Open main menu

WOOLSTON, THOMAS (1670–1733), enthusiast and freethinker, fifth son of Henry Woolston (d. 1705), currier, was born at Northampton early in 1670. He got his schooling at Northampton and Daventry, and on 11 June 1685 was admitted to Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge, as minor pensionary. On 16 Jan. 1685–6 he was elected a scholar; he graduated B.A. on 11 Jan. 1688–9, M.A. on 12 Feb. 1691–2. Having been elected a foundation fellow on 17 Jan. 1690–1, he took orders, was elected prælector 1694, ecclesiastical lecturer 1697, and graduated B.D. 1699. He bore the repute of a sound scholar, a good preacher, a charitable and estimable man. His reading led him to study the works of Origen, from whom he adopted the idea of interpreting the scripture as allegory. Applying this to the Old Testament he preached in the college chapel, and before the university, that the Mosaic narratives were to be taken as prophetic parables of Christ, and that as Moses proved his authority to Pharaoh, so our Lord proved his to the Roman emperors. His discourses were reduced to a volume, ‘The Old Apology for … the Christian Religion … revived,’ Cambridge, 1705, 8vo, printed at the university press.

He left the university in 1720; proceeding to London, he printed anonymously three Latin tracts. The first, dedicated to William Wake [q. v.], by ‘Mystagogus,’ was a ‘Dissertatio de Pontii Pilati ad Tiberium Epistola,’ 1720, 8vo, devoted to proving against Dupin the reality of a (lost) rescript of Pilate, a point already laboured in his ‘Old Apology’ (pp. 35 sq.) The ‘Epistola,’ 1720, 8vo, and ‘Epistola Secunda,’ 1720, 8vo, addressed to Whitby, Waterland, and Whiston, by ‘Origenes Adamantius,’ are in support of the allegorical exegesis favoured in the ‘Old Apology.’ An attack upon quakers, as pagans, in the ‘Delphick Oracle’ (January 1719–20, p. 46) led him to send to that periodical, writing as a quaker, and signing ‘Aristobulus,’ a challenge to a disputation, which was accepted (February 1719–20, p. 17). ‘Aristobulus’ forwarded a letter opening the discussion, and defending the quakers as allegorists. He affirms (Letter to Bennet, 1720, p. 19) that, being unable to meet his argument, the ‘Delphick Oracle’ did not publish another number; but his letter (abridged) with a long reply appears in the ‘Delphick Oracle,’ March 1719–20, p. 58 (the first and only number of an enlarged issue). He then turned to Thomas Bennet [q. v.], who had published a ‘Confutation of Quakerism’ (1705), and addressed to him ‘A Letter … upon this Question: Whether … Quakers do not the nearest … resemble the primitive Christians,’ 1720, 8vo, and ‘A Second Letter,’ 1721, 8vo, on the general question of the allegorical sense of scripture. Both are signed ‘Aristobulus,’ who claims to be ‘a foreigner’ in search of true religion; in these letters, especially in the second, he opens his peculiar vein of irreverent jocularity (not without real humour, but on subjects where humour is out of place), and his references to his own publications betray a disordered self-estimate. Bennet took no notice of either letter; an ‘Answer’ (1721, 8vo) ‘by a country curate,’ signed ‘N. N.,’ was by Woolston himself, and meant to provoke controversy. His friends, with some reason, thought him crazy; to rebut the imputation he presented himself at his college, and was at once called upon to resume residence in accordance with the statutes. Peremptorily refusing, he was deprived of his fellowship, contrary to the wish of the master, Bardsey Fisher, and in spite of the intercession of William Whiston [q. v.], whom he had abused. He complains (Defence of the Thundering Legion, 1726, p. iv) of ‘being deprived of my fellowship for my late writings.’ After his deprivation his brother, Alderman Woolston of Northampton, allowed him 30l. a year.

He next published ‘A Free-Gift to the Clergy’ (1722, 8vo), dedicated to the hierarchy. In this he attacks by name John Frankland, fellow of Sidney-Sussex, and others; and declares his intention ‘to be the founder of a new sect.’ He had a few disciples ‘called ænigmatists.’ His friends advised him to print his exercises in 1699 for B.D. (repeated in the university pulpit, 1702). They appeared as ‘The Exact Fitness of the Time in which Christ was manifested’ (1722, 8vo), with a blatant dedication to Fisher, contrasting with the tone of an able and ingenious treatise; at p. 37 is the germ of the argument of his ‘Old Apology.’ ‘A Second Free-Gift to the Clergy’ (1723, 8vo) complained of no replies to the first; it was followed by ‘A Third Free-Gift’ (1823, 8vo, dated 7 Sept.; in this he states (p. 32) that he had been carried up in a vision, and had an interview with Elias); by ‘A Fourth Free-Gift’ (1724, 8vo, dated 1 June), and by an ‘answer’ again ‘by a Country Curate,’ entitled ‘The Ministry of the Letter vindicated’ (1724, 8vo, dated 9 July). Rushing into the controversy between Anthony Collins [q. v.] and Edward Chandler [q. v.], he published ‘A Moderator between an Infidel and an Apostate’ (1725, 8vo; dedication to Wake, dated 10 Feb.), with two supplements, same year, dedicated (2 Nov.) to Joseph Craven, who succeeded Fisher as master of Sidney-Sussex, and (12 Nov.) to Peter King, first lord King [q. v.] (the whole came to a third edition, 1729–32, 8vo). In these he carried allegory to the length of questioning the historic reality of the resurrection and the virgin birth of our Lord. The government indicted him (between 2 and 12 Nov.) for blasphemy. Whiston made interest with the attorney-general, Sir Philip Yorke (afterwards first Earl of Hardwicke) [q. v.], to stop the prosecution; offering, if it went on, to give evidence on the subject of allegorical interpretations. The case was not proceeded with, for Woolston now attacked a posthumous dissertation of Walter Moyle [q. v.], in ‘A Defence of the Miracle of the Thundering Legion’ (1726, 8vo), dedicated to Whiston, who had written on the same side. ‘I had used you,’ he says, ‘with such freedom in my “Moderator” as would have provoked another man to resentment, and even to rejoice at any sufferings that could have fallen on me; but it is manifest that you are of a more Christian temper, and can forgive any treatment from an adversary; for which I shall always esteem you a brave and a good man; and I hope nobody, no, not those who were most zealous for my prosecution, will think the worse of you.’ The ‘Defence’ is a remarkable tour de force, and ends with a fine appeal for liberty of publication, on the ground that ‘it is the opposition of others that sharpens wit and brightens truth.’

Woolston's ‘Discourse on the Miracles of Our Saviour,’ 1727, 8vo (dedicated to Edmund Gibson [q. v.], 17 April), was followed by a ‘Second,’ 1727, 8vo (dedicated to Edward Chandler, 13 Oct.), a ‘Third,’ 1728, 8vo (dedicated to Richard Smalbroke [q. v.], 26 Feb.), a ‘Fourth,’ 1728, 8vo (dedicated to Francis Hare [q. v.], 14 May), a ‘Fifth,’ 1728, 8vo (dedicated to Thomas Sherlock [q. v.], 25 Oct.), and a ‘Sixth,’ 1729, 8vo (dedicated to John Potter (1674?–1747) [q. v.], 15 Feb.) The ‘Discourses’ speedily ran to six editions, and were received with a storm of replies. Gibson issued a pastoral letter, Smalbroke preached against them, Whiston withdrew his countenance. The vigour of the ‘Discourses’ is undeniable, and it has been said with some truth that they anticipate the mythical theory of Strauss. The government resumed the prosecution after the publication of the fourth ‘Discourse;’ Woolston was tried at the Guildhall on 4 March 1729, by Robert Raymond [q. v.], lord chief justice. He speaks highly of Raymond's fairness. He told Raymond that the expression ‘hireling clergy,’ in his title-pages, was ‘where the shoe pinched.’ Birch, his counsel (who had gratuitously undertaken the defence), argued that Woolston had written as a sincere Christian. The attorney-general replied that ‘if the author of a treasury libel should write at the conclusion, “God save the king,” it would not excuse him’ (An Account of the Trial, 1729, fol.) Woolston was found guilty on four counts, and sentenced to a year's imprisonment and a fine of 100l. He purchased the liberty of the rules of the king's bench, and there remained till his death, being unable to pay the fine (he had 70l., of which he lost 30l. in 1732 by a tradesman's failure). Clarke tried in vain to procure his release.

Meanwhile Smalbroke and others were publishing replies (The Comedian, or Philosophical Enquirer, 1732, v. 24), and Woolston issued two ‘Defences,’ the first (October 1729) dedicated to Queen Caroline. Besides his second ‘Defence’ (May 1730) he is almost certainly the author of ‘Tom of Bedlam's Short Letter to his Cozen Tom W—lst—n’ (1728, 8vo), and inspired, if he did not write, ‘For God or the Devil; or, Just Chastisement no Persecution, Being the Christian's Cry … for … Punishment of … that Wretch Woolston’ (1728, 8vo), and ‘Free Thoughts on Mr. Woolston,’ 1729, 8vo (November); 2nd edit. 1730, 8vo, with lists of books in ‘the Woolstonian controversy.’ Woolston thought the best answer to him was in ‘Two Discourses’ (1729) by George Wade. In purely doctrinal matters he does not seem to have been heterodox; he had no sympathy with Whiston's arianism.

He died (unmarried) on 27 Jan. 1732–3, and was buried (30 Jan.) in the churchyard of St. George's, Southwark. He was in his sixty-fourth year (The Comedian, or Philosophical Enquirer, 1733, ix. 31). His portrait, by Dandridge, was engraved by Van der Gucht; another portrait was by Vanderbank.

[The Life of Mr. Woolston, with an impartial account of his writings, 1733 (ascribed by Woog to Thomas Stackhouse (1677–1752) [q. v.]); Woog's De Vita et Scriptis T. Woolstoni, 1743; Whiston's Memoirs, 1753, p. 197; Biogr. Brit. 1763, article by ‘P.’ (?William Nicolls, D.D.); History of Northampton, 1817, p. 109; Graduati Cantabr. 1823; Hunt's Religious Thought in England, 1871, ii. 400; Edwards's Sidney-Sussex College, 1899, pp. 142, 163, 190; extracts from the records of Sidney-Sussex, per Rev. G. A. Weekes.]

A. G.