William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America


William Ames

A Puritan's Mind

He was known and quoted in the colonies of the New World for his
theology more than Calvin and Luther combined.

Biographical Sketch:

William Ames was born in 1567 at Ipswich in Suffolk, that region
east of Anglia where Puritanism had first "begun", and where the
persecution of the crown was least effective. His father was a
merchant who was sympathetic to the Puritan cause; his mother was a
relative of later colonist Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Both his parents died, and William was taken in by his uncle, Robert
Snelling of Oxford, who took William into his home, and with
understanding and generosity saw to his needs and education.
Ames chose the center of Puritan learning, Cambridge University,
over Oxford for his higher education. Cambridge was dominated
during Elizabethan and Jacobean time by the teaching and preaching
of Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603), William Perkins (1558-1602), and
John Preston (1587-1628). Ames had the good providence to become
close to William Perkins, and their relationship not only grew as
teacher/student, but also as friends.

Ames received his A.B. degree in 1607 and was promptly invited to
become a fellow (professor) of Christ's College. He was even in the
running for the mastership of the college as a successor to Edmund
Barwell in 1609. But higher authorities in state and established
church interfered to prevent the election of such a strong
nonconformist candidate. Ames refused to wear vestments, and he
spoke out against the sign of the cross administered during baptism
and other ceremonies. Another candidate was chosen, and in the eyes
of Ames and other Puritans, the college status deteriorated. Ames
withdrew his fellowship, and never returned again to English

Ames made the transition from being a fellow to taking up the
pastorate, but it was not long afterward that persecution began to
intensify under the reign of James I and Archbishop Bancroft.
Particularly, Ames was sought after since he had translated William
Bradshaw's treatise "English Puritanism" which set forth in hard
terms the nonconformist views. Ames made a decision to leave
England and go to Holland.

Ames arrived in Holland in 1610 to begin a new life that would bring
him fame, conflict, the death of his first wife, financial
insecurity, continued interference from English authorities, and his
own death at age 57.

During the first years of exile, Ames supported himself by offering
his ministerial services to one of the several large communities of
Englishmen living in the Netherlands. Ever since the Marian
persecution of the 1550's, English nonconformist ministers in exile
had always been able to find professional employment, although
usually at a bare substance level. Supported by Colonel Horatio
Vere, a Puritan sympathizer, Ames succeeded John Burgess in 1611
(same year as the KJV version was published for the second time) as
chaplain to the British community at The Hague. Ames courted
Burgess' daughter and married her, but she died soon after and left
him childless. The long arm of bishop and king reached across the
North Sea and Vere was forced to dismiss Ames in 1618. His
professional life continued to be precarious until until his
appointment to a professorship at the young University of Franeker
in north Holland. Although his recommendation in 1619 by the Synod
of South Holland was enthusiastically received by the trustees of
the new Friesland University, Ames was not able to deliver his
inaugural address until 1622. The English authorities spared no
effort to prevent his taking the post and would likely had been
successful if it had not been for the direct intervention of the
Dutch Prince Moritz.

Despite this array of personal misfortune and difficulty, Ames voice
was still one of the most influential in the theological development
of the Puritan and Reformed churches in England and the Netherlands.
From discussion of church polity with John Robinson, he turned to
dispute with continental theologians. The points of argument were
all related to Arminianism, the great theological heresy of the
seventeenth century. Very soon after his arrival in Holland, Ames
was enlisted on the side of the orthodox party which was standing
its ground against the position of the late Jacobus Arminius
(1560-1609). The Arminians, or Remonstrants as they were better
known opposed the "rigid" Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed
churches--a "rigidity" also shared among the English Puritans. The
Remonstrants argued two main points: that the human will played a
significant, if not a controlling role in salvation and that Christ
died for all men, not just the elect. On the second point,
Arminius had made a special attack on theory of predestination held
by William Perkins, Ames' respective Cambridge tutor. Ames did
battle in several tracts with Jan Uitenbogaert, Simon Episcopius,
and especially Nicolaas Grevinchoven, an influential Remonstrant
minister in Rotterdam. The "Coronis ad collationem Hagiensem", or
"A Finishing Touch to the Hague Conference", published in 1618 as a
strong affirmation of the orthodox ministers, presented forcefully
the Amesian answer to the Remonstrants. In the winter of 1618-1619
the whole Arminian conflict came to a climax during the Synod of
Dort to which Reformed theologians came from England, Holland,
France, Switzerland and Germany. Ames served as a consultant to the
moderator of the Synod, which finally condemned Arminian theology.
Ames was thought to be some sort of giant killer in theological
debate. What disturbed him about the Remonstrants was their failure
to give the sovereignty and working power of God a primary place in
theology; they had, in his mind, placed the Almighty at the beck and
call of man. For this they surely deserved censure.

Ames began his work as professor of theology at Franeker happily in
1622. These were his most productive years. During the span of
years he taught at this University, he continued to write against
the Arminian crisis, though he was sympathetic to those who were
being led astray by false doctrine. Late in the 1620's he decided
he should leave the University for the New World. Ames had received
correspondence from his friends in the New World to join them and
endeavor there as a pastor, teacher, school or academy head. But
William Ames was never to sail for New England. He, instead, ended
up in Rotterdam in 1632 to answer a call from an Independent
congregation as co-minister with his friend Hugh Peter. The
church planned to open a school, having Ames as their head master.
But in 1633 the River Maas flooded and the homes of the church
members, as well as Ames. Ames was exposed to cold water and cold
air and contracted a high fever which his weakened heart could not
stand. Medicine and doctors were of no avail; his family and
friends watch his courageous spirit endure to the end which was just
a few days later.

Thus, he who was the greatest influence on early America never
arrived there. He may have been the first president of Harvard,
instead of Thomas Shepherd, but "come what may" were not part of
God's ordained plan for his life. According to Daniel Neal, the
first furniture at Harvard were the books of Ames, the famous
professor of divinity at Franeker. He was of such profound
influence upon the theology of New England that he was quoted more
than Luther or Calvin combined. Jonathan Edwards often began with
the thought of the Franeker professor.

The Marrow of Theology is Ames' most well known work. Cotton Mather
said that if a student of divinity were to have nothing but The
Bible and The Marrow, he would be a most able minister.
Quotes and excerpts are taken from the book, "The Marrow of
Theology" by William Ames.


Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Pilgrims and Puritans