William Whitehouse Collins was born at Harborne, Staffordshire, England, on 4 September 1853, the son of Joseph Collins, a die-sinker, and his wife, Elleanor Whitehouse. William inherited advanced ideas from his grandfather, John Collins, an English working-class radical imprisoned for his part in the Chartist movement. He was educated privately, at the Midlaw institute and at Mason Science College in Birmingham. His intention to become a Baptist minister was abandoned in favour of commerce, after which he studied in the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington. In London he also became involved with the secularist movement, working with the renowned MP Charles Bradlaugh and Mrs Annie Besant. On 4 September 1877 he married Selina Turner in the Congregational chapel at King's Norton, Worcestershire; they were to have one son.
Collins obtained a lecturer's diploma from Bradlaugh's National Secular Society and emigrated to Sydney, New South Wales, following the death of his wife in 1885. Engaged by the Sydney branch of the Australasian Secular Association, he spent the next five years there and in Tasmania, lecturing and organising. On 1 November 1886, at Sydney, he married Alice Annie Skinner, daughter of Ebenezer Skinner, former president of the Liberal Association of New South Wales. They were to have one son.
In 1890 Collins arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he became president of the Canterbury Freethought Association, established the Lyceum as its headquarters, and became vice president of the New Zealand Freethought Association. He lost no time in attacking Christianity. In 1891, for example, he took on the notable Methodist minister John Hosking in a theological debate running over four nights. Very large audiences showed up at the Tuam Street Hall to hear the two debate the rationality of belief in God, the immortality of the soul, and the inspiration of Scripture. Determined to extinguish 'that superstition' (Christianity) which had drowned the world in 'rivers of blood', Collins declared that belief in God was absurd and immoral, a relic of humankind's 'ignorant past'.
Collins worked hard as a freethought lecturer and editor for most of the next 25 years. He debated with clergy, wrote vigorously and gave well-attended public lectures on topics like 'Missing links', 'Miracles', and 'The question of the hour. Did Jesus ever exist?'. He used his knowledge of science and biblical criticism to make Christianity appear incredible, of history to depict the church as an enemy of freedom and progress, and of Scripture to discredit the biblical God as a bloodthirsty despot. The early 1880s had been the heyday of the freethought movement in New Zealand, most local societies collapsing after 1887; Collins's rearguard action in keeping the movement alive in Christchurch until 1917 was valiant.
During these years the Protestant churches mobilised mass support for religious instruction in state schools and for the prohibition of alcohol. Collins, an intense liberal and secularist, opposed the Bible in schools movement and advocated a strictly secular state education system. And although personally a total abstainer, he heartily disliked the prohibition movement for attempting to impose its narrow outlook on those who did not share it. On this, as on other topics, he could convulse audiences. In 1892, for example, he spoke on prohibition at the Tuam Street Hall, and despite wretched weather almost 800 people attended. Prohibition, declared Collins, far from being a virtue, was the cause of all the evil in the world. 'Had Adam and Eve never been told that they were not to partake of that particular tree…', he began, before his voice was completely drowned in the laughter of the large crowd. No libertine, however, he was as morally earnest as the evangelical Christians he opposed.
In 1893 Collins moved to Sydney but was persuaded by his friends to return to Christchurch to contest one of the city's parliamentary seats. His militant freethought views proved no political handicap. Supported by the Canterbury Liberal Association, he became MHR for City of Christchurch in 1893, only to be narrowly defeated at the 1896 election. In 1899 he defeated the left-wing prohibitionist T. E. Taylor and became senior member for Christchurch, but again for only a single term. He fell out of favour with the unions and was defeated in 1902, and again in 1905 when he stood for Christchurch East.
A left-wing Liberal, Collins took positions on social, political and religious issues similar to those of fellow freethought Liberals John Ballance, Robert Stout and William Pember Reeves. He strongly supported the government's land policy, including its huge purchases of Maori land. He called for a wide range of humanitarian reforms: prison reform; the abolition of capital punishment; an eight-hour working day; pensions for impoverished veterans of the wars of the 1860s and the South African war of 1899–1902; more spending on education; fair rent legislation; increased old-age pensions; and better accommodation for children at the Sumner deaf and dumb institution (in which he took a keen personal interest). Unusually sympathetic to women, he was a leading supporter of the Divorce Act 1898 which made adultery grounds for divorce for women as well as men. To those, like Premier Richard Seddon, who argued that female adultery was a far worse crime than male, since a man might end up bequeathing his property to another man's offspring, Collins retorted that such arguments demonstrated that 'for thousands of years…women had been regarded by men as…mere pieces of chattel goods'. Yet he opposed admitting women to Parliament on the ground that the best women, happy in their domestic sphere, would have no desire for politics.
Illiberal attitudes sometimes surfaced. Collins's experience as visiting justice of the Lyttelton prison convinced him of the existence of an 'incorrigible class' of 'habitual drunkards' and 'dissolute women, who disseminate…foul and loathsome diseases'. He called on the minister of justice to change the law so that such incorrigibles could be jailed for much longer than the existing maximum of six months. He advocated substantially raising the poll-tax on incoming Chinese in order to 'avert that commercial, social, and moral ruin…which experience shows inevitably follows upon insufficiently-restricted Mongolian influx'.
Collins's failure to return to Parliament in 1905 led him back to preaching the gospel of freethought, this time using the writer's pen more than the lecturer's podium. He started the Examiner monthly in 1907 to disseminate rationalist views, and wrote a Rationalist burial service. His optimistic liberal outlook, full of faith in human nature and the idea of progress, was severely tested by the First World War; in 1917 the Examiner petered out through lack of support and in 1918 Collins left for Sydney, where he died on 12 April 1923. It is not known when or where Alice Collins died.
William Collins was perhaps too radical, too intellectual and insufficiently populist in style to be a really successful New Zealand politician. Neverthless, he was a clear, forceful speaker and debater, who marshalled logic, facts, wit and rhetoric to great effect. Regarded in Parliament as 'one of the orators of the House', he attracted immense audiences whenever he spoke. His appearance undoubtedly helped: slim, moustached and handsome, with piercing eyes, the combination of physical and intellectual gifts was formidable. His influence and importance lay in successfully disseminating his ideas during a long and difficult period for freethought.