Arthur Ashley Sykes

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Arthur Ashley Sykes (1684–1756) was an Anglican religious writer, known as an inveterate controversialist. Sykes was a latitudinarian of the school of Benjamin Hoadly, and a friend and student of Isaac Newton. [1] [2]



Sykes was born in London in 1683 or 1684 and educated at St. Paul's School. In 1701 he was admitted to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he received a scholarship (1702), B.A. (1705), M.A. (1708), and D.D. (1726). He was vicar of Rayleigh in Essex from 1718 till his death in 1756. [3]

In 1739 with Thomas Birch he helped George Turnbull become ordained in the Church of England. [4]


Sykes took part successively in many of the Anglican theological controversies of his time.

Trinitarian controversy

Sykes wrote in support of Samuel Clarke's line on the Trinity, [5] against an attack of 1718 by Thomas Bennet, in A Discourse of the Ever-Blessed Trinity in Unity (1718). [6]

Bangorian controversy

The sermon of Hoadly that set off the Bangorian Controversy had been anticipated by Sykes preaching in January 1717, on the same text with essentially the same theme. [7] Sykes answered the Discourse of the Visible and Invisible Church of Christ in the controversy, by John Rogers, with his own The Authority of the Clergy and the Liberties of the Laity Stated; to which Rogers replied. [8]

Bentley controversy

In 1718 he wrote to defend Richard Bentley in the St James's Post , who had been deprived of his degrees by Thomas Gooch acting as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. The controversy was continued by Thomas Sherlock and Conyers Middleton. [9]

Miracles and prophecy

Sykes made some concessions to deist criticism of the reliability of the testimony to the biblical miracles. He also restricted the scope of the miraculous, for example rejecting the reports associated to the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard, and the tomb of the Jansenist supporter François de Pâris. [10] He also stated that the cures of Valentine Greatrakes were not miraculous. His doctrine of the working of the biblical miracles linked them to an active spiritual dimension of fulfilment of prophecy. [11]

Engraving of a Jansenist cancer cure, c.1730. Miracle janseniste.jpg
Engraving of a Jansenist cancer cure, c.1730.

Demoniacs and mental illness

In 1737 Sykes published An enquiry into the meaning of demoniacks in the New Testament, rejecting any belief in the existence of demons and regarding those possessed as simply suffering from mental illness. In this he went further than Joseph Mede's exposition of the Doctrine of Demons, as in the later work of Dr. Richard Mead. He was answered by Thomas Church, in an anonymous work of the same year. [12]

Sykes also rejected the devil as a supernatural evil being, anticipating the allegory argument of John Epps. [13] [14] Two replies to this work were published in 1737 and 1738 by Leonard Twells. [15] These works were part of a larger debate on demonology and possession, with Sykes siding with the sceptics Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Woolston, against Zachary Pearce and Richard Smalbroke. [16]


Sykes used many pseudonyms, some of them shared with others. One, used in the book on "demoniacks", was T.P.A.P.O.A.B.I.T.C.O.S., standing for "The Precentor and Prebendary of Alton Borealis in the Church of Sarum". [17]

Newton papers

Sykes at the end of his life was passed Isaac Newton's papers on theology and chronology. He prepared a digest of the material, but found almost none of it fit for publication. The papers went next to Jeffery Ekins. [18]

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  1. "Sykes, Arthur Ashley"  . Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  2. Disney, John. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Arthur Ashley Sykes, London 1785, 388 pages.
  3. "Sykes, Arthur Ashley (SKS701AA)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. Online Library of Liberty, Turnbull and God's moral government.
  5. A Modest Plea for the Baptismal and Scripture-Notion of the Trinity. Wherein the Schemes of the Reverend Dr Bennet and Dr Clarke Are Compared
  6. Thomas C. Pfizenmaier, The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675–1729): Context, sources, and controversy (1997), p. 189; Google Books.
  7. Andrew Starkie, The Church of England and the Bangorian Controversy, 1716–1721(2007), p. 54; Google Books.
  8. John Rogers (1722). A Review of a Discourse of the Visible and Invisible Church of Christ, a reply to Mr. Sykes's answer to that discourse . Retrieved 9 March 2012.
  9. R. J. White, Dr. Bentley: A Study in Academic Scarlet (1965), pp. 173–4.
  10. Knud Haakonssen (editor), The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy, vol. 2 (2006), p. 694; Google Books.
  11. Jane Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England (2006), pp. 170–1.
  12. Thomas Church (1737). An essay towards vindicating the literal sense of the demoniacks in the New Testament in answer to a late enquiry into the meaning of them . Retrieved 15 March 2012.
  13. Burke, J. Christianity and the Witch Hunt Era, 2008
  14. Hunt, John. Religious Thought in England, from the Reformation to the End of the Last Century, Vol.2 1871 p. 392, 394
  15. "Twells, Leonard"  . Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  16. Elizabeth Reis, Spellbound: women and witchcraft in America (1998), p. 109; Google Books.
  17. Disney pp. 207–8; Google Books.
  18. The Newton Project, History of his Papers 1727–1872.