Woolston, Thomas (1670–1731)

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Thomas Woolston, the English divine, religious controversialist, freethinker, and deist, was born in Northampton, the son of a successful tradesman. After schooling there and at Daventry, he entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1685, the same college from which the deist William Wollaston had graduated a few years earlier. Woolston received the BA in 1689 and the MA in 1692. In 1691 he was made fellow of the college and proceeded to take orders, achieving the BD in 1699. The study of Origen early led him to an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures. He was subsequently accused of derangement of the mind and in 1720 was deprived of his fellowship. Two years later he retaliated by printing and dedicating to the master of the college 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, a discourse that he had delivered twenty years earlier as a public exercise both in the chapel of the college and in St. Mary's Church. The theme of this work is expressed in the words "The first Reason, why the then Greatness of the Roman Empire was a fit Circumstance of Time for the Mission of Christ, is, that He might better manifest his Divine Authority and Commission to the civil Powers of the World."

A long series of heterodox religious pamphlets followed that led to unsuccessful prosecution by the government in 1725 and culminated in 1729 with conviction for blasphemy. Woolston was sentenced to a fine of £100, a year's imprisonment, and security for good behavior during life. Failure to meet the fine brought about confinement until his death in January 1731. Samuel Clarke, the rationalistic theologian, had made unsuccessful efforts to get Woolston released. A five-volume edition of Woolston's Works was published in 1733.

Woolston's first ironical application of Origen's allegorical method of scriptural interpretation appeared in 1705 under the title of The Old Apology for the Truth of the Christian Religion Against the Jews and Gentiles Revived. His anticlerical campaign, particularly directed at those who refused the allegorical way, inspired a number of tracts. Four Free-Gifts to the Clergy (17231724) accused the "ministers of the letter" of being worshipers of the apocalyptic beast and ministers of Antichrist. The Moderator Between An Infidel and an Apostate with its two supplements, all of 1725, continued the attack, the "infidel" being the greatly admired Anthony Collins and the "apostate" being a literal-minded divine. In reality the tracts are defenses of the freethinking Collins and attacks on the clergy who had abandoned the allegorical methods of the Church Fathers.

Another series of tracts from 1727 to 1729 began with A Discourse On the Miracles of Our Saviour In View of the Present Controversy Between Infidels and Apostates. Here again Woolston was the disciple of Collins, who had promised to write on the miracles but had never got around to it. In all events, however, Woolston is much more outspoken than Collins would possibly have been. Each of these six tracts, in which he frequently employs the device of an imaginary friend, a learned rabbi, as interlocutor, is ironically dedicated to a different bishop of the Church of England. It is argued that the only evidence for the messiahship of Jesus is found in the Old Testament prophecies, and both prophecy and fulfillment must be interpreted as parables. Many events of Jesus' life (especially the miracles) are patently absurd if given a literal interpretation. Jesus was a spiritual Messiah, healing distempers of the soul, not of the body. Hell, Satan, and the devils are in reality states of mind. Starting with the minor miracles, Woolston deals with fifteen in all, concluding with the Resurrection.

If all of Woolston's allegorizing be madness, there is yet method in it. A man of considerable learning, Woolston employs a racy, colloquial, and frequently witty style. For example, the rabbi comments, "I can't read the Story [of the apparitions of Jesus after his death] without smiling, and there are two or three Passages in it that put me in Mind of Robinson Cruso's filling his Pockets with Biskets, when he had neither Coat, Waste-coat, nor Breeches on."

Up to the last Woolston consistently denied that he was an infidel, avowing that he was a believer in the truth of Christianity. His faith in Christianity is perhaps still open to question, but it is certain that he was a deist, whether rationalistic or Christian. He was never a religious fanatic. Voltaire was much impressed by Woolston's attacks on the miracles and made much use of them.

On all occasions Woolston defended universal and unbounded religious toleration and freedom of thought and of publication. Conversely, he insisted that a hired and established priesthood is the root of all evil, and he vigorously defended such "freethinkers" as the Quakers. Ironically, he was the victim of the authoritarian principles he had dedicated his life to eradicate.

See also Deism.


See Life of Woolston, prefixed to Vol. I of his Works, 5 vols. (London, 1733); The Life of the Reverend Mr. Thomas Woolston (London, 1733); Norman L. Torrey, Voltaire and the English Deists (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930), Ch. 4. See also the general bibliography under the Deism entry.

Ernest Campbell Mossner (1967)

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Woolston, Thomas (1670–1731)

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