Carpenter, Nathanael (1589–1628), scholar and clergyman, was born 7 February 1589 in Northleigh, Devon, England, where his father, John Carpenter (d. 1621), had a living as a clergyman. No details of his mother are known. He matriculated (June 1605) at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and in 1607 was elected a Devon fellow of Exeter College on a letter of recommendation from James I. He obtained a BA (1610), MA (1613), and BD (1620). After completing his master's degree, he entered holy orders and earned a reputation as an outstanding theologian as well as a notable philosopher, poet, mathematician, and geographer. His writings were numerous, his first being one of the earliest attacks on Aristotelian philosophy. At that time the centrality of Aristotle to academic study was a major source of debate in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Carpenter, in his Philosophia libera, invited his readers – students, in particular – to cultivate intellectual freedom and approach the ancient philosophers with rational judgement rather than blind acceptance. The Philosophia, first published in Frankfurt (1621) under the name ‘N. C. Cosmopolitanus’, was published in new editions under his own name in 1622, 1636, and 1675. Carpenter restated his position in Geography delineated, published in 1625 and again in 1635; in this work he maintains that in the discussion of any theory the reader should be given a fair account of all views, even those rejected by the author.
His outstanding abilities soon attracted the notice of the chief theologians of his age, and Matthew Sutcliffe, dean of Exeter, nominated him a member of his new college at Chelsea. However, his theological views proved far more controversial than his philosophical ones. He was alarmed by King Charles I's patronage of the Arminian theologians, whom he likened to the Jesuits. Unable to get his anti-Arminian works published in England, and disillusioned by the Arminians’ dominance of the Church of England, he accepted an invitation from James Ussher (qv), archbishop of Armagh, to serve as his chaplain, accompanying him to Ireland in August 1626. The political and ecclesiastical authorities in Ireland were far more sympathetic towards Carpenter's Calvinist views, and in 1627 three sermons he had preached while at Oxford were published as Achitophel, or, The picture of a wicked politician. This work strongly condemned the Arminians for undermining the established and popular Calvinist consensus within English protestantism, and for falsely accusing loyal protestants, disturbed by their innovations, of being political subversives. As a result, the first edition was recalled and censored by the authorities in England. Nonetheless, it struck a powerful chord with the public and a number of new editions were published into the eighteenth century. In 1633 another collection of his similarly anti-Arminian sermons was published posthumously as Chorazin and Bethsaida's woe.
Carpenter was advanced to a deanery in Ireland, though it is not known which. He also served as tutor to the royal wards, many of whom were catholic. His role was to provide them with a protestant education with a view to converting them. In early 1628 he died (apparently unmarried) in Dublin and was buried there. Besides his published works, he wrote a ‘Treatise of optics’, the original of which was lost at sea, though some imperfect manuscript copies survive; TCD holds another manuscript work by him entitled ‘Encomia varia’.
Although he was ordained into the Church of England, Carpenter acquired his distinguished reputation largely through the secular studies of philosophy and science. At the time these disciplines were thought incompatible with the pursuit of theology as a vocation, and on his deathbed Carpenter is said to have regretted that he had concentrated on the study of philosophy and mathematics to the neglect of divinity. His contemporaries considered him a man of integrity and worth, an opinion which was endorsed in his funeral sermon by Dr Robert Ussher (qv), brother to the archbishop and afterwards bishop of Kildare.