Those odd, brilliant men and their scientific schemes: the religious back-story of the Royal Society


When I arrived at Christianity Today International back in 2002 as the fresh-faced managing editor of Christian History, I was told that our next issue was going to be on some aspect of science. Through our usual rollicking brainstorming process (how I miss those days), we narrowed the topic down to the scientific revolution–in particular, the faith of that revolution’s leaders. The result was Issue #76: The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution.

Not only did I get to edit my very first issue of the magazine I had read and loved since the early ’80s, but I also got to write an article. I chose that fascinating cabal of brilliant and eccentric men: England’s Royal Society. And I soon discovered that those men, while sharing Christian faith, had to overcome ecclesiastical division: some were royalist Anglicans and some radical Puritans.

My research unearthed three “aha” moments: The first was how downright eccentric these people were: they collected bizarre oddments, proposed outlandish “silver-bullet” theories with the promise that they would change the world, and (many of them) continued to work the age-old magic of alchemy in the hope of forging gold from cheap materials.

The second surprise was that in the name of science, these religiously diverse people were able to work together in a time of significant national division across Anglican-Puritan lines. And the third was that in forging that unity, the members of the Royal Society quite unintentionally laid the groundwork for the deism that poisoned the well of 18th- and 19th-century Western faith. Here’s the story:

The Christian Virtuosi
The Royal Society defended religion but laid the groundwork for irreligion.
Chris Armstrong

November 28, 1660, a group of English thinkers gathered at Gresham College, London, to hear a lecture by the young astronomy professor and future architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren. As they talked among themselves after Wren’s lecture, they agreed to form a society dedicated, as their full, official name later stated, to “Improving Natural Knowledge.”

These charter members of the Royal Society felt that by joining forces, they could better promote the “New Philosophy or Experimental Philosophy” that had been the cause célèbre of English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Gentlemen and scholars all, they called themselves “natural philosophers” or “virtuosi”—that is, lovers of learning. The word “scientist,” though we use it here for the sake of convenience, was not yet current. It would be some 170 years before that term entered the English language, paralleling the term “artist.”

During the century following the Royal Society’s founding, England held an unrivalled position of influence in the European scientific community. Men like Robert Boyle and, later, Isaac Newton were recognized as the pacesetters of science.

The society’s founding coincided with the Restoration of the English monarchy, and it brought together a mixed group of both Puritans and Anglicans. These Christians of opposing political and religious views would join in drafting and ratifying a charter that bid all members of the society to pursue the study of nature “to the glory of God and the benefit of the human race.”

The Puritans among them, though they did not invent the experimental method, drew upon their iconoclastic roots in pursuing that method wherever it led. During the Interregnum, Puritan scientists had already contributed notable scientific advances. As historian Dorothy Stimson has put it, the same independence that had led them to challenge the authority of the pope in the Catholic Church and of the bishops in the Anglican Church now spurred these Puritan scientists on in their researching and theorizing—even when their results clashed with the accepted theories of such authorities as Aristotle and Galen.

The society enshrined this commitment to intellectual independence in its motto, Nullius in Verba, or roughly, “not bound to take anyone’s word.”

The Royalist Anglicans in the society also put their distinctive religious and political stamp on their science. The new science embedded law in nature itself, and these men developed arguments from the lawfulness of the natural world in support of king, church, and economic institutions.

The ranks of the early Royal Society’s “natural philosophers” included many men of substantial means who indulged in a popular hobby of the rich: collecting curiosities—some scientifically significant, but many not. One such collection, bestowed on the society in its early years by one of its fellows, included “a wind-gun, a burning-glass in a brass frame, a piece of petrified wood, a cocoa-nut, an ostrich’s egg-shell, a strange bone with a rib in the middle,” and “two papers of petrified grass.”

More seriously, the society published a growing domestic and foreign correspondence “on Philosophical, Mathematical or Mechanical subjects,” largely in its journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. This publication quickly became a cheerleader for the scientific revolution, as the society’s meetings became its showcase. Also, in 1662 the society appointed a “curator of experiments”—the multi-talented Robert Hooke was the first—to make sure that every meeting had at least one experiment. From air pumps to blood transfusion, society fellows had the opportunity to see the inductive method in action and record its results.

Crowded around their compound microscopes, peering at fly eyes and plant seeds, the members shared the sentiments of their early presiding officer, John Wilkins, a bishop in the Church of England who wrote that the “admirable contrivance” and “accurate order and symmetry” of such natural objects revealed God’s power and glory as much as did the books of the Bible.

The high hope of science with its Midas-like magic (and early members did often dabble in alchemy) seemed to promise every sort of improvement in the life of humankind. This promise did not escape the notice of king and government, who called upon the Royal Society repeatedly to help with various projects of national scope. These included the protection of buildings and ships from lightning, the ventilation of prisons, and the measurement of a degree of latitude.

Such prominence must have been exhilarating to members—the eclectic and even bizarre papers that showed up regularly at early meetings suggest that some members expected each new development to turn to gold before their eyes. “All things,” perhaps, seemed possible for those who believed—in God, yes, but also in the new power science was placing in the hands of mortals.

From the first, many viewed the society askance. It seemed to some a rogue organization, not only threatening religion but also encroaching on the turf of venerable institutions such as the universities. Thomas Sprat wrote his History of the Royal Society (1667) as an official defense—the entire third part of the book answered the charge of atheism some opponents made against the society. He did this by listing fellows who were bishops and clergy, proof that the group posed no threat to established religion (Sprat himself was an Anglican priest).

But such maneuvers could not still the waves of criticism and downright ridicule. Famous authors such as Jonathan Swift joined the game, capitalizing on the public’s skepticism by lampooning Royal Society members mercilessly in fiction and plays.

Nonetheless, the society grew in prestige—never more than when Isaac Newton ascended to its presidency in 1703, a position he would retain for 24 lively and productive years.

Newton’s synthetic scheme of universal laws emanated, however, not only the rays of science’s promise, but also the shadow of its peril. For along with new technologies, the members’ scientific activities also gave life to an old idol: the remote, impersonal deity of the philosopher. Though the group proclaimed, and for the most part sincerely held, religious motives in its scientific work, the very fact of its religious diversity dictated a tolerant, broadminded view of the Christian faith—a view that would feed the irreligion many of them sought to combat.

For both pragmatic and pious reasons, some members of the Royal Society were influenced by the rationalist approach to religion urged by the Cambridge Platonists. In their public discourse they gravitated toward an essential Christianity that affirmed only the existence of God, the soul’s immortality, and each person’s ethical obligation to others.

Why did even deeply religious men use arguments that fed this lowest-common-denominator portrayal of their faith? As scientists who were Christians, but who taught a mechanistic universe that ran according to discoverable laws, they faced charges of irreligion themselves. They answered these charges by insisting that the evidences of lawfulness and design in the fabric of things pointed not away from but toward God.

Little did these well-meaning men know, however, that the “rational religion” they erected as a broadly shared platform for scientific cooperation and a badge of their own orthodoxy would become in the next century a substitute for the Christ-centered teachings of the historic church.

As Blaise Pascal had worried, the virtuosi’s oft-repeated argument from design eventually fed the eighteenth-century deists’ creed of the distant “clockmaker God.”

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History.

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