Annet, Peter (1693–1769)
Peter Annet, an English freethinker and deist, was by profession a schoolmaster. He lost his employment in 1744 because of his outspoken attacks on certain Christian apologists. A debater at the Robin Hood Society (named after a public house where the meetings were held), he soon became a popular lecturer. The first published result was a pamphlet of 1739, titled Judging for Ourselves: Or Free-Thinking, the Great Duty of Religion. Display'd in Two Lectures, deliver'd at Plaisterers-Hall, "By P. A. Minister of the Gospel. With A Serious Poem address'd to the Reverend Mr. Whitefield." The tone of the work is indicated by the statement: "If the Scriptures are Truth, they will bear Examination; if they are not, let 'em go." This was followed by several tracts directly attacking Thomas Sherlock, bishop of London: The Resurrection of Jesus Considered: In Answer To the Tryal of the Witnesses "By a Moral Philosopher," which ran through three editions in 1744; The Resurrection Reconsidered (1744); The Sequel of the Resurrection of Jesus Considered (1745); and The Resurrection Defenders stript of all Defence (1745).
In Social Bliss Considered (1749) Annet, like John Milton before him, advocated the liberty of divorce. He answered Gilbert West's Observations on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1747) in Supernaturals Examined (1747) and George Lyttleton's Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul in a Letter to Gilbert West (1747) in The History and Character of St. Paul Examined (1748). Arguing that all miracles are incredible, Annet proceeded to attack Old Testament history in his journal, The Free Enquirer (9 numbers, October 17, 1761–December 12, 1761). For this work he was accused of blasphemous libel before Lord Mansfield in the Court of King's Bench in the Michaelmas term of 1762. There is some evidence that Lord Mansfield, urged on by Bishop Warburton and others, used Annet as a scapegoat after a fruitless attempt had been made to suppress the publication of David Hume's Four Dissertations of 1757.
Annet pleaded guilty to the charge. "In consideration of which, and of his poverty, of his having confessed his errors in an affidavit, and of his being seventy years old, and some symptoms of wildness that appeared on his inspection in Court; the Court declared they had mitigated their intended sentence to the following, viz., to be imprisoned in Newgate for a month; to stand twice in the pillory [Charing Cross and the Royal Exchange] with a paper on his forehead, inscribed Blasphemy; to be sent to the house of correction [Bridewell] to hard labour for a year; to pay a fine of 6s.8d.; and to find security, himself to 100 £ and two sureties in 50 £. each, for his good behaviour during life." Having survived this "mitigated," charitable, and humane punishment based on the iniquitous Blasphemy Act of 1698, Annet returned to schoolmastering. Archbishop Secker is said to have so far relented as to afford aid to the culprit until his death in 1769. In 1766 Annet issued A Collection of Tracts of a Certain Free Enquirer noted by his sufferings for his opinions, a work containing all of the tracts mentioned above.
Annet was long thought to have been the author of The History of the Man after God's Own Heart (1761), in which the writer took exception to a parallel drawn by a divine between George II and King David. The anonymous writer argued that such a comparison was an insult to the late king. Recent scholarship has proved that the real author was John Noorthouck, a respected member of the Stationers' Company.
Among his accomplishments, Annet was the inventor of a system of shorthand. Unlike most of the leading English deists, Annet had relatively little formal education and spoke and wrote plainly and forcefully directly to the masses. He was the last to suffer physical punishment for his heterodox religious opinions.
There is no collected edition of Annet's works, and the texts mentioned in the article are extremely rare. A useful article, however, regarding the authorship of The History of the Man after God's Own Heart, is the anonymous "John Noorthouck, 'The Man after God's Own Heart,'" in Times Literary Supplement (August 25, 1945): 408.
See also The English Reports, Vol. 96, King's Bench Division, XXV (Edinburgh and London), 1909; and E. C. Mossner, "Hume's Four Dissertations : An Essay in Biography and Bibliography," in Modern Philology 48 (1950): 37–57.
Ernest Campbell Mossner (1967)