Image of Marginal note in John Worthington's hand

John Worthington

John Worthington was Master of Jesus College from 1650 to 1660 and highly respected as a cleric and scholar.

John Worthington (1618-1671) has been acclaimed as one of “the most endearing” English diarists and letter writers, a man with “a never satisfied appetite for books”. 

Early life

Born in Manchester and educated at its already renowned Grammar School, he entered Emmanuel College as a sizar in 1632 and was soon elected a scholar. In 1642, after taking the competitive examination required in that College, he became a Fellow and in 1644 he became Dean and a Tutor.

In 1649 when the King was executed and a republic – the Commonwealth – proclaimed, Worthington was already one of that College’s senior Fellows, though he was aged only 32, and popular among Puritans inside and outside the University.

Soon all College Heads and Fellows were required to declare their loyalty to the new republic, something that the Master of Jesus, Thomas Young, felt unable to do. The parliamentary Committee for Regulating the Universities selected Worthington to take his place.

At Jesus College

Worthington was away from Cambridge on the days when Heads and Fellows were required to pledge an oath of loyalty to the republic, so he wasn't put to the same test as Young. On the next occasion when such a declaration was required – of loyalty to the restored King and the Church of England in 1662 – Worthington complied.

As Master of Jesus College Worthington was well liked and he presided over its affairs for the next decade. He strove to improve the management of the College's endowments, displayed patience with the twists and turns of debate at College meetings, and re-established academic routines and discipline. He thereby secured a steady flow of undergraduate students, while also gaining agreement to the introduction of formal examinations for fellowships and scholarships.

He served for a year from 1657 to 1658 as Vice Chancellor, an office that then involved many judicial and magisterial duties. He was a generous host at official dinners: “when he was vice-chancellor of Cambridge” a servant remembered, “he frequently made noble entertainments, and though he did not provide so many dishes at other times, yet he would always have that which was fitting and goode; whence it was his usual saying to his guests, Pray eat; here is that which is goode.”

After he surrendered his Mastership at the restoration of King Charles II he remained for the rest of his life on warm and friendly terms with several Fellows and former Fellows and with several London scholars, exchanging news and academic gossip, as well as discussing intellectual matters, including the work of the newly formed Royal Society. 

As an author and editor

While Master, Worthington published two books. The first was a popular, anonymous translation of a 15th century spiritual classic, the De Imitatione Christi of Thomas à Kempis, under the title The Christian’s Pattern (first edition, London 1654).

The second was an edition of the Select Discourses – that is, college lectures on theological topics – by his Emmanuel contemporary, John Smith (first edition, London 1660). This was much praised by Wesley, Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, among others, and both books were frequently reprinted.

And as well as performing the duties of Master and Vice Chancellor and, after 1654, those of vicar of the nearby parish of Fen Ditton he was also in constant demand as a preacher, not only in and around Cambridge, but in Lancashire and Cheshire, London and Berkshire.

As a family man

In Berkshire Worthington met Mary Whichcote, the niece of his friend the Provost of King’s College. She was 17 and he was 39 when they married in 1657 but it was a happy marriage, and they had five children. His only son – another John – would later come to Jesus College as a Rustat Scholar before becoming a Fellow of Peterhouse.

After the Restoration

In 1660, Worthington knew that the restoration of King and church would bring an end to his Mastership. The former Master Richard Sterne, evicted and imprisoned in 1642, would be restored too.

Some thought that the King would make Sterne a bishop (he did) and then reappoint Worthington. But in the end the decision fell to Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely, who chose his friend John Pearson for the Mastership.

Worthington welcomed Sterne back to the College with a concert; Sterne allowed Worthington to remain in the Master’s Lodge while the vicarage at Fen Ditton was made habitable. But Bishop Wren began to question the validity of Worthington's appointment to Fen Ditton, and Worthington eventually moved to London.

Later life

In the capital, his services as a preacher remained in demand. George Evans, a former Fellow of Jesus who was now a canon of Windsor as well as rector of St Benet Fink, was glad to have Worthington look after that parish and receive the income from it. Amid his preaching and parochial duties, in 1644 Worthington published the works of his friend Joseph Mede, one of the Cambridge Platonists.

When the plague hit London in 1665 Worthington moved his family to Hackney while he stayed in the city, visiting the sick and the dying of his parish. In the next year the Great Fire left the parish desolate, with neither church, parishioners, or income. 

Worthington took up a preachership in Cheshire which failed to live up to its patron’s promises, then he moved with his family to a remote parish in Lincolnshire which brought little but loneliness. His wife and youngest daughter died, leaving him grieving and distraught at the challenge of bringing up a young family alone.

With the help of Gilbert Sheldon, archbishop of Canterbury, he was given a canonry at Lincoln cathedral. But soon after he went back to a paid preachership at Hackney and finally, at George Evans’ instance, to become rector of the rebuilt St Benet Fink.

However, Worthington became ill and died aged 53 before he could be inducted there. His funeral sermon was preached by another friend, a future archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson.