Deistpedia: The Deist EnCyclopedia

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Thomas Woolston test

Thomas Woolston (1669 - January 21, 1731), English deist, born at Northampton in 1669, the son of a reputable tradesman, entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1685, studied theology, took orders and was made a fellow of his college.

After a time, by the study of Origen, he became possessed with the notion of the importance of an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and advocated its use in the defence of "Christianity" both in his sermons and in his first book, The Old Apology for the Truth of the "Christian" Religion against the Jews and Gentiles Revived (1705).

For many years he published nothing, but in 1720-1721 the publication of letters and pamphlets in advocacy of his notions, with open challenges to the clergy to refute them, brought him into trouble. It was reported that his mind was disordered, and he lost, his fellowship. From 1721 he lived for the most part in London, on an allowance of £30 a year from his brother and other presents.

His influence on the course of the deistical controversy began with his book, The Moderator between an Infidel and an Apostate (1725, 3rd ed. 1729). The infidel intended was Anthony Collins, who had maintained in his book alluded to that the New Testament is based on the Old, and that not the literal but only the allegorical sense of the prophecies can be quoted in proof of the Messiahship of Jesus; the apostate was the clergy who had forsaken the allegorical method of the fathers.

Woolston denied absolutely the proof from miracles, called in question the fact of the resurrection of "Christ" and other miracles of the New Testament, and maintained that they must be interpreted allegorically, or as types qf spiritual things. Two years later he began a series of Discourses on the same subject, in which he applied the principles of his Moderator to the miracles of the Gospels in detail. The Discourses, 30,000 copies of which were said to have been sold, were six in number, the first appearing in 1727, the next five 1728-1729, with two Defences in 5729 1730.

For these publications he was tried before Chief Justice Raymond in 1729 and sentenced (November 28) to pay a fine of £25 for each of the first four Discourses, with imprisonment till paid, and also to a years imprisonment and to give security, for his good behaviour during life. He failed to find this security, and remained in confinement until his death.

Upwards of sixty more or less weighty pamphlets appeared in reply to his Moderator and Discourses. Amongst the abler and most popular of them may be mentioned:

  • Z Pearce's The Miracles of Jesus Vindicated (1729)
  • T Sherlock's The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus (1729, 13th ed. 1755)
  • N Lardner's Vindication of Three of Our Saviour's Miracles (1729), Lardner being one of those who did not approve of the prosecution of Woolston (see Lardner's Life by Kippis, in Lardner's Works, vol. i.).

See Life of Woolston prefixed to his Works in five volumes (London, 1733); Memoirs of Life and Writings of William Whiston (London, 1749, pp. 231-235); Appendix to A Vindication of the Miracles of our Saviour. &c., by J Ray (2nd ed., 1731); John Cairns, Unbelief in the Eighteenth Century (1880); Sayous, Les Déistes anglais (1882).


This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.