He was educated privately, partly on account of the delicacy of his health, and partly that he might act as amanuensis to his father, who had lost his sight. He afterwards entered at Clare College, Cambridge, where he applied himself to mathematical study, and obtained a fellowship in 1693. He next became chaplain to John Moore (1646-1714), the learned bishop of Norwich, from whom he received the living of Lowestoft in 1698. He had already given several proofs of his noble but over-scrupulous conscientiousness, and at the same time of a propensity to paradox.
His New Theory of the Earth (1696), although destitute of sound scientific foundation, obtained the praise of both Newton and Locke, the latter of whom justly classed the author among those who, if not adding much to our knowledge, "At least bring some new things to our thoughts." In 1701 he resigned his living to become deputy at Cambridge to Sir Isaac Newton, whom two years later he succeeded as Lucasian professor of mathematics.
In 1707 he was Boyle lecturer. For several years Whiston continued to write and preach both on mathematical and theological subjects with considerable success; but his study of the Apostolical Constitutions had convinced him that Arianism was the creed of the primitive church; and with him to form an opinion and to pub-ish it were things almost simultaneous. His heterodoxy soon became notorious, and in 1710 he was deprived of his professorship and expelled from the university. The rest of his life was spent in incessant 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, and soon afterwards founded a society for promoting primitive Christianity, ecturing in support of his theories at London, Bath and Tonbridge Wells. One of the most valuable of his books, the Life of Samuel Clarke, appeared in 1730. While heretical on so many joints, he was a firm believer in supernatural Christianity, and frequently took the field in defence of prophecy and miracle, including anointing the sick and touching for the king's evil. His dislike to rationalism in religion also made him one of the numerous opponents of Benjamin Hoadly's Plain Account of the Nature and End of the Sacrament.
He proved to his own satisfaction that Canticles was apocryphal and that Baruch was not. He was ever pressing his views of ecclesiastical government and discipline, derived from the Apostolical Constitutions, on the ecclesiastical authorities, and marvelled that they could not see the matter in the same light as himself. He assailed the memory of Athanasius with a virulence at least equal to that with which orthodox divines had treated Arius. He attacked Sir Isaac Newton's chronological system with success; but he himself lost not only time but money in an endeavour to discover the longitude.
Of all his singular opinions the best known is his advocacy of clerical monogamy, immortalized in the Vicar of Wakefield. Of all his labours the most useful is his translation of Josephus (1737), with valuable notes and dissertations, often reprinted. His last "famous discovery, or rather revival of Dr Giles Fletcher's," which he mentions in his autobiography with infinite complacency, was the identification of the Tatars with the lost tribes of Israel. In 1745 he published his Primitive New Testament. About the same time (1747) he finally left the Anglican communion for the Baptist, leaving the church literally as well as figuratively by quitting it as the clergyman began to read the Athanasian creed. He died in London, at the house of his son-in-law, on the 22nd of August 1752, leaving a memoir (3 vols., 1749-1750) which deserves more attention than it has received, both for its characteristic individuality and as a storehouse of curious anecdotes and illustrations of the religious and moral tendencies of the age. It does not, however, contain any account of the proceedings taken against him at Cambridge, these having been published separately at the time.
Whiston is a striking example of the association of an entirely paradoxical bent of mind with proficiency in the exact sciences. He also illustrates the possibility of arriving at rationalistic conclusions in theology without the slightest tincture of the rationalistic temper. He was not only paradoxical to the verge of craziness, but intolerant to the verge of bigotry. "I had a mind," he says, "to hear Dr (John) Gill preach. But, being informed that he had written a folio book on the Canticles, I declined to go to hear him." When not engaged in controversy he was not devoid of good sense. He often saw men and things very clearly, and some of his bon mots are admirable.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.