Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Collins, Anthony

COLLINS, ANTHONY (1676–1729), deist, born at Isleworth or at Heston, near Hounslow, on 21 June 1676 (Lysons, Environs, iii. 34, 115), was the son of Henry Collins, a man of good estate. He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, and afterwards was for a time a student in the Temple. In 1698 he married Martha, daughter of Sir Francis Child the elder [q. v.] Soon afterwards he made the acquaintance of Locke, who wrote many affectionate letters to him in 1703 and 1704, the last two years of the philosopher's life. Collins executed little commissions for Locke, sending him literary gossip, getting him books bound, and ordering a chariot for him. At Collins's request Sir Godfrey Kneller painted a portrait of Locke in 1704. Locke observes that Collins has 'an estate in the country, a library in town, and friends everywhere.' Locke left him a small sum in his will, made him one of the trustees for a bequest to Francis Masham, and left a letter to be delivered after his own decease, referring to the trust, and expressing warm affection for his young disciple (these letters were first published in Des Maizeaux's 'Collection of several Pieces' (1720) and are in the editions of Locke's works). Collins's writings show that he had been profoundly influenced by Locke's teaching. His first publications were: 'Several of the London Cases considered' (1707); and an 'Essay concerning the Use of Reason' (1707), attacking the distinction between things 'contrary to' and 'above' reason (2nd edit. 1709). In 1707 he also published a ' Letter to Mr. 'Dodwell,' containing an attack upon Samuel Clarke's argument for the natural immortality of the soul. Four other tracts followed in reply to defences from Clarke. They are published in the third volume of Clarke's collected works, together with Clarke's answers. Collins was here following Locke's speculation as to the possibility of thought being superadded to matter, upon which he had had some correspondence with its author. In 1709 Collins published ' Priestcraft in Perfection' (printed in 'Somers's Tracts,' vol. xii.), a pamphlet in which he argues that the clause in the 20th of the Thirty-nine Articles, declaring that 'the church has power to decree rites and ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith,' had been fraudulently inserted. Two more editions were published in 1710, and ' reflections ' (by Collins) in defence of the original pamphlet against opponents. In 1724 Collins continued the argument in a more elaborate ' Historical and Critical Essay on the Thirty-nine Articles.' An account of the controversy is given in Collier's 'Ecclesiastical History' (Collier, pt. ii. bk. vi.) In 1710 Collins published a ' Defence of the Divine Attributes,' an attack upon the theory of 'analogical' knowledge advocated in Archbishop King's sermon on 'Predestination.' In 1711 he visited Holland and made acquaintance with Le Clerc and others of the learned. In 1713 he published his 'Discourse of Free thinking.' The book urges that all belief should be based upon free inquiry, and insinuates that such inquiry will be destructive of orthodox views. The book produced a vigorous reply from Bentley, 'Remarks … by Phileleutherus Lipsiensis.' Bentley destroyed any pretensions of Collins to thorough scholarship, exposed many gross blunders, and claimed Collins's principle of free inquiry as his own and that of all the orthodox believers. Whether Bentley or Collins was right as to the ultimate tendency of that principle is another question. Swift attacked Collins in one of his best pieces of irony, 'Mr. Collins's Discourse of Freethinking put into Plain English by way of Abstract, for the use of the Poor.'

A second trip to Holland made by Collins soon afterwards was ascribed, unfairly as it seems, to fear of the consequences of his book (Nichols, Illustrations, ii. 148). Some copies of Collins's book tacitly correct errors mentioned by Bentley, especially the translation 'idiot evangelists' for 'idiotis evangelistes.' An edition apparently printed in Holland, but with London on the title-page, corrects other blunders. Collins has often been accused of disingenuous conduct for suppressing these errors, in order, as it is suggested, to insinuate that Bentley had invented them. There are, however, references to Bentley's reply in the Dutch edition, proving that Collins could not have meant it to pass for an original edition, which is, indeed, highly improbable in itself (see Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 673-8, for correspondence between Dr. Lort and Mr. Prichard on this subject). Richard Cumberland [q. v.] says in his memoirs that Bentley afterwards helped Collins in distress. Collins was never in distress, and the anecdote doubtless refers to Arthur Collins [q. v.] When I. D'Israeli pointed this out to Cumberland, Cumberland replied that the anecdote should stand, because it was creditable to his grandfather (Bentley), while Collins was 'little short of an atheist' (Curiosities of Literature, ed. 1841, p. 380).

Collins returned to London in October 1713, having been respectfully received in Flanders by ' priests, Jesuits, and others.' In 1715 he removed into Essex, where he acted as justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant, offices which he had before held in Middlesex. In 1718 he was chosen treasurer for the county of Essex, and is said to have greatly improved the administration of the funds. In 1715 he published a 'Philosophical Enquiry concerning Human Liberty' (reprinted with corrections in 1717), an able argument for determinism. This again produced an answer from S. Clarke, subjoined to Clarke's correspondence with Leibnitz. In 1724 Collins published a 'Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion,' called by-Warburton one of the most plausible attacks ever made against Christianity. Collins takes advantage of Whiston's allegorical interpretations to argue that the Old Testament prophecies, which, according to him, are the essential proofs of Christianity, can only be reconciled to the facts by such straining as is implied in ' allegorical ' treatment, that is, by making nonsense of them. The book excited a vehement controversy. To one of his antagonists, E. Chandler [q. v.], bishop of Lichfield, and afterwards of Durham, Collins replied in the 'Literal Scheme of Prophecy considered' (Hague, 1726; London, 1727). In the preface he enumerates thirty-five publications produced by the controversy. The book shows considerable reading, and anticipates more modern criticism in assigning the book of Daniel to the date of Antiochus Epiphanes. The book suggested Sherlock's 'Six Discourses,' besides many less conspicuous books.

Collins's health was now weakened by attacks of the stone, and he died on 13 Dec. 1729. By his first wife, Martha Child, he had two sons and two daughters. In 1724 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Walter Wrottesley, by whom he had no children. He was buried in Oxford chapel, where a monument with an epitaph (given in the 'Biog. Brit.') was erected by his widow. By his will he left his manuscripts to Des Maizeaux, who gave them to the widow for fifty guineas, and afterwards repented of the transaction, and sent back the money. Some letters between Des Maizeaux and Mrs. Collins, on his spreading a report that the manuscripts had been ' betrayed ' to the bishop of London, are given in D'Israeli's ' Curiosities of Literature.'

Collins was so bitterly attacked for his writings that the absence of attacks upon his character may be favourably interpreted. He appears to have been an amiable and upright man, and to have made all readers welcome to the use of a free library. A story is told that Collins once said to Lord Barrington, whom he frequently visited at Tofts in Essex, 'I think so well of St. Paul, who was both a man of sense and a gentleman, that if he had asserted that he had worked miracles himself, I would have believed him.' Collins, it is added, was disconcerted by the production of some passage from St. Paul (Biog. Brit. s. v. 'Barrington, John Shute'). Collins is the most conspicuous of the deist writers who took the line of historical criticism, and was the object of innumerable attacks. Hisworks, though not of high merit, literary or philosophical, are of interest in the history of contemporary speculation, and show one application, not intended by its author, of Locke's principles.

[The authority for the life of Collins is the life contributed by Birch to the General Dictionary, and afterwards reprinted in the Biog. Brit, from materials supplied by Collins's friend Des Maizeaux; see Nichols's Illustrations, ii. 148-9. Many letters from Collins are in the Des Maizeaux Papers in the British Museum.]

L. S.