Benjamin Whichcote and the Puritans, 1644-1660

(By Mark Burden)

Benjamin Whichcote’s presence in the historiography of seventeenth-century English thought rests chiefly on an influential claim, propagated in slightly different forms by Ernst Cassirer (Die platonische Renaissance, 1932) and James Deotis Roberts (From Puritanism to Platonism, 1968), that he is the ‘father of Cambridge Platonism’. Supporters of this view can point to some intriguing if somewhat imprecise comments by Whichcote’s near-contemporary, the pro-Williamite bishop Gilbert Burnet, who recalled that Whichcote ‘set young students much on reading the ancient Philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin’ (Burnet (1724), I, 187). Burnet, who did not know Whichcote well, nevertheless made a series of other claims which have received much less attention. Whichcote, he stated, had previously achieved ‘great credit with some that had been eminent in the late times’, but had chosen to use these connections with the Puritan regime to ‘protect good men of all persuasions’, being ‘much for liberty of conscience’. Theologically, he had urged his students to consider religion as ‘a seed of a deiform nature’, and as ‘a doctrine sent from God, both to elevate and sweeten humane nature’ (Burnet (1724), I, 186-7). The extent of Whichcote’s incorporation of Platonic doctrines in his surviving (and posthumously-published) corpus of sermons remains the subject of considerable debate. However, my aim in the following essay is to explore another aspect of Burnet’s remarks: Whichcote’s connections, whether intentional or otherwise, with Puritan intellectuals in the period before the Restoration. What I hope to show is that Whichcote’s writings need not simply be categorised as ‘Platonist’, or even (to use a later term) ‘Latitudinarian’; while the term ‘Puritan’ sits uneasily in relation to Whichcote’s early works, it is nevertheless the case that his writings have a much more complicated relationship to Puritan thought (itself a very difficult category) than has been previously recognised.

Whichcote’s embroilment in the theological controversies of the 1640s and 1650s was an inevitable consequence of his determination to make an intellectual name for himself in the febrile atmosphere of civil war Cambridge, when he was already in his thirties. Born on 11 March ‘1609’ (i.e. 1610), he matriculated in 1626 at Emmanuel College Cambridge, proceeding BA 1629/30, MA 1633, BD 1640, and DD 1649 (Tillotson (1683), 22; Venn (1927), IV, 382). Whichcote himself tells us that his tutor for the first four years of his university studies (i.e. 1626-30) was the Calvinist Anthony Tuckney, and his tutor for the subsequent three (i.e. 1630-3) was Thomas Hill, both of whom were subsequently vice-chancellors of the university (Tuckney in 1648; Hill in 1645). Whichcote also implies that he was mentored by John Arrowsmith (vice-chancellor in 1647), although this statement may be intended primarily to complete the triptych of vice-chancellors and to express sadness over his theological disagreements with the three men (Whichcote (1753), 2nd pagination, 7). In 1633 Whichcote was made a Fellow of Emmanuel College, before becoming Provost at King’s College, c.1645 (resigned 1660); he himself was vice-chancellor for the year 1650 (Venn (1927), IV, 382). His students from 1633 to 1660 included John Smith, John Worthington, Samuel Cradock, John Wallis, and Jeremiah Horrocks (Hutton (2005), ODNB). Whichcote was ordained on 5 March 1636 by John Williams, the bishop of Lincoln, and later became a lecturer on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge. The exact date at which he commenced preaching at Trinity has yet to be established, but he was certainly doing so when he gave a series of lectures on Romans chapter 1, c.1644 (Whichcote (1753), 2nd pagination, 9). Whichcote was presented with the living of North Cadbury in Somerset c.1643, but resigned in 1649; a year later it was presented to Ralph Cudworth, then Master of Clare Hall (Venn (1927), IV, 382). On 20 September 1651 Whichcote was presented by King’s College to the living of Milton in Cambridgeshire, which he retained for the rest of his life (Hutton (2005), ODNB).

At present, very little can be said with any confidence about the content of Whichcote’s preaching at either North Cadbury or Milton. Similarly, the fact that the majority of Whichcote’s surviving sermons are undated means that it is very difficult to know which, if any, of them were delivered before the Restoration at Trinity. The only reliable dating evidence comes from Whichcote’s 1651 correspondence with Tuckney, in which he mentions preaching a series of sermons ‘at Trinity lecture, on the first chapter to the Romans; and taking notice withall of somewhat in the second’ (Whichcote (1753), 2nd pagination, 9). In the same place, Whichcote tells us that his ‘sermon-notes’ on these passages are ‘lying yet by me of seven year’s date’, implying that the sermons were delivered c.1644, and he states that his notions of natural light and the use of reason were all ‘forced’ upon him by his study of Romans 1:18-20, 27-8, and 31, as well as Romans 2:14. It is frequently noted that all three major printed collections of Whichcote’s sermons (those of 1698, 1701-7, and 1751) contain sermons on Romans chapter 1, and it is often claimed that these sermons must represent the series of c.1644; however, there is no certainty about this matter, and the brief and fragmented account of the series provided in Whichcote’s letter provides no firm evidence. The most that can currently be said about this early sermon series is to repeat Whichcote’s own remark that the ‘phrases of the apostle’ in Romans 1:19, 31, 18, 20, 28, and 2:14 ‘forced upon me all those notions I do entertain, or have publiquely delivered; concerning natural light, or the use of reason’ – a helpful comment, in that it suggests a source for a key strand of Whichcote’s thinking, but of little help in tracing the date of the surviving corpus of Whichcote’s sermons, either on Romans, or any other biblical text.

Another claim sometimes made is that the fourth and final volume of the 1701-7 collection, the only volume to be edited by the prominent philosopher Samuel Clarke, is based on sermon notes written by the Platonist John Smith (d. 1652) and therefore must record some of Whichcote’s Trinity lectures. If so, we would be able to date Whichcote’s important sermon series on Philippians 4:8 (and perhaps his sermons on Jeremiah 9:23-4 and Psalm 5:4-5) to the period before 1652. Unfortunately, the current evidence here is also inconclusive. On the one hand, John Smith’s first biographer (John Worthington) tells us that he ‘did ever express a great and singular regard’ for Whichcote ‘for his Directions and Encouragements of him in his Studies, [and] his seasonable provision for his support and maintenance when he was a young Scholar’ (Smith (1660), vi). This information would seem to fit with Samuel Salter’s comment in 1753 that the Smith whose sermon notes formed the basis of Clarke’s edition was one ‘who was wont to say, “He lived upon Dr. WHICHCOTE:” which may be understood, and might be true; in more senses than one’ (Whichcote (1753), 1st pagination, p. xviii). On the other hand, the Smith mentioned by Salter as an important compiler of notes on Whichcote’s sermons is given no first name, and no period is assigned to the compiling, making it quite conceivable that he was a different person altogether. The association between Smith the compiler and John Smith the Platonist is certainly suggestive, but it is by no means compelling on current evidence.

A source which is much less frequently considered is a peculiar collection of sermons and aphorisms printed as Theophoroumena dogmata: Or, Some Select Notions of that Learned and Reverend Divine of the Church of England, Benj. Whitchcot, D.D. (1685).  The text contains sermon notes on John 8:32, Philippians 3:7, James 2:18, Philippians 3:15, and 1 Corinthians 7:35, as well as a collection of 33 ‘Apostolical Apothegms’. The title page informs its readers that the work’s contents were ‘Faithfully Collected from [Whichcote’s sermons] by a Pupil and particular Friend of his’, while the ‘Preface’ states that the compiler benefited from Whichcote’s ‘Education in Emanuel-Colledge at Cambridge, heretofore, as also of his particular Friendship’. Nevertheless, the natural assumption that the five sermons in the volume date from Whichcote’s Cambridge years is open to the objection that the compiler nowhere provides dates for the sermon notes, while his statement might be taken to mean that he remained acquainted with Whichcote after his (the compiler’s) education was finished.

Furthermore, the question of authorship, always a significant issue for the analysis of Whichcote’s writings, is particularly stark in relation to this 1685 collection. In his preface to the 1698 edition of Whichcote’s sermons, the Earl of Shaftesbury noted that ‘some things have been set in our Author’s Name, which his best Friends disown to be his; and which any one who studies him in his genuine Works, will easily know to be unworthy of him’ (Whichcote (1698), fo. a1v). Salter in 1753 took this comment by Shaftesbury to refer to an anonymous Compendium of Devotion of 1697; but this text is not attributed by its editor to any particular author, even though its lengthy contents include an abstract of a single sermon preached by Whichcote on Psalm 73:28 (associated by the editor with St Lawrence Jewry). Instead, Shaftesbury’s comment is more likely to refer to the 1685 Select Notions, which never made their way into the later collections of Whichcote’s writings. The embarrassment of Whichcote’s numerous posthumous editors over the fragmentary and incoherent nature of the 1685 sermon notes is not in and of itself a sufficient reason for removing them from Whichcote’s oeuvre, since it is well known that (on the one hand) he preached extempore from his own notes, and that (on the other) sermon hearers and transcribers were not necessarily able to record entire sermons either comprehensively or accurately. Nevertheless, it would clearly be perilous to use the 1685 text to reconstruct the texts or content of Whichcote’s sermons during his time at Cambridge.

Fortunately, there is one sermon from the period which can be reconstructed with some confidence, albeit not in its entirety. On 7 September 1651 Tuckney attended one of Whichcote’s sermons and was so ‘grieved’ by its contents that he wrote to his former pupil to complain about his frequent use of ‘big words, sometimes of “divinest reason,” and sometimes of “more than mathematical demonstration”’ (Whichcote (1753), 2nd pagination, 2). Tuckney’s comments mark the start of the well-known Tuckney-Whichcote correspondence, consisting of eight letters written between September and November 1651, although not printed until 1753. In his first letter written in response to Tuckney, Whichcote provided a summary of the offending sermon, drawn from his own preparatory sermon notes. While all due care should be taken to recognise that what follows is my own summary of a printed edition of a manuscript letters recording an abridged version of a draft of a sermon, we can be reasonably sure that most of the notes sent to Tuckney were a careful (if selective) representation of Whichcote’s intention in the sermon. At the very least, these notes represent a distillation of some aspects of his thought in 1651, judiciously arranged by the author to defend himself against Tuckney’s criticisms, and to facilitate further academic and epistolary discussion.

Whichcote’s sermon took the position that ‘all truly good men among us, do substantially agree; in all things saving’, that ‘some things, wherein we differ, are not certainly determined in Scripture’, and that everything should be considered fallible which was ‘ultra et citra scripturam’, a position which would provide, in Whichcote’s view, a ‘proposal for peace’ between Christians of differing views. After all, God has probably ‘reserved somewhat from us, as not hujus temporis’: these were secrets which ‘He wou’d not have us know’, as part of the general injunction ‘Nolite altum sapere’. To achieve peace between Christians, Whichcote urged his hearers to remember that ‘Good men, differing in their own expressions, yet agree in scripture formes of words’, acknowledging the meaning of the Holy Spirit to be true; since all good men would ‘endeavour to understand’ and find out the meaning of those words ‘as well as they can’, they should continue friends, despite their differences: they should ‘think, they agree; rather than think, they do not agree’. Indeed, in an important sense, they would naturally ‘agree, in what is God’s and infallible; though they differ, in what is their own and fallible’, and it followed from the fallibility of their thoughts that they should ‘not impose their own, either sense or phrase’ on others. Indeed, these very differences gave rise in Whichcote’s mind to a ‘proposal for progress and growth in knowledge’, on the basis of which a Christian might legitimately state (after application to God and diligence in seeking out the truth) that which he finds cause to believe, without others taking offence at it: such statements would lead to conversation and ‘mutual edification’ without ‘disturbance to the world’ (Whichcote (1753), 2nd pagination, 11-13).

Another major theme of Whichcote’s sermon was the issue of our reconciliation with God. Whichcote claimed that ‘Christ doth not save us; by onely doing for us, without us’, but that ‘we come at that, which Christ hath done for us, with God; by what he doth for us, within us’. In other words, the Scriptures required ‘Repentance, before Forgiveness of sins’, and expressed Christ as ‘a principle of grace in us; as well as an advocate for us’. Christ in the Scripture was presented under a double notion: firstly ‘to be felt in us, as the new man . . . as a divine nature . . . and as a principle of heavenly life’, in opposition to ‘the old man . . . the degenerate and apostate nature [and] the life of sin’; secondly, ‘to be beleeved-on by us, as a sacrifice for the expiation and atonement of sin; [and] as an advocate and meanes of reconciliation’. Central to Whichcote’s view of this process was his claim that ‘with God there can not be reconciliation; without Our becoming God-like’: as part of this process, we must ‘yeelde, be subdued to the rules of goodnesse, receeve stamps and impressions from God’. It is thus absolutely impossible for people to achieve reconciliation ‘by meanes of a Saviour, acting upon God in their behalfe; and not also working in or upon them, to make them God-like’, because this would be ‘against the nature of God’, who is ‘in perfect agreement with goodnesse’, and hath an absolute antipathie against iniquity’. Thus, to place reconciliation solely in the hands of a Saviour, would be ‘to divide God against Himselfe’. Some divines, argued Whichcote, placed such an emphasis upon justification that they neglected sanctification. These people would be tempted to consider salvation as ‘a thing at distance from them; the benefit of some convenient place . . . exemtion from punishment; freedom from enemies’, but the real issues at stake were ‘the mending of our natures . . . our health and strength within . . . the work of grace and favour . . . righteousnesse, goodnesse and truth’ (Whichcote (1753), 2nd pagination, 11-16).

Whichcote’s sermon appears to have generated considerable debate at the university, much of which was crystallised in Tuckney’s letters. Tuckney objected to the position that the differences of ‘good men’ could not be determined from Scripture, describing it as ‘unsafe and unsound’. Tuckney also criticised Whichcote’s view that divines should emphasise Scripture words and expressions rather than ‘words, which are from fallible men’, since this would imply that the ‘most Orthodox’ could be ‘put into a bad together’ with ‘Papists, Arians, Socinians, and all the worst of Hæretiques’. Tuckney also perceived a tension between this advice, and Whichcote’s belief that a man may have ‘liberty to propound his own different conceptions’. Furthermore, he was incensed by Whichcote’s ideas about reconciliation, describing them as ‘Divinity, which my heart riseth against’, since they suggested that the ground of reconciliation came from something ‘in Us; and not from His free grace’ (Whichcote (1753), 2nd pagination, 1-5).

Crucially, Tuckney perceived in Whichcote’s arguments the (in his view) utterly corrosive influence of the Arminian Congregational polemicist John Goodwin, whose ‘footsteps’ (he argued) appeared particularly in Whichcote’s arguments against imposition of non-Scriptural expressions. Tuckney’s case is strengthened by a consideration of Goodwin’s Apolytrosis apolytroseos, printed in the same year (1651) with a dedicatory epistle ‘TO THE Reverend Doctor Benjamin Whichcote Provost of KINGS Colledg, and Vicechancellor’, together with ‘the rest of the Heads of Colledges, and Students in Divinity’ at Cambridge. In this epistle Goodwin claimed that he did not desire Whichcote and his colleagues to ‘bring you under the same cloud of disparagement’ that he had suffered, but he did admit that he hoped ‘to excite, provoke, and engage . . . those whom I judged the most able . . . to bless the World, . . . by bringing forth the Glorious Creator, and ever-blessed Redeemer . . . into a clear and perfect Light’ (Goodwin (1651), sigs. A1r-A4v). In particular, Goodwin sought to explicate the role of human beings in their own salvation. As he wrote in his ‘Preface to the Reader’, ‘they are the Reasons and Understandings of men themselves, that must apprehend, discern, and understand’ matters of faith (Goodwin (1651), sig. b4r).

Whichcote’s intellectual connections with Goodwin were also asserted by the authors of a pamphlet called A Second Beacon Fired (1654), which purported to expose Goodwin’s Apolytrosis apolytroseos as one of a number of ‘Blasphemous Books’ worthy of suppression by the Cromwellian magistrates. After writing angrily to these authors, whose names included Thomas Underhill, Samuel Gellibrand, John Rothwel, Luke Fawn, Joshua Kirton and Nathaniel Webb (Goodwin (1655), 1-13), Goodwin received a response from them, accusing him of ‘invest[ing] Doctor Whichcote Doctor Cudworth with the rest of the Doctors of Cambridge, with a Nebuchadnezzarean power over Bookes and Opinions and yet deny[ing] it to the Protector and the Parliament’ (Goodwin (1655), 45-50). Goodwin’s publication of his correspondence with the authors of A Second Beacon Fired in pamphlet form led the preacher Obadiah Howe to comment that ‘this short Pamphlet of Master Goodwins, hath done much more against the honour of the Scriptures, then his Bulkier Volume’, but claimed to have been ‘credibly informed’ that ‘the Reverend Doctour Whichcote’ had ‘said it was as good a Book as any was written since the Apostles dayes’ (Howe (1655), 3).

Goodwin discusses reconciliation at length in three passages of his Apolytrosis apolytroseos. In the first of these, he begins with the Apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the World unto himself, not imputing their Trespasses unto them, and hath committed unto us the word of Reconciliation’. Goodwin’s focus is on the word ‘World’, by which ‘cannot be meant the Elect only, but the universality of Men’. Next, he asserts that the act of reconciliation is a perpetual one, in which God ‘was, and is, and ever will be’ seeking ‘to gaine, the love and friendship of the World’, and that the ‘word of Reconciliation’, i.e. the Gospel, is sent ‘Promiscuously to the generality, or universality of Men’ (Goodwin (1651), 87). Secondarily, Goodwin urges us to consider reconciliation as an act whereby God seeks to render himself ‘Loving, Gracious, and Propitious unto the World’. From this perspective, the term ‘World’ again only makes sense if it is interpreted to man ‘the generality or universality of men’, because God cannot be said to reconcile himself to those with whom he is not offended, or to render himself loving to those to whom he has already promised eternal life: the word ‘reconciliation’ here must apply to God’s acts towards sinners, which mirror those of a father towards a sick child. However, it would be in no way consistent with God’s wisdom or holiness to take into fellowship with himself those who hated him and would not themselves submit to the terms of reconciliation. From God’s perspective (so to speak), the non-imputation of sin is an offer made to men upon their reconcilement to him; in order to make this offer, God ‘put Himself (as it were) into His Christ’, such that through the death of Christ as Mediator, God might offer pardon and forgiveness, and ‘Prevaile with Men to repent of their sins, and turne in faith and love unto Him’ (Goodwin (1651), 88-90).

Goodwin’s second section on ‘reconciliation’ deals primarily with the vexed question of whether the phrase ‘all things’ in Colossians 1:20 implies that angels are also in need or reconciliation (Goodwin (1651), 436-41). This section need not detain us; it will suffice to say that Goodwin suggests two ways by which even the good angels may be said to require reconciliation: firstly, reconciliation with men, because of the enmity of men towards God (Goodwin (1651), 437); secondly, towards God, in the sense that the obedience of angels is not absolute but requires the mediation of a pacifier (Goodwin (1651), 440). Goodwin’s third account of reconciliation is more spread out (Goodwin (1651), 550-69). He starts with Melanchthon’s argument that reconciliation is offered to all men, but only obtained by those who believe (Goodwin (1651), 550). Furthermore, Goodwin suggests that even Calvin himself understood the word ‘world’ to apply to ‘the generality or universality of Men’ (Goodwin (1651), 553). Goodwin thus claims that his position is a natural consequence of the very arguments of Melanchthon and Calvin, as he has interpreted them: after all, Goodwin himself suggests that both the Scriptures and common experience will reveal to us that not all men become, in fact, ‘truly reconciled with God: nor is Grace actually communicated unto them’ (Goodwin (1651), 564). Hence it remains true that ‘Unbeleevers who perish eternally, never come to be Partakers of these Benefits [of] Reconciliation with God, Forgiveness of sins, &c.’ (Goodwin (1651), 565), and that Christ did not actually obtain deliverance from the bondage of sin for all men (Goodwin (1651), 568). Whatever one thinks of his logic here, it appears that Goodwin is thus making two interconnected claims: (1) Christ’s death provided the promise of reconciliation to all; (2) nevertheless, reconciliation is not actually obtained by unbelievers.

This comparison of the views of Goodwin and Whichcote in the early 1650s reveals a difference of emphasis in their written statements on reconciliation. Goodwin’s text attempts to provide a theological basis for God’s offer of general redemption (albeit a case which, in Goodwin’s third passage, ultimately comes close to a hypothetical universalism); Whichcote’s sermon, as outlined in his correspondence with Tuckney, focuses primarily on what happens ‘within us’ as part of the process of reconciliation. Of course, it is perfectly possible to see these two arguments as opposite sides of the same coin: the offer of general redemption becomes efficacious for those who believe, where belief entails ‘Our becoming God-like’. Thus, it could be suggested that God’s offer of general redemption underpins Whichcote’s signature doctrine of God-likeness, as well as providing a singularly important instance of the operation of God’s immutable goodness. However, despite the congruity of these positions, and the circumstantial evidence of Goodwin’s appeal to Whichcote in the first preface to Apolytrosis apolytroseos, Tuckney’s insinuation that Whichcote drew his arguments on reconciliation directly from Goodwin remains unproven. Not only is the term ‘god-likeness’ almost entirely absent in Goodwin’s oeuvre, but he also takes a more conventional approach to the terminology of punishment and forgiveness of sin, even when his actual use of those terms differs from his Calvinist contemporaries. Having said that, the term ‘God-likeness’, while it does not appear to have been in wide use among Whichcote’s contemporaries, is echoed in some perhaps surprising quarters: for example, the expression ‘Godlinesse is God-likenesse’, or some variant of it, appears in the writings of the puritans Ralph Venning (The Way to True Happinesse, 1656), Hezekiah Woodward (A Church-covenant, 1656), and Zachary Crofton (Foelix scelus, 1659).

So, it seems that Whichcote’s controversial sermon of 1651 could easily give succour to groups whose vision of church government was very different to his own. On the one hand, Whichcote uses this sermon to defend a limited form of toleration over religious views and practices. On the other, his doctrine of ‘God-likeness’ is sufficiently close in its morphology to the doctrine of ‘godliness’ to encourage semantic slippage between the two. This raises some important questions: does the extremely widespread concept of ‘godliness’ in mid-seventeenth-century religious discourse indicate (in some instances at least) the much less general concept of ‘god-likeness’? If so, is the term ‘god-likeness’ being used in an equivalent way by all, some, or none of these interlocutors? And finally, what would our answers to these questions tell us about the sources of Whichcote’s thought, and its wider influence prior to the Restoration? Addressing these questions lies considerably beyond the scope of this essay. However, what we have seen is that the old dialectic between Platonism and Latitudinarianism may not be the best way to interpret Whichcote’s early writings. Instead, what is required is a much more nuanced interpretation of the poly-semantic implications of Whichcote’s language, together with a more precise understanding of his intellectual relations, whether intended or otherwise, to his contemporaries.

Gilbert Burnet, History of his own Times, 2 vols. (1724-34)
Zachary Crofton, Foelix scelus (1659)
Luke Fawn et al., A Second Beacon Fired (1654)
John Goodwin, Apolytrosis apolytoseos, or Redemption Redeemed (1651)
_____, A Fresh Discovery (1655)
Obadiah Howe, The Pagan Preacher Silenced (1655)
John Smith, Select Discourses (1660)
John Tillotson, A Sermon preached at the Funeral of the Reverend Benjamin Whichcot, D.D. (1683)
Ralph Venning, The Way to True Happinesse (1656)
Benjamin Whichcote, Moral and Religious Aphorisms …. To which are added, Eight Letters: which passed between Dr. Whichcote … and Dr. Tuckney (1753)
_____, Select Sermons (1698)
_____, Several Discourses, 4 vols. (1701-7)
_____, Theophoroumena dogmata: Or, Some Select Notions of that Learned and Reverend Divine of the Church of England, Benj. Whitchcot, D.D. (1685)
_____, Works, 4 vols. (Aberdeen, 1751)
Hezekiah Woodward, A Church-covenant (1656)

Secondary Literature:
Ernst Cassirer, Die platonische Renaissance (Leipzig, 1932)
Sarah Hutton, ‘Whichcote, Benjamin (1609-1683)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition (Oxford, 2005),
James Deotis Roberts, From Puritanism to Platonism (The Hague, 1968)
John Venn et al., Alumni cantabrigienses: Part 1, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1922-7)


2 thoughts on “Benjamin Whichcote and the Puritans, 1644-1660”

  1. Thank you, Dr Burden, for a very useful discussion of one vexed issue, the dating of Whichcote’s sermons, as well as an interesting foray into another, the intellectual sources of his preaching.

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