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By the dawn of the 18th century, the rise of science meant that purely religious doomsday predictions no longer had the widespread support they once did. Though apocalyptic preachers could still attract followers, skepticism about religious predictions of doom was becoming more popular. Still, the dividing line between science and religion was often razor thin with even icons of science weighing in on thorny religious questions such as when the world would end. While Isaac Newton was careful not to have his odd speculations about the date of the Second Coming published during his lifetime, his successor, William Whiston, was not as reluctant with his own pronouncements.
Along with most natural philosophers of his time, Whiston was very much a creationist since he considered “the Matter of the Universe” as having been “created out of nothing” by “the Almighty Power of God.” There was nothing remarkable about this at the time since this was the dominant scientific view then (though there were already freethinkers questioning the link between science and religion). Whiston didn’t hesitate to regard God and Nature being part of a single system with God controlling the physical world with His “immechanical” powers. Without God controlling nature, “this beautiful System would fall to Pieces and dissolve into Atoms. On which Occasion, the Apostolical Constitution speak as agreeably to Philosophy as to Religion, when they say, The Whole World is held together by the Hand of God.”
He also regarded the Bible as an unerring guide to understanding Nature and insisted that the chronology laid down in the Old and New Testaments needed to be followed to understand “the true System of the World.”
Replacing Isaac Newton as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University in 1702, nobody questioned Whiston’s brilliance as a mathematician and as a researcher. It was his preoccupation with religion, including attempts at reconciling science with a literal interpretation of Scripture that upset his colleagues, however. His 1696 book, A New History of the Earth From Its Original to the Consummation of all Things, represented a bold attempt at linking terrestrial disasters to astronomical causes. That included his suggestion that Noah’s Flood had been caused by a comet and that comets had formed the Solar System.
Though he agreed with Edmund Halley about comets returning periodically (and helped calculate the return of Halley’s Comet among others), he also clashed with Isaac Newton and many of his colleagues over various scientific misconceptions that Whiston endorsed. That included his belief that the Earth only began rotating after Adam and Eve ate the apple and were expelled from Eden. Whiston also calculated the comet that caused the Flood passed by the Earth on November 28th, 2349 BC “to show God’s displeasure with the wicked world”. It was the comet that caused worldwide rainfall for 40 days and nights and flooded the world. Also, because of the inertia from the excess water along with magnetic force from the comet, the Earth’s year was lengthened to 365 days and shifted to an elliptical orbit around the sun (he maintained that the year had been only 360 days previously and the Earth’s orbit had been perfectly circular).
Whiston backed up these unorthodox teachings with mathematical proofs and religious quotations taken directly from Scripture. Ironically, despite his clashes over his scientific ideas, it was religion that eventually got him fired from Cambridge. Under university statute, Whiston was required to adhere to Anglican doctrine and his anti-Trinity ideas were too much for the university’s administrators to tolerate (this despite Isaac Newton sharing many of those same ideas). He compounded his heresy by publishing in English rather than Latin which ensured the widest possible readership for his works. By 1710, Whiston was stripped of his professorship and banned from teaching at Cambridge despite strong support from inside Cambridge and even the Church.
After he appealed the decision, Whiston’s case became a major political issue with the ruling Tories determined to silence him and his views on “Primitive Christianity” at all costs. Relevant documents in the case were “misplaced” and the question of Whiston’s reinstatement was quietly shelved after Queen Anne’s death in 1714. Even after being forced out of Cambridge, Whiston continuing giving lectures to the Royal Society (though he was never invited to join it, another legacy of his feud with Isaac Newton).
Becoming increasingly more disenchanted with the Church of England, Whiston founded a Society for Promoting Primitive Christianity in 1717. Despite proposing a “purer” form of Christianity purged of the later embellishments by the Catholic Church and High Protestant churches, Whiston’s bold attempt at religious reform failed badly. Even with holding Society meetings at this own house in London, Whiston’s society only lasted two years. Still, he would continue writing about Primitive Christianity for the rest of his life.
According to his book, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. William Whiston (published after his death), he even had a scale model of Moses’ Tabernacle constructed in his house. Used during Society meetings, Whiston also regarded it as a model for the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple once the Jews reclaimed their homeland (which he regarded as sign of the Last Days). He began giving public lectures across the country in which he announced the imminent return of the Messiah in 1766.
Though many of his scientific ideas were sound enough, they also became increasingly bizarre as he grew older. While determined to reconcile science and religion, it was religion that was foremost in his opinion. Not only was he convinced that comets had brought destruction to the world in the past, he also maintained that a comet would result in the end of the world.
But he also argued that there would be God would send signs to warn the faithful that the end of the world was at hand. Drawing on selected Biblical text focusing on apocalyptic visions, Whiston declared that one particular passage from the Second Book of Esdras referring to women “giving birth to monster” would signal the Second Coming. For Whiston, this applied to any account of women giving birth to abnormally formed children. Unfortunately for Whiston, his credibility led him to be taken in by one of the great medical hoaxes of the 18th century.
To be continued.
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