William Wollaston

For other people named William Wollaston, see William Wollaston (disambiguation).
William Wollaston
Born 26 March 1659
Coton-Clanford, Staffordshire
Died 29 October 1724(1724-10-29) (aged 65)
Era 18th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School enlightenment philosophy, rationalism
Main interests
Ethics, religion
Notable ideas
Religion derived from adherence to truth

William Wollaston (/ˈwʊləstən/; 26 March 1659 – 29 October 1724) was school teacher, a Church of England priest, a scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, a theologian, and a major Enlightenment era English philosopher. He is remembered today for one book, which he completed only two years before his death: The Religion of Nature Delineated. Yet despite his cloistered life and his single book, due to his influence on eighteenth-century philosophy and his promotion of a Natural Religion, he may be considered one of the great British Enlightenment philosophers, along with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. His work contributed to the development of two important intellectual schools: British Deism, and "the pursuit of happiness" moral philosophy of American Practical Idealism, which appears notably in the United States Declaration of Independence.


Wollaston was born at Coton Clanford in Staffordshire, on 26 March 1659. He was born to a family long-established in Staffordshire, and was distantly related to Sir John Wollaston, the Alderman and Lord Mayor of London.[1] However, his family was not wealthy. At the age of ten, he began school at a Latin school newly opened in Shenstone, Staffordshire, and continued in country free schools until he was admitted to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, at the age of 15, in June 1674.[2] From his writings it is clear that he was an excellent scholar, "extremely well versed" in languages and literature.[3]

In his last year at Cambridge, Wollaston published anonymously a small book, On the Design of the Book of Ecclesiastes, or the Unreasonableness of Men's Restless Contention for the Present Enjoyments, represented in an English Poem (London, 1691). Apparently embarrassed by his own work, Wollaston almost immediately suppressed it.

After leaving Cambridge in September 1681, he became an assistant master at King Edward's School, Birmingham and took holy orders. At this time, he became Perpetual curate of St Mary's Church, Moseley from 1684 – 1686. In 1688 an uncle left him a fortune and an estate at Shenton Hall, Leicestershire, and in November of the same year he settled in London. There Wollaston devoted himself to private study of learning and philosophy, seldom leaving the city and declining to accept any public employment. In retirement, he published The Religion of Nature Delineated (1722) in a private edition. He wrote extensively on language, philosophy, religion, and history, but in the last few years of his life, he committed most of his manuscripts to the flames, as his health worsened and he began to feel that he would never be able to complete them to his satisfaction.

Wollaston suffered from fragile health throughout his life. Just after completing The Religion of Nature Delineated, he broke his arm in an accident, and his strength declined and illnesses increased until his death on 29 October 1724. His body was carried to Great Finborough in Suffolk, where he was buried beside his wife.

The Religion of Nature Delineated


The Religion of Nature Delineated was an attempt to create a system of ethics without recourse to revealed religion. He claimed originality for his theory that the moral evil is the practical denial of a true proposition and moral good the affirmation of it, writing that this attempt to use mathematics to create a rationalist ethics was "something never met with anywhere". Wollaston "held that religious truths were plain as Euclid, clear to all who contemplated Creation."[4] Newton had induced natural laws from a mathematical model of the physical world; similarly, Wollaston was attempting to induce moral laws by a mathematical model of the moral world.


More than 10,000 copies were sold in the just first few years alone[5] with 22 imprints prior to 1800. There was Wollaston's private edition in 1722; after his death there was one public edition in 1724, five in 1725, five in 1726, two in 1731, one in 1737, four in 1738, one in 1746, one 1750, and one in 1759.[6]

Wollaston's idea of a Natural religion without revelation briefly inspired and revived the movement known as Deism in England. Some today consider him a "Christian Deist",[7] while others note that there is no "significant evidence that William Wollaston was not a more or less orthodox Christian."[8]

Although Wollaston's ideas could be argued to have anticipated both Scottish Common Sense Realism[9] and Utilitarianism[10] proponents of later schools of philosophy criticised and sometimes even ridiculed Wollaston. These included Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Richard Price, and Jeremy Bentham.[11]

After 1759 no further editions of his work was published in the rest of the century.

Benjamin Franklin, worked as a compositor on one of the 1726 editions of the book and wrote the short pamphlet A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain although he found it "so shallow and unconvincing as to be embarrassing",[12] and burned as many copies as he could find. Although rejecting Deism[13] he retained a fondness for the "pursuit of happiness" believing that God was best served by doing good works and helping other people.

It was a major influence on the American educator Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson's college philosophy textbooks. Its focus on practice as well as speculation attracted a more mature Franklin, who commissioned and published Johnson's textbook Elementa Philosophica in 1752, then promoted it in the College of Philadelphia (now Penn University).[14]


On 26 November 1689, Wollaston married Catharine Charlton (died 21 July 1720). They had eleven children together, four of whom died within his lifetime. They included:


  1. John Clarke, A Preface containing A General Account of the Life, Character, and Writings of the Author, The Religion of Nature Delineated, 1750 ed.
  2. "Wollaston, William (WLSN674W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. Altmann, Alexander, "William Wollaston (1659–1724): English Deist and Rabbinic Scholar", Transactions (Jewish Historical Society of England), Vol. 16, (1945–1951), pp. 185–211
  4. Porter, Roy, The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 112.
  5. Porter, Roy, The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 112.
  6. English Short Title Catalog, http://estc.bl.uk/ search on "Wollaston, William", retrieved 28 October 2013
  7. Porter, p. 112
  8. Barnett, S. J., The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity, Manchester University Press, 2003, p. 89
  9. His view that science and math could define a morality based on nature predated the scientific morality of Scottish Common Sense Realism
  10. Wollaston also held that a person is happy when the sum total of pleasure exceeds pains
  11. see Becker Lawrence, and Becker, Charlotte, Encyclopedia of Ethics, Charlotte B. Becker, Volume 3, ISBN 0415936721, 9780415936729, Taylor & Francis US, 2001, p. 1818
  12. Isaacson, Walter, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon and Schuster, 2004 p. 45
  13. Issacson, p. 46
  14. Schneider, Herbert and Carol, Samuel Johnson, President of King's College: His Career and Writings, Columbia University Press, 4 vols., 1929, Volume I, p.23
  15. 1 2 Young, B. W. "Wollaston, William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29841. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  16. "Wollaston, Francis (WLSN712F)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  17. "Wollaston, John (WLSN715J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.

Further reading


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Wollaston, William". Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Stephen, Leslie (1900). "Wollaston, William (1660-1724)". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 62. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 

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