Whiston was born to Josiah Whiston and Katherine Rosse at Norton, near Twycross, in Leicestershire, of which village his father was rector. He was educated privately, partly on account of the delicacy of his health, and partly that he might act as amanuensis to his father, who had lost his sight. He was studied at Tamworth Grammar School. After his father's death, he entered at Clare College, Cambridge as a sizar in 1686, where he applied himself to mathematical study, where he qualified as B.A. (1690), and M.A. (1695), and was elected Fellow in 1691 and in 1693. William Lloyd ordained Whiston at Lichfield in 1695 and he married Ruth Antrobus in 1699. He next became chaplain to John Moore (1646-1714), the bishop of Norwich, from whom he received the vicarship of Lowestoft in 1698.
Read William Whiston's translation of Flavius Josephus' Against Arion, one of four of his works available free from Project Gutenberg. His A New Theory of the Earth from its Original to the Consummation of All Things (1696), an articulation of creationism and flood geology which held that the global flood of Noah had been caused by a comet, obtained the praise of both Newton and Locke, the latter of whom classed the author among those who, if not adding much to our knowledge, "At least bring some new things to our thoughts." He was an early advocate, along with Edmond Halley, of the periodicity of comets; he also held that comets were responsible for past catastrophes in earth's history. In 1701 he resigned his vicarship to become deputy at Cambridge to Sir Isaac Newton, whom two years later he succeeded as Lucasian professor of mathematics. Here he engaged in joint research with his junior colleague Roger Cotes, appointed with Whiston's patronage to the Plumian professorship in 1706.
Arianism and later career
In 1707 he was Boyle lecturer. For several years Whiston continued to write and preach both on mathematical and theological subjects with considerable success; but his study of the Apostolic Constitutions had convinced him that Arianism was the creed of the early church. For Whiston, to form an opinion and to publish it were things almost simultaneous. His heterodoxy soon became notorious, and in 1710 he was deprived of his professorship and expelled from the university after a well-publicized hearing. The rest of his life was spent in incessant controversy — theological, mathematical, chronological, and miscellaneous. Because of his Arianism, Whiston was never invited to be a member of the Royal Society, due probably to Newton's feelings about him after he published his unorthodox views. Whiston was permitted, however, to lecture to the Society frequently.
He vindicated his estimate of the Apostolical Constitutions and the Arian views he had derived from them in his Primitive Christianity Revived (5 vols., 1711-1712). In 1713 he produced a reformed liturgy, and soon afterwards founded a society for promoting primitive Christianity, lecturing in support of his theories in halls and coffee-houses at London, Bath, and Royal Tunbridge Wells. In 1714, Whiston was instrumental in the establishment of the Board of Longitude and for the next forty years made persevering efforts to solve the longitude problem. He gave courses of demonstration lectures on astronomical and physical phenomena and engaged in many religious controversies. Whiston produced one of the first isoclinic maps of southern England in 1719 and 1721. One of the most valuable of his books, the Life of Samuel Clarke, appeared in 1730.
While considered heretical on many points, he was a firm believer in supernatural Christianity, and frequently took the field in defense of prophecy and miracle, including anointing the sick and touching for the king's evil. His dislike of rationalism in religion also made him one of the numerous opponents of Benjamin Hoadly's Plain Account of the Nature and End of the Sacrament. He held that Song of Solomon was apocryphal and that the Book of Baruch was not. He was fervent in his views of ecclesiastical government and discipline, derived from the Apostolical Constitutions, on the ecclesiastical authorities. He challenged the teachings of Athanasius. He challenged Sir Isaac Newton's Biblical chronological system with success; but he himself lost not only time but money in an endeavour to solve the problem of longitude. In 1736 he caused widespread anxiety among London's citizen when he predicted the world would end on October 16th of that year because a comet would hit the earth; the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake, had to officially deny this prediction to ease the public.
Of all his singular opinions the best known is his advocacy of clerical monogamy, immortalized in The Vicar of Wakefield. Of all his labours the most useful is his translation of the works of Josephus (1737), with notes and dissertations, still often reprinted to the present day. His last "famous discovery, or rather revival of Dr Giles Fletcher, the Elder's," which he mentions in his autobiography with infinite complacency, was the identification of the Tatars with the lost tribes of Israel. In 1745 he published his Primitive New Testament. About the same time (1747) he finally left the Anglican communion for the Baptist, leaving the church literally as well as figuratively by quitting it as the clergyman began to read the Athanasian creed. He had a happy family life and died in Lyndon Hall, Rutland, at the home of his son-in-law, Samuel Barker on August 22, 1752. He was survived by his children Sarah, William, George, and John. Whiston left a memoir (3 vols., 1749-1750) which deserves more attention than it has received, both for its characteristic individuality and as a storehouse of curious anecdotes and illustrations of the religious and moral tendencies of the age. It does not, however, contain any account of the proceedings taken against him at Cambridge for his antitrinitarianism, these having been published separately at the time.