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William Owen Chadwick

Regius Professor of Modern History, Cambridge

The Reverend Professor William Owen Chadwick (b. 20 May 1916) is distinguished not only as a historian but distinctive in being a Christian scholar. He is a clergyman-professor of a kind once common in Cambridge but now very rare. His historical writings convey a sense of vocation in the noblest sense of the word. By allowing his religious convictions to be merged with his scholarly commitment, Chadwick is fully aware of the inherent difficulty of the historian’s task. He described this task in the memorial service of his much admired predecessor Sir Herbert Butterfield as the problem of bringing ‘historical understanding and moral conviction … into harmony when moral judgment corrupts the “historian,” and yet moral judgment is the essence of the “man”’. The awareness of this inherent difficulty prevails throughout Chadwick’s writing and explains why his accounts and conclusions of historical events and personalities are always finely balanced and poised with the sagacity and humaneness of one who knows the limitations of human judgment.

Chadwick’s religious commitment has also influenced the subject of his concerns in his historical enquiries. To Chadwick ‘history tells of the experience of the human race’ and because so large a portion of that experience (in Western Christendom at least) is religious, history cannot avoid religion. That ‘modern historical consciousness arose within Christendom’ is the premise upon which Chadwick has sought to bring the study of church history not only as a proper part of history in general but indeed an indispensable part to much of it. His unique contribution to modern historiography by bringing religious history into mainstream historical scholarship is pre-figured by his choice of subjects while an undergraduate at Cambridge history followed by theology and later acknowledged by the fact that (unusually) he moved into the Regius chair of Modern History from the Dixie Chair of Ecclesiastical History in Cambridge and fittingly reflected in the title for his 1973–74 Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh ‘The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century’.

The characteristics of Chadwick’s intellectual contributions are traced back to the ‘two Martins’ in his early life by Chadwick himself. In 1938 when the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller was imprisoned by the Nazi regime Chadwick considered Niemöller ‘the European conscience standing on moral principle against tyranny’ and ‘the freest man in Germany despite his confinement’. This evaluation reveals a sense of moral direction of history that is to stay with Chadwick for the rest of his life. The other Martin was Charlesworth a Christian historian who had guided and inspired Chadwick while he was an undergraduate at St. John’s in his choice of vocation. After the Historical Tripos Chadwick stayed on for a fourth year to take theology before entering Cuddesdon theological college in preparation for ordination as an Anglican priest. Cuddesdon the college founded by the ‘Tractarians’ of the Oxford Movement is to become a place of abiding inspiration to Chadwick not least in his historical enquiries which resulted in titles like ‘From Bossuet to Newman’ and ‘The Mind of the Oxford Movement’.

From Cuddesdon Chadwick moved on to Huddersfield (St John’s) as a curate for two years then as chaplain at Wellington College in Berkshire before returning to Cambridge in 1947 as fellow and dean of Trinity Hall. In 1958 Chadwick succeeded Norman Sykes as Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History and in 1968 he succeeded Herbert Butterfield as Regius Professor of Modern History a chair he held until his retirement in 1983.

In parallel to his office and duties as an academic professor Chadwick served in numerous high offices in public life and in the academic community among which were: chairman of the Archbishops’ Commission on Church and State (1966–70); trustee of the National Portrait Gallery; president of the British Academy; Vice-Chancellor of the Cambridge University (1969–71); and for 27 years Master of Selwyn College Cambridge (1956–83). Under Chadwick’s Mastership Selwyn became a full Collegiate member of the University of Cambridge by abolishing religious tests for Fellows. The process to normalize its statues and charter had begun before Chadwick’s arrival and was completed in 1958. Since 1976 Selwyn has admitted women and its membership has doubled during the years of Chadwick’s Mastership with a commensurate gain in academic standing and prestige as a Cambridge college due in no small measure to the personal standing and devoted leadership of its long-serving master.

The honour of knighthood was conferred upon Chadwick in 1982 and the Order of Merit in 1983. As a clergyman he did not adopt the title of Sir Owen and remains the Reverend Professor Owen Chadwick the clergyman-professor who so personifies scholarship as a vocation.

  • Heidi Poon, University of Edinburgh