William Wollaston

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William Wollaston (26 March 1659 – 29 October 1724) was an English philosophical writer. He is remembered today for one book, which he completed only two years before his death: The Religion of Nature Delineated (1st ed. 1722; 2nd ed. 1724).

He 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] 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]

After leaving Cambridge in September 1681, he became an assistant master at the Birmingham grammar school, and took holy orders. 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. On 26 November 1689, he married Catharine Charlton. They had eleven children together, four of whom died within his lifetime. They lived happily together for 30 years, until Catharine's death on 21 July 1720. Wollaston also 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).

In London, Wollaston devoted himself to private study of learning and philosophy, seldom leaving the city and declining to accept any public employment. 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.

In retirement, he published The Religion of Nature Delineated (1722), which falls between Clarke's Discourse of the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion and Butler's Sermons. This was a work of constructive (positive) deism rather than critical (negative) deism. As John Orr notes, "The fact that a seventh edition was issued in the year 1746 indicates something of the popularity and influence of the book."[3]

The book was designed to be an answer to two questions: Is there such a thing as natural religion? and, If there is, what is it? Wollaston starts with the assumption that religion and morality are identical, and labours to show that religion is "the pursuit of happiness by the practice of truth and reason." He claims originality for his theory that the moral evil is the practical denial of a true proposition and moral good the affirmation of it (see ethics).

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.


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