A Preface containing A General Account of the Life, Character, and Writings of the Author
Perhaps the Perusal of the following Sheets may excite the Curiosity of the Reader to wish for some General Account concerning the Author of them: And it is not improbable that He may desire to know, in particular, Whether the Person who composed them was a mere Speculative Admirer of Virtue; or whether He was Himself an Example of that Morality which He has so strongly recommended to the Practice of Others. If such a Curiosity shall happen to be raised in any One who was quite a Stranger to this Gentleman’s Life and Character, This slight Sketch of Both may chance in some Measure to gratify it.
Mr William Wollaston, the Author of the Religion of Nature delineated, was descended from a Family which appears to have been ancient and considerable in the County of Stafford. It was, long since, divided into Two Branches: The former of which continued seated in Staffordshire; But the latter was in process of Time transplanted into other Counties. The Head of the Second Branch flourished formerly at oncot in the County of Stafford; but, of late Years, at Shenton in the County of Leicester: and was possessed of a very considerable Estate in those and other Counties. From this Second Branch was our Author descended: And from a younger Brother of the same Branch sprung Sir John Wollaston, Lord Mayor of London, well known in that City at the Time of the Civil War.
Mr Wollaston was born upon the 26th of March 1659. at Coton-Clanford in Staffordshire. When he was in the 10th Year of his Age, a Latin school was opened at Shenston in Staffordshire, where his Father, a private Gentleman, of a small Fortune, then resided: And Mr Wollaston was immediately sent to the Master of it for such Instruction as He was capable to give Him; and continued near two Years under his Care. Afterwards He was sent to Litchfield School: in which a great Confusion soon after happened, and the Magistrates of the City turned the Master out of the School-House. Many Scholars followed the Ejected Master: And Mr Wollaston, amongst the rest. He remained with Him till He quitted his School, which was about three Years: And then, the Schism being ended, He returned into the Free-School, and continued there about a Year. This was All the Schooling Mr Wollaston ever had: And this Time was passed, not without Uneasiness. For, though He was always very attentive to Books, and very desirous of Improvement, Yet the Rudeness of a Great School was particularly disagreeable to his Natural Disposition: and, what was still worse, He began to be much infested with the Head-Ach, which seems to have been constitutional in Him.
Upon the 18th of June 1674. He was admitted a Pensioner in Sidney College in Cambridge; being then so much upwards of 15 Years of Age as from the 26th of the preceding March. But here He laboured under various Disadvantages: to which a Person so circumstanced as He then was, could not but be subject. He had no Acquaintance in the College, nor even in the University (to which He was come a Country Lad from a Country School;) few Books or other Advantages; no Assistance or Direction from any Body; nor sufficient Confidence to supply that Defect by Inquiry or Conversation. Add to this, That his State of Health was not quite firm: And that his Allowance was by no Means more than sufficient for bare Necessaries; his then Situation being that of younger Brother, descended from younger Brothers for several Successions. (Tho’ indeed, his Grandfather had had a considerable Estate both Real and Personal, together with an Office of 700 l. per Annum.) However, under All these Disadvantages, Mr Wollaston acquired a great Degree of Reputation in the University: perhaps too much; For had it been less, it might have escaped the Tax of Envy, which probably was the Cause of His missing a Preferment in the College, which a Young Man of his Character had Reason to expect.
Upon the 29th of September 1981 He left the University: being then Twenty two Years and an Half Old. He had commenced Master of Arts the Summer before: And it seems to have been about this Time, that He took Deacon’s Orders.
From Cambridge He went to pay his Duty to his Father and Mother, who now lived at Great Bloxwyche: having first made a Three Weeks Visit to the then Head of this Branch of the Family, his Cousin Wollaston of Shenton. And He remained at Bloxwyche, with his Father and Mother (whom He had not seen for many Years before) till May or June 1682. About which Time, seeing no Prospect of Preferment, He so far conformed Himself to the Circumstances of his Fortune as to become Assistant to the Head-Master of Birmingham School: Who readily embraced the Opportunity of such a Co-Adjutor, and considered Mr Wollaston as one that prudentially stooped to an Employment below what He might have reasonably pretended to. And his Cousin of Shenton was far from being displeased at this Instance of his Relation’s humble Industry.
In a short time He got a small Lectorship at a Chapel about two Miles distant. But He did the Duty of the Whole Sunday: Which, together with the Business of a Great Free-School, for about four Years, began to break his Constitution; and, if continued, had probably overcome it quite, though the Stamina of it were naturally very strong.
During this Space He likewise suffered many Anxieties and underwent a Deal of Trouble and Uneasiness, in order to extricate Two of his Brothers from some Inconveniencies to which their own Imprudencies had subjected them. And in the good Offices which He did them at this Time, He seems to have rather over-acted his Part: For He indulged his Affection for them, more than was consistent with a due Regard to his own Welfare, as He was then circumstanced.
When He had been about four Years at Birmingham, He was chosen Second Master of the School. In which there were three Masters, two Assistants, and a Writing-Master. It was pretended that He was too Young to be Head-Master of so great a School: But in Reality, the Old Master was turned out in order to make way for a particular Person to succeed Him. And some of the Governors even owned that Mr Wollaston had Wrong done Him, in not being preferred stil higher. He kept this new Station about two Years. It was worth to Him about 70 l. per Annum. Upon this Occasion He took Priest’s Orders: For the Words of the Charter were interpreted to require that the Masters should be in Those Orders, and yet must take no Ecclesiastical Preferment.
The late Chief Master, a valuable and good Old Man, and for whom Mr Wollaston of Shenton had an Esteem, retired after his Expulsion to his Brother’s House in the Neighbourhood of Shenton. He once or twice waited upon Mr Wollaston of Shenton: And undoubtedly informed Him of the Character, Learning, Conversation, and Conduct of our Author; which He was very capable of doing, because they had lived together till the Time of this Old Gentleman’s leaving Birmingham.
Mr Wollaston of Shenton having now lately lost his only Son, and never intending (as appears from his whole Conduct) to give his Estate to his Daughters, pursued his Father’s Design of continuing it in the Male Line of his Family: and resolved to settle it upon our Author’s Uncle and Father (his own first Cousins and his nearest Male Relations) in the same Proportions and Manner, exactly, in which it had been intailed formerly upon them by his Father. And accordingly He made such a Settlement: subject however to a Revocation.
Mr Wollaston all this While applied Himself to his Business: and never so much as waited upon his Cousin, or employed any one to speak or act any thing in his Behalf; (tho’ many then blamed Him for neglecting to do it.) Only One Visit He made Him, in the November before his Death; which was upon a Saturday in the Afternoon. He gave Him a Sermon the next Day; received his Hearty Thanks; and the next Morning desired Leave to return to the Duties of his Station: Without speaking or even insinuating any thing in relation to his Estate. His Cousin dismissed Him with great Kindness: And, by his Looks and Manner, seemed to have a particular Regard for him; but discovered nothing of his Intention by Words.
However, his Cousin of Shenton was used to employ Persons privately, to observe our Author’s Behaviour: (who little suspected any such Matter.) And his Behaviour was found to be such, that the stricter the Observations were upon it, the more they turned to his Advantage. In Fine, Mr Wollaston became so thoroughly satisfied of our Author’s Merit, that He revoked the before-mentioned Settlement, and made a Will in his Favor.
In August following, Mr Wollaston of Shenton fell sick: and sent secretly to our Author
to come over to Him as of his own Accord without any Notice of his Illness. He complied with the Message: and staid some Days at Shenton. But whilst He was gone Home again, under a Promise of returning, his Cousin died.
It was the 19th of August 1688. when this Gentleman died. His Will gave a new and a great Turn to our Mr Wollaston’s Affairs: who found himself intitled by it to a very ample Estate.
The Circumstances relating to the Means whereby the last mentioned Mr Wollaston came to the Possession of his Estate, and the Steps which led to it, have been the more minutely particularized here; Because Common Fame has somehow caught up and forwarded a groundless Imagination,
That the Author was an absolute Stranger to the former Possessor and to his Family, and happened to fall into his Company, by mere Accident, at an Inn. Which is so far from being true or even bearing any Resemblance to Truth, That they were in Fact very near Relations; and this very Estate had been twice entailed upon Mr Wollaston’s Uncle and Father.
Such a Sudden and Advantageous Alteration of Affairs would have intoxicated Many. But the same Firmness of Mind, which supported this Gentleman under the Pressures of his more Adverse Fortune, enabled him to bear his Prosperity with Moderation: And his Religion and Philosophy taught Him to maintain a due Equanimity under either Extreme.
In November 1688 He came to London: And about a Twelve-month after, upon the 26th of November 1689, He married Mrs Catharine Charlton, one of the Daughters of Mr Nicholas Charlton, an eminent Citizen of London; a fine Woman, with a good Fortune and a most excellent Character. They lived extremely happy in each other, till her Death left Him a mournful Widower, upon the 21st of July 1720. By Her He had eleven Children: Of whom four died in his Life-time; the rest survived Him.
He may most truly be said to have settled in London: For He very seldom went out of it. He took no Delight in unnecessary Journies: And, for above Thirty Years before his Death, had not been absent from his Habitation in Charter-House Square, so much as One whole Night.
In this his Settlement in London, He chose a Private and Retired Life. His Carriage was nevertheless Free and Open. He aimed at solid and real Content, rather than Shew and Grandeur: and manifested his Dislike of Power and Dignity, by refusing one of the highest Preferments in the Church, when it was offered to Him. He endeavoured to excel in Sincerity and Useful Sense, more than in Formality and Trifles.
He was perfectly acquainted with the Elementary Parts of Learning: And with the learned Languages; Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, &c. He thought it necessary to add to These such a Degree of Philology and Criticism as seemed likely to be Useful to Him; and also Mathematical Sciences, or at least the Fundamentals of them; the General Philosophy of Nature; The History and Antiquities of the more known and noted States and Kingdoms; and such like Erudition. And in order to attain the Knowledge of True Religion and the Discovery of Truth, (the Points which He always had particularly in View, and to which He chiefly directed all his Studies,) He diligently inquired into the Idolatries of the Heathens: And made Himself Master of the Sentiments, Rites, and Learning of the Jews; the History of the first Settlement of Christianity, and the Opinions and Practices introduced into it since. In the mean time He exercised and improved his Mind by throwing off Prejudices; using Himself to clear Images; observing the Influence and Extent of Axioms, the Nature and Force of Consequences, and the Method of investigating Truth. In General, He accustomed Himself to much Thinking; as well as to much Reading.
By this Method indeed He was rather qualified for private Instruction, than accomplished for public Conversation and Shew. But the latter was not his Point. He looked upon that Specious Sort of Knowledge which often gains a Man the Reputation of a Scholar at a very cheap Rate, to be a False Learning and of no kind of Service to Him who was in Quest of Real Knowledge.
He was of Opinion too That a Man might easily read too much: And he considered the Helluo Librorum and the True Scholar, as two very different Characters.
The Love of Truth and Reason made Him love Free Thinking: and, as far as the World would bear it, Free Speaking too. This tended, He thought, to the Discovery of Error. Tho’ He was not insensible that it might render Him less acceptable to many Persons: particularly, to those who perhaps have only just Sense enough to perceive their own Weakness; or judge of Things by the Vogue they bear, or the Respect they have to their own Interest or Party; or can neither bear the Trouble of an honest Inquiry themselves, nor yet that another should know what they do not know; in short, to every Prejudiced Person whatsoever. But He took all Opportunities to assert seriously and inculcate strenuously the Being and Perfections of God; his Providence, both General and Particular; the Obligations we are under to adore Him; the Reasonableness of Virtue; the Immateriality and Immortality of the Soul; future Rewards and Punishments; and other High and essential Points of Natural Religion and the Christian Revelation. In fine, To reason impartially, and to know where to stop, was the Mark He always aimed at.
And He loved Truth, not in Speculation only, but also in Practice: For he loved punctual Honesty.
He likewise delighted in Method and Regularity: And chose to have his Labours and Refreshments Periodical; and that his Family and Friends should observe the proper Seasons of their Revolutions. The Reverse of this being the prevailing Temper, or at least Practice of Mankind, oftentimes either deprived Him of Conversation or rendered it disagreeable to Him.
The General Character of his Nature was, That it was Tender and Sensible. This Tenderness disposed Him to feel and compassionate the Miseries of others: Insomuch that He many times sufferedm ore perhaps in another man’s Case than the man did in his own. This Tenderness induced Him always to endeavour to satisfy and convince, in Cases where He might have commanded despotically and absolutely. Tho’ it is not improbable that in this He was frequently misunderstood as if He meant to chide, when He only intended to explain and convince. To this Tenderness may also be ascribed that excessive Modesty and Diffidence of Himself, which made Him delight in Privacy and Retirement; and incapacitated Him in a great Measure from appearing, in Public, at all like what He really was; and even occasioned Him sometimes to seem inferior to those, who exceeded Him in nothing but Forwardness and Conceit. Something of this might indeed be owing to the Depression of his Spirits in his younger Days. From the same Causes might arise his strong Apprehension of the Unreasonableness and Injustice of those, who were designedly the Beginners of Quarrels or Abuses, or invaded without Provocation Another’s Good Name. The same Tenderness rendered Him in a high Manner sensible of the Desertion, Unkindness, or Indifference of Friends.
He never indulged his Passions to the Hurt of any One. If in any respect He shewed that He was not so compleat a Stoic as to have eradicated his Passions, or so perfect a Philosopher as never to be surpized by them; it was in the Escape of an hasty Word or Expression now and then, when He was put off his Guard by Hurries, Indispositions, or such like Occasions. Yet He was not always angry, when the Urgency of Business, the Straitness of Time, the Importunity of impertinent People, or the like, caused Him to talk louder or quicker than ordinary; nor often, (if at all) without sufficient Reason; nor ever so angry with any One else, as He would be with Himself for having been so. In short, If every One would restrain their Anger within the same Bounds as He did, there might be a hasty Word or Expression dropped sometimes upon Provocation or Indisposition: But there would never be Resentment, Wrath, or Quarrel more in the World.
He was most remarkably Chearful and Lively in Private Conversation; and by his Inclination ready, as well as by his Treasures of Learning abundantly qualified, to be serviceable to all sorts of Persons. This rendered his Company agreeable: and Himself worthy to be courted by the Learned and Virtuous. But a General Acquaintance was what He never cultivated: and it grew more and more his Aversion. So that He passed his Days mostly at Home, with a few Friends: with whom He could enjoy an agreeable Relaxation of Mind, and receive All the Advantages of a sincere and open Friendship. This Excessive Retirement was however attended with some Inconveniencies. His Intimates were dropping off, and their Places remained unsupplied; His own Infirmities were increasing; The Frequent Remission of Study growing more and more necessary; and his Solitudes at the same Time becoming less and less pleasant and agreeable.
What Decays soever there might be in his Bodily Strength, He nevertheless retained to the last the Clearness and Perspecuity of his Thoughts. But perceiving his Designs frustrated by the daily Attacks of Nature, and that it would be impossible to finish and compleat them in the Manner He wished, it seems as if He had intended to destroy with his own Hand the greatest Part of his Works: And that those few Manuscripts, which were found after his Death, were indebted to the Treachery of his Memory for their Preservation. For He had within the last two or three Years of his Life actually burnt several Treatises, in the Composition whereof He had bestowed no small Quantity of Time and Pains. The following indeed happened to be spared: But from the Place in which they were deposited, and from some other Circumstances, ’tis probable that they owed their Escape to mere Forgetfulness. They were in Number thirteen, (besides about Fourscore Sermons), viz. 1. An Hebrew Grammar. 2. Tyrocinia Arabica & Syriaca. 3. Specimen Vocabularii Biblico-Hebraici, literis nostratibus quantum fert Linguarum Dissonantia descripti. 4. Formulæ quædam Gemarinæ. 5. De variis generibus pedum, metrorum, carminum, &c. apud Judæos, Græcos & Latinos. 6. De vocum Tonis Monitio ad Tyrones. 7. Rudimentia ad Mathesin & Philosophiam spectantia. 8. Miscellanea Philologica. 9. Opinions of the Ancient Philosophers. 10. Ἰουδαίκα; sive Religionis & Literaturæ Judaicæ Synopsis. 11. A Collection of some Antiquities and Particulars in the History of Mankind: tending to shew that Men have not been here upon this Earth from Eternity, &c. 12. Some Passages relating to the History of Christ; collected out of the Primitive Fathers. 13. A Treatise relating to the Jews; of their Antiquities, Language, &c. And what renders it the more probable, or indeed almost beyond Doubt, That He would have destroyed these likewise if He had remembered them, is That several of these which remain undestroyed are only Rudiments or rougher Sketches of what He afterwards reconsidered and carried on much farther: and which, even after such Revisal, He nevertheless committed to the Flames, as being still (in his Opinion) short of that Perfection to which He desired and had intended to bring them.
It must be owned indeed that He had formerly published a Paraphrase on part of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which He had not corrected. But for that very Reason He was afterwards earnestly desirous to suppress it. And He likewise composed and printed a little Latin Grammar. But this was only for the Use of his Family. The former was printed in the Year 1690: The latter in 1703.
Not long before his Death, He published the ensuing Treatise, intitled
The Religion of Nature delineated: in which the Picture of his Life is most fully drawn. There you may behold Him in his Real Character: in the humble Submission and Resignation of Himself to the unerring Will of the Divine Being; in his true Conjugal and paternal Affection to his Family; in his kind Regard and Benevolence towards his Fellow-Creatures, according to their respective Stations in Life. For He Himself steadily practiced those Duties and Obligations, which He so earnestly recommended to Others.
The Great Demand for this Book (of which more than Ten Thousand were sold in a very few Years) and the public Honours paid to the Memory of the Author, are sufficient Testimonies of its Value. He had, in the Year 1722, printed off a few Copies of it for private Use. And as soon as he had done so, He began to turn his Thoughts to the Third Question: as appears by a Manuscript intitled Heads and Materials for an Answer to Question 3. set down rudely and any how, in order to be considered, &c. after they are got into some Order. July 4, 1723. Underneath which He has added. They are written at Length (not in my short-hand) that so if this Answer should never be finished, they may however not be totally lost. However, in this Design He had Opportunity to make but a very small Progress. For it was just about this Time that, at the Instances and Persuasion of his Friends, He set about revising and publishing the following Work; wherein he had answered the two first of the proposed Questions: Resolving, as soon as that should be done, to return to and finish his Answer to the Third Question.
But in that He was disappointed. For immediately after he had compleated the Revisal and Publication of the following Treatise, an accident (of breaking his Arm) increased his Distempers, and accelerated his Death: which happened upon the 29th of October 1724, and has absoluely put an End to the Expectation of seeing any more of his Works in Print. For it would be equally injurious to the Author, and disrespectful to the Public, if his Family should expose his more Imperfect Sketches in Print, after his Death: when He Himself had in his Life-time destroyed several more finished Pieces, because He judged them not sufficiently accurate.
Hi Body was carried down to Great Finborough in Suffolk, (one of his Estates, and the principal Residence of his now eldest Son) andl aid close by the Side of his deceased Wife; agreeably to the two following Epitaphs, composed by Him for her and for himself, and inscribed upon their common Monument:
Hic, ad imum parietem, sita est
Hujus Manerii Finburiensis Domini, &c.
Uxor ϰȣριδία ac dilectissima:
E quâ prolem ille numerosam et pulchram suscepit,
Ipsâ olim pulcherrimâ.
Ob. Julii 21, A.C. 1720, Æt. 50.
Conjugi secum commune futurum:
Ut qui conjunctissimi vixerunt,
Etiam Mortui, mistis cineribus, uniantur.
Nov. 6, 1724.
Juxta reliquias Catharinæ suæ
Ipsius Gulielmi Wollaston
Conditi sunt cineres promissi.
Fuit is (si quis aveat scire)
Genere ortus perantiquo, nec ignobili;
Academicis disciplinis imbutus Cantabrigiæ,
Quibus ibi studuit per annos plus septem;
Hæreditate amplâ, Numine favente, auctus;
Valetudine tamen suâ, parùm firmâ,
Hominumque corruptis moribus & judiciis iniquis
Diligenter expensis ac æstimatis,
Vitæ privatæ iter sumpsit:
Suorum saluti & commodis prospiciens;
Bonis literis animum excolens, vel oblectans;
Spretis famâ atque honoribus
Veri conscientiâ tacitâ contentus.
Cum vixisset ann. 65, di. 217,
Cursu quem Deus dederat peracto,
From all that has been said concerning Mr Wollaston, it appears that notwithstanding his Declining to accept any Public Employment, yet his Studies were designed to be of Public Use: And his Solitude was far from being employed in vain and trifling Amusements, terminating in Himself alone.
His latest Moments were calm and easy; Such as might be expected to close a Life spent like his: And He left the World, as He sojourned in it, quietly and resignedly. Both the Manner of his Life and that of his Death were well worthy of Imitation.
It is scarce worth while to take any Notice of an idle or malicious Reflection which has been cast, by some over-zealous Persons, upon this Gentleman’s Memory, as if He had put a Slight upon Christianity by laying so much Stress upon the Obligations of Truth, Reason, and Virtue: Or as if He could not have believed aright, because He did not think it necessary to digress from his Subject in Order to insert his Creed. Surely, a Suspicion thus founded can deserve no Regard. However, it may not be amiss to observe, that it has probably been increased by a vulgar mistake that Mr Wollaston, the Author of the Religion of Nature delineated, was the same Person with Mr Woolston who wrote several Pieces, which grossly attacked the Literal Truth of the Miracles of Jesus Christ. And this Mistake, which arose originally from the Similitude of Names, might happen to be further confirmed by Mr Woolston’s intitling himself
Late Fellow of Sidney College in Cambridge: At which College our Author Himself and Four of his Sons were educated.
The Religion of Nature delineated being a Book in great Esteem with her late Majesty Queen Caroline, she was pleased to command me to translate the Notes into English for her own Use: And there being a Demand for a new Edition, it was thought proper to publish this Translation, as these Notes are Illustrations and Confirmations of the Sentiments of the learned Author; and therefore I have consented to the Publishing of them.
17 April, 1750.