He was educated at Eton College and King's College, Cambridge, and was for some time a student at the Middle Temple. The most interesting episode of his life was his intimacy with Locke, who in his letters speaks of him with affection and admiration. In 1715 he settled in Essex, where he held the offices of justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant. which he had before held in Middlesex. He died at his house in Harley Street, London, on the 13th of December 1729.
His writings are important as gathering together the results of previous English Freethinkers. The imperturbable courtesy of his style is in striking contrast to the violence of his opponents; and it must be remembered that, in spite of his unorthodoxy, he was not an atheist or even an agnostic. In his own words, "Ignorance is the foundation of atheism, and freethinking the cure of it" (Discourse of Freethinking, 105).
His first work of note was his Essay concerning the Use of Reason in Propositions the Evidence whereof depends on Human Testimony (1707), in. which he rejected the distinction between above reason and contrary to reason, and demanded that revelation should conform to man's natural ideas of God. Like all his works, it was published anonymously, although the identity of the author was never long concealed. Six years later appeared his chief work, A Discourse of Freethinking, occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect called Freethinkers (1713). Notwithstanding the ambiguity of its title, and the fact that it attacks the priests of all churches without moderation, it contends for the most part, at least explicitly, for no more than must be admitted by every Protestant. Freethinking is a right which cannot and must not be limited, for it is the only means of attaining to a knowledge of truth, it essentially contributes to the well-being of society, and it is not only permitted but enjoined by the Bible. In fact the first introduction of Christianity and the success of all missionary enterprise involve freethinking (in its etymological sense) on the part of those converted. In England this essay, which was regarded and treated as a plea for deism, made a great sensation, calling forth several replies, among others from William Whiston, Bishop Hare, Bishop Hoadly, and Richard Bentley, who, under the signature of Phileleutherus Lipsiensis, roughly handles certain arguments carelessly expressed by Collins, but triumphs chiefly by an attack on trivial points of scholarship, his own pamphlet being by no means faultless in this very respect. Swift also, being satirically referred to in the book, made it the subject of a caricature.
In 1724 Collins published his Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion, with An Apology for Free Debate and Liberty of Writing prefixed. Ostensibly it is written in opposition to Whiston's attempt to show that the books of the Old Testament did originally contain prophecies of events in the New Testament story, but that these had been eliminated or corrupted by the Jews, and to prove that the fulfilment of prophecy by the events of Christ's life is all "secondary, secret, allegorical, and mystical,? since the original and literal reference is always to some other fact. Since, further, according to him the fulfilment of prophecy is the only valid proof of Christianity, he thus secretly aims a blow at Christianity as a revelation. The canonicity of the New Testament he ventures openly to deny, on the ground that the canon could be fixed only by men who were inspired. No less than thirty-five answers were directed against this book, the most noteworthy of which were those of Bishop Edward Chandler, Arthur Sykes and Samuel Clarke. To these, but with special reference to the work of Chandler, which maintained that a number of prophecies were literally fulfilled in Christ, Collins replied by his Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered (1727). An appendix contends against Whiston that the book of Daniel was forged in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.
In philosophy, Collins takes a foremost place as a defender of Necessitarianism. His brief Inquiry Concerning Human Liberty (1715) has not been excelled, at all events in its main outlines, as a statement of the determinist standpoint. One of his arguments, however, calls for special criticism,-his assertion that it is selfevident that nothing that has a beginning can be without a cause is an unwarranted assumption of the very point at issue, He was attacked in an elaborate treatise by Samuel Clarke, in whose system the freedom of the will is made essential to religion and morality. During Clarke's lifetime, fearing perhaps to be branded as an enemy of religion and morality, Collins made no reply, but in 1729 he published an answer, entitled Liberty and Necessity.
Besides these works he wrote A Letter to Mr Dodwell, arguing that it is conceivable that the soul may be material, and, secondly, that if the soul be immaterial it does not follow, as Clarke had contended, that it is immortal; Vindication of the Divine Attributes (1710); Priestcraft in Perfection (1709), in which he asserts that the clause "the Church ... Faith" in the twentieth of the Thirty-nine Articles was inserted by fraud.
See Kippis, Biographia Britannica; G Lechler, Geschichte des englischen Deismus (1841); J Hunt, Religious Thought in England, ii. (1871); Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the 18th Century, i. (1881); AW Benn, Hist. of English Rationalism in the 20th Century (London, 1906), vol. i. ch. iii.; JM Robertson, Short History of Freethought (London, 1906).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.