William Ames (1576-1633)
William Ames was born in 1576 at Ipswich, Suffolk, then a center of the robust Puritanism. Ames’s father was a well-to-do merchant with Puritan sympathies; his mother was related to families that would help to found Plymouth Plantation. Since both parents died when he was young, he was reared by his maternal uncle, Robert Snelling, a Puritan from nearby Boxford.
Ames’s uncle sent him in 1594 to Christ’s College, Cambridge University. He graduated with a B.A. in 1598 and in 1601 with a M.A., after which, was elected Fellow at Christ’s College and ordained to the ministry. He underwent a dramatic conversion under the “rousing preaching” of William Perkins. Following his spiritual transformation, Ames declared that “a man may be bonus ethicus—a moral person in outward religion—and yet not bonus theologus—a sincere-hearted Christian (Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies, 1:131).
Ames quickly became the moral compass and conscience of the College. But this was short-lived. King James’s edict at the 1604 Hampton Court Conference strengthened the conviction that any Puritan activity at the colleges that involved criticism of the Church of England must be suppressed. Puritan spokesmen were soon stripped of their degrees and dismissed. The process culminated in 1609 with the appointment of Valentine Cary, who hated Puritanism, to the mastership rather than William Ames. On December 21, 1609, when Ames preached a stinging sermon on St. Thomas’s Day—an annual festivity at Cambridge which had become increasingly raucous over the years—and denounced gambling, administering the “salutary vinegar of reproof,” the college authorities had him taken into custody and suspended him from his academic degrees and ecclesiastical duties. After a brief period as city lecturer in Colchester, Ames was forbidden to preach by George Abbott, Bishop of London. In 1610, Ames decided to seek the freer academic and ecclesiastical climate of the Netherlands where he remained for the rest of his life.
Ames first went to Rotterdam where he met John Robinson, pastor of the English Separatist congregation. Some of the congregation’s members were soon to establish Plymouth Plantation. Ames could not persuade Robinson to abandon his Separatist sentiments that the Puritan churches should separate “root and branch” from the Church of England, but did succeed in tempering some of his more radical views. Following a brief stay in Rotterdam and Leiden, Ames was employed from 1611 to 1619 by Sir Horace Vere, commander of English forces stationed at The Hague, to serve as military chaplain. Here Ames presided over a small congregation, acted as spiritual counselor to the Vere family, ministered to the troops during military campaigns, and wrote four books against Arminianism. Ames’s skill as a theologian won him considerable acclaims as the “Augustine of Holland” and “the hammer of the Arminians” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1:943). Eventually, the Arminian issue was addressed at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). Because of his expertise in addressing issues of the Arminian struggle, Ames, while a non-voting member of the synod, was called to be chief theological advisor and secretary to Johannes Bogerman, the presiding officer. An anti-Arminian purge in academic circles left a professorship vacated at Leiden University. Ames was elected to fill the chair, but the long arm of the English state prevailed. Ames, recently dismissed from his post in The Hague under pressure from the English authorities, found the post at Leiden University closed to him as well. To support his family, Ames turned to private lecturing and tutoring university students for three years, running a private “house college” at Leiden, where students lived in Ames’s home as he taught them theology. He later developed some of these lectures into his famous Marrow of Theology.