WARBURTON, WILLIAM (1698-1779), English critic and divine, bishop of Gloucester, was born at Newark on the 24th of December 1698. His father belonged to an old Cheshire family and was town clerk of Newark. William was educated at Oakham and Newark grammar schools, and in 1714 he was articled to Mr Kirke, attorney at East Markham, in Nottinghamshire. After serving his time he returned to Newark with the intention of practising as a solicitor; but, having given some time to the study of Latin and Greek, he left the law and was ordained deacon by the archbishop of York in 1723, and in 1727 received priest's orders from the bishop of London. He had occupied the interval in various literary labours, the most important being the notes he contributed to Theobald's edition of Shakespeare, and an anonymous share in a pamphlet on the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery, The Legal Judicature in Chancery stated (1727). This was an answer to another anonymous pamphlet, written by Philip Yorke, afterwards Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, who replied in an enlarged edition (1728) of his original Discourse of the Judicial Authority . . . of Master of the Rolls. Warburton now received from Sir Robert Sutton the small living of Greasley, in Nottinghamshire, exchanged next year for that of Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire. He held in addition, from 1730, the living of Frisby in Lincolnshire. In 1728 he was made an honorary M.A. of Cambridge. At Brant Broughton for eighteen years he spent his time in study, the first result of which was his treatise on the Alliance between Church and State (1736). The book brought Warburton into favour at court, and he probably only missed immediate preferment by the death of Queen Caroline. His next and best-known work, Divine Legation of Moses demonstrated on the Principles of a Religious Deist (2 vols., 1737-1741), preserves his name as the author of the most daring and ingenious of theological paradoxes. The deists had made the absence of any inculcation of the doctrine of a future life an objection to the divine authority of the Mosaic writings. Warburton boldly admitted the fact and turned it against the adversary by maintaining that no merely human legislator would have omitted such a sanction of morality. The author's extraordinary power, learning and originality were acknowledged on all hands, though he excited censure and suspicion by his tenderness to the alleged heresies of Conyers Middleton. The book aroused much controversy. In a pamphlet of "Remarks" (1742), he replied to John Tillard, and Remarks on Several Occasional Reflections (1744-1745) was an answer to Akenside, Conyers Middleton (who had up to this time been his friend), Richard Pococke, Nicholas Mann, Richard Grey, Henry Stebbing and other of his critics. As he characterized his opponents in general as the "pestilent herd of libertine scribblers with which the island is overrun," it is no matter of surprise that the book made him many bitter enemies.
Either in quest of paradox, or actually unable to recognize the real tendencies of Pope's Essay on Man, he entered upon its defence against the Examen of Jean Pierre de Crousaz, in a series of articles (1738-1739) contributed to The Works of the Learned. Whether Pope had really understood the tendency of his own work has always been doubtful, but there is no question that he was glad of an apologist, and that Warburton's jeu d'esprit in the long run did more for his fortunes than all his erudition. It occasioned a sincere friendship between him and Pope, whom he persuaded to add a fourth book to the Dunciad, and encouraged to substitute Cibber for Theobald as the hero of the poem in the edition of 1743 published under the editorship of Warburton. Pope bequeathed him the copyright and the editorship of his works, and contributed even more to his advancement by introducing him to Murray, afterwards Lord Mansfield, who obtained for him in 1746 the preachership of Lincoln's Inn, and to Ralph Allen, who, says Johnson, "gave him his niece and his estate, and, by consequence, a bishopric." The marriage took place in 1745, and from that time Warburton resided principally at his father-in-law's estate at Prior Park, in Gloucestershire, which he inherited on Allen's death in 1764. In 1747 appeared his edition of Shakespeare, into which, as he expressed it, Pope's earlier edition was melted down. He had previously entrusted notes and emendations on Shakespeare to Sir Thomas Hanmer, whose unauthorized use of them led to a heated controversy. As early as 1727 Warburton had corresponded with Theobald on Shakespearean subjects. He now accused him of stealing his ideas and denied his critical ability. Theobald's superiority to Warburton as a Shakespearean critic has long since been acknowledged. Warburton was further kept busy by the attacks on his Divine Legation from all quarters, by a dispute with Bolingbroke respecting Pope's behaviour in the affair of Bolingbroke's Patriot King, by his edition of Pope's works (1751) and by a vindication in 1750 of the alleged miraculous interruption of the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem undertaken by Julian, in answer to Conyers Middleton. Warburton's manner of dealing with opponents was both insolent and rancorous, but it did him no disservice. He became prebendary of Gloucester in 1753, chaplain to the king in 1754, prebendary of Durham in 1755, dean of Bristol in 1757, and in 1759 bishop of Gloucester. He continued to write so long as the infirmities of age allowed, collecting and publishing his sermons, and toiling to complete the Divine Legation, further fragments of which were published with his posthumous Works. He wrote a defence of revealed religion in his View of Lord Bolingbroke's Philosophy (1754), and Hume's Natural History of Religion called forth some Remarks . . . "by a gentleman of Cambridge" from Warburton, in which his friend and biographer, Richard Hurd, had a share (1757). He made in 1762 a vigorous attack on Methodism under the title of The Doctrine of Grace. He also engaged in a keen controversy with Robert Lowth, afterwards bishop of London, on the book of Job, in which Lowth brought home charges of lack of scholarship and of insolence that admitted of no denial. His last important act was to found in 1768 the Warburtonian lecture at Lincoln's Inn, "to prove the truth of revealed religion . . . from the completion of the prophecies of the Old and New Testament which relate to the Christian Church, especially to the apostacy of Papal Rome." He died at Gloucester on the 7th of June 1779. Warburton was undoubtedly a great man, but his intellect, marred by wilfulness and the passion for paradox, effected no result in any degree adequate to its power. He was a warm and constant friend, and gave many proofs of gratitude to his benefactors.
Warburton's works were edited (7 vols., 1788) by Bishop Hurd with a biographical preface, and the correspondence between the two friends—an important contribution to the literary history of the period — was edited by Dr Parr in 1808. Warburton's life was also written fey John Selby Watson in 1863, and Mark Pattison made him the subject of an essay in 1889. See also I. D'Israeli, Quarrels of Authors (1814); and especially John Nichols, Literary Anecdotes (1812-1815), vol. v ., and Illustrations (1817-1858), vol. ii., for his correspondence with William Stukeley, Peter des Maizeaux, Thomas Birch, John Jortin and Lewis Theobald.