Wollaston, William

, a learned and ingenious" writer, was born March 26, 1659, at Colon Clanford, in Staffordshire, where his father then resided, a private gentleman of small fortune, being descended from an ancient and considerable family in that county, where the elder branch always continued; but the second, in process of time, was transplanted into other counties. The head of it flourished formerly at Oncot, in the county of Stafford, though afterwards at Shenton, in Leicestershire; and was possessed of a large estate lying in those and other counties. Our author was a second son of a third son of a second son of a second son, yet notwithstanding this remarkable series of younger brothers, his grandfather, who stands in the midst of it, had a considerable estate both real and personal, together with an office of 700l. per annum. And from a younger brother of the same branch sprang sir John Wollaston,lord- mayor of London, well known in that city at the time of the grand rebellion.

At nine years old, Mr. Wollaston was sent to a master, who had opened a Latin school, at Shenstone in Stafford^ shire, where his father then resided. Here he continued near two years, and then removed to Lichfield; but had not been long at this school, when the magistrates of the city, in consequence of some dispute, turned the master out of the school-house. Mr. Wollaston, however, with many of the scholars, followed the ejected master, and re^ inained with him till he quitted school, which was about three years, after which, the schism being ended, he returned into the free-school, and continued there about a year. The rudeness of a great school was particularly disagreeable to his natural disposition; and what was still worse, he began now to be much troubled with the headach, which seems to have been constitutional in him; yethis uncommon attention to his book, and eagerness to improve, had now rendered him fit for the university. Accordingly he was sent to Cambridge, and admitted a pensioner at Sidney-college, June 18, 1674, in the sixteenthyear of his age. Here he laboured under some discouragements. He was come up a country lad from a countryschool; had no acquaintance in his college^ nor even in the university; few books or materials to work with; his allowance being by no means more than sufficient for bare necessaries; neither had he sufficient confidence to supply that defect by applying to others. Add to this that his | state of health was not quite firm. However, under all these disadvantages, he acquired much reputation, and having taken his degree of B. A. at the regular time, he offered himself a candidate for a fellowship in his college, but missed of that preferment. In July 1681 he commenced M. A. and about this time seems to have entered into deacon’s orders.

On Michaelmas-day following, he left the university, and having made a visit to the then head of this branch of the family, his cousin Wollaston of Shenton in Leicestershire, he went to pay his duty to his father and mother at Bloxwyche, where they then lived, and remained with them till May or June 1682. But seeing no prospect of preferment, he so far conformed himself to the circumstances of his family, as about this time to become assistant at Birmingham school to the head master, who readily embraced the opportunity of such a coadjutor, and considered Mr. Wollaston as one who had prudentially stooped to an employment beyond what he might reasonably have pretended to. This instance, however, of his humble industry was far from being displeasing to his cousin of Shenton, who had a great esteem for the head master, and in a short time, he got a small lecture at the distance of about two miles from Birmingham; but as he performed there the whole Sunday’s duty, that fatigue, added to the business of a great freeschool for about four years, began to break his constitution. But the old master being now turned out, in order to make way for a particular person to succeed him, our author was chosen second master only, under a pretence that he was too young to be at the head of so great a school, but some of the governors themselves owned that he was not well used in this affair.

However that may be, it is certain upon this occasion he took priest’s orders in pursuance to the charter of that school, which being interpreted likewise so as to oblige the masters to take no church-preferment, he resigned his lecture. This happened in 1686, and was a considerable relief to him, while his new post was worth about TOl. per annum, which afforded him a tolerable subsistence. In the mean time the late chief master after his expulsion retired to his brother’s house, which lying in the neighbourhood of Shenton, he once or twice waited upon Mr. Wollaston, of Shenton, and undoubtedly informed him of the character, learning, conversation, and conduct of our author, | which he was very capable of doing, because they lived together, till the time of this old gentleman’s leaving Birmingham. Mr. Woliaston, of Shenton, having now lately lost his only son. and never intending (as appears from his whole conduct) to give his estate to his daughters, pursued his father’s design of continuing it in the male line of his family, and resolved to settle it upon our author’s uncle and father, his own first cousins, and his nearest male-relations, in the same proportions and manner exactly as it had been entailed on them by his father. And accordingly he made such a settlement, subject however to a revocation.

Our author all this while applied himself to his business; and never waited upon his cousin, or employed any one tospeak or act in his behalf (though many then blamed him for neglecting to do it); only one visit he made him in the November before his death, which was upon a Saturday in the afternoon. He gave him a sermon the next day, received his hearty thanks, and the next morning desired leave to return to the duties of his station; without speaking or even insinuating any thing respecting his estate. His cousin dismissed him with great kindness; and by his looks and manner seemed to have a particular regard for him, but discovered nothing of his intention by words. However, he used to employ persons privately to observe our author’s behaviour (who little suspected any such matter), and his behaviour was found to be such, that the stricter the observations were upon it, the more they turned to his advantage. In fine, Mr. Woliaston, of Shenton, became so thoroughly satisfied of our author’s merit, that he revoked the above-mentioned settlement, and made a will in his favour. In August following, that gentleman fell sick, and sending secretly toour author to come over to him, as of his own accord, without any notice of his illness, be complied with the message, and staid some days at Shenton. But while he was gone home, under a promise of returning, his cousin died, August 19, 1688.

By his relation’s will, Mr. Woliaston found himself intitled to a very ample estate; but this change, sudden, and advantageous as it was to his affairs, wrought no change in his temper. The same firmness of mind, which had supported him under the pressure of a more adverse fortune, enabled him to bear his prosperity with moderation. In November following he came to London, and about a year | after, on the 26th of that month, 1689, he married miss Catherine Charlton, daughter of Mr. Nicholas Charlton, an eminent citizen of London, a fine woman with a good fortune, and an excellent character. With this lady he settled in Charter- house square, in a private, retired, and studious life. His carriage was nevertheless free and open. He aimed at solid and real content, rather than show and grandeur, and manifested his dislike of power and dignity, by refusing one of the highest preferments in the church, when it was offered to him.

He had now books and leisure, and he was resolved to make use of them, He was perfectly acquainted with the elementary parts of learning, and with the learned languages, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, &c. He thought it necessary to add to these such a degree of philology and criticism as seemed likely to be useful to him: and also mathematical sciences, or at least the fundamentals of them; the general philosophy of nature the history and antiquities of the more known and noted states and kingdoms; and in order to attain the knowledge of true religion, and the discovery of truth, the points which he always had particularly in view, and to which he chiefly directed all his studies, he diligently inquired into the idolatries of the heathens; and made himself master of the sentiments, rites, and learning of the Jews; the history of tjie first settlement of Christianity, and the opinions and practice introduced into it since. In the mean time he exercised and improved his mind by using himself to clear images, observing the influence and extent of axioms, the nature and force of consequences, and the method of investigating truth. In general, he accustomed himself to much thinking as well as much reading. He likewise delighted in method and regularity: and chose to have his labours and refreshments periodical, and that his family and friends should observe the proper seasons of their revolution. He was most remarkably cheerful and lively in conversation, which rendered his company agreeable, and himself worthy to be courted by the learned and virtuous. But a general acquaintance was what he never cultivated, and it grew (as is mostly the case) more and more his aversion, so that he passed his days principally at home, with a few friends, with whom he could enjoy an agreeable relaxation of mind, and receive all the advantages of a sincere and open friendship. | Having thus fixed his resolution to deserve honours, but not to wear them, it was not long before he published a piece entitled, “The Design of Part of the Book of Ecclesiastes, or the Unreasonableness of Man’s restless Contentions for the present Enjoyments, represented in an English poem,” in 8vo. But as he had never made poetry his study, he was very sensible of the defects of this attempt, and was afterward very desirous to suppress it. Ttiis poem was printed in 1690. Notwithstanding he declined to accept of any public employment, yet his studies were designed to be of public use, and his solitude was far from being employed in vain and trifling amusements, terminating in himself alone. But neither in this last view, could his retirement be without some inconveniences. His intimates were dropping off, and their places remained unsupplied; his own infirmities were increasing; the frequent remission of study, growing more and more necessary; and his solitude at the same time becoming less and less agreeable, for want of that conversation which had hitherto supported it.

It was but a short time before his death that he published his celebrated treatise, entitled “The Religion of Nature delineated.” He appears at first to have doubted the success of this work, and in 1722 printed only a few copies for the use of his friends, but when prevailed upon to publish it, it was so much approved that upwards of 10,000 copies were sold in a few years; and it has in all passed through eight or nine editions, five of which were in quarto.

Of the ingenuity of this work as a composition no doubts have been entertained, but its tendency was soon thought liable to suspicion. Some objected that he had injured Christianity by laying too much stress upon the obligations of truth, reason, and virtue; and by making no mention of revealed religion, nor even so much as dropping the least and most distant hints in its favour. This made him pass for an unbeliever with some; and the late lord Bolingbroke supposes Dr. Clarke to have had him in his eye when he described his fourth sort of theists. Wollaston held and has asserted the being and attributes of God, natural and moral a providence, general and particular; the obligations to morality the immateriality and immortality of the soul a future state and Clarke’s fourth sort of theists held and asserted the same. But whether Wollaston, | like those theists, rejected all above this in the system of revelation, cannot with any certainty be concluded, though at the same time the contrary perhaps may not appear; because, whatever might have been thought necessary to prevent offence from being taken, it was not essential to Wollaston’s design to meddle with revealed religion. In the mean time, lord Bolingbroke has treated “The Religion of Nature delineated,” as a system of theism; which it certainly is, whether Wollaston was a believer or not. His lordship calls it “strange theism, as dogmatical and absurd as artificial theology,” and has spent several pages to prove it so; yet allows the author of it to have been “a man of parts, of learning, a philosopher, and a geometrician.” The seventh edition of this work was printed in 1750 in 8vo, to which are added an account of the author, and also a translation of the notes into English. There is prefixed an advertisement by Dr. John Clarke, late dean of Salisbury, which informs us, that this work was in great esteem with her late majesty queen Caroline, who commanded him to translate the notes into English for her own use. Pope, who has taken some thoughts from it into his “Essay on Man,” informs Mr. Bethel in one of his letters how much this work was a favourite with the ladies, but accompanies his information with a sneer at the sex, which we dare not transcribe.

Immediately after he had completed the revisal and publication of his “Religion of Nature delineated,” Mr. Wollaston had the misfortune to break his arm; and as his health was before in a very infirm state, this accident accelerated his death, which happened Oct. 29, 1724. He was interred in Great Finborough church, Suffolk, in the same grave with his wife, who died in 1720.

He had begun several other works, but they being in an unfinished state, he had burnt, or ordered them to be burnt, some time before his death. The following, however, happened to be spared; but from the place in which they were deposited, and from some other circumstances, it is probable that they owed their escape to mere forgetful ness. They were in number thirteen (besides about fourscore sermons) viz. 1. “An Hebrew Grammar.” 2. “Tyrocinia Arabica & Syriaca.” 3. “Specimen Vocabularii Biblico-Hebraici, literis nostratibus, quantum fert Linguarum dissonantia, descripti.” 4. “Formulae quasdam Gemarinse.” 5. “De variis generibus pedum, | metrorum, carminum, &c. apud Judaeos, Graecos, & Latinos.” 6. “De Vocutii Tonis Monitio ad Tyrones.” 7. “Rudimenta ad Mathesin & Philosophiam spectantia” 8. “Miscellanea Philologica.” 9. Opinions of the ancient Philosophers. 10. “Judaica: sive Religionis & Literatures Judaicae synopsis.” 11. A collection of some antiquities and particulars in the history of mankind; tending to shew, that men have not been here upon this earth from eternity, &c. 12. Some passages relating to the history of Christ, collected out of the primitive fathers, 13. A treatise relating to the Jews, of their antiquities, language, &c. What renders it the more probable, or indeed almost beyond doubt, that he would have destroyed these likewise, if he had remembered them, is, that several of those which remain undestroyed, are only rudiments 01^ rougher sketches of what he afterwards reconsidered and carried on much farther; and which even after such revisal, he nevertheless committed to the flames, as being still (in his opinion) short of that perfection, to which he desired and had intended to bring them, and accordingly none of them have appeared. 1

1 Life prefixed to the Religion of Nature, many particulars of which are taken from, a narrative drawn up by himself, and printed for the first time in Mr. Nichols’s “Illustrations of Literature,” vol, I. JBiog. Brit.