Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whiston, William

WHISTON, WILLIAM (1667–1752), divine, born at Norton juxta Twycrosse, Leicestershire, on 9 Dec. 1667, was the son of Josiah Whiston, rector of the parish, by Catherine, daughter of Gabriel Rosse, the previous incumbent, who died in 1658. The elder Whiston had been a presbyterian, and only just escaped ejection after the Restoration. He was, according to his son, very diligent in his duties, even after he had become blind, lame, and, for a time, deaf. In his boyhood William was employed as his father's amanuensis, and the consequent confinement, he thought, helped to make him a ‘valetudinarian and greatly subject to the flatus hypochondriaci’ throughout his life. His father was his only teacher until 1684, when he was sent to school at Tamworth. The master was George Antrobus, whose daughter Ruth became his wife in 1699. In 1686 he was sent to Clare Hall, Cambridge. He was an industrious student, particularly in mathematics, but had much difficulty in supporting himself, as his father had died in January 1685–6, leaving a widow and seven children. He managed to live upon 100l. till he took his B.A. degree in 1690. He was elected to a fellowship on 16 July 1691 (Memoirs, p. 73), and graduated M.A. in 1693. He had scruples as to taking the oaths to William and Mary, and resolved not to apply to any bishop who had taken the place of one of the deprived nonjurors. He therefore went to William Lloyd (1627–1717) [q. v.], bishop of Lichfield, by whom he was ordained deacon in September 1693. He returned to Cambridge, intending to take pupils. He must have been regarded as a young man of high promise. Archbishop Tillotson (also educated at Clare Hall) sent a nephew to be one of his pupils. Whiston's ill-health, however, decided him to give up tuition. His ‘bosom friend’ Richard Laughton was chaplain to John Moore (1646–1714) [q. v.], bishop of Norwich. Moore had previously sent Whiston 5l., to help him as a student, and now allowed an exchange of places between Whiston and Laughton. While chaplain to Moore, Whiston published his first book. He had been ‘ignominiously studying the fictitious hypotheses of the Cartesian philosophy’ at Cambridge, but he had heard some of Newton's lectures, and was induced to study the ‘Principia’ by a paper of David Gregory (1661–1708) [q. v.] His ‘New Theory of the Earth’ was submitted in manuscript to Newton himself, to Wren, and to Bentley. It was praised by Locke (letter to Molyneux of 22 Feb. 1696), who thought that writers who suggested new hypotheses ought to be most encouraged. Whiston's speculation was meant to supersede the previous theory of Thomas Burnet (1635?–1715) [q. v.] of the Charterhouse. He confirmed the narrative in Genesis on Newtonian grounds, explaining the deluge by collision with a comet. In 1698 he was presented by Bishop Moore to the vicarage of Lowestoft-with-Kissingland in Suffolk, worth about 120l. a year after allowing for a curate at Kissingland. He set up an early service in a chapel, preached twice a day at the church, and gave catechetical lectures. Part of the tithes of Kissingland belonged to John Baron (afterwards dean of Norwich), who offered to sell his property to the church for eight years' purchase (160l.) Whiston got up a subscription, advancing 50l. himself, and ultimately settled the tithe upon the vicarage on being reimbursed for his own expenses. His successor afterwards made him a yearly present of five guineas, which was of considerable importance to him. In 1701 Whiston was appointed deputy to Newton's Lucasian professorship. He published an edition of ‘Euclid’ for the use of students. In 1703 he succeeded Newton as professor, and gave up his living. He delivered lectures (afterwards published) upon mathematics and natural philosophy, and was among the first to popularise the Newtonian theories. Roger Cotes [q. v.] was appointed to the new Plumian professorship in 1706, chiefly upon Whiston's recommendation, and in the next year he joined Cotes in a series of scientific experiments. In 1707 he was also permitted by the author to publish Newton's ‘Arithmetica Universalis.’ Whiston was active in other ways. He complains of the practice of the time in regard to fellowship elections. The candidates sometimes recommended themselves by prowess in drinking. Whiston proposed reforms of various kinds (Memoirs, pp. 42, 111). He was also a member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, founded by his friend Thomas Bray (1656–1730) [q. v.], and wrote a memorial for setting up charity schools throughout the kingdom. Meanwhile Whiston, like Newton, had unluckily been combining scientific with theological inquiries. He delivered the Boyle lectures in 1707, and in 1708 he wrote an ‘imperfect’ essay upon the ‘Apostolical Constitutions,’ which the vice-chancellor refused to license. Whiston wrote to the archbishops in July 1708, informing them that he was entering upon an important inquiry. It led him to the conclusion that the ‘Apostolical Constitutions’ was ‘the most sacred of the canonical books of the New Testament,’ and that the accepted doctrine of the Trinity was erroneous. Reports that he was an Arian, or, as he called himself, a Eusebian, began to spread, and his friends remonstrated. He told them that they might as soon persuade the sun to leave the firmament as change his resolution. He was finally summoned before the heads of houses, and banished from the university and deprived of his professorship, 30 Oct. 1710. Whiston went to London with his family, and towards the end of 1711 published his chief work, ‘Primitive Christianity Revived.’ The case was taken up by convocation, which voted an address for his prosecution. Various delays took place, till in 1714 a ‘court’ of delegates was appointed by the lord chancellor for his trial. The proceedings against him were dropped after the death of Queen Anne. (Whiston published an account of the proceedings against him at Cambridge in 1711 and 1718. Various ‘papers’ relating to the proceedings in convocation and the court of delegates were published by him in 1715. See also appendices to Primitive Christianity, and Cobbett's State Trials, xv. 703–16). Whiston was known to many leading divines of the time, especially to Samuel Clarke, who had succeeded him as chaplain to Moore, and Hoadly, who sympathised with some of his views, but were cautious in avowing their opinions. Whiston was now a poor man. He states (Memoirs, p. 290) that he had a small farm near Newmarket, and that he received gifts from various friends, and had in later years a life annuity of 20l. from Sir Joseph Jekyll [q. v.], and 40l. a year from Queen Caroline (continued, it is said, after her death by George II). These means, together with ‘eclipses, comets, and lectures,’ gave him ‘such a competency as greatly contented him.’ When Prince Eugène came to London in 1711–12, Whiston printed a new dedication to a previous essay upon the Apocalypse, pointing out that the prince had fulfilled some of the prophecies. The prince had not been aware, he replied, that he ‘had the honour of being known to St. John,’ but sent the interpreter fifteen guineas. In 1712 Whiston made a characteristic attempt to improve his finances. Simon Patrick, bishop of Ely, had in 1702 promised him a prebend which was expected to be vacated upon Thomas Turner's refusal to take the oaths [see Turner, Thomas, 1645–1714]. Whiston supposed (erroneously, it seems) that Turner managed to evade the oath and to keep his prebend. In 1712 he wrote to Turner mentioning this as a fact, and ‘hinting’ his expectations. Turner, he thought, having wrongfully kept the prebend, ought to contribute to the support of the rightful owner. Turner took no notice of what must have looked like an attempt at extortion. Whiston kept the secret, however, and in 1731 appealed to the corporation to which Turner had left a fortune, stating that he had lost 1,200l. by his acquiescence. He was again obliged ‘to sit down contented’ without any compensation.

Whiston was one of the first, if not the first person, to give lectures with experiments in London (cf. Desaguliers, John Theophilus, and De Morgan, Budget of Paradoxes, p. 93). He co-operated in some of them with the elder Francis Hauksbee [q. v.] The first, upon astronomy, were given at Button's coffee-house by the help of Addison and Steele (Memoirs, p. 257), both of whom he knew well. He amused great men by his frank rebukes. He asked Steele one day how he could speak for the Southsea directors after writing against them. Steele replied, ‘Mr. Whiston, you can walk on foot and I cannot.’ When he suggested to Craggs that honesty might be the best policy, Craggs replied that a statesman might be honest for a fortnight, but that it would not do for a month. Whiston asked him whether he had ever tried for a fortnight (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. i. 504). Whiston's absolute honesty was admitted by his contemporaries, whom he disarmed by his simplicity. He gives various anecdotes of the perplexities into which he brought other clergymen by insisting upon their taking notice of vice in high positions. In 1715 he started a society for promoting primitive Christianity, which held weekly meetings at his house in Cross Street, Hatton Garden, for two years. The chairmen were successively the baptist John Gale [q. v.], Arthur Onslow [q. v.] (afterwards speaker), and the unitarian Thomas Emlyn [q. v.] (see W. Clarke's Memoirs; and for an account of the subjects discussed, Whiston's Three Tracts, 1742). To this society he invited Clarke, Hoadly, and Hare, who, however, did not attend. Whiston was on particularly intimate terms with Clarke. Clarke probably introduced him to the Princess of Wales (afterwards Queen Caroline), who enjoyed Whiston's plainness of speech and took his reproofs good-humouredly. Among the members of Whiston's society was Thomas Rundle [q. v.] (afterwards bishop of Derry). Whiston was afterwards shocked by hearing that Rundle attributed the ‘Apostolical Constitutions’ to the fourth century, and said, ‘Make him dean of Durham, and they will not be written till the fifth.’ Another member was Thomas Chubb [q. v.], of whose first book he procured the publication. He had afterwards to attack Chubb's more developed deism. A more decided opponent was Anthony Collins [q. v.], whose two books on the ‘Grounds and Reasons,’ &c. (1724), and the ‘Scheme of Literal Prophecy’ (1727) are professedly directed against Whiston's view of the prophecies. In the first (p. 273) he gives ‘an account of Mr. Whiston himself,’ praising his integrity and zeal. Whiston, he says, visits persons of the highest rank and ‘frequents the most public coffee-houses,’ where the clergy fly before him. Whiston was rivalled in popular estimation by that ‘ecclesiastical mountebank’ John Henley [q. v.] the ‘orator.’ Whiston accused Henley of immorality, and proposed in vain that he should submit to a trial according to the rules of the primitive church. The bishop of London declared that there was no canon now in force for the purpose, and Henley retorted by reproaching Whiston for bowing his knee in the house of Rimmon, that is, attending the Anglican services (Whiston, Memoirs, pp. 215, 327, and his pamphlet Mr. Henley's Letters and Advertisements, with Notes by Mr. Whiston,’ 1727, which is not, as Lowndes says, ‘almost unreadable’ on account of its ‘scurrility’).

Whiston meanwhile kept up his mathematics. He made various attempts to devise means for discovering the longitude. A large reward for a successful attempt was offered by parliament. Whiston co-operated with Humphrey Ditton [q. v.] in a scheme published in 1714, which was obviously chimerical. In 1720 he published a new plan founded on the ‘dipping of the needle,’ improved in 1721, but afterwards found that his ‘labour had been in vain.’ A public subscription, however, was raised in 1721 to reward him and enable him to carry on his researches. The king gave 100l., and the total was 470l. 3s. 6d. Another sum of 500l. was raised for him about 1740, the whole of which, however, was spent in a survey of the coasts, for which he employed a Mr. Renshaw in 1744. A chart was issued, which he declares to be the most correct hitherto published. In 1720 a proposal to elect him a fellow of the Royal Society was defeated by Newton. Newton, according to Whiston, could not bear to be contradicted in his old age, and for the last thirteen years of his life was afraid of Whiston, who was always ready to contradict any one.

Whiston lectured upon various subjects, comprising meteors, eclipses, and earthquakes, which he connected more or less with the fulfilment of prophecies. In 1726 he had models made of the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Jerusalem, and afterwards lectured upon them at London, Bristol, Bath, and Tunbridge Wells. These lectures and others preparatory to the restoration of the Jews to Palestine (an event which he regarded as rapidly approaching) were to be his ‘peculiar business’ henceforth. He continued, however, to publish a variety of pamphlets and treatises upon his favourite topics. His most successful work, the translation of Josephus, with several dissertations added, appeared in 1737, and has since, in spite of defective scholarship, been the established version. In 1739, on the death of his successor in the Cambridge professorship, Nicholas Saunderson [q. v.], he applied to be reinstated in his place, but received no answer. In his last years he took up a few more fancies, or, as he put it, made some new discoveries. He became convinced that anointing the sick with oil was a Christian duty. He found that the practice had been carried on with much success by the baptists. He had hitherto attended the services of the church of England, though in 1719 Henry Sacheverell [q. v.] had endeavoured to exclude him from the parish church. Whiston declined an offer from a lawyer to prosecute Sacheverell gratuitously, saying that it would prove him to be ‘as foolish and passionate as the doctor himself.’ He published a curious ‘Account’ of Dr. ‘Sacheverell's proceedings’ in this matter in 1719. Gradually he became uncomfortable about the Athanasian creed, and finally gave up communion with the church and joined the baptists after Trinity Sunday 1747. He heard a good character of the Moravians, but was cured by perceiving their ‘weakness and enthusiasm.’ His ‘most famous discovery,’ or revival of a discovery, was that the Tartars were the lost tribes. He was still lecturing at Tunbridge Wells in 1746 when he announced that the millennium would begin in twenty years, and that there would then be no more gaming-tables at Tunbridge Wells or infidels in Christendom (Memoirs, p. 333). He appears there in 1748 in the well-known picture prefixed to the third volume of the ‘Richardson Correspondence.’ In 1750 he gave another series of lectures (published in second volume of ‘Memoirs’), showing how his predictions were confirmed by the earthquake of that year, and that Mary Toft [q. v.], the rabbit-woman, had been foretold in the book of Esdras.

Whiston died on 22 Aug. 1752 at the house of Samuel Barker, husband of his only daughter, at Lyndon, Rutland. He was buried at Lyndon beside his wife, who died in January 1750–1. He left two sons, George and John [q. v.] A young brother, Daniel, was for fifty-two years curate of Somersham. He agreed with his brother's views, and wrote a ‘Primitive Catechism,’ published by his brother. He refused preferments from unwillingness to make the necessary subscriptions, and was protected, it is said, at the suggestion of Samuel Clarke, by the Duchess of Marlborough (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. viii. 376–7). He is apparently the Daniel who died on 19 April 1759, aged 82 (ib. i. 505).

Whiston belonged to a familiar type as a man of very acute but ill-balanced intellect. His learning was great, however fanciful his theories, and he no doubt helped to call attention to important points in ecclesiastical history. The charm of his simple-minded honesty gives great interest to his autobiography; though a large part of it is occupied with rather tiresome accounts of his writings and careful directions for their treatment by the future republishers, who have not yet appeared. In many respects he strongly resembles the Vicar of Wakefield, who adopted his principles of monogamy. His condemnation of Hoadly upon that and other grounds is in the spirit of Dr. Primrose (Memoirs, p. 209). It is not improbable that Whiston was more or less in Goldsmith's mind when he wrote his masterpiece.

Whiston's portrait, by Mrs. Sarah Hoadly, is in the National Portrait Gallery of London. A characteristic portrait, by B. White, is engraved in his ‘Memoirs,’ and also in Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes’ (i. 494). Another by Vertue was engraved in 1720.

Whiston's works, omitting a few occasional papers, are: 1. ‘A New Theory of the Earth,’ &c., 1696; appendix added to 5th edit. 1736. 2. ‘Short View of the Chronology of the Old Testament,’ &c., 1702. 3. ‘Essay on the Revelation of St. John,’ 1706 (nearly the same as ‘Synchronismorum Apostolicorum Series,’ 1713). 4. ‘Prælectiones Astronomicæ,’ 1707 (in English in 1715 and 1728). 5. ‘The accomplishment of Scripture Prophecies,’ 1708 (Boyle lectures). 6. ‘Sermons and Essays upon several Subjects,’ 1709. 7. ‘Prælectiones Physio-Mathematicæ,’ 1710 (in English in 1716). 8. ‘Essay upon the Teaching of St. Ignatius,’ 1710. 9. ‘Historical Preface,’ 1710 (in 1711 prefixed to ‘Primitive Christianity,’ and republished separately in 1718). 10. Two ‘Replies to Dr. Allen,’ 1711. 11. ‘Remarks upon Dr. Grabe's ‘Essay upon two Arabick MSS.,’ 1711. 12. ‘Primitive Christianity revived,’ 1711, 4 vols. 8vo (containing the Epistles of Ignatius, the ‘Apostolical Constitutions,’ and dissertations; a fifth volume, containing the ‘Recognitions of Clement,’ was added in 1712). 13. ‘Athanasius convicted of Forgery,’ 1712. 14. ‘Primitive Infant Baptism revived,’ 1712. 15. ‘Reflexions on an Anonymous Pamphlet’ (i.e. Collins's ‘Discourse of Freethinking’), 1712. 16. ‘Three Essays’ (on the Council of Nice, ‘Ancient Monuments relating to the Trinity,’ &c., and ‘The Liturgy of the Church of England reduced nearer to the Primitive Standard’), 1713. 17. ‘A Course of Mechanical, Optical, Hydrostatical, and Pneumatical Experiments,’ 1713 (with F. Hauksbee). 18. ‘A New Method of discovering the Longitude,’ 1714 (with Humphrey Ditton). 19. ‘An Argument to prove that … all Persons solemnly, though irregularly, set apart for the Ministry are real Clergymen …,’ 1714. 20. ‘A Vindication of the Sibylline Oracles,’ 1715. 21. ‘St. Clement's and St. Irenæus's Vindi of the Apostolical Constitutions,’ 1715. 22. ‘An Account of a Surprizing Meteor,’ 1716 (another in 1719). 23. ‘An Address to the Princes … of Europe for the Admission … of the Christian Religion to their Dominions,’ 1716. 24. ‘Astronomical Principles of Religion,’ 1717. 25. ‘Scripture Politics,’ 1717 (to which is added ‘The Supposal, or a New Scheme of Government,’ privately printed in 1712). 26. ‘A Defense of the Bishop of London,’ 1719; a second ‘Defense,’ 1719. 27. ‘Commentary on the Three Catholic Epistles of St. John,’ 1719. 28. ‘Letter to the Earl of Nottingham concerning the Eternity of the Son of God,’ 1719, six editions; ‘Reply’ to the same in 1721. 29. ‘The true Origin of the Sabellian and Athanasian Doctrines of the Trinity,’ 1720. 30. ‘The Longitude and Latitude discovered by the Inclinatory or Dipping Needle,’ 1721. 31. ‘A Chronological Table, containing the Hebrew, Phœnician, Egyptian, and Chaldean Antiquities,’ 1721. 32. ‘An Essay towards restoring the True Text of the Old Testament,’ 1722 (‘Supplement’ in 1723). 33. ‘The Calculation of Solar Eclipses without Parallaxes,’ 1724. 34. ‘The Literal Accomplishment of Scripture Prophecies,’ 1724; answer to Collins's ‘Grounds and Reasons’ (‘Supplement’ in 1725). 35. ‘Of the Thundering Legion,’ 1725. 36. ‘A Collection of Authentick Records, belonging to the Old and New Testaments’ (in English), 1727. 37. ‘The Horeb Covenant revived,’ 1730. 38. ‘Historical Memoirs … of Dr. Samuel Clarke,’ 1730 (three editions). 39. ‘Paraphrase on the Book of Job,’ 1732. 40. ‘The Testimony of Phlegon vindicated,’ 1732. 41. ‘Six Dissertations,’ 1734. 42. ‘Athanasian Forgeries, Impositions, and Interpolations’ (by a ‘Lover of Truth’), 1736. 43. ‘The Primitive Eucharis revived,’ 1736 (against Hoadly's ‘Plain Account’). 44. ‘The Astronomical Year,’ 1737. 45. ‘The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish Historian, in English,’ 1737 (often reprinted till 1879). 46. ‘An Account of the Dæmoniacks,’ 1737. 47. ‘The Longitude found by the Ellipses … of Jupiter's Planets,’ 1738. 48. ‘The Eternity of Hell Torments considered,’ 1740. 49. ‘Three Tracts,’ 1742. 50. ‘The Primitive New Testament in English,’ 1745. 51. ‘Sacred History of the Old and New Testament; reduced into Annals,’ 1748. 52. ‘Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. William Whiston, containing several of his Friends also, and written by Himself,’ 1749; 2nd edit. 1753.

[Whiston's Memoirs is the chief authority for his life. References above are to the second edition. See also Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 494–506. For numerous references to Whiston's various controversies, see the Index to the same work; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. v. 143.]

L. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.279
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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13 ii 36 Whiston, William: for Grabes's read Grabe's