Whiston, William

(1667-1752), natural philosopher and theologian

by Stephen D. Snobelen

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Whiston, William (1667-1752), natural philosopher and theologian, was born on 9 December 1667 at the rectory, Norton-juxta-Twycross, Leicestershire, the fourth of the nine children of Josiah Whiston (1622-1685), rector at Norton, and his wife, Katherine (1639-1701), daughter of Gabriel Rosse, the previous incumbent at Norton, and his first wife, Elizabeth. Josiah Whiston, a presbyterian, retained his living at the Restoration and, though blind in his later years, served his parish diligently until his death.

Early years and education
Whiston was educated at home by his father, for whom he also acted as amanuensis, and attended grammar school at Tamworth between 1684 and 1686. As second surviving son he inherited the family library and provision for university 'that he may be an able minister of the New Testament' (Farrell, 6). He entered Clare College, Cambridge, as a sizar in September 1686.

Whiston excelled as a student. He took a keen interest in mathematics, and appeared on the honours list in 1689-90. He graduated BA in 1689, was elected to the Exeter fellowship in July 1691, and was promoted to probationary senior fellow of the college in February 1693, in which year he received his degree of MA. He established himself as a tutor at Clare, counting among his students the nephew of Archbishop Tillotson. He was ordained a deacon in September 1693 by the latitudinarian William Lloyd (1627-1717), bishop of Lichfield and prophetic exegete, from whom he may have begun to derive his interest in biblical prophecy.

In 1694, claiming ill health, Whiston resigned his tutorship to Richard Laughton, whom he replaced as chaplain to fellow Clare graduate John Moore (1646-1714), bishop of Norwich. During his chaplaincy Whiston divided his time between Norwich, London, and Cambridge--after his ordination he had returned to Clare to study 'particularly the mathematicks, and the Cartesian philosophy' (Whiston, Memoirs, 35-6). He set out to master Isaac Newton's recently published Principia mathematica (1687), encouraged by a paper of the early Newtonian David Gregory (1659-1708). As an undergraduate Whiston had attended only 'one or two' of Newton's lectures, finding them incomprehensible at the time, as he later conceded (ibid., 36). He first met Newton in 1694, and a friendship began that was to last until their estrangement two decades later.

Newtonian cosmographer, 1696-1702
Whiston's swift conversion to Newton's natural philosophy soon bore fruit in his first publication, A New Theory of the Earth (1696). He had shown this millenarian cosmogony in manuscript to Richard Bentley (1662-1742), Christopher Wren (1632-1723), and Newton himself, whom Whiston claims 'well approved of it' (Whiston, Memoirs, 43) and to whom the book was dedicated. Whiston's New Theory applied the physics of Newton and the geology of John Woodward (d. 1728) to demonstrate that the scriptural accounts of creation, the flood, and the final conflagration were 'perfectly agreeable to Reason and Phylosophy' (ibid.). He also sought to correct Thomas Burnet's Cartesian and deistically tinged Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681, 1684), which Whiston had defended for his BA degree. Whiston prefaced his earth theory with an essay on the style of Genesis and, like Newton, argued for a more literal hermeneutic. He drew from Newton's work on comets, and posited that the planetary system had solidified from comets attracted by the sun's gravitation. He used a catastrophist cometography to explain the flood, suggesting that the near approach of a divinely guided comet had initiated the diurnal rotation of the earth, transformed its orbit from circular to elliptical, and caused the deluge through the condensation of vapours from the comet's tail. He also identified stratified sedimentary rock and marine fossils found in continental areas as vestiges of the flood.

The New Theory proved popular and after the initial run of 1500 copies went through five further editions (1708-55), was translated into German (1713), epitomized in French (1718), and summarized by the comte de Buffon (1707-1788) in 1749. The latter wrote ostensibly to refute the New Theory, but was nevertheless indebted to some of Whiston's ideas, as were other earth theorists. Praised by John Locke (1632-1704) for its novel hypotheses, the New Theory was the first full-length popularization of Newtonianism and the most direct cause of Whiston's meteoric rise.

In 1698 Bishop Moore secured the living of Lowestoft-cum-Kessingland, Suffolk, for Whiston, and there the latter regularly delivered sermons, held catechetical lectures, and had 2000 parishioners under his care. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), with whom Whiston had come into contact in 1697 through their common interest in Newtonianism, replaced him as chaplain at Norwich. Whiston resigned his fellowship at Clare in June 1699 on his marriage to Ruth Antrobus (1671-1751), daughter of George Antrobus, Whiston's headmaster at Tamworth. In 1701, as part of the marriage settlement, Whiston received from his father-in-law farm land near Dullingham, Cambridgeshire, with an annual revenue of £30-£40. Shortly after Whiston's marriage, Newton called him to Cambridge to lecture as his deputy with the full income of his post (Newton had become warden of the Royal Mint in 1696). Whiston began lecturing by February 1701. In December that year Newton resigned and ensured Whiston's election as the third Lucasian professor of mathematics in May 1702.

Lucasian professor, 1702-1710
During his tenure as professor, Whiston published several works on mathematics, physics, and astronomy. In 1703 he produced an edition of Euclid's Elements 'for the Use of young Students in the University' (Whiston, Memoirs, 131). This text was published in six Latin editions (1703-95), ten in English (1714-72), and one in Greek (1805), with printings in Cambridge, London, Dublin, Amsterdam, Venice, and Vienna. In 1707, with Newton's acquiescence, Whiston published some of the former's lectures on algebra (Arithmetica universalis). Later the same year Whiston published his own astronomical lectures (Praelectiones astronomicae), which appeared subsequently in English (Astronomical Lectures, 1715, 1728). His Praelectiones physico-mathematicae appeared in 1710 and was later printed as Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematick Philosophy More Easily Demonstrated (1716). Whiston was always far more willing to publish than Newton, and the latter two works, originally composed as undergraduate lectures, offered more accessible treatments of Newtonian astronomy, physics, and mathematics than was available in the abstruse Principia. From May 1707 Whiston and the Plumian professor, Roger Cotes (1682-1716), were the first to deliver lectures on experimental philosophy at Cambridge, presenting experiments elucidating the natural philosophy of both Newton and Robert Boyle (1627-1691).

Whiston devoted much time to prophetic researches in this period, publishing his Essay on the Revelation in 1706, the first of several works on biblical prophecy. He was also called on to deliver the Boyle lectures for 1707, and chose as his theme the evidence of fulfilled prophecy (The Accomplishment of Scripture Prophecies, 1708). Finally, Whiston led an initiative to establish charity schools for the education of poor children in Cambridge, and preached the inauguration sermon at Trinity Church in 1705.

From his achievements as a student and his New Theory, through his succession to the Lucasian chair, appointment as Boyle lecturer, and emergence as one of the first leading Newtonians, Whiston accomplished much in these early years. In 1710, however, there came a turning point. By 1706 or 1707, almost certainly as a result of his contact with Newton and Clarke, Whiston embraced an anti-trinitarian theology similar to Arianism, which he often characterized as 'Eusebian'. While the initial impulse to unorthodoxy likely came from Newton, Whiston differed in details--as well as level of caution--from his mentor. He became convinced of the canonicity of the pseudepigraphal and Arian Apostolic Constitutions, and in 1708 unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the vice-chancellor of Cambridge to license a treatise he had written on this document. Whiston next wrote to the archbishops of Canterbury and York requesting a review of the Constitutions. Spurning advice from friends and superiors, he grew bolder and published a heretical work in 1709 (Sermons and Essays). Unwilling to back down, he was brought before the heads of the Cambridge colleges, charged under an Elizabethan university heresy statute, and on 30 October 1710 expelled from his professorship and the university.

London experimental lecturer, 1711-1731
Now a disestablished figure, Whiston began a new phase of his life. Experienced in teaching mathematics, astronomy, physics, and experimental philosophy in an academic setting, he moved to London and became an entrepreneur of natural philosophy, delivering public lectures, publishing popular texts, and successfully seeking patronage from royalty and the nobility for his various schemes. By the summer of 1711 he was living in Hatton Garden and advertising himself as a tutor in mathematics. The following summer he became involved in a public experimental lecture course with Humphrey Ditton (1675-1715), Francis Hauksbee the elder (c.1666-1713), and Francis Hauksbee the younger (1687-1763).

By March 1713 Whiston formed a lecturing partnership with the younger Hauksbee, and a survey of newspaper advertisements reveals that this experimental lecture course was scheduled biannually into the early 1730s. The course syllabus was originally quadripartite, covering mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and optics; a section on magnetics was added by 1725. In 1714 the partners produced an illustrated course manual, which was reprinted several times into the late 1720s and also used for an experimental course delivered at Oxford by John Whiteside and James Bradley (1693-1762). From the late 1710s to the mid-1720s, Whiston and Hauksbee jointly ran a course of astronomy as well. Both courses were held next door to the Royal Society at Hauksbee's instrument shop in Crane Court, with Whiston delivering the lectures and Hauksbee demonstrating. Whiston also lectured alone on experimental philosophy in Bath and Bristol in the 1720s and into the 1740s on mathematics, astronomy, and longitude in various London coffee shops. Furthermore, he delivered lectures during or after displays of astronomical phenomena, such as eclipses and the aurora borealis, and sold popular charts of the solar system and the solar eclipses of 1715 and 1724. His income was supplemented from 1727 by a £50 annuity from Queen Caroline and King George, and from 1738 by a £20 annuity left by Sir Joseph Jekyll, master of the rolls and one of Whiston's long-time patrons. To these were added various other benefactions and payments of patronage. As he grew older and accumulated more income from patronage, Whiston lectured less frequently.

Longitude projects
Whiston also played an important role in early eighteenth-century attempts to determine longitude at sea, having been interested in this problem from his days as Lucasian professor and convinced that a reliable method would benefit both safety and trade. Whiston and Ditton petitioned parliament in 1714 suggesting a reward be offered for a method accurate to one degree at sea. After the intervention of Newton, Clarke, Cotes, and Edmond Halley (1656-1742), and the circulation of a broadsheet printed by Whiston and Ditton, the Longitude Act was passed the same year. The act and its reward triggered a plethora of hopeful solutions, with Whiston himself presenting several methods.

The first of these was Whiston's and Ditton's New Method for Discovering the Longitude both at Sea and Land (1714), which proposed that ships anchored at precise intervals across the Atlantic fire star shells to 6440 feet at set times, thus allowing navigators to determine their longitude by calculating the time between the flash and sound of the shell. Whiston also carried out experiments in southern England on the use of star shells for survey work. Second, from 1718 to 1723 Whiston experimented with dipping needles: he presented his findings at the Royal Society and sent the instruments on ocean voyages to various parts of the globe. As part of this work he produced maps of the English Channel, perhaps the first to show isogonic lines (The Longitude and Latitude Found by the Inclinatory or Dipping Needle, 1721). A subscription raised in 1721 for his longitude work raised just over £470 from royalty, the nobility, and politicians. In 1724 he outlined a method using solar eclipses. A fourth method involved the observation of the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites (The Longitude Discovered by the Eclipses, Occultations, and Conjunctions of Jupiter's Planets, 1738) , for which he attempted to improve the design of reflecting telescopes. Finally, supported by £175 from various patrons (including Sir Charles Wager, first commissioner of the Admiralty) and a £500 grant from the board of longitude, Whiston carried out a coastal survey of southern England, and in 1743 published the results in a new map of the English Channel.

Prophecy and biblical studies
Whiston's prophetic work figures large as well. Believing that the design argument was insufficient on its own to convince deists and other unbelievers of the truth of the Bible, he emphasized the argument from prophecy. In his Boyle lectures he claimed that biblical prophecy is 'the most plain and unquestionable evidence that has been produced for the Christian Religion' (Whiston, Accomplishment, 2). As in experimental philosophy, he held that the multiplication of proofs increased the probability of the truth of prophecy. He thus presented no fewer than 300 prophetic fulfilments in the lectures. It was probably his quantitative approach to prophecy that encouraged him to expand the prophetic corpus beyond the protestant Bible to defend in print the authority of such pseudepigraphal works as the Sibylline oracles. He also wanted to establish an exact method of prophetic hermeneutics, and with respect to Messianic prophecies rejected allegorical interpretations and multiple fulfilments of the same prophecy. For him, there was only one fulfilment: a literal one, uniquely accomplished in the person of Christ. This claim helped bring him into controversy with the freethinker Anthony Collins (1676-1729), who argued that only the first, historical fulfilment was literal, while Messianic applications were based on strained, allegorical interpretations.

In his desire to secure literal and exact interpretations, Whiston also employed textual criticism to correct corruptions in the Hebrew text putatively introduced by Jewish copyists (Essay towards Restoring the True Text of the Old Testament, 1722). This work was the primary target of Collins's Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724), which declared that the result of such an endeavour would be 'a mere WHISTONIAN BIBLE' (Collins, 225). The Discourse elicited three replies from Whiston, including two works that bolstered further his inductive programme by listing page after page of prophetic fulfilments.

Throughout the last three decades of his life, Whiston proclaimed in publications, lectures, and private conversations his belief that by 1766 the temple would be rebuilt, the Jews restored to their land, and the millennium established. This effort included the construction in 1726 of what he contended was 'an exacter model' of the Jerusalem temple (Whiston, Description). He lectured on this model in London and the resort towns of Bristol, Bath, and Tunbridge Wells, and presented it at the court of Queen Caroline. Revealing his twofold interest in anomalous celestial and terrestrial phenomena, Whiston held that such were prophetic signs of the coming end. This belief is exemplified by his public lectures during and after the London earthquakes of 1750, in which he proclaimed divine judgement on the wicked city of London.

In the wake of his expulsion from Cambridge and during further heresy proceedings against him, Whiston published a manifesto of his faith (Primitive Christianity Reviv'd, 1711-12), a series of commentaries on, and translations of, early Christian writings. Along with Clarke he was at the centre of the trinitarian controversies of the 1710s and 1720s. In 1715 he founded the Society for Promoting Primitive Christianity, which met for two years in his home. Discussions focused on early Christian texts, beliefs, and practices; members included John Gale (1680-1721), Thomas Emlyn (1663-1741), and Arthur Onslow (1691-1768). By the 1720s Whiston also organized a dissenting conventicle of Unitarians, and there is evidence that some dissenters and early Unitarians looked to him as a role model.

During the period of tory ascendancy from 1710 to 1714, Whiston became something of a cause célèbre among the whigs, just as Henry Sacheverell was seen by many tories and high-churchmen as a martyr. While heresy proceedings against Whiston were dropped at the death of Queen Anne, and though he was never defrocked, he continued to face opposition, particularly from the high church. In 1721 he was ejected from St Andrew's Church in Holborn by its rector, none other than Sacheverell himself, after which Whiston moved from this parish to Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury. Most of the opposition, however, manifested itself in a steady torrent of critical publications. Objecting to the inclusion in liturgy of the Athanasian creed, with its anathemas against those who denied the Trinity, Whiston was often able to persuade clergy to omit it while he was in attendance. However, when a priest began to read it again at the church in Lyndon in 1747, Whiston walked out and thereafter attended the meetings of the General Baptists.

Whiston produced many publications on theology, church history, chronology, liturgy, ecclesiastical polity, demonology, and miracles. In 1717 he first published his Astronomical Principles of Religion, a work highlighting the design argument but also replete with valuable astronomical data and engravings. His translation of the Jewish historian Josephus can be seen as part of these efforts as well. This most successful of Whiston's works, published in 1737 with maps of the Holy Land and engravings of the temple, was long the standard English translation and was in continuous reprint throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whiston also published a translation of the New Testament from Beza's text in 1745. His beliefs bore remarkable similarities to those of Newton, not only in his subordinationist Christology, rejection of the Trinity, and antipathy towards Athanasius, but also in his Christian primitivism, eirenicism, acceptance of believers' baptism, and movement away from the eternity of hell.

Although he lived well into his eighty-fifth year, Whiston complained of a weak disposition, which he claimed improved somewhat in later life. In 1710 the German traveller Uffenbach said he '[is] a man of very quick and ardent spirit, tall and spare, with a pointed chin and wears his own hair. In look, he greatly resembles Calvin. He is very fond of speaking and argues with great vehemence' (Mayor, 179). Portraits confirm Whiston's austere appearance; he is said to have gone grey as a young man. Although not a practising minister after 1710, he seems to have retained his clerical garb throughout his life. His writings and actions reveal a headstrong nature and a pronounced martyr complex, along with an attempt to position himself as a religious reformer and latter-day prophet. Nevertheless, he was a principled man whose career clearly suffered for his unwavering commitment to his beliefs.

William and Ruth Whiston had eight children, of whom Sarah, William, George, and John Whiston survived to adulthood. In 1717 Sarah married the Hebraist Samuel Barker, whose manor, Lyndon Hall, Rutland, became the summer residence for his wife's parents. Her brothers William and George studied at Clare College, though as dissenters they did not take degrees. With their father's involvement the two published a Latin translation of the Armenian historian Mosis Khorenaci (1736). John became a prominent Fleet Street bookseller, who published most of his father's later works and whose home came to serve as his parents' London residence from the 1730s. Thomas Barker (1722-1809), Whiston's grandson through his daughter, published An Account of the Discoveries Concerning Comets (1757), along with meteorological reports in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions and controversial works on baptism, prophecy, and demonology. Whiston died at Lyndon Hall, after a week's illness, on 22 August 1752, and was buried in Lyndon churchyard. At his death he was in possession of farm land valued at over £1300; this was left to his children.

Natural philosopher and theologian
A tireless and prolific writer, Whiston published over 120 separate books, pamphlets, and charts, many of which appeared in later editions. His range was considerable, extending from geology, mathematics, astronomy, and longitude, to prophecy, doctrine, chronology, and textual criticism, along with translations of biblical, apocryphal, pseudepigraphal, and historical texts. Near the end of his life, he published an apologia pro vita sua (Memoirs, 1749-50; 2nd edn, 1753), an uneven but invaluable account of his life.

In natural philosophy Whiston's greatest significance lies not in any important innovations, but in his early and varied efforts at popularizing Newtonianism, along with his role in stimulating the founding of the board of longitude. He was at the forefront of British philosophers that made the transition from Cartesianism to Newtonianism, and one of his most important contributions as Lucasian professor was his teaching of the latter to a new generation. Along with Clarke, Whiston both played a leading role in promoting unitarian theology in England and helped make some of Newton's private theological opinions public. Whiston's commentary on Revelation was cited by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prophetic exegetes, and his translation of Josephus proved an enduring legacy, finding a place in many Anglo-American homes well into the late twentieth century.

While Whiston's heterodox theology, prophetic views, longitude schemes, and impetuous nature attracted much criticism and ridicule, he was not without supporters, including royal, noble, and whig patrons, along with fellow dissenters. A vigorous opponent of both deism and unbelief on the one hand and high-church orthodoxy on the other, Whiston sought a middle course between what were to him two extremes. There was a unity in his natural philosophical, prophetic, and religious endeavours, and he fervently believed that both Newton's discoveries in natural philosophy and his own advances in furthering 'primitive Christianity' were preludes to the millennium.


W. Whiston, Memoirs of the life and writings of Mr William Whiston: containing memoirs of several of his friends also, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1753)
M. Farrell, William Whiston (1981)
J. E. Force, William Whiston: honest Newtonian (1985)
W. Whiston, The accomplishment of scripture prophecies (1708)
A. Collins, A discourse of the grounds and reasons of the Christian religion (1724)
Leics. RO, Conant papers, DG11/1018; DG11/DE.730/2
The genuine works of Flavius Josephus ... illustrated with new plans and descriptions of the tabernacle of Moses and of the temples of Solomon, Zorobabel, Herod, and Ezekiel, ed. and trans. W. Whiston (1737)
J. E. B. Mayor, Cambridge under Queen Anne (1911)
Daily Courant (1702-35)
Daily Post [London] (1719-45)
guard book, CUL, Lucasian professorship MSS, CUR 39.8
University of Cambridge matriculation lists, CUL, Graduati 3; Matr. 2

BL, letters and MSS, Add. MSS 4276, 4433, 6727, 23820, 24197, 28104, 32718, 45511, 61619, Harley MS 7032, Lansdowne MS DCCCXXX.2, Sloane MS 1926, Stowe MSS 490, 597
Bodl. Oxf., commonplace book, MS Eng. misc. d. 297
Bodl. Oxf., MS vols compiled by Whiston and letters, MSS 42304, 45292-45301
Bodl. Oxf., sermons, notebooks, and minute book of Society for Promoting Primitive Christianity
Clare College, Cambridge, letters and other MSS, Phillipps MS 25369
Clare College, Cambridge, papers
CUL, MSS and letters, Guard Book C. U. R. 39.8, 39.12, MS 6.49, MS Dd.2.55(2), D. XI, D. XII
Glos. RO, papers relating to controversy
RS, journal books, record books, letter-books, classified papers, vol. 20, fol. 4.28 (entries, abstract, and letter)
Trinity Cam., letters, MS R.4.42 |  BL, letters to Lord Egmont, Add. MS 47150
Clare College, Cambridge, fellows accounts; college letter-book; extracts from Cotes's and Whiston's lectures
Leics. RO, Conant MSS, letters, DG11/DE.730/2

oils, 1690-1699, Clare College, Cambridge
oils, 1700-1710, Lyndon Hall, Leicestershire
S. Hoadly?, oils, before 1720, Lyndon Hall, Leicestershire
G. Vertue, line engraving, 1720 (after S. Hoadly, before 1720), BM, NPG; repro. in L. Stewart, The rise of public science: rhetoric, technology, and natural philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750 (1992), 86
oils, c.1720 (after S. Hoadly), NPG [see illus.]
B. Wilson, etching, 1753, BM, NPG; repro. in Whiston, Memoirs, frontispiece
carved wooden head, NPG

Wealth at death  
over £1300--value of property near Dullingham, Leicester: Leics. RO, Conant MSS, DG11/1018

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