Plaque in the English Presbyterian Church in Amsterdam.
Matthew Poole (or Pole) was a Presbyterian minister, a renowned theologian and biblical scholar. He lived at a time of extreme religious upheaval following the English Civil Wars and the Restoration of Charles II.
Some documents suggest that Matthew Poole was born in York about 1624 but the dates of his baptism and his university entrance indicate that it might have been slightly later, probably in 1626. He was the son of Francis Poole and Mary, the daughter of Alderman Topham of York and was baptised on 6 December 1626 at St Cuthbert’s church on Peasholme Green. Little is known of his early life until he was admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge on 2 July 1645. He graduated with a BA at the beginning of 1649 in the month that Charles I was beheaded and was ordained under the Presbyterian system of Church government which had been introduced by Parliament a few years earlier. The Church of England hierarchy had been abolished, so Poole had to apply for ordination to a classis, a governing body of elders, rather than a bishop. He took up his first appointment at the rectory of St Michael-le-Querne in the City of London. This was Poole’s only preferment and he seems to have had no further connection with York. He was awarded his Cambridge MA in 1652 and a further MA at Oxford University in 1657 when its Chancellor, Richard Cromwell, paid an official visit.
During the Commonwealth, press censorship was lifted and Poole enjoyed the freedom of being able to publish the first of many controversial tracts criticising the more extreme views of newly-emerging sects and also of the Anglican Church. The first appeared in 1654, attacking the Unitarian John Biddle, and was given the striking title The Blasphemer Slain with the Sword of the Spirit. At this time he also proposed a successful scheme to fund the university studies of promising young men who intended to become Presbyterian ministers. It raised £900, a large sum in those days, but the scheme was abandoned after the Restoration. In 1658 he published another tract, this time attacking the proposal that unordained men might be allowed to preach. This was the province of only ordained ministers in Poole’s opinion.
Before Charles II returned to England from exile in Holland in 1660, he issued the Declaration of Breda. He had seen what dreadful divisions religion had caused during the civil wars and promised ‘a liberty to tender consciences’ and that ‘no-one be disquieted or called in question for difference of opinion in matter of religion’. Although the Anglican Church would be re-established, Charles, as its head, envisaged an inclusive church with as many dissenters as possible being accommodated within it. Of all the religious groups it seemed that the Presbyterians, who differed from Anglicans in their system of church government and ways of worship but not in basic doctrine, might be the easiest to assimilate.
Poole’s sermon at St Paul’s
The king returned at the end of May and, on 26 August 1660, Poole preached a sermon at St Paul’s pleading for the retention of simplicity in church services. He feared that elaborate ceremonies, robes and vestments, so much a feature at the time of Charles I and Archbishop Laud, and detested by Presbyterians, would be reintroduced. Although the king wished to be conciliatory, his ‘Cavalier Parliament’, elected in 1661, sought to stamp out dissent and in 1662 passed the Act of Uniformity. This imposed a new Book of Common Prayer which prescribed the form of public prayers, the administration of sacraments and other rites of the Anglican Church. It stated that all members of Parliament should be communicants and all clergy ordained by a bishop. The Cromwellian Parliament had abolished episcopal ordination under the Presbyterian system, so it had now to be reintroduced.
Matthew Poole found it impossible to comply with the terms of the Act and was forced to resign, becoming one of some 2,000 “ejected ministers” whose consciences would not let them continue in the established church. Many left with great regret. Perhaps Matthew Poole felt much as the minister of St John’s in Exeter did when he addressed his flock for the last time in August 1662:
I beg that you will not interpret our nonconformity to be an act of unpeaceableness and disloyalty. We will do anything for His Majesty but sin. We will hazard anything for him but our souls. We hope we could die for him, only we dare not be damned for him. We make no question however we may be accounted of him; we shall be found loyal and obedient at our appearance before God’s tribunal
Around half of the ejected ministers went on to form nonconformist congregations and were lost to the Anglican Church for good, many of them highly educated and caring pastors. Others became schoolmasters but Poole, having some small financial resources, was able to concentrate now on studying the bible, writing and publishing. Although he did preach from time to time, he does not seem to have tried to gather a congregation. In 1666 he published Vox clamantis in deserto (Voice crying in the wilderness) which was very critical of the current ecclesiastical situation. Knowing of his outspoken views the new Government identified Poole as a possible troublemaker in the early days of the Restoration, but he seems to have stayed on reasonable terms with the church authorities. In fact it was William Lloyd, who was later to become Bishop of Worcester, who suggested to him that he begin compiling the work for which he is now best remembered.
Poole began this in 1666. Entitled Synopsis Criticorum (Synopsis of Interpreters) it contained summaries of the work of biblical commentators from early Jewish doctors and the early Church Fathers, to works of the Reformation and post-Reformation scholars. Its five volumes took 10 years to complete. Eight bishops and five continental scholars added their names to the prospectus for the Synopsis and a royal patent was granted in October 1667. Sir Thomas Fairfax, the Parliamentary military commander, also admired Poole’s work and, on his death in 1671, bequeathed him £10 ‘towards the carrying on of his Synopsis of the Cretics’. In the early days of his working on the Synopsis, Poole’s wife, Elizabeth, died aged 38. Little is known of her except that her maiden name was Symons and that she was buried on 11 August 1668 in Holborn.
In a contemporary account, Edmund Calamy (1671-1732), himself a Presbyterian minister and historian, the son and grandson of ejected clergy, describes Matthew Poole’s intense way of working at this time. Calamy published a list of the ejected ministers with ‘the Characters and Works of many of them’, collecting information from all over the country and recording names which would otherwise have been forgotten. Poole, he tells us, rose ‘very early in the Morning, about three or four a-Clock’, took a raw egg at about eight or nine, another about 12 and then continued his studies until late afternoon. He would then go out and spend the evening at the home of a friend, frequently Alderman Ashhurst. ‘At such Times he would be exceedingly but innocently merry, very much diverting both himself and his Company,’ says Calamy. When it was time to go home he would then ‘begin some very grave and serious Discourse, and when he found the Company was compos’d and serious, he would bid them good Night, and go home. This Course was doubtless very serviceable to his Health, and tended to enable him to go through the great Fatigue of his studies.’
In September 1678 a certain Titus Oates, a renegade Anglican priest, revealed that he had uncovered a Roman Catholic plot to murder Charles II. This completely fictitious Popish Plot led to the execution of 22 innocent people between 1678 and 1681 before Oates was finally discredited. Oates named Matthew Poole as a possible target for assassination because of two tracts he had published in 1666 and 1667 attacking the Roman Catholic religion. At this stage the so-called plot had not been revealed as fabricated, nor Titus Oates as a perjurer, but Poole chose to ignore the warning and carried on working and socialising as usual. One evening, however, on his way back from a visit to Alderman Ashhurst with a friend, he was frightened by two men. They were standing at the entrance to a narrow passageway and apparently one called out to the other ‘Here he is’ but his companion told him to leave him alone because ‘there is somebody with him’. Poole felt then that, had he been on his own, he might well have been murdered and took the decision to leave London as soon as possible and join the congregation of the English Presbyterian Church in Amsterdam. Only a year after his arrival he died on 12 October 1679 and was buried in a vault under the church. At the time he was still working on his English Annotations on the Holy Bible and had reached Isaiah. Friends and colleagues completed the work for him. Calamy mentions an unsubstantiated rumour that Poole’s was not a natural death but that he had, in fact, been poisoned.
Matthew Poole was survived by at least one son, Matthew Henry? (1650-1697).
Matthew Poole’s best-known works
Synopsis criticorum aliorumque sacrae scripturae interpretum (1666-76)
The Blasphemer slain with the sword of the Spirit (1654)
Vox clamatis in deserto (1666)
The Nullity of the Romish Faith (1666)
A Dialogue between a Popish Priest and an English Protestant (1667)
English Annotations on the Holy Bible (first published in 1685)
Copies of some of the works of Matthew Poole are housed in York Minster Library. Most are written in Latin but modern scholars are now producing English translations.
Nicholas Keene, ‘Poole, Matthew (1624?-1679)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004, online entry accessed 2 January 2016)
A.G. Matthews, Calamy Revised being a revision of Edmund Calamy’s Account of the Ministers and others ejected and silenced 1660-2 (Oxford, 1934)
David L. Wykes, ‘Calamy, Edmund (1671–1732)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004, accessed 15 May 2016)
Kenneth Hylson-Smith, The Churches in England from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, Vol. 1 1558-1688 (Norwich, 1996)
George Ornsby, Diosecan Histories: York (London, 1882)
© Dinah Tyszka