Middleton, Conyers a celebrated divine and scholar of the Church of England, was born December 27,1683, at Richmond, in Yorkshire. His father, the Reverend William Middleton, rector of Hinderwell, gave him a liberal education. At the age of seventeen he was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, of which college he was two years afterwards chosen a scholar. He took his degree of B.A. in 1702, and was shortly after ordained deacon. In 1706 he was elected a fellow of Trinity' College; and in 1708 joined with other fellows of his college in a petition to the bishop of Ely, as the visitor of the college, against Bentley (q.v.), the master. Middleton, who was then a young man, did not take a prominent part in this proceeding; but the feelings of hostility to the master originated by these disputes sank deep into his mind, and made him subsequently the most determined and dangerous of Bentley's enemies. Soon after this petition, he withdrew himself from Bentley's jurisdiction by marrying a lady of ample fortune. He subsequently resided for a short time in the Isle of Ely, on a small living in the gift of his wife, but the unhealthiness of the situation induced him to return to Cambridge at the end of a year. In October, 1717, when George I visited the University of Cambridge, Middleton, with several others, was created doctor of divinity by mandate; but Bentley, who was regius professor of divinity, refused to confer the degree unless a fee of four guineas was given to him in addition to the so-called "broadpiece," which had by ancient custom been allowed as a present on this occasion. This demand was resisted by Middleton, who, however, at last consented to pay it under protest. An appeal to court proved unfavorable to Bentley, but still he kept the money. Middleton thereupon sued Bentley for it in the vice- chancellor's court; and Bentley, refusing to pay the money or to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court, was deprived of his degrees. Bentley petitioned the king for relief from that sentence, and, as he was a firm supporter of the Whig ministry then in power, it was feared that a commission might be issued by the crown to inquire into the state of the university. Middleton, to justify himself and his friends, published A full and impartial Account of all the late Proceedings in the University of Cambridge against Dr. Bentley; which, says Dr. Monk, "was the first published specimen of a style which, for elegance, purity, and ease, yields to none in the whole compass of the English language. The acrimonious and resentful feeling which prompted every line, is in some measure disguised by the pleasing language, the harmony of the periods, and the vein of scholarship which enliven the whole tract" (Monk, Life of Bentley, page 388). A few months afterwards Middleton published A Second Part of the full and impartial Account of all the late Proceedings, and also A true Account of the present State of Trinity College, in Cambridge, under the oppressive Government of their Master, R. Bentley, late D.D. These books seem to have been written in order to destroy the suspicion which many then had, viz. that the proceedings of the university against Dr. Bentley did not flow so much from any real demerit in the man, as from a certain spirit of opposition to the court, the great promoter of whose interest he was thought to be. Middleton, in one of his pamphlets, had very imprudently declared "that the fellows of Trinity College had not been able to find any proper court in England which would receive their complaints;" and Bentley, perceiving that his adversary had been guilty of an expression which might be considered as a libel upon the administration of justice in the whole kingdom, brought an action against him, in which the jury returned a verdict of guilty. The court, however, was unwilling to pronounce sentence, and the matter was eventually settled by Middleton's begging pardon of Bentley, and consenting to pay all the expenses of the action.
But Middleton had not done with Bentley yet. The latter, in 1720, published proposals for a new edition of the Greek Testament, with a specimen of the intended work. The former, in 1721, published Remarks, Paragraph by Paragraph, upon the Proposals lately published by R. Bentley for a new Edition of the Greek Testament.
Although Middleton professed, in the commencement of the pamphlet, that "his remarks were not drawn from him by personal spleen or envy to the author of the Proposals, but by a serious conviction that he had neither talents nor materials proper for the work he had undertaken. and that religion was much more likely to receive detriment than service from it," the whole tenor and style of the pamphlet showed that it was the result of the most virulent personal animosity. He followed up his attack on Bentley by Some further Remarks; and it must be conceded that these two books against Bentley are written with great acuteness and learning, and, though Bentley affected to despise them, they destroyed the credit of his Proposals so effectually that his intended publication of the New Testament came to nothing.
Upon the great enlargement of the public library at Cambridge, a new office of principal librarian was established, to which Middleton was elected, notwithstanding a violent opposition. He afterwards travelled through France and Italy, and spent some months in Rome in 1724. After his return, Middleton published his celebrated Letter from Rome (1729), in which he attempted to show that "the religion of the present Romans was derived from that of their heathen ancestors;" and that, in particular, the rites, ceremonies, dress of the priests, etc., in the Roman Catholic Church, were taken from the pagan religion. This work was received with great favor by the learned, and went through four editions in the author's lifetime. The free manner, however, in which he attacked the miracles of the Roman Catholic Church gave offence to many Anglican divines, and they charged Middleton with entertaining as little respect for the miracles of the apostles as for those of the Roman Catholic saints.
Hitherto Dr. Middleton stood well with mankind; for notwithstanding the offence he had given to some bigots by certain passages in the above- mentioned pamphlet, yet the reasonable part of Christians were well pleased with his writings, believing that he had done great service to Protestantism by his expose of the absurdities of popery. He was, in fact, a general favorite with the public, when, by the publication of a new work, Christianity as old as Creation (1731), he not only gave great offence to the clergy, but also ruined all his hopes for preferment. This letter, which was first published anonymously, was soon known to be written by Middleton. Pearce (q.v.), bishop of Rochester, replied to it, treating the author as an infidel; and so strong was the feeling against Middleton that he was in danger of losing his degree and office of librarian. Promising, however, to publish a satisfactory vindication of his course, the authorities withheld their intended degradation, and in 1732 Middleton gave to the world Sonu Remarks on Dr. Pearce's second Reply; wherein the author's sentiments, as to all the principal points in dispute, are fully, clearly, and satisfactorily explained. In this manifesto, Middleton strongly asserted his belief in Christianity, and disavowed any intention to cast doubt upon its evidences; and thereby saved himself from degradation, but not from strong suspicion of hypocrisy — a charge which has ever since attached to his name. Middleton regarded Christianity in scarcely any other light than as a republication of the law of nature, and endeavored to reduce, as far as possible, everything supernatural in the Bible to mere natural phenomena. He expressly maintained that there were contradictions in the four evangelists which could not be reconciled (Reflections on the Variations found in the Four Evangelists); he accused Matthew "of wilfully suppressing or negligently omitting three successive descents from father to son in the first chapter of his Gospel" (see volume 2:24); he asserted that the apostles were sometimes mistaken in their applications of prophecies relating to Christ (2:59); he considered " the story of the fall of man as a fable or allegory" (2:131), and, with respect to the prophecy given at the fall, he did not hesitate to declare (3:183) "that men who inquire into things will meet with many absurdities which reason must wink at, and many incredibilities which faith must digest, before they can admit the authority of this prophecy upon the evidence, of this historical narration." Such being the opinions of Middleton, it cannot excite surprise, notwithstanding his assertions to the contrary, that he should have been looked upon as a disbeliever in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
While these discussions were going on, Middleton was appointed to the professorship of natural history, which appointment he resigned in 1734. In the following year he published A Dissertation concerning the Origin of Printing in England, showing that it was first introduced and practiced by an Englishman, William Caxton, at Westminster, and not, as commonly supposed, by a foreign printer at Oxford. In 1741 he published by subscription his most celebrated work, The History of the Life of M. Tullius Cicero (Lond. 2 volumes, 4to). There were three thousand subscribers to this work, and the profits arising from its sale were so considerable as to enable Middleton to purchase a small estate at Hildersham, six miles from Cambridge, where he chiefly resided during the remainder of his life. Two years afterwards Middleton published a translation of Cicero's letters to Brutus, and of Brutus's to Cicero, with the Latin text, and a prefatory dissertation, in which he defended the authenticity of the Epistles. In 1745 he published Germana quaedam
Antiquitatis eruditae Monumenta, etc., in which he gave an account of the various specimens of ancient art which he had collected during his residence at Rome. Two years afterwards he published his Treatise on the Roman Senate, in which he maintained that all vacancies in the senate were filled up by the people. But the work which has a peculiar interest for us he published shortly after, under the title An Introductory Discourse to a larger Work, designed hereafter to be published, concerning the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church from the earliest Ages, through several successive Centuries; by which it is shown that we have no sufficient Reason to believe, upon the Authority of the primitive Fathers, that any such Powers were continued to the Church after the Days of the Apostles (1748). The Introductory Discourse to the work, and the Free Inquiry itself, elicited numerous controversial tracts. Middleton was attacked by Stebbing and Chapman, the former of whom endeavored chiefly to show that Middleton's scheme was inseparably connected with the fall of Christianity, while the latter labored to support the authority of the fathers. These attacks Middleton repelled by Some Remarks on Two Pamphlets (by Drs. Stebbing and Chapman) published against the Introduction. "The discourse," remarks Mr. Orme (Bibl. Bib. s.v.), referring to the whole controversy, "is worthy of attention, for, though the combatants on both sides carried matters too far, considerable information may be collected from them — on the character and testimony of the fathers, the nature of miracles, and on other points closely connected with the Christian revelation." The controversy began to grow very hot. Besides Stebbing and Chapman, Parker, Brook. Johnson, Dodwell, Church, and others attacked him, while he was defended by Yates, Jenkins, Toll, etc. A full list of the principal publications on the subject are enumerated by Kippis in a note to the 6th part of Doddridge's Course of Lectures (see. also Orme's Bibl. Bib.; Strong's Cat. of Engl. Theol. 1830, No. 9441 sq.; Lord Brougham, Men of Letters of the Times of George III, page 384). It was declared by Middleton's opponents that the tendency of his inquiry was to destroy the evidence of miraculous interpositions; but Middleton explicitly disavowed such intentions, and should have the benefit of the doubt. This much, however, must be admitted, that he seems never to have been so much pleased as when, by broaching some startling point of disputation, he succeeded in horrifying the minds of his orthodox brethren. Accordingly, before the theological world had recovered from the surprise and indignation into which they had been thrown by the Free Inquiry, its fearless author put forth upon the world an attack upon bishop Sherlock, entitled An Examination of the Lord Bishop of London's Discourses concerning the Use and Intent of Prophecy; with some cursory Anismadversions on his late Appendix, or additional Dissertation. containing a further Inquiry into the Mosaic Account of the Fall (1750). In this work he attempted to refute Sherlock's (q.v.) theory of a chain of prophecy running through the different portions of the Old Testament. He was refuted by Dr. Rutherforth, divinity professor at Cambridge; but Middleton, whose end seems to have been answered, which was to abuse the bishop a little, pursued the argument no further. The obstinate controversialist died with the armor on his back and the lance in his hands. He was meditating a general answer to all the objections made against the Free Inquiry; but, being seized with illness, and imagining he might not be able to go through it, he singled out Church and Dodwell, as the two most considerable of his adversaries. and employed himself in preparing a particular answer to them. This, however, he did not live to finish, but died July 28, 1750, at Hildersham, in Cambridgeshire. A little before his death, he thought it prudent to accept a small living from Sir John Frederick. A few months after his death was published his Vindication of the Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers, etc., from the Objections of Dr. Dodwell and Dr. Church. The piece is unfinished, but very able as far as it goes. In 1752 all the before-mentioned works, except The Life of Cicero, were collected and printed in four volumes, 4to, under the title of Miscellaneous Works; among which were inserted the following pieces, never before published, viz., A Preface to an intended Answer to all the Objections made against the Free Inquiry; — Some cursory Reflections on the Dispute, or Dissension, which happened at Antioch, between the Apostles Peter and Paul; — Reflections on the Variations, or, Inconsistencies, which are found among the Four Evangelists in their different Accounts of the same Facts; — An Essay on the Gift of Tongues, tending to explain the proper Notion and Nature of it, as it is described and delivered to us in the sacred Scriptures, and as it appears also to have been understood by the learned both of ancient and modern times; Some short Remarks on a Story told by the Ancients concerning St. John the Evangelist and Cerinthus the Heretic; and on the Use which is made of it by the Moderns, to enforce the Duty of shunning Heretics; — An Essay on the allegorical and literal Interpretation of the Creation and Fall of Man; — De Latinatrum literarum pronunciatione dissertatio; — Some Letters of Dr. Middleton to his Friends. A second edition of these Miscellaneous
Works was published in five volumes, 8vo, in 1755. "Dr. Middleton," says Parr, in his preface Bellendenus, "was a man of no common attainments: his learning was elegant and profound, his judgment was acute and polished, his taste was fine and correct; his style was so pure and harmonious, so vigorously flowing without being inflated, that, Addison alone excepted, he seems to me without a rival." See Leckey. Hist. of Rationalism (see Index in volume 2); Jortin, Eccles. Remarks, 1:298; Disraeli, Miscell. of Literature, Quarrels of Authors, page 313; Nichols, Lit. Anec. page 414 sq.; Knox, Essays, 2:56; N. Amer. Review, 35:440; Chancellor Kent, Course of Engl. Reading; Macaulay, Crit. and Hist. Essays, 2:132; Orme, Bibl. Bib. s.v.; Biogr. Brit. s.v.; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict. s.v.; General Biogr. Dict. s.v.; English Cyclop. s.v.; Hook, Eccles. Biogr. s.v.; Darling, Cyclop. Bibl. 1:2057; Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Authors, 2:1273 sq.; Blackwood's Magazine, 14:257; 15:461; 28:440 sq.; 32:607; Bickersteth, Christ. Student, page 298.