Feature of the Month: Isaac Barrow

A Brief Exposition of the Lord's Prayer and the Decalogue, to which is added The Doctrine of the Sacraments
Isaac Barrow
London: B. Aylmer, 1681
[Graveley Parish] 721


Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; at one time Professor at Cambridge of Greek, Geometry and Mathematics concurrently; and by all accounts a truly humble, sincere, and lovely person, the mathematician and theologian Isaac Barrow (1630-1677) is an impressive figure. He is remembered primarily as a mathematician, and his reputation as a mathematician was high in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, although it has sunk since. But Barrow was ordained in 1661, and it was a theologian that Barrow regarded his calling. In 1669 he renounced mathematics as incompatible with this calling, describing the time spent on the science as a waste of his time and intellect. A friend, Abraham Hill, recalled:

He was afraid, as a clergyman, of spending too much time upon Mathematics; for … he had vowed in his ordination to serve God in the Gospel of his Son, and he could not make a bible out of his Euclid, or a pulpit out of his mathematical chair

Quoted in Mordechai Feingold, ed., Before Newton

Barrow’s sermons were exceedingly highly esteemed. They invariably appealed to his hearers’ reasonableness or common sense, rather than playing upon feelings, and included practical application to daily life. Barrow took great care with them, revising them several times: his manuscripts at Trinity College, Cambridge include four or five versions for some sermons. They could be very long, the longest amounting to 43 folio pages, or three and a half hours of preaching time. Only two were published during his lifetime. But Barrow’s father and executors--one of whom was the divine, John Tillotson (later Archbishop of Canterbury)--were assiduous in having them published. Such was Barrow’s fame and the popularity of his work as published between 1678 and 1680 that in 1681 the publisher, Brabazon Aylmer, purchased manuscripts and copyright from Barrow’s father for £470 to publish further editions. Barrow’s theological work thenceforward appeared at regular intervals well into the nineteenth century, with its admirers extending well beyond Barrow’s contemporaries to such figures as the novelist Henry Fielding and the statesman William Pitt the Elder.

The book featured gives an introduction to and then a methodical explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. Elements applicable to Barrow’s own life may resonate today, such as a reference within the expounding of the commandment to honour one’s parents to the expensive education of children. As he explains in his preface, Tillotson chose to publish this particular text early because he considered it to be the most likely of Barrow’s remains ‘to be of general use and advantage … necessary and usefull to all’, and to publish it alone, rather than with other works, to render it readily affordable. Tillotson wished that Barrow had dealt with the Apostles’ Creed similarly, rather than in a series of sermons. The sermon series would, Tillotson announced, make for a future bulky volume: ‘In the mean time enjoy and make use of this’. In 1697 Tillotson indeed reproduced the 1681 book together with Barrow’s work on the creed, in a 432-page volume (cf 272 pages for the earlier title).

This copy is bound with two other works by Barrow, A Sermon upon the Passion of our Blessed Saviour (1678) and The Duty and Reward of Bounty to the Poor (1680). It is one of five works (three volumes) by Barrow at Senate House Library which formerly belonged to Thomas Hawes (c.1661-1759), who went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, shortly after Barrow’s death, and later became the rector of Croxton, in Cambridgeshire. All three volumes next passed into the ownership of Henry Trotter (1689-1766), a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and the rector of Graveley, also in Cambridgeshire, from 1723 until 1766. Trotter added another four volumes by Barrow to them. Senate House Library bears further testimony to Barrow’s enduring popularity from the presence of late-eighteenth-century editions of Barrow’s work in the library of London Bishop Beilby Porteus (1731-1809).

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