William Paley

A View of the Evidences of Christianity


Born in Peterborough, Northamptonshire, England, William Paley (1743-1805) was a leading Anglican voice in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain.  Graduating from Christ's College, University of Cambridge, in 1763, Paley became a tutor at the College in 1766, teaching moral philosophy, divinity, and Greek Testament.  Later, he served numerous parishes, becoming Archdeacon of Carlisle and Canon of St. Paul's.  Paley's significance continued throughout the nineteenth century as his book A View of the Evidences of Christianity was required reading for students at the University of Cambridge.  At Christ's College, Paley's portrait hangs alongside John Milton and Charles Darwin (see below), all of whom graduated from the College.


Paley, an orthodox Anglican and conservative moral and political thinker in the eighteenth century, published The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy in 1785.  In A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), Paley, the philosopher-natural theologian, argued for the truth of Christianity based on his understanding of historical evidence.  Paley supplemented human reason with divine revelation as supporting foundations for the existence of God and miracles against deistic thinkers of his time, addressing some his arguments specifically against David Hume.


In the course of his argument about Christianity's truth, Paley discusses "The Propagation of Christianity" from the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) through Christianity's introduction into India (Page 362 and Page 363).  Though Paley did not mention William Carey or the Serampore mission by name, he does appeal to the Christian missionary success in India (Page 362 and Page 363) as supporting evidence for Christianity's validity.  


The Works of William Paley, D.D., Archdeacon of Carlisle

 A View of the Evidences of Christianity

(Philadelphia: J. J. Woodward, 1836).


"Paley Works"    Title Page    Evidences Title Page  


Page 356    Page 357    Page 358    Page 359    Page 360    Page 361    Page 362    Page 363

A prolific author of numerous books, sermons, and essays, Paley is remembered today primarily for classical formulation of the teleological argument for the existence of God.  Found at the beginning of his Natural Theology (1802), the teleological argument has become the basis for much subsequent philosophical discussion and critique of the issue of "order and design in the universe."  Arguing from the analogy of a watch and watchmaker, Paley suggested that the analogy offered evidence that the universe includes order and design, hence a Designer.  In this opening and most famous paragraph, he says,

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there: I might possibly answer, that for any thing I know to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissable in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz., that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose . . . This mechanism being observed . . . the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place of other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

For a full-text version of Paley's Evidences of Christianity, click on the following links [the Carey Center acknowledges Michael Madden, Beenleigh, Australia, for his work in transcribing Paley's work]:    Part I     Part II     Part III

Paley's books, including Natural Theology (1802), had a significant influence on Charles Darwin.  Preparing to become a clergyman, Darwin studied theology at Christ's College, University of Cambridge, from 1828-1830.  During his last year at Cambridge, Darwin studied geology, graduating in 1831.  In The Autobiography of Charles Darwin From The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Edited by his Son Francis Darwin, Darwin remarks about his studies at Cambridge, prominently including Paley's influence.  Darwin wrote,

Again, in my last year I worked with some earnestness for my final degree of B.A., and brushed up my Classics, together with a little Algebra and Euclid, which latter gave me much pleasure, as it did at school. In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was also necessary to get up Paley's 'Evidences of Christianity,' and his 'Moral Philosophy.' This was done in a thorough manner, and I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the 'Evidences' with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of this book and, as I may add, of his 'Natural Theology,' gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the academical course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley's premises; and taking these on trust, I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation. By answering well the examination questions in Paley, by doing Euclid well, and by not failing miserably in Classics, I gained a good place among the oi polloi or crowd of men who do not go in for honours.

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Created:  June 26, 2001        Updated:   December 31, 2004