"He is, it seems, a man of very quick and ardent spirit, tall and spare, with a pointed chin and wears his own hair. In look, he greatly resembles Calvin. He is very fond of speaking and argues with great vehemence." Zacharias Uffenbach
William Whiston (1667-1752), the third Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, succeeded Isaac Newton. He entered Clare Hall in 1686 as a sizar, and was elected fellow in 1691. He became MA and was ordained deacon in 1693.1 Whiston's tenure was the most controversial of any holders of the chair: no other professor had problems like his. While Barrow and Newton both resigned the post in good standing, Whiston was forcibly removed as a heretic. The event was a blight caused by overreaction of the churchmen, but certainly in keeping with the previous seventy years of religious strife at Cambridge. Unlike Newton and Barrow, Whiston was never invited to be a member of the Royal Society, due to Newton's feelings about him after he was forced from Cambridge. He was permitted, however, to lecture to the Society frequently.
Newton had been appointed Warden of the Mint in 1696, but continued as Lucasian Professor even though he had moved to London. In 1701 Newton persuaded Whiston to take his place at Cambridge. He then gave up the Chair, recommending Whiston for it. Whiston was named to the chair in 1702, chosen by his predecessor.
Like the previous professors, Whiston used his scientific skills to research, ponder and draw conclusions in the world of religion. His beliefs against Trinitarianism and his belief in Primitive Christianity came from extensive reading and thinking. Although he published his work mostly in Latin, enough was available in English to permit the authorities at Cambridge to conclude he was a heretic based on his rejection of the Trinity. Since he was required by the 45th statute to teach nothing contrary to Anglican doctrine, he was legally disqualified from holding a post at Cambridge. By publishing in English instead of Latin, he opened his ideas to the general public. Had he restricted himself to Latin, it is possible he would have remained as Lucasian professor. Authorities feared a contamination by heretical ideas that would result in some sort of disaster for the established church. The main work that was cited as problematical was Whiston's Sermons and Essays upon Several Subjects , published in 1709.2 He was hounded for several years after he stepped down by churchmen, but was never found guilty again. Later, he founded a society for Primitive Christianity and continued his publishing and teaching.
Whiston's first published work, A New Theory of the Earth, from its Original to the Consummation of all Things (1696), attacked Thomas Burnet's work Sacred Theory of the Earth , apparently inspired by Newton's Principia . He tried to use the principles of Newton to explain Genesis, as well as the biblical Flood.
While he was Lucasian professor, Whiston published an edition of Euclid intended for students.3 He lectured on astronomy and published his notes as books. The first was Praelectiones Astroniomicae Cantabrigiae in Scholis Publicis Habitae published in 1707, with the English version Astronomical Lectures read in the Public Schools at Cambridge in 1715. The second set of lectures was published as Praelectiones Physico-Mathematicae Cantabrigiae in 1710, which then appeared in 1716 as Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematic Philosophy more easily demonstrated with Dr. Halley's Account of Comets Illustrated . This was the first course on natural philosophy for undergraduates based on Newton's principles.4
The idea of the history of the earth during the 1600s was more than the geological history that comes to mind today. Earth history at that time was not separate from biblical history, cosmology, natural philosophy or theology. Much of the work done then was to give scientific justification to biblical stories, such as Genesis and the Flood. The idea that the earth changes and has tectonic plates shifts had not yet been accepted as standard theory.5
Burnet had produced an elaborate theory to explain the earth's history, much of it centered around the great Flood. Some of his ideas were actually quite reasonable. He postulated a hot core, foreshadowed trade winds, and the evolution from a formless mass into a solid body. He believed, incorrectly of course, that the interior of the earth was mostly hollow.6
Whiston decided that a comet approaching close to earth would better explain the cause of the Deluge, instead of the rupture of the earth's skin that Burnet had proposed. He carefully plotted a course for this comet using all his mathematical skills to show that the answer was in the stars. Newton had speculated about comets, their paths and their composition. Whiston had had the opportunity to learn from Newton in this matter and freely incorporated Newton's ideas into his own theories.7
Whiston's theory, seen as reasonable, was taught to undergraduates at Cambridge. His theory had several major components. First, the earth originated from a comet. Second, the comet became a perfect sphere that was used for transformation in Genesis during the six days of creation. The six days were actually six years, for, in Whiston's view, there was a need to explain the length of time required for such activity. The great Flood followed, then receded, preparing the earth for present-day life. He then predicted that another comet would eventually destroy the earth. He left open the possibility that more comets would come to repeat the cycle.8
Whiston was a prolific writer even extending beyond religion and mathematics. He authored works dealing with the longitude problem of the period, astronomy, exploding of guns and the measurement of the earth's magnetic field. He was a witness to an aurora borealis which he described in detail in a Royal Society publication. He also did work on solar eclipses and sun-spots. His true contribution was the observation and calculations rather than the theories he produced.9
Whiston went from renowned academic to outcast because of his beliefs in Arian theology, millennialism and Whig politics. Whiston's Affair , as it came to be known, shows much about the status of religion during the early 1700's. Whiston had three characteristics that related to this affair that need to be understood. He was very puritanical, he desired strongly to return to the primitive state of the apostolic age, and he tried to use his scientific capabilities to further his religious ends.10
Whiston had been involved in several of the religious societies prevalent on the late 1600's and early 1700's which were seeking the pure essence of the early Christians. These pietist societies practiced "frequent communion, fasting, prayer and vigil."11 Whiston worked for most of life to fulfill these goals. He was a leader in a movement more than a fanatical, isolated voice in the wilderness. As a leader he suffered more than most resulting from his public speeches and publications in English. If he only published in Latin, so that his audience would have been limited to academics, it is likely that he would not have fared so badly.
While at Cambridge, he had done well in mathematics, well enough to become Lucasian professor. While he was in the Chair, he did what was expected for mathematics, but it was during this time that he made religious discoveries that he could not ignore. He read early works, seeking new reasons to write letters to archbishops to ask for consideration of his findings. This public activity raised eyebrows in political and religious circles. The government in 1708 sent a representative to put a stop to his "ravings." Whiston, of course, would not listen to anyone, including his friends, and kept on with his efforts to reform the Church.12
This situation continued until in the elections of 1710 when the two M.P.'s for the university were Tories with influence. Pressure was applied and the university moved against Whiston based on the 45th statute which forbade the teaching of heresy. The affair was ended fairly quickly, except that even though he was banished from Cambridge, he was still Lucasian professor, with salary for another year.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the affair. In 1711 a joint committee of both Houses of the government produced a manifesto titled Representation of the Present State of Religion which attacked Whiston and his ideas on Primitive Christianity. The Tories were determined to stop him no matter what it took.13The wave against Whiston continued until a convocation created another document that was intended for Queen Anne, but during an intermission over Christmas, the document disappeared. Neither House could find enough votes to start over again to persecute Whiston any further.
In the fall of 1712 the rector of St. Anne's Westminster launched one final attack by going to court. The court simply refused to try a man of the clergy. The rector tried for two years to prosecute, but In August of 1714, Queen Anne died and the affair was finally closed. The affair was ultimately a failure of the Tories to enforce orthodoxy within the Church of England and a Whig triumph. Whiston was not alone in his persecution, but he was certainly a pivotal figure. Things were not the same after him.
- Maureen Farrell, William Whiston (New York: Arno Press, 1981), 8.
- Farrell, 30.
- Dictionary of National Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 1882).
- Farrell, 189.
- Farrell, 61.
- Farrell, 72.
- Farrell, 94.
- Farrell, 99.
- Farrell, 226.
- E. Duffy," `Whiston's Affair': the trials of a Primitive Christian 1709-1714," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 27 (1976): 128.
- Duffy, 132.
- Duffy 1976 128.
- Duffy 1976 140.