Henry Ainsworth

Henry Ainsworth.—This person was a celebrated scholar, and excellent divine, and a painful sufferer for nonconformity. Though little is known of him, especially during the early part of his life, his uncommon skill in Hebrew learning, and his excellent commentaries on the sacred scriptures, are held in high reputation to this day. About the year 1590, we find him a distinguished leader among the Brownists, to whom he adhered, and with whom he bore his share of grievous persecution. About the same period, among the books that were written against the church of England, and seized by authority, was one entitled "Counter-Poyson." The author of this work, though not mentioned in the first edition, was Mr. Ainsworth; and as it probably drew upon him the vengeance of the ruling prelates, so it might hasten his departure into a foreign land. Though he was a native of England, this is all that we know of him till he became a resident in Holland; but at what period he removed thither, cannot be exactly ascertained. It is most probable, however, that he accompanied the Brownists in their general banishment, in the year 1593. And it is most certain that he was in Holland in 1596, when he carried on a correspondence with the celebrated Junius. Hoornbeck relates, that during Mr. Ainsworth's abode in Holland, he made a voyage to Ireland, and there left some disciples.

Mr. Ainsworth lived at Amsterdam, where his external circumstances, like those of the church in general, were very low. He is said to have been porter to a bookseller, who, having discovered his skill in the Hebrew language, made it known to his countrymen. Mr. Roger Williams, founder of Providence Plantation in New England, in whose testimony we have reason to confide, informs us, "that he lived upon nine-pence a week, and some boiled roots." The account which the Brownists give of themselves is, "that they were almost consumed with deep poverty; loaded with reproaches; despised and afflicted by all." The reception which they met with from a people just emerging from civil and ecclesiastical oppression, was very different from what might have been expected. The civil power, commonly more friendly to a toleration than the ecclesiastical, does not, indeed, seem to have troubled them. But the Dutch clergy regarded them with a jealous eye; and they appear to have been screened from persecution chiefly by their own insignificance. During this season of tribulation, Mr. Ainsworth did not remain idle; for most of his books, which are evidently the fruit of good learning, much reading, and close application, were written at this period.

After the publication of the above piece, the next work in which we find him to have been engaged was a translation of the Brownist's Confession of Faith into Latin. It appeared in 1598, and was dedicated to the universities of Leyden, Heidelberg, Geneva, St. Andrews, and the other public seminaries of Holland, Germany, France, and Scotland. It was afterwards translated into English, and does not differ much in doctrine from the Harmony of Confessions. In this confession the Brownists did not intend to erect a standard of faith for others, and impose it upon them; but merely to vindicate themselves from the odium under which they laboured, as discontented and factious sectaries. Their conduct was very different from that of the most famous councils or synods, which while they have compiled systems of faith and tests of orthodoxy for ages and nations, have seldom failed to sow the seeds of discord and enmity among men.

After the Brownists were first settled at Amsterdam, they erected a church, as they thought, according to the model of the New Testament, choosing Mr. Francis Johnson for their pastor, and Mr. Ainsworth for doctor or teacher. The church, however, did not continue long in peace, but was torn in pieces by several unhappy divisions, as will be found particularly noticed in another place. In the first of these divisions Mr. Ainsworth took part with Mr. Johnson the pastor; but was so much grieved at the unnatural heats which the controversy excited, that he spoke of laying down his office as teacher. In the next controversy, Mr. Ainsworth took and active part against Mr. John Smyth, who had espoused sentiments similar to those of Arminius, and who rejected infant baptism. And of the third division, in which he was personally concerned, he published a particular account in a book entitled "An Animadversion to Mr. Richard Clifton's Advertisement, who under pretence of answering Mr. Chr. Laune's books, hath published another man's private letter, with Mr. Francis Johnson's Answer thereto. Which letter is here justified; the answer thereto refuted; and the true causes of the lamentable breach that hath lately fallen out in the English exiled church at Amsterdam, manifested," 1613. The occasion of this breach appears to have been a difference of opinion respecting church discipline. Upon this division, a second congregation was raised at Amsterdam under the superintendence of Mr. Ainsworth, who is said to have been succeeded by the famous Mr. John Canne, author of marginal references to the Bible. Mr. Ainsworth's enemies, to cast an odium on his memory, have been pleased to say, that, after his death, his people continued many years without a pastor, and without the administration of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper; and that they were rent by another division, one half following Mr. John de Cluse, and the other Mr. Canne. But these representations evidently designed to reproach these persecuted people, are unsupported by sufficient evidence, and several particulars are denied and refuted by one who lived in those times, and obtained the most correct information. With regard to Mr. Ainsworth himself, he is reproachfully charged with having changed his opinions from a conformist to a separatist, and from a separatist to a conformist, no less than six times; but, as there does not appear the least shadow of truth in the charge, the deserved odium will doubtless fall upon its bigoted author.

It is a circumstance which deserves to be recorded to the honour of Mr. Ainsworth, that in the midst of the above unhappy controversies, in which his own pen was actively employed, he preserved a meek and true christian spirit. Though he is represented by his enemies to have been extremely rigid, intemperate, and severe, the contrary is very evident. Mr. John Paget having challenged him to a disputation upon points of church discipline, Mr. Ainsworth, in a letter dated July 12, 1617, returned the following mild and peaceable answer:—"If any thing pass betwixt you and me about these points, you shall be the first provoker of it. And if you desire it, I will not refuse. It shall be at your own choice. As I love not to begin controversy, so I will not be wanting to do any good I can, to you or any other; or to defend any point of truth which God hath given me to see and witness, when I am duly called thereunto."

Mr. Ainsworth cultivated, at the same time, those studies which were more congenial to his profession, and more beneficial to the best interests of men. His great work the "Annotations on the Five Books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Song of Solomon," was published separately, in the year 1612, and several following years; and afterwards collected and printed in London, in one volume folion, 1627, and again in 1639. This last edition is said to be very scarce. As to the execution of the work, its great worth has been established by the strongest testimonies of foreign as well as British divines. Succeeding critics have adopted his remarks, and he is frequently cited by modern commentators. Dr. Doddridge says, "Ainsworth on the Pentateuch, Psalms, and Solomon's Song, is a good book, full of very valuable Jewish learning; and his translation is, in many places, preferred to our own, especially on the Psalms."

The manner of Mr. Ainsworth's death, as related by Mr. Neal, was sudden and singular, and not without strong suspicion of violence. For it is observed that he, having found a diamond of great value in the streets of Amsterdam, advertised it in print; and when the owner, who was a Jew, came to demand it, he offered him any acknowledgment he desired. Mr. Ainsworth, however, though poor, would accept nothing except a conference with some of the rabbis, upon the prophecies of the Old Testament relating to the Messiah, which the other promised; but not having sufficient interest to obtain the favour, it is thought he caused him to be poisoned. Other accountants say, that he obtained the conference, and so confounded the Jews, that, from spite and malice, they in this manner put a period to his life. Some writers, however, doubt the truth of this account, because it is never mentioned by any of the editors of his posthumous pieces. His death, by whatever cause it was produced, happened about the close of the year 1622, or the beginning of 1623.

Mr. Ainsworth was a man of great piety, uncommon erudition, and extraordinary abilities. Whatever engaged his pen was treated with proper respect, even by his adversaries; who, while they disapproved his sentiments, could not fail to admire his abilities. The famous Bishop Hall, who wrote against the Brownists, always speaks of him as the greatest man of their party; and refers to him as their doctor, their chief, their rabbi. He was unquestionably a person of profound learning, exquisitely versed in a knowledge of the scriptures, and deeply read in the Jewish rabbins. He possessed a strong understanding, a quick penetration, and wonderful diligence. His temper was meek and amiable, his zeal for divine truth fervent, and he conducted himself with great moderation towards his adversaries. The following account is given of Mr. Ainsworth, by one of his contemporaries, and one unfriendly to his peculiar sentiments: "For the life of the man, myself being eye-witness, living some time with him at. Amsterdam, of his humility, sobriety, and discretion, setting aside his preposterous zeal in the point and practice of separation, he lived and died unblamably to the world; and I am thoroughly persuaded that his soul rests with his Saviour."