Life and Writings
Collins was born in
Heston, near Hounslowin Middlesex, England. He was educated at Eton Collegeand King's College, Cambridge, and studied law at the Middle Temple. The most interesting episode of his life was his intimacy with John Locke, who in his letters speaks of him with affection and admiration. In 1715 he settled in Essex, where he held the offices of justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant. which he had previously held in Middlesex. He died at his house in Harley Street, London.
His writings gather together the results of previous English
Freethinkers. The imperturbable courtesy of his style is in striking contrast to the violence of his opponents; and, in spite of his unorthodoxy, he was not an atheist or even an agnostic. In his own words, "Ignorance is the foundation of atheism, and freethinking the cure of it" ("Discourse of Freethinking", 105).
Essay concerning the Use of Reason
His first notable work was his "Essay concerning the Use of Reason in Propositions the Evidence whereof depends on Human Testimony" (1707), in. which he rejected the distinction between "above reason" and "contrary to reason", and demanded that revelation should conform to man's natural ideas of God. Like all his works, it was published anonymously, although the identity of the author was never long concealed.
A Discourse of Freethinking
Six years later appeared his chief work, "A Discourse of Freethinking, occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect called Freethinkers" (1713). Notwithstanding the ambiguity of its title, and the fact that 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. Freethinking is a right which cannot and must not be limited, for it is the only means of attaining a knowledge of truth, it essentially contributes to the well-being of society, and is not only permitted but enjoined by the Bible. In fact the first introduction of Christianityand the success of all missionary enterprise involve freethinking (in its etymological sense) on the part of those converted.
In England this essay, which was regarded and treated as a plea for
deism, caused a great sensation, eliciting several replies, from among others William Whiston, Bishop Hare, Bishop Benjamin 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 the trivial points of scholarship, his own pamphlet being by no means faultless in this very respect. Jonathan Swiftalso, being satirically referred to in the book, made it the subject of a caricature.
Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion
In 1724 Collins published his "Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion", with "An Apology for Free Debate and Liberty of Writing" prefixed. Ostensibly it is written in opposition to Whiston's attempt to show that the books of the
Old Testamentdid originally contain prophecies of events in the New Testamentstory, but that these had been eliminated or corrupted by the Jews, and to prove 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. Since, further, according to him the fulfilment 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 be fixed only 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 Sykesand Samuel Clarke. To these, but with special reference to the work of Chandler, which maintained that a number of prophecies were literally fulfilled by Christ, Collins replied with 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) has not been excelled, at all events in its main outlines, as a statement of the determinist standpoint. 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 stake.
He was attacked in an elaborate treatise by Samuel Clarke, in whose system the freedom of will is made essential to religion and morality. During Clarke's lifetime, fearing perhaps being branded as an enemy of religion and morality, Collins made no reply, but in 1729 he published an answer, entitled "Liberty and Necessity".
Besides these works he wrote
* "A Letter to Mr Dodwell", arguing 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.
* "Vindication of the Divine Attributes" (1710)
* "Priestcraft in Perfection" (1709), in which he asserts that the clause "the Church ... Faith" in the twentieth of the
Thirty-nine Articleswas inserted by fraud.
Collins became known as one of the best read men in England. He was a
bibliophilewho amassed one of the largest private libraries of the time, consisting of some 6,906 books on all subjects, but particularly favoring works on history, theology, and philosophy.
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