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William Whiston (9 December 1667 – 22 August 1752) was an English theologian, historian, and mathematician, a leading figure in the popularisation of the ideas of Isaac Newton. He is now probably best known for helping to instigate the Longitude Act in 1714 (and his attempts to win the rewards that it promised) and his important translations of the Antiquities of the Jews and other works by Josephus (which are still in print). He was a prominent exponent of Arianism and wrote A New Theory of the Earth.

William Whiston
William Whiston.png
William Whiston (1667–1752)
Born (1667-12-09)9 December 1667
Norton-juxta-Twycross, Leicestershire, England
Died 22 August 1752(1752-08-22) (aged 84)
Lyndon, Rutland, England
Residence Kingdom of Great Britain
Nationality English
Alma mater Clare College, Cambridge
Known for Translating the works of Josephus, catastrophism, isoclinic maps, work on longitude
Scientific career
Fields Mathematician, theologian
Institutions Clare College, Cambridge
Academic advisors Isaac Newton
Robert Herne
Notable students James Jurin
Influences David Gregory
Isaac Newton
WilliamWhiston sig.jpg

Whiston succeeded his mentor Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Having lost the position over his theological views, he spent the rest of his life as a lecturer and writer.


Early life and careerEdit

Whiston was born to Josiah Whiston and Katherine Rosse at Norton-juxta-Twycross, in Leicestershire, where his father was rector. He was educated privately, for his health, and so that he could act as amanuensis to his blind father.[1] He studied at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Tamworth. After his father's death, he entered Clare College, Cambridge as a sizar on 30 June 1686. He applied himself to mathematical study, was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts (BA) (1690), and AM (1693), and was elected Fellow in 1691 and probationary senior Fellow in 1693.[2]

William Lloyd ordained Whiston at Lichfield in 1693. In 1694, claiming ill health, he resigned his tutorship at Clare to Richard Laughton, chaplain to John Moore, the bishop of Norwich, and swapped positions with him. He now divided his time between Norwich, Cambridge and London. In 1698 Moore gave him the living of Lowestoft where he became rector. In 1699 he resigned his Fellowship of Clare College and left to marry.

In 1701 Whiston resigned his living to become Isaac Newton's substitute, giving the Lucasian lectures at Cambridge.[1] He succeeded Newton as Lucasian professor in 1702. There followed a period of joint research with Roger Cotes, appointed with Whiston's patronage to the Plumian professorship in 1706. Students at the Cotes–Whiston experimental philosophy course included Stephen Hales, William Stukeley, and Joseph Wasse.[3]

Newtonian theologianEdit

A portrait of William Whiston with a diagram demonstrating his theories of cometary catastrophism, described in A New Theory of the Earth

In 1707 Whiston was Boyle lecturer; this lecture series was at the period a significant opportunity for Newton's followers, including Richard Bentley and Samuel Clarke, to express their views, especially in opposition to the rise of deism.[4] The "Newtonian" line came to include, with Bentley, Clarke and Whiston in particular, a defence of natural law by returning to the definition of Augustine of Hippo of a miracle (a cause of human wonderment), rather than the prevailing concept of a divine intervention against nature, which went back to Anselm. This move was intended to undermine arguments of deists and sceptics.[5] The Boyle lectures dwelt on the connections between biblical prophecies, dramatic physical events such as floods and eclipses, and their explanations in terms of science.[6] On the other hand, Whiston was alive to possible connections of prophecy with current affairs: the War of the Spanish Succession, and later the Jacobite rebellions.[7]

Whiston supported a qualified biblical literalism: the literal meaning should be the default, unless there was a good reason to think otherwise.[8] This view again went back to Augustine. Newton's attitude to the cosmogony of Thomas Burnet reflected on the language of the Genesis creation narrative; as did Whiston's alternative cosmogony. Moses as author of Genesis was not necessarily writing as a natural philosopher, nor as a law-giver, but for a particular audience.[9] The new cosmogonies of Burnet, Whiston and John Woodward were all criticised for their disregard of the biblical account, by John Arbuthnot, John Edwards and William Nicolson in particular.[10]

The title for Whiston's Boyle lectures was The Accomplishment of Scripture Prophecies. Rejecting typological interpretation of biblical prophecy, he argued that the meaning of a prophecy must be unique. His views were later challenged by Anthony Collins.[11] There was a more immediate attack by Nicholas Clagett in 1710.[12] One reason prophecy was topical was the Camisard movement that saw French exiles ("French prophets") in England. Whiston had started writing on the millenarianism that was integral to the Newtonian theology, and wanted to distance his views from theirs, and in particular from those of John Lacy.[13] Meeting the French prophets in 1713, Whiston developed the view that the charismatic gift of revelation could be demonic possession.[14]

Tensions with NewtonEdit

It is no longer assumed that Whiston's Memoirs are completely trustworthy on the matter of his personal relations with Newton. One view is that the relationship was never very close, Bentley being more involved in Whiston's appointment to the Lucasian chair; and that it deteriorated as soon as Whiston began to write on prophecy, publishing Essay on the Revelation of St John (1706).[13] This work proclaimed the millennium for the year 1716.[15]

Whiston's 1707 edition of Newton's Arithmetica Universalis did nothing to improve matters. Newton himself was heavily if covertly involved in the 1722 edition, nominally due to John Machin, making many changes.[16]

In 1708–9 Whiston was engaging Thomas Tenison and John Sharp as archbishops in debates on the Trinity. There is evidence from Hopton Haynes that Newton reacted by pulling back from publication on the issue;[17] his antitrinitarian views, from the 1690s, were finally published in 1754 as An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture.

Whiston was never a Fellow of the Royal Society. In conversation with Edmond Halley he blamed his reputation as a "heretick". Also, though, he claimed Newton had disliked having an independent-minded disciple; and was unnaturally cautious and suspicious by nature.[18]

Expelled ArianEdit

Whiston's route to rejection of the Nicene Creed, the historical orthodox position against Arianism, began early in his tenure of the Lucasian chair as he followed hints from Samuel Clarke. He read also in Louis Ellies Dupin, and the Explication of Gospel Theism (1706) of Richard Brocklesby.[19] His study of the Apostolic Constitutions then convinced him that Arianism was the creed of the early church.[1]

The general election of 1710 brought the Tories solid political power for a number of years, up to the Hanoverian succession of 1714. Their distrust of theological innovation had a direct impact on Whiston, as well as others of similar views. His heterodoxy was notorious.[20] In 1710 he was deprived of his professorship and expelled from the university.[1]

The matter was not allowed to rest there: Whiston tried to get a hearing before Convocation. He did have defenders even in the high church ranks, such as George Smalridge.[21] For political reasons, this development would have been divisive at the time. Queen Anne made a point of twice "losing" the papers in the case.[22] After her death in 1714 the intended hearing was allowed to drop.[23] The party passions of these years found an echo in Henry Sacheverell's attempt to exclude Whiston from his church of St Andrew's, Holborn, taking place in 1719.[23][24]

"Primitive Christianity"Edit

Whiston founded a society for promoting primitive Christianity, lecturing in support of his theories in halls and coffee-houses at London, Bath, and Tunbridge Wells.[1] Those he involved included Thomas Chubb,[25] Thomas Emlyn,[26] John Gale,[27] Benjamin Hoadley,[28] Arthur Onslow,[28] and Thomas Rundle.[29] There were meetings at Whiston's house from 1715 to 1717; Hoadley avoided coming, as did Samuel Clarke, though invited.[30] A meeting with Clarke, Hoadley, John Craig and Gilbert Burnet the younger had left these leading latitudinarians unconvinced about Whiston's reliance on the Apostolical Constitutions.[31]

Franz Wokenius wrote a 1728 Latin work on Whiston's view of primitive Christianity.[32] His challenge to the teachings of Athanasius meant that Whiston was commonly considered heretical on many points. On the other hand, he was a firm believer in supernatural aspects of Christianity. He defended prophecy and miracle. He supported anointing the sick and touching for the king's evil. His dislike of rationalism in religion also made him one of the numerous opponents of Hoadley's Plain Account of the Nature and End of the Sacrament. He was fervent in his views of ecclesiastical government and discipline, derived from the Apostolical Constitutions.[1]

About 1747 Whiston finally left the Anglican communion for the Baptists. He quitted the church literally as well as figuratively, as the clergyman began to read the Athanasian Creed.[1]

Lecturer and popular authorEdit

Whiston began lecturing on natural philosophy in London. He gave regular courses at coffee houses, particularly Button's, and also at the Censorium, a set of riverside meeting rooms in London run by Richard Steele.[33] At Button's, he gave courses of demonstration lectures on astronomical and physical phenomena, and Francis Hauksbee the younger worked with him on experimental demonstrations. His passing remarks on religious topics were sometimes objected to, for example by Henry Newman writing to Steele.[34][35]

Solar system chart by William Whiston and John Senex

His lectures were often accompanied by publications. In 1712, he published, with John Senex, a chart of the solar system showing numerous paths of comets.[36] In 1715, he lectured on the total solar eclipse of 3 May 1715 (which fell in April Old Style in England); Whiston lectured on it at the time, in Covent Garden, and later, as a natural event and as a portent.[37]

By 1715 Whiston had also become adept at newspaper advertising.[38] He frequently lectured to the Royal Society.


In 1714, he was instrumental in the passing of the Longitude Act, which established the Board of Longitude. In collaboration with Humphrey Ditton he published A New Method for Discovering the Longitude, both at Sea and Land,[39] which was widely referenced and discussed. For the next forty years he continued to propose a range of methods to solve the longitude reward, which earned him widespread ridicule, particularly from the group of writers known as the Scriblerians.[40][41] In one proposal for using magnetic dip to find longitude he produced one of the first isoclinic maps of southern England in 1719 and 1721. In 1734, he proposed using the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites.[42]

Broader natural philosophyEdit

Whiston's A New Theory of the Earth from its Original to the Consummation of All Things (1696) was an articulation of creationism and flood geology. It held that the global flood of Noah had been caused by a comet. The work obtained the praise of John Locke, who classed the author among those who, if not adding much to our knowledge, "At least bring some new things to our thoughts."[1] He was an early advocate, along with Edmond Halley, of the periodicity of comets; he also held that comets were responsible for past catastrophes in Earth's history. In 1736, he caused widespread anxiety among London's citizens when he predicted the world would end on 16 October that year because a comet would hit the earth. William Wake as Archbishop of Canterbury officially denied this prediction to calm the public.

There was no consensus within the Newtonians as to how far mechanical causes could be held responsible for key events of sacred history: John Keill was at the opposite to extreme to Whiston in minimising such causes.[43] As a natural philosopher, Whiston's speculations respected no boundary with his theological views. He saw the creation of man as an intervention in the natural order. He picked up on Arthur Ashley Sykes's advice to Samuel Clarke to omit an eclipse and earthquake mentioned by Phlegon of Tralles from future editions of Clarke's Boyle lectures, these events being possibly synchronous with Christ's crucifixion. Whiston published The Testimony of Phlegon Vindicated in 1732.[44]


The series of Moyer Lectures often made Whiston's unorthodox views a particular target.[45]

Whiston held that Song of Solomon was apocryphal and that the Book of Baruch was not.[1] He modified the biblical Ussher chronology, setting the Creation at 4010 BCE.[46] He challenged Newton's system of The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728). Westfall absolves Whiston of the charge that he pushed for the posthumous publication of the Chronology just to attack it, commenting that the heirs were in any case looking to publish manuscripts of Newton, who died in 1727.[47]

Whiston's advocacy of clerical monogamy is referenced in The Vicar of Wakefield. His last "famous discovery, or rather revival of Dr Giles Fletcher, the Elder's," which he mentions in his autobiography, was the identification of the Tatars with the lost tribes of Israel.[1]

Personal lifeEdit

Whiston married Ruth, daughter of George Antrobus, his headmaster at Tamworth school. He had a happy family life and died in Lyndon Hall, Rutland, at the home of his son-in-law, Samuel Barker, on 22 August 1752. He was survived by his children Sarah, William, George, and John.


Whiston's later life was spent in continual controversy: theological, mathematical, chronological, and miscellaneous. He vindicated his estimate of the Apostolical Constitutions and the Arian views he had derived from them in his Primitive Christianity Revived (5 vols., 1711–1712). In 1713 he produced a reformed liturgy. His Life of Samuel Clarke appeared in 1730.[1]

His translation of the works of Josephus (1737), with notes and dissertations, was often reprinted. In 1745 he published his Primitive New Testament (on the basis of Codex Bezae and Codex Claromontanus).

Whiston left memoirs (3 vols., 1749–1750). These do not contain the account of the proceedings taken against him at Cambridge for his antitrinitarianism, which was published separately at the time.[1]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Whiston, William". Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  2. ^ "Whiston, William (WHSN686W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ Knox, Kevin C. (6 November 2003). From Newton to Hawking: A History of Cambridge University's Lucasian Professors of Mathematics. Cambridge University Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-521-66310-6. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  4. ^ Shank, J. B. (15 September 2008). The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment. University of Chicago Press. pp. 128–9. ISBN 978-0-226-74947-1. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  5. ^ Shaw, Jane (2006). Miracles in Enlightenment England. Yale University Press. p. 31 and 171. ISBN 978-0-300-11272-6. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  6. ^ Andrew Pyle (editor), The Dictionary of Seventeenth Century British Philosophers (2000), Thoemmes Press (two volumes), article Whiston, William, p. 875.
  7. ^ Sara Schechner; Sara Schechner Genuth (1999). Comets, popular culture, and the birth of modern cosmology. Princeton University Press. p. 292. ISBN 978-0-691-00925-4. Retrieved 23 May 2013. 
  8. ^ Kidd, Colin (1999). British Identities before Nationalism. Cambridge University Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-139-42572-8. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  9. ^ Poole, William (2010). The World Makers: Scientists of the Restoration and the Search for the Origins of the Earth. Peter Lang. p. 68. ISBN 978-1-906165-08-6. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Stephen Gaukroger; John Schuster; John Sutton (1 November 2002). Descartes' Natural Philosophy. Taylor & Francis. pp. 176–7. ISBN 978-0-203-46301-7. Retrieved 23 May 2013. 
  11. ^ Henk J. M. Nellen, ed. (1994). Hugo Grotius, Theologian: Essays in Honour of G. H. M. Posthumus Meyjes. BRILL. p. 195. ISBN 978-90-04-10000-8. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  12. ^   Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1887). "Clagett, Nicholas (1654–1727)". Dictionary of National Biography. 10. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  13. ^ a b Jed Zachary Buchwald; Mordechai Feingold (22 October 2012). Newton and the origin of civilization. Princeton University Press. p. 336. ISBN 978-0-691-15478-7. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  14. ^ J.E. Force; S. Hutton (2004). Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies. Springer. p. 179 note 102. ISBN 978-1-4020-1969-2. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  15. ^ Jacob, Margaret C. (1976). The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689–1720. Harvester Press. pp. 132–3. 
  16. ^ D. T. Whiteside, ed. (3 January 2008). The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton:. Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-521-04584-1. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  17. ^ J.E. Force; S. Hutton (2004). Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies. Springer. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-4020-1969-2. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  18. ^ Richard H. Popkin, ed. (1999). The Pimlico History of Western Philosophy. Pimlico. p. 427. ISBN 0-7126-6534-X. 
  19. ^ Wiles, Maurice (26 September 1996). Archetypal Heresy: Arianism Through the Centuries. Oxford University Press. pp. 94–. ISBN 978-0-19-826927-4. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  20. ^ Gibson, William (2004). The Enlightenment Prelate: Benjamin Hoadly, 1767-1761. James Clarke & Co. pp. 121–3. ISBN 978-0-227-67978-4. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  21. ^ William Gibson; Robert G.. Ingram (2005). Religious Identities in Britain: 1660 – 1832. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 47–8. ISBN 978-0-7546-3209-2. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  22. ^ Dr William Gibson; William Gibson (4 January 2002). The Church of England 1688–1832: Unity and Accord. Taylor & Francis. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-203-13462-7. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  23. ^ a b   Lee, Sidney, ed. (1900). "Whiston, William". Dictionary of National Biography. 61. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  24. ^ Steele, John M. (2012). Ancient Astronomical Observations and the Study of the Moon's Motion (1691–1757). Springer. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-4614-2149-8. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  25. ^ Probyn, Clive. "Chubb, Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/5378.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  26. ^ McLachlan, H. J. "Emlyn, Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/8793.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  27. ^ Benedict, Jim. "Gale, John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/10292.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  28. ^ a b Force, James E. (20 June 2002). William Whiston: Honest Newtonian. Cambridge University Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-521-52488-9. Retrieved 21 May 2013. 
  29. ^ Acheson, Alan R. "Rundle, Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24279.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  30. ^ Sheehan, Jonathan (2005). "The" Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture. Princeton University Press. p. 35 note 21. ISBN 978-0-691-11887-1. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  31. ^ Gibson, William (2004). The Enlightenment Prelate: Benjamin Hoadly, 1767-1761. James Clarke & Co. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-227-67978-4. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  32. ^ Wokenius, Franz (1728). Christianismus primaevus quem Guil. Whistonus modo non-probando restituendum dictitat sed Apostolus Paulus breviter quasi in tabula depinxit ... Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  33. ^ Margaret C. Jacob; Larry Stewart (30 June 2009). Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687–1851. Harvard University Press. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-674-03903-2. Retrieved 21 May 2013. 
  34. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "London Coffee houses and mathematics", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
  35. ^ Stewart, Larry. "Hauksbee, Francis". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/12619.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  36. ^ Thomas Hockey; Katherine Bracher; Marvin Bolt; Virginia Trimble; Richard Jarrell; JoAnn Palmeri; Jordan D. Marché; Thomas Williams; F. Jamil Ragep, eds. (18 September 2007). Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer. p. 1213. ISBN 978-0-387-30400-7. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  37. ^ Knox, Kevin C. (6 November 2003). From Newton to Hawking: A History of Cambridge University's Lucasian Professors of Mathematics. Cambridge University Press. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-521-66310-6. Retrieved 22 May 2013. 
  38. ^ Wigelsworth, Jeffrey R. (2010). Selling Science in the Age of Newton: Advertising and the Commoditization of Knowledge. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 137. ISBN 978-1-4094-2310-2. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  39. ^ Ditton, William Whiston; Ditton, Humphrey (1714). A New Method for Discovering the Longitude, both at Sea and Land. John Phillips. Retrieved 15 Apr 2015. 
  40. ^ For example, Jonathan Swift's 1714 "Ode, to Musick. On the Longitude," including numerous references to bepissing and beshitting upon both Whiston and Ditton.
  41. ^ S.D. Snobelen, ‘William Whiston: Natural Philosopher, Prophet, Primitive Christian’ (Cambridge Univ. Ph.D. Thesis, 2000)
  42. ^ Mr Whiston's Project for finding the Longitude (MSS/79/130.2), Board of Longitude project, University of Cambridge Digital Library
  43. ^ Poole, William (2010). The World Makers: Scientists of the Restoration and the Search for the Origins of the Earth. Peter Lang. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-906165-08-6. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  44. ^ Force, James E. (29 March 1985). William Whiston: Honest Newtonian. Cambridge University Press. p. 181 note 128. ISBN 978-0-521-26590-4. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  45. ^ J.E. Force; S. Hutton (2004). Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies. Springer. p. 102. ISBN 978-1-4020-1969-2. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  46. ^ Davis A. Young; Ralph Stearley (18 August 2008). The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth. InterVarsity Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-8308-2876-0. Retrieved 23 May 2013. 
  47. ^ Westfall, Richard S. (29 April 1983). Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge University Press. pp. 815 note 112. ISBN 978-0-521-27435-7. Retrieved 25 May 2013. 

Further readingEdit

  • Farrell, Maureen (1981). William Whiston. New York: Arno Press. 
  • Force, James E. (2002). William Whiston: Honest Newtonian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Rouse Ball, W. W. (2009) [1889]. A History of the Study of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Cambridge University Press. pp. 83–85. ISBN 978-1-108-00207-3. 

External linksEdit