which, however, he was never actually installed. He remained at Oxford through the Commonwealth period as one of the influential Heads of colleges. He was known as "Dean Harry", to distinguish him from a slightly older Henry Wilkinson, himself our Henry's tutor for a time. The latter (1610-75) was known as "Long Harry". He was a member of the Westminster Assembly of divines, then Canon of Christ Church (a cathedral and college in Oxford). On 27 May 1658 the Council of State in London voted our Henry 60 pounds per annum in view of his Carfax sermons. These may very well include this sermon and others like it, for they were preached at St Mary's which is but a stone's throw from Carfax (French "carrefours"), the main crossroads in old Oxford.

When Charles II returned from exile in 1660, the writing was on the wall for many of the Puritan academics in Oxford. Henry was one of those who would not conform to the new requirements. During a visit to the Hall in Sep. 1661, Edward Hyde now Chancellor of the University reprimanded Wilkinson for the number of "factious and debauched persons" he found in the Hall. As Wilkinson was always noted as a disciplinarian, it's probable Hyde was in one of his (usual) fault-finding moods. When August 1662 came along, some Oxford Heads wished Wilkinson to stay on, in view of his known character.

However his conscience could not stomach the Act of Uniformity. After retiring to Buckminster for a while, he moved to Gosfield near Braintree in Essex (home from home to Puritans, this), where from 1669-72 he actually officiated at church services as there was no vicar. His refusal to wear the surplice led to a citation on June 6, 1671, followed by his being pronounced "contumacious" and excommunicated on July 19. The next year, 16 May 1672, he decided to be licensed as a presbyterian minister at Gosfield, meetings to be held at his house. No doubt this was thought to be cocking a snook at the establishment, and as soon as the political weather changed, he was convicted of unlawful preaching at nearby Sible Hedingham, and (tragedy for a minister!) his library was confiscated. In November, 1680, we find him about 10 miles NE of Gosfield, at Great Cornard, near Sudbury in Suffolk, and it was there he died on May 13, 1690. He was buried a few miles NE at Milden near Lavenham.

Henry married twice: first, Elizabeth, daughter of Anthony Giffard of Devon (she died 8 Dec., 1654, aged 41); second, Anne. He had children by both wives.

Anthony a Wood, certainly no lover of Puritans, commends Henry as "courteous in speech and carriage, communicative of his knowledge, generous and charitable to the poor, and so public-spirited that he always minded the common good more than his private concerns".

The copy of his sermons I have been using (owned by Mr Gervase Duffield of Appleford) was corrected in his own handwriting and presented to his mother with the following inscription: "For my honoured mother Mrs Martha Pecke from your observant son Henry Wilkinson the author". It was printed at Oxford by H.H. for Thomas Robinson, 1660. Its title: Three Decads of Sermons, lately preached to the University at St. Mary's Church, Oxford.

Henry is clear rather than profound, and a preacher rather than a theologian. His published works, however, are varied and illustrate the solid contribution made by men of the second rank to godly life and learning of the period. He published

Conciones tres apud academicos, 1654

Brevis tractatus de iure diei dominicae, 1654

The Hope of Glory, 1657

Conciones sex ad academicos, 1658

The Gospel Embassy, 1658

De impotentia liberi arbitrii ad bonum spirituale, 1658

The Doctrine of Contentment, 1671

Two Treatises, 1681

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