Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
Article abstract: Having evolved in his thinking from a radical Protestant position to the revolutionary, atheistic synthesis of the massive treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, Godwin developed the ideas of libertarian socialism that were to influence profoundly both the individualism of English Romanticism and the later anarchistic, communist ideas of the utopian Robert Owen, the Socialist economist William Thompson, and the young Karl Marx. His friendship with and marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft contributed to early feminist thought, and his ideas stimulated nearly all the Romantic poets.
William Godwin was born at Wisbech, a small town in Cambridgeshire, on March 3, 1756. The seventh of thirteen children of John Godwin, a Dissenting minister in the Calvinist tradition like his father before him, the young Godwin moved with his family to Debenham in 1758 and to Guestwick in Norfolk in 1760. At the age of eight, Godwin began three years of school at Hindolveston near Guestwick; in 1767, he began three years of private tutoring in classical education with the Calvinist preacher Samuel Newton at Norwich. When Godwin was fifteen, he returned to Hindolveston, serving for nearly a year as an usher in a small school administered by his former teacher, Robert Akers. After the death of his father on November 12, 1772, Godwin moved with his mother to...
(The entire section is 2890 words.)
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Biography (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
William Godwin was born to a Dissenting minister, the seventh of thirteen children. He was reared according to strict Calvinist principles. Physically disadvantaged and intellectually precocious, Godwin began the first of four trial ministries on graduation from London’s famous Hoxton Academy. The sermons and personality of the aloof and cerebral Godwin invariably disaffected the small rural congregations to which he was assigned.
Furthermore, beginning around 1780, Godwin’s faith in God was eroded by his reading of French philosophers such as Voltaire. Moving to London, Godwin soon involved himself both with the Whig Party and with the radicals. He breakfasted with the noted feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and with Thomas Paine, reading the latter’s The Rights of Man (1791-1792) in manuscript. Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the events of the French Revolution all contributed to the thoughts expounded in Godwin’s most famous theoretical work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), a book that made its author the best-known radical political philosopher of his day. Godwin’s most famous novel, Caleb Williams, was undertaken as a case study of the principles outlined in this theoretical work. A friend of Godwin, imprisoned in Newgate for sedition in an example of the kind of injustice Godwin was protesting, read the novel in one night. Godwin had the courage to...
(The entire section is 567 words.)
Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
William Godwin was born at Wisbech, a small town in Cambridgeshire, on March 3, 1756. The seventh of thirteen children of John Godwin, a Dissenting minister in the Calvinist tradition like his father before him, the young Godwin moved with his family to Debenham in 1758 and to Guestwick in Norfolk in 1760. At the age of eight, Godwin began three years of school at Hindolveston near Guestwick; in 1767, he began three years of private tutoring in classical education with the Calvinist preacher Samuel Newton at Norwich. When Godwin was fifteen, he returned to Hindolveston, serving for nearly a year as an usher in a small school administered by his former teacher, Robert Akers. After the death of his father on November 12, 1772, Godwin moved with his mother to London in April, 1773. He had intended to enter Homerton Academy, but he was rejected for his Sandemanian views (which opposed the authority of church and state), espoused a belief in communal property, and endorsed the progressive reform of individual morality and action.
Accepted for training in the ministry at Hoxton Academy, a Dissenting college founded because of the refusal of the established universities to admit Nonconformists, Godwin spent the next five years completing his formal education. Continuously under the influence of the Sandemanians (a sect that had been expelled by the Presbyterians) and resisting the liberal views of noted scholar Andrew Kippis, Godwin...
(The entire section is 2385 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
William Godwin made dissent the theme of his life. He had an early introduction to dissent, being the seventh of thirteen children in the family of a dissenting minister. Because of the father’s religious views, the children were reared in a strict, Puritanical tradition that stressed predestination and divine retribution. As a boy Godwin was educated at various academies run by and for nonconformists. Trained for the ministry, he entered church work in 1771. Taking up residence in London after his father’s death, he studied the classics, theology, philosophy, and languages at the dissenting academy of Hoxton until his appointment to a parish in Stowmarket. He resigned the position because of a dispute over ordination and returned to London, where he encountered the optimism of Enlightenment philosophy so at odds with his previous studies and orientation. Realizing he would need a new profession, he began pursuing work as a writer, and gradually he became more interested in radically changing the present world than in preaching the terrors of the world to come.
Godwin’s first book, the key to his thinking, was An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. The volume received wide attention, and according to report the author narrowly escaped being prosecuted for his unorthodox views. In the...
(The entire section is 701 words.)
Biography (eNotes Publishing)
The image of the prism might best exemplify the multifaceted mind of William Godwin (1756–1836). Isaac Newton's experiments in optics demonstrated that a beam of light, refracted by a prism, consisted of different types of light moving at different speeds, thus creating the colors that we are equipped to interpret. Born into a century that valued heightened rationality and even required that individual reason and judgment become fully directed toward the goal of perfecting human society, Godwin filtered many of the powerful forces of history, revolution, science, and the arts of his age and rendered a rich personalized account of their effects in articles, pamphlets, books, novels, and other forms of expression.
His own childhood experiences indicated the type of inquiring mind Godwin would develop. As a dissenting minister, John Godwin, William's father, left one ministry for another, not afraid to go where his freethinking tendencies led him. William himself would repeat his father's history as he, too, looked within himself and his judgement for the "assent" that would allow him to accept one belief system over another. For instance, he often changed schools based on his different affiliations with different belief systems. By 1782, Godwin's disagreements with the congregations to which he ministered led him to London. His beliefs ranged from deism to atheism, but his conversations with Samuel Taylor Coleridge would lead him back to the comfort of an informed agnosticism.
In London, Godwin affiliated himself with the Whig Party and wrote assessments of the political developments of his period, such as "History of the Life of William Pitt" (1783) and "Defense of the Rockingham Party" (1783). In 1785, Godwin was an established essayist for the Whig cause, which embraced such policies as increased power for Parliament and acceptance of religious dissenters. Catholic Emancipation, which gained ground in the early nineteenth-century, would be conditioned by Godwin's earlier writings that championed the separation of...
(The entire section is 889 words.)