Written by Ken Smith, library and archive volunteer.
Amongst the thousands of venerable volumes in the care of Salisbury Cathedral library, there is a single example of the work of a remarkable Salisbury native, Thomas Chubb.
A contemporary account of his life* tells us, “…he was born in East Harnham in 1679 to a maltster’s family…..taught to read English, to write an ordinary hand and was farther educated in the rules of common arithmetick; this education being suitable to the circumstances of his family”.
We learn furthermore that “…at Ladyday 1694 he was put apprentice to Mr Thomas Rawlings, Glover, in Salisbury.” After his apprenticeship, Chubb worked as a journeyman glove-maker for his master but his poor eyesight forced him to move in 1705 to Mr John Lawrence, a tallow-chandler in Milford Street in Salisbury. Here he combined some glove making with weighing candles and serving in Lawrence’s shop.
In this way, he made a modest living but never earned enough, in his opinion, to allow him to marry. Apart from a two year sojourn in London, he worked thus in Salisbury for the remainder of his life, dying in 1747.
Although Chubb had no higher education, his keen intelligence and questioning mind shine through in his copious writings. Throughout his life, Chubb was a regular churchgoer, yet his religious views moved from conventional Anglicanism to Arianism, a sect that questioned the existence of the Trinity, to Deism.
Deist ideas arose in the 17th century and, in the wake of the scientific revolution, had gained many adherents by the early 18th century. The notion of a rational “supreme being” or Deity sat well with those who saw the universe as run by scientific laws rather than supernatural forces. As Chubb put it, “the Deity never does any action except upon reasonable motives”. Many famous and influential thinkers and writers such as Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin were Deists.
Deist religious views that called into question beliefs such as the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ caused great controversy and anger amongst traditional Christians. Some idea of the vehemence of this anger is revealed in the volume containing Chubb’s works in the Cathedral library. Bound in with Chubb’s Five Letters from 1737, is a virulent attack on him and his ideas from a writer styling himself “Phialethes Anti-Chubbius”. The venom in this piece can be seen where Chubb is likened to “…a little whiffling cur barking at all he don’t like, nay and sometimes biting them at the heels…”. Published after Chubb’s death, the writer suggests that Chubb’s body should have been “...drawn on a sledge like a traitor with a halter around his neck by which he should be hanged...”
It is a measure of the power of Chubb’s ideas that they could foment such a violent reaction.
Chubb wrote a number of books containing tracts, letters and other writings on religious and philosophical ideas, which were widely read. His work was admired, by both Voltaire and Alexander Pope and probably affected the views of many others. One such example was Thomas Jefferson whose library at Monticello contains two of Chubb’s books.
Chubb had read the work of the rationalist John Locke and admired it, though he disagreed with some of Locke’s conclusions. Where Locke maintained that in life most people seek “life, liberty and property”, Chubb, as a humble working-man realised that most people, did not own much, if any, property. In his essay on the Ground and Foundation of Morality, he maintained “life and liberty“ be associated with “happiness”. He tells us “Happiness is the end of being”.
It is entirely possible that this notion was in Jefferson’s mind during those hot, humid days in Philadelphia, in 1776 when he, Benjamin Franklin, and others were working on the wording of the Declaration of Independence from British rule.
He had probably forgotten where the idea came from but it is not difficult to see a link between: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” and the writings of Chubb.**
It is a pity therefore that a philosopher and writer of this stature is not better remembered today. As far as I am aware, the only establishment in Salisbury that features any information about Thomas Chubb is the Wetherspoon’s restaurant in Bridge Street. Perhaps the “Salisbury Sage“ deserves wider recognition.
*From: “The Posthumous Works of Mr Thomas Chubb” London, 1748. P2-3
**This idea was first postulated in “The Sage of Salisbury: Thomas Chubb” by T.L.Bushell, Vision Press Ltd., 1967 p.52