William Paley (1743-1805)


William Paley was an English clergyman, Christian apologist, philosopher, and utilitarian. He is best known for his natural theology exposition of the teleological argument for the existence of God in his work Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.

Paley was born in Peterborough in July 1743, and was educated at Giggleswick School, and later at Christ's College. He graduated in 1763 as senior wrangler, becoming a Fellow in 1766. He lectured on Samuel Clarke, Joseph Butler and John Locke in his systematic course on moral philosophy, which formed the basis of his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy; and on the New Testament, his own copy of which is in the British Library.

In 1776 Paley was presented to the rectory of Musgrave in Westmorland, and soon after moved to Appleby. He was subsequently made vicar of Dalston in 1780. In 1782 he became the Archdeacon of Carlisle.

Paley was friendly with the Law family throughout his life, and the Bishop and his son John Law  were instrumental during the decade after he left Cambridge in encouraging him to publish his revised lectures and in negotiating a publisher. His first book was published in 1785 under the title of The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, and was made a part of the examinations at the University of Cambridge the next year. It was one of the most influential philosophical texts in late Enlightenment Britain and remained a set textbook at Cambridge well into the Victorian era. Charles Darwin, as a student of theology, was required to read it when he did his undergraduate studies at Christ's College, but it was Paley's Natural Theology that most impressed Darwin even though it was not a set book for undergraduates. Portraits of Paley and Darwin face each other at Christ College still today. The publication passed through fifteen editions in the author's lifetime. Paley strenuously supported the abolition of the slave trade, and his attack on slavery in the book drew greater public attention to the practice. In 1789, a speech he gave on the subject in Carlisle was published.

His first book was followed by his first essay in the field of Christian apologetics, Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul in 1790. Some have said this book was the most original of Paley's works. It was followed in 1794 by the celebrated View of the Evidences of Christianity, which was also added to the examinations at Cambridge, remaining on the syllabus until the 1920s.

For his services in defence of the faith, with the publication of the Evidences, the Bishop of London gave him a stall in St Paul's; the Bishop of Lincoln made him subdean of that cathedral, and the Bishop of Durham conferred upon him the rectory of Bishopwearmouth. During the remainder of Paley's life, his time was divided between Bishopwearmouth and Lincoln, during which time he wrote Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, despite his increasingly debilitating illness. He died on 25 May 1805 and is buried in Carlisle Cathedral.