William Wollaston (1659-1724): English Deist and Rabbinic Scholar

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In the year 1724, there appeared in London an anonymous book called " The Religion of Nature Delineated " which was to become one of the most successful works of English Deism. It took the form of a letter addressed to " A. F. Esq.", and was signed by N. N., to which cryptic signature was appended the equally un revealing Hebrew notarikon NO?. The treatise comprised 218 pages and was written in pellucid and graceful language, setting out its theme under nine main heads. But not content to develop his subject logically and systematically, the author clinched his arguments by innumerable quotations from Latin, Greek, and Hebrew sources in their original texts. He was obviously extremely well versed in the languages and literatures on which he so lavishly drew, and apparently expected his readers to be sufficiently at home in the three learned tongues to appreciate the relevance of the passages quoted.

In the very year of the publication of this book, its author died. Anonymity was lifted a year later when a second edition of the work appeared under his full name? William Wollaston.2 The book achieved rapid fame which was to last for over half a century, and spread far beyond the British Isles. We are told that 10,000 copies of it were sold in the course of a few years. In all, eight editions appeared, the last one coming out in 1759. As early as 1726, a French translation was published by Garrigue at the Hague under the title " Ebauche de la Religion Naturelle par Mr. Wollaston ", to be followed, in 1756, by a fresh edition in three volumes. In the Preface to the work the translator speaks of " l'applaudissement extraordinaire, que le Public a donne ? ce livre ", and greatly eulogizes the author. The two editions contain also a translation into French by de la Faye, Professor of Oriental Languages at the Hague, of Wollaston's copious Latin, Greek, and Hebrew notes, and supplementary notes by the translator. At the end, three supplementary chapters offer an evaluation of Wollaston's work. In England, a similar service was performed by John Clarke, dean of Salisbury, a younger brother of the famous Samuel Clarke and translator of Hugo Grotius. He not only wrote a " Preface containing a General Account of the Life, Character and Writings of the Author ", which was added to the last three editions (1738, 1750, and 1759) of Wollaston's work, but also published an English translation of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew notes, which appears, side by side with the original texts, in the last two editions (1750 and 1759).3 In a prefatory note dated 17th April, 1750, he explains that " The Religion of Nature being a Book in great Esteem with her late Majesty Queen Caroline, she was pleased to command me to translate the Notes into English for her own use ; And there being a Demand for a new Edition, it was thought proper to publish this

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