Woolston, Thomas

, an English divine, very notorious in his day for the pertinacity with which he published the most dangerous opinions, was born in 1669, at Northampton, where his father was a reputable tradesman. After a proper education at a grammar-school, he was entered of Sidney college, in Cambridge, in 1685, where he took both the degrees in arts, and that of bachelor of divinity, and was chosen fellow of his college. From this time, in conformity to the statutes of that society, he applied himself to the study of divinity and entering into | holy orders, soon, we are told, became distinguished and esteemed for his learning and piety. Of what sort the latter was, his life will shew. It appears that he had very early conceived some of those notions which afterwards so much degraded his character. His first appearance as an author was in 1705, when he printed at Cambridge a work entitled “The old Apology of the Truth for the Christian Religion against the Jews and Gentiles revived,” 8vo. The design of this work, which is an octavo of near 400 pages, is to prove that all the actions of Moses were typical of Christ, and to shew-tljat some of the fathers did not think them real, but typical relations of what was to come. This allegorical way of interpreting the scriptures of the Old Testament our author is said to have adopted from Origen, whose works, however, he must have studied very injudiciously; yet he became so enamoured of this methocf of interpretation, that he not only thought it had been unjustly neglected by the moderns, but that it might be useful, as an additional proof of the truth of Christianity. He preached this doctrine first in the college chapel, and afterwards before the university at St. Mary’s, to the great surprise of his audience. Yet, as his intentions seemed to be good, and his character respected, and as he had not yet begun to make use of the indecent language which disgraced his subsequent works, no opposition was raised; and when the volume appeared in print, though there were some singular notions advanced, and a new manner of defending Christianity proposed, yet there was nothing that gave particular offence, and many things which shewed great ingenuity and learning. He still continued to reside at Cambridge, applying himself indefatigably to his studies, in a quiet and retired way, until 1720, ^hen he published a Latin dissertation entitled “De Pontii Pilati ad Tiberium Epistola circa res Jesu Christi gestas; per Mystagogum,” 8vo, in which he endeavours to prove that Pontius Pilate wrote a letter to Tiberius Caesar concerning the works of Christ; bwt that the epistle delivered down to us under that name among the writings of the fathers, was forged. The same year he published another pamphlet in Latin, with the title of “Origenis Adamantii Renati Epistola ad Doctores Whitbeium, Waterlandium, Whistonium, aliosque literates hujus saeculi disputatores, circa fidem vere orthodoxam et scripturarum interpretationem;” and, soon after, a second epistle with the same title. The rage of | allegorizing the letter of the holy scriptures into mystery, with which this writer was incurably infected, began now to shew itself more openly to the world than it had hitherto done. In 1720 and 1721, he published two letters to Dr. Bennet, rector of St. Giles’s, Cripplegate, London; one upon this question, “Whether the people called quakers do not the nearest of any other sect of religion resemble the primitive Christians in principles and practice?” by Aristobulus; the other, “In defence of the Apostles and Primitive Fathers of the Church, for their allegorical interpretation of the law of Moses, against the ministers of the letter and literal commentators of this age;” and, soon after, he himself published an answer to these two letters; in all which his view appears to have been rather to be severe upon the clergy th,an to defend either apostles, fathers, or quakers. At what time he left college does not appear, but he had about this time absented himself from it beyond the time limited by the statutes. The society and his friends, however, compassionating his case, and judging it to be in some degree the effect of a bodily distemper, allowed him the revenues of his fellowship for a support. The supposition hurt his pride, and he went directly to Cambridge to convince the gentlemen of his college that he laboured under no disorder, and as he at the same time refused to reside, he lost his fellowship.

After this his brother, an alderman of Northampton, allowed him thirty pounds a year, besides other occasional assistance, and on this he supported himself, being a man of great temperance, in London. In 1722 he published a piece entitled “The exact fitness of the time in which Christ was manifested in the Flesh, demonstrated by reason, against the objections of the old Gentiles, and of modern Unbelievers.” This was well enough received, as shewing much learning displayed in a temperate manner, and having in it some valuable remarks. It was written twenty years before its publication, and delivered as a public exercise both in Sidney college chapel, and in St. Mary’s church, as Woolston himself observes in his dedication of it to Dr. Fisher, master of Sidney college. But he did not long abstain from his intended attack on the clergy and religion. In 1723 and 1724 came out his four “Free Gifts to the Clergy,” and his own “Answer” to them, in five separate pamphlets; in which he attacks the clergy with the greatest contempt, and, as it would appear, | without any provocation. Yet, though he treated them in this manner, he expressed a very great regard for religion; and did what some thought more than necessary to defend it, when in 1726 he published “A Defence of the Thundering Legion, against Mr. Moyle’s Dissertations.

The “Four free gifts” were scarcely published, when, the controversy with Collins going on at this time, Mr. Woolstou, under pretence of acting the part of an impartial inquirer, published his “Moderator between an Infidel and Apostate,” and two “Supplements to the Moderator.” In these pieces, he pursued his allegorical scheme, to the exclusion of the letter; and, with regard to the miracles of Christ, not only contended for sublime and mystical interpretations of them, but also asserted that they were not real, or ever actually wrought. As he conducted this attempt with greater rudeness and insolence than any of those that had appeared before him, his presumption was not likely to be unnoticed in a Christian country, and he was prosecuted by the attorney-general; but the prosecution was stopped at the intercession of Mr. Whision*. In 1727, 1728, 1729, and 1730, were published his “Six Discourses on the Miracles of Christ,” and his two “Defences” of them. The six discourses are dedicated to six bishops: Gibson, of London; Chandler, of Litchfield; Smalbroke, of St. David’s Hare, of Chichester; Sherlock, of Bangor; and Potter, of Oxford, who are all treated with the utmost rudeness. What he undertakes to prove is, that the miracles of our Saviour, as we find them in the Evangelists, however related by them as historical truths, were not real, but merely allegorical; and that they are to be interpreted, not in literal but only in mystical senses. His pretence is, that the fathers of the church considered our Saviour’s miracles in the same allegorical way that he does; that is, as merely allegorical, and excluding the letter: but this is not so. Some of the fathers, indeed, and Origen in particular, did not confine themselves to the bare letter, but endeavoured, upon the

* It does not appear very clearly Clarke, to persuade him to go with me whether this was at the intercession of to lord Townsend (th‘e secretary of Wbiston. Winston informs us of his state) but he refused, alledging that having applied sto theattorney-gene- the report would then go abroad, that ral, sir Philip Yorke, who said that he the kmij supported blasphemy. Howwould not’ proceed unless the secretary ever, no farther progress was made i of state sent himan order so to do. Mr. Woolston’s trial. “1 then,” addsWhiston, “went to Dr. | foundation of the letter, to raise spiritual meanings, and to allegorize by way of moral application; and they did this,­not only upon the miracles of Christ, but upon almost all the historical facts of the Old and New Testament: but they never denied the miracles or the facts. This strange and enthusiastic scheme of Woolston was offensive enough of itself, but infinitely more so from his manner of conducting it; for he not 'only argues against the miracles of Christ, but treats them in a most ludicrous and outrageous way: expressing himself in terms of astonishing insolence and scurrility. Such conduct raised a general disgust: and many books and. pamphlets, berth from bishops and inferior clergy, appeared against his discourses; and a second prosecution was commenced and carried on with vigour, against which there seemed to be now little or no opposition, he having by his disingenuity of argument and scurrility of manner, excluded himself from all the privileges of a fair reasoner. At his trial in Guildhall before the lord chief-justice Raymond, he spoke several times himself; and among other things urged, that” he thought it very bard to be tried by a set of men, who, though otherwise very learned and worthy persons, were yet no morejudges of the subjects on which he wrote than he himself was a judge of the most crabbed points of law.“He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, and to pay a fine of Iool He purchased the liberty of the rules of the King’s Bench, where he continued after the expiration of the year, being unable to pay the fine. Dr. Samuel Clarke had begun his solicitations at court for the releasement of Woolston, declaring that he did not undertake it as an approver of his doctrines, but as an advocate for that liberty which he himself had always contended for; but he was hindered from effecting it by his death, which happened soon after Woolston’s commitment. The greatest obstruction to his deliverance from confinement was the obligation of giving security not to offend by any future writings, he being resolved to write again as freely as before. While some supposed this author not in earnest, but meaning to subvert Christianity under a pretence of defending it; others believed him disordered, and not perfectly in his right mind; and many circumstances concurred to persuade to the latter of these opinions; but how, in either case, a prosecu-r tion for blasphemy comes to* be considered as persecution for religion, remains yet to be explained. Such a | construction, however, appears to have been put upon it by the Clarkes and Lardners of those days, and by their successors in our own. As the sale of Woolston’s books was very great (for such blasphemies will find readers as well as advocates for the publication of them), his gains arising from them must have been proportionable; but he defrayed all the expences, and those not inconsiderable, to which his publishers were subjected by selling. He died January 27, 1732-3, after an illness of four days; and, a few minutes before his death, uttered these words:” This is a struggle which all men must go through, and which I bear not only patiently, but with willingness." His body was interred in St. George’s church-yard, Southwark. 1

1 Biog. Brk.-~ LelancPs Deistical Writers. Whiston’s I/fe.