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.
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.” Continue reading