1902 Encyclopedia > William Warburton

William Warburton
English critic and churchman

WILLIAM WARBURTON (1698-1779), bishop of Gloucester, was the son of the town clerk of Newark, where he was born on December 24, 1698. He was educated at Oakham and Newark grammar schools, but, being intended for his father's profession, does not seem to have addicted himself especially to the classics, or to have manifested extraordinary proficiency in any study. He lost his father while a boy, and in 1714 he was articled to Mr Kirke, attorney at Great Markham, in Nottingham-shire, and after serving his time with him returned to Newark with the intention of practising as a solicitor. Whether he ever did seems uncertain, but a very short time afterwards he is found studying Latin and Greek under the master of Newark school, who frequently sat up till late at night with his pupil. In 1723 he was ordained deacon by the archbishop of York, and on March 1, 1727, received priest's orders from the bishop of London. He had occupied the interval in various literary labours, the most important being the notes he contributed to Theobald's edition of Shakespeare, and an anonymous pamphlet on a question which had arisen concerning the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery. Warburton had undertaken to answer another anonymous pamphlet, which proved to be the composition of no less a person than Mr Yorke, afterwards Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, and the impression which he made upon his antagonist was evinced by the pains the latter took with his reply. He now re-ceived from Sir Robert Sutter the small living of Griesley, in Nottinghamshire, exchanged next year for that of Brant Broughton, in Lincolnshire, and was made an honorary M.A. of Cambridge. Here for eighteen years he spent his time in intense study, the first result of which was his celebrated treatise on the alliance between church and state, published in 1736. The work was probably intended, and certainly admirably adapted, to afford the ministry of the day an excuse for omitting to redeem their promise to the Dissenters of freeing them from the bondage of the Test and Corporation Acts. To this end the test is represented as the only possible means of reconciling the principle of a religious establishment with that of a free toleration, a piece of logic which, now that religious tests are no longer held a qualification for civil office, would excite most opposition where it originally gained most favour. It fully answered its temporary purpose, and equally subserved the author's real end by gaining him credit at court. It would appear that he only missed immediate preferment by the death of Queen Caroline. His next performance, the famous Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated on the Principles of a Religious Deist, the first part of which was published in 1738, will long preserve his name as the author of the most daring and ingenious of theological paradoxes. The deists had made the absence of any inculcation of the doctrine of a future life an objection to the divine authority of the Mosaic writings. Warburton boldly admits the fact and turns it against the adversary No human legislator, he contends,
would have omitted such a sanction of morality; ergo, the legislation was divine. It may be doubted whether the argument ever convinced any one; and its cogency was not assisted by the multitude of minor paradoxes with which it was interwoven, such as the identification of the scenery of the sixth book of the jEneid with the exhibitions of the Eleusinian mysteries. But the author's extraordinary power, learning, and originality were acknowledged on all hands, though he excited censure and suspicion by a circumstance highly honourable to him, his tenderness to the alleged heresies of Conyers Middleton. The second volume of the work appeared in 1741.
Warburton's next undertaking, though still theological, brought him into the field of general literature. Either in quest of another paradox, or actually unable to recognize the Spinozistic tendency of Pope's Essay on Man, he entered upon its defence against Crousaz, in a series of articles contributed to The Republic of Letters. Whether Pope had really understood the tendency of his own work has always been a question, but there is no question that he was glad of an apologist, or that Warburton's jeu d'esprit (for him it was hardly more) in the long run did more for his fortunes than all his erudition. It occasioned a sincere friendship between him and Pope, whom he persuaded to add a fourth book to the Dunciad, and substitute Cibber for Theobald as the hero of the poem. Pope bequeathed him the copyright and the editorship of his works, and contributed even more to his advancement by introducing him to Murray, afterwards Lord Mansfield, who obtained for him the preachership of Lincoln' j Inn, and to Ralph Allen, who, says Johnson, " gave him his niece and his estate, and, by consequence, a bishopric." The marriage took place in 1745, and from that time Warburton resided principally at his father-in-law's estate at Prior Park, in Gloucestershire, which he inherited on Allen's death in 1764. In 1747 appeared his edition of Shakespeare, into which, as he expressed it, Pope's previous edition was melted down. He had previously entrusted notes and emendations on Shakespeare to Sir Thomas Hanmer, whose unauthorized use of them led to a warm controversy. Warburton was further kept busy by the attacks on his Divine Legation from all quarters, by a dispute with Bolingbroke respecting Pope's behaviour in the affair of Bolingbroke's Patriot King, and (1750) by a work of more importance in vindication of the alleged miraculous inter-ruption of the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem undertaken by Julian. Here again Warburton shows his habitual intrepidity as a controversialist, and places himself upon ground where few at the present day would care to follow him. His defence of revelation was con-tinued in his View of Bolingbroke's Posthumous Writings (1754), universally allowed to be a most masterly performance. Warburton's manner of dealing with opponents would be in our day considered both insolent and rancorous, but it did him no disservice in his own. In 1757 he was made dean of Bristol, and in 1760 bishop of Gloucester.
Mr Abbey characterizes Warburton as an inactive bishop, and the partial Hurd can say no more than that " he per-formed the duties of his office with regularity, but further than this he could not prevail with himself to go." Nor did he ever seek to shine in parliament. He continued, however, active with his pen, so long as the infirmities of age allowed, collecting and publishing his sermons, reprint-ing his principal works with large additions, toiling to complete the Divine Legation, the last book of which appeared after his death, and writing (1762) a vigorous attack on Methodism under the title of The Doctrine of Grace. Of this work his friend and biographer Hurd says, with curious infelicity, " the sect will find a sort of

immortality in this discourse." The reverse has proved true, yet the book ranks among the author's most powerful productions. He also engaged in a keen controversy with Bishop Lowth on the boot of Job, which even his admir-ing biographer wishes forgotten. His last important act was to found, in 1768, the Warburtonian lecture, " to prove the truth of revealed religion from the completion of the prophecies in the Old and New Testament which relate to the Christian church, especially to the apostacy of Papal Home." " On the right determination of the prophecies relating to Antichrist," he said, "one might rest the whole truth of the Christian religion,"—another opinion which finds little support in the 19th century. The principal authority for his latter years is his correspondence with his friend Bishop Hurd, an important contribution to the literary history of the period. After the death of his only son in 1776 he fell into a lethargic languor, which was terminated by death on June 7, 1779.
Warburton was undoubtedly a great man, but his intellect,
marred by wilfulness and the passion for paradox, has effected no
result in any degree adequate to its power. He disdained to per-
suade unless he could at the same time astonish, and in endeavour-
ing to amaze he has failed to convince. None of the propositions
with which his name is chiefly connected have found acceptance
with posterity, and while abundantly demonstrating his own learn-
ing lie lias failed to make any considerable addition to the stock of
human knowledge, or to leave any signal mark on the history of
opinion. He was rather a gladiator than a warrior, an exhibitor
of brilliant fence leading to no definite end. Though always faith-
ful to his convictions, he argued for victory rather than truth, and
wasted upon advocacy powers which would have produced great
results if they had been employed in serious and dispassionate
investigation. His rude and arrogant style of controversy deserved
and received severe reprehension ; it was at all events free from
pettiness and malignity ; and his faults were in general those of an
aspiring and magnanimous nature. He was a warm and constant
friend, and gave many proofs of gratitude to his benefactors. As
an editor and critic he displayed much force of mind, but his
standard of research was not high, and his literary taste was that
of the 18th century. (R. G.)

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