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He was born at Newark, where his father, who belonged to an old Cheshire family, was town clerk. William was educated at Oakham and Newark grammar schools, and in 1714 he was articled to Mr Kirke, an attorney, at East Markham, in Nottinghamshire. After serving his articles he returned to Newark to practise as a solicitor; but, having studied Latin and Greek, changed his mind and was ordained deacon by the Archbishop of York in 1723. In 1727 he was ordained by the Bishop of London.
Sir Robert Sutton gave Warburton the small living of Greasley, in Nottinghamshire, exchanged next year for that of Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire. He held in addition, from 1730, the living of rector at Firsby in Lincolnshire, a post he held until 1756 although he never resided in the village. In 1728 he was made an honorary M.A. of the University of Cambridge.
At Brant Broughton for eighteen years he spent his time in study, the first result of which was his treatise on the Alliance between Church and State (1736). The book brought Warburton into favour at court, and he probably only missed immediate preferment by the death of Queen Caroline.
Pope left 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 in 1746 the preachership of Lincoln's 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 lived at his father-in-law's estate at Prior Park, in Gloucestershire, which he inherited on Allen's death in 1764.
By 1727 he had written the notes he contributed to Lewis Theobald's edition of Shakespeare, and had contributed anonymously to a pamphlet on the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery, The Legal Judicature in Chancery stated (1727).
This was an answer to another anonymous pamphlet, written by Philip Yorke, afterwards Lord Chancellor, Hardwicke, who replied in an enlarged edition (1728) of his original Discourse of the Judicial Authority ... of Master of the Rolls.
After Alliance between Church and State, his next and best-known work, Divine Legation of Moses demonstrated on the Principles of a Religious Deist (2 vols., 1737–1741), preserves 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 admitted the fact and turned it against the adversary by maintaining that no merely human legislator would have omitted such a sanction of morality. The author's extraordinary power, learning and originality were acknowledged on all hands, though he excited censure and suspicion by his tenderness to the alleged heresies of Conyers Middleton. The book aroused much controversy. In a pamphlet of "Remarks" (1742), he replied to John Tillard, and Remarks on Several Occasional Reflections (1744–1745) was an answer to Akenside, Conyers Middleton (who had been his friend), Richard Pococke, Nicholas Mann, Richard Grey, Henry Stebbing and other of his critics. As he characterized his opponents in general as the "pestilent herd of libertine scribblers with which the island is overrun," it is no matter of surprise that the book made him many bitter enemies.
Warburton's knowledge of ancient Egypt is held to have prepared the way for Champollion's discovery.
Either in quest of paradox, or unable to recognize the real tendencies of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, he defended it against the Examen of Jean Pierre de Crousaz, in a series of articles (1738–1739) contributed to The Works of the Learned. Whether Pope had really understood the tendency of his own work has always been doubtful, but there is no question that he was glad of an apologist, and that Warburton's jeu d'esprit in the long run helped more 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 encouraged to substitute Colley Cibber for Theobald as the hero of the poem in the edition of 1743 published under the editorship of Warburton. In 1747 his edition of Shakespeare was published, incorporating material from Pope's earlier edition. He had previously entrusted notes and emendations on Shakespeare to Sir Thomas Hanmer, whose unauthorized use of them led to a heated controversy.
As early as 1727 Warburton had corresponded with Theobald on Shakespearean subjects. He now accused him of stealing his ideas and denied his critical ability. Theobald's superiority to Warburton as a Shakespearean critic has long since been acknowledged. 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, by his edition of Pope's works (1751) and by a vindication in 1750 of the alleged miraculous interruption of the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem undertaken by Julian, in answer to Conyers Middleton. Warburton's manner of dealing with opponents was both insolent and rancorous, but it did him no disservice.
He continued to write so long as the infirmities of age allowed, collecting and publishing his sermons, and toiling to complete the Divine Legation, further fragments of which were published with his posthumous Works. He wrote a defence of revealed religion in his View of Lord Bolingbroke's Philosophy (1754), and Hume's Natural History of Religion called forth some Remarks ... "by a gentleman of Cambridge" from Warburton, in which his friend and biographer, Richard Hurd, had a share (1757).
He made in 1762 a vigorous attack on Methodism under the title of The Doctrine of Grace. He also engaged in a keen controversy with Robert Lowth, afterwards bishop of London, on the book of Job, in which Lowth brought home charges of lack of scholarship and of insolence that admitted of no denial. His last important act was to found in 1768 the Warburtonian lecture at Lincoln's Inn, "to prove the truth of revealed religion ... from the completion of the prophecies of the Old and New Testament which relate to the Christian Church, especially to the apostasy of Papal Rome."
Warburton's works were edited (7 vols., 1788) by Richard Hurd with a biographical preface, and the correspondence between the two friends—an important contribution to the literary history of the period—was edited by Samuel Parr in 1808. Warburton's life was also written by John Selby Watson in 1863, and Mark Pattison made him the subject of an essay in 1889.
|Church of England titles|
|Bishop of Gloucester|