1902 Encyclopedia > Anthony Collins

Anthony Collins
English writer on theology and philosophy
(1676-1729)




ANTHONY COLLINS, (1676-1729), an English writer on theology and philosophy, born at Heston, near Hounslow in Middlesex, on the 21st June 1676, was the son of a country gentleman of good fortune. After being educated at Eton, and at King's College, Cambridge, he was entered at the Middle Temple, but he did not pursue the profession of the law. The most interesting episode of his life was his intimacy with Locke, who in his letters speaks of him with the most affectionate regard. During a visit to Holland, made, it is said, in order to escape the storm raised by the Discourse of Freethinking, he also made the acquaintance of Leclerc and several other Dutch scholars. In 1715 he settled in Essex; and he was in that county appointed to the offices of justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant, which he had before held in Middlesex. His open expression of his opinions, with all its freedom, was, as he owns, carefully kept " within the bounds of doing him-self no harm ; " he always published anonymously, though the authorship of his books never appears to have been long a secret ; and the independence of his position, together with his pure and genial character, saved him from all personal annoyance. The only attack reported to have been made upon him, otherwise than by means of the press, was the fruitless petition presented by Whiston, while smarting under his criticism, praying that he might be removed from the commission of the peace. Collins died at his house in Harley Street, London, on December 13, 1729, at the age of fifty-three.

The first work of note published by Collins was his Essay concerning the Use of Reason in Propositions the Evidence whereof depends on Human Testimony (17'07). He demands that the revelation of God should be conformable to man's natural ideas of God, but draws a distinction between what is contrary to reason and what is merely contrary to our experience.

Six years later appeared his most famous work, A Dis-course of Freethinking, occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect called Freethinkers (1713). Notwithstanding the ambiguity of its title, and though it attacks the priests of all churches without moderation, it contends for the most part, at least explicitly, for no more than must be admitted by every Protestant, or than is maintained in such works as Taylor's Liberty of Prophesying ; and it points out forcibly that the first introduction of Christianity, and the success of all missionary enterprise, involve free-thinking (in its etymological sense) on the part of those converted. In England this essay, which was regarded and treated as a plea for deism, made a great sensation, calling forth several replies, among others from Whiston, Bishop Hare, Bishop Hoadly, and Richard Bentley, who, under the signature of Phileleutherus Lipsiensis, roughly handles certain arguments carelessly expressed by Collins, but triumphs chiefly by an attack on his scholarship. Swift also, being satirically referred to in the book, made it the subject of a caricature. In France, where it was answered by Crousaz, it produced a still deeper im-pression.





In 1724 Collins published his extraordinary Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion, with An Apology for Free Debate and Liberty of Writing pre-fixed. Ostensibly it is written in opposition to Whiston's attempt to show that the passages of the Old Testament prophecies quoted in the New had since the time of Christ been corrupted by the Jews, and with the object of proving that the fulfilment of prophecy by the events of Christ's life is all " secondary, secret, allegorical, and mystical," since the original and literal reference is always to some other fact. To explain this " allegorical " reading, he quotes from the Dutch Hebraist Surenbusius ten methods according to which the authors of the Gemara and other allegorical writers among the Jews interpret difficult parts of the Scriptures, and which are asserted to have been used in the New Testament. Of these methods the gentlest is altering the points, and the most severe is " changing the order of words, adding words, and retrenching words, which is a method often used by Paul; " and the true purpose of the book would appear to have been to show, in a veiled satire, that the fulfilment of prophecy in the New Testament is of the same kind as that contrived by the rabbis. And further, as he strives to prove that the fulfil-ment of prophecy is the only valid proof of Christianity, he thus secretly aims a blow at Christianity as a revelation. The canonicity of the New Testament he ventures openly to deny, on the ground that the canon could only be fixed by men who were inspired. No less than thirty-five answers were directed against this book, the most noteworthy of which were those of Bishop Edward Chandler, Arthur Sykes, Clarke, and Sherlock. To these, but with special reference to the work of Chandler, which maintained that a number of prophecies were literally fulfilled in Christ, Collins replied by his Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered, 1727. An appendix contends against Whiston that the book of Daniel was forged in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.

In philosophy, Collins takes a foremost place as a defender of Necessitarianism. His brief Inquiry Concerning Human Liberty (1715) gives, in a remarkably clear and concise form, all the important arguments in favour of his theory, with able and suggestive replies to the chief objections that have been urged against it Little, in fact, of moment has been added by modern determinists. One of his arguments, however, calls for special criticism,—his assertion that it is self-evident that nothing that has a beginning can be without a cause is an unwarranted assumption of the very point at issue. Collins's position was attacked in an elaborate treatise by Samuel Clarke, in whose system the freedom of the will is made essential to religion and morality. During Clarke's lifetime, fearing perhaps (as has been suggested) to be branded as an enemy of religion and morality, Collins gave no reply, but in 1729 he published an answer, entitled Liberty and Necessity.

The other of Collins's two purely philosophical treatises is A Letter to Mr Dodwell. A controversy was then being carried on between Clarke, who asserted the natural im-mortality of the soul, and Dodwell, who held that the soul is mortal till baptism confers immortality upon it ; and Collins entered the lists to suggest other possibilities. Adopting Locke's suggestion, he maintained that it is con-ceivable that the soul may be material ; and, secondly, that if the soul be immaterial it does not follow, as Clarke had contended, that it is immortal ; indeed in no way, he argues, can philosophy prove its immortality.
Two of Collins's early works yet remain to be mentioned— his Vindication of the Divine Attributes, in which he attacks a sermon of King, archbishop of Dublin, and maintains that from our knowledge of human qualities we can attain to a true, if limited, knowledge of the divine attributes; and his Priestcraft in Perfection, or a Detection of the Fraud of inserting and continuing the Clause, " The Church hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies and Authority in Con- troversies of Faith" in the Twentieth Article of the Church of England (1709), to which—as the question excited a very active controversy—he added, early in the next year, a second pamphlet on the same subject. (T. M. w.)







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