Christianity and the Development of Science: Part 2 – The Founding Fathers of Science

The first part of this series looked at the historical relationship between Christianity and science. This second part provides additional examples of well-known past scientists whose study of nature came from a desire to know the Creator better. Many of these men were active Christians and held administrative positions in the church. Their study of the Bible led them to view the world in a way that helped them understand nature.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is a fascinating example of a prominent scientist who was also a devout believer, although in some ways unorthodox. He developed theories of light and of universal gravitation and shares the honor of inventing the calculus with Leibniz.

As a child growing up, Newton’s father died and his mother remarried a man who had little use for him. As a result, Newton had trouble developing friendships which probably fostered an introspection not often seen in young men. At age twenty, Newton experienced some sort of religious crisis and felt impelled to examine the state of his conscience and to draw up a list of his sins before that date. The list included:

"Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese." He had not kept the Lord's day as he ought: "Making pies on Sunday night"; "Squirting water on Thy day"; "Swimming in a kimnel [a tub] on Thy day"; "Idle discourse on Thy day and at other–times"; "Carlessly hearing and committing many sermons." He had not loved the Lord his God with all his heart and with all his soul and will all his mind: "Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee"; "Not turning nearer to Thee for my affections"; "Not living according to my belief"; "Not loving Thee for Thy self"; "Not desiring Thy ordinances"; "Not fearing Thee so as not to offend Thee"; "Fearing man above Thee"; "Neglecting to pray." (Westfall 17& 23)

Newton was as academic in his pursuit of biblical knowledge as of scientific knowledge. He made lists of topics he wanted to study and actively worked towards creating a well-defined set of rules for interpreting the Bible (Westfall 120 & 129). Newton’s rigorous study of the Bible led John Locke to comment that Newton had few equals in Bible knowledge (Westfall 199). Newton held the strong belief that he was part of a remnant, chosen by God to restore the interpretation of the Bible (Mandelbrote 299). However, Newton’s biblical beliefs were not simply limited to the academic. His generosity with money (Westfall 308) and humility were in evidence during his lifetime:

I don't know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me (Westfall 309).

Although perhaps a product of hero worship, one relative and biographer has described his life as "one continued series of labor, patience, humility, temperance, meekness, humanity, beneficence & piety without any tincture of vice" (Westfall 306).

It is said that a nervous breakdown in 1693 ended Newton’s scientific contributions and redirected his efforts toward theology. Although this may be partially true, he had done considerable study in theology before and did some important scientific research afterward (Westfall 217). He believed that the ancient texts provided scientific information (Shea 681), including a description of a recent creation and catastrophic destructions (Westfall 309). He talked vaguely and suggestively of other worlds formed before the creation of the Earth (Harrison 30). Later in life he wrote on prophecy (Brooke 178-180) and his deep interested in the Mosaic chronology resulted in his book, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended. He wanted to be sure of the fundamentals of Christianity and considered that to be the religion which Noah practiced: love for God and man (Westfall 138 & 303; Mandelbrote 283).

It should be noted that Newton was heterodox in some respects, although it was not realized until the 20th century (Westfall 304). He believed in the primacy of Scripture, but questioned its inspiration in places and believed there were corruptions (Mandelbrote 284). He admitted the Mosaic account, but checked it against other ancient testimony (Westfall 139). In particular, he believed that one corruption was the trinitarian texts. He was Arian in belief and considered the worship of Christ to be idolatry. Because of his unorthodoxy, he would not take orders at Cambridge (Westfall 130). Probably for the same reason, he felt that religion should be more tolerant, although he himself was not very tolerant of the Roman Catholic Church (Mandelbrote 285, 287-288). Although at one time he was willing to surrender his fellowship rather than give up his unorthodox beliefs, later in life he cultivated orthodoxy (Westfall 302) and was more willing to compromise (Westfall 241). He would not take the sacraments before his death, but wanted no one to know (Westfall 310).

Newton's science was closely related to his theology. In the General Scholium of his Principia, he states that its purpose was to establish the existence of God (Westfall 205 & 290; Clark 12; Brooke 169; Mandelbrote 292 & 300). It was to combat atheism (Mandelbrote 292), challenge the mechanical explanation, and point to the need for a wise and benevolent deity and an intelligent Creator (Harrison 27). He believed that the universe was governed by general, natural laws set up by God, but preserved by special providence, i.e., aided by supernatural acts (Harrison 27; Mandelbrote 290).

Michael Faraday

Some historians have argued that science is opposed to revealed theology, but the example of Michael Faraday (1791-1867) suggests otherwise. He was a leading--arguably the leading--scientist of his generation. He is known for his pioneering work in electricity and magnetism, including the concept of electric fields and is honored by having the unit of capacitance named after him--the farad. He was also a fully committed Christian who based his religion on a literal interpretation of the Bible (Cantor 10). Faraday once told Ada, Countess of Lovelace, that he belonged to "a very small and despised sect of Christians, known, if known at all, as Sandemanians" (Cantor 34). He viewed his Sandemanian membership--its Christian beliefs, practices and fellowship--as more important than his career in science (Cantor 72).

For his admission to the church, Faraday would have been required to demonstrate before the assembled congregation his faith in the saving grace of God and his commitment to live in imitation of Jesus Christ (Cantor 60). Faraday lived by the Bible and by the demanding discipline imposed by the Sandemanians. His Christianity was not limited to Sunday observance, but infused all aspects of his life--his social intercourse, his views on social and political issues, and his science. Every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening he would leave the Royal Institution and travel to the meetinghouse in the Barbican. His normal practice of the elder's duties would include his participation in the Sabbath services, including the exhortations that he was expected to deliver. He performed numerous pastoral duties among the London brethren, such as visiting those in need and tending to them, both materially and spiritually (Cantor 64-66).

Although it has been suggested that Faraday had a passionate temperament, suffered from clinical insanity for several years (Koestler 688), and seethed like a volcano internally, little evidence seems to support it (Cantor 263). His contemporaries almost unanimously described him as kind, gentle, unassuming, and honest (Williams 122). His conscientiousness towards spiritual things sometimes meant passing up honors or money that he might otherwise have achieved. He consistently expressed his disinterest in a knighthood, since he believed that the British honors system was corrupt (Cantor 101), and his income was small compared with what he might have obtained as a leading scientific lecturer and researcher (Cantor 109). He felt that no God-given moment should be wasted, and so strictly controlled what he did with his time (Cantor 111).

Although Sandemanians emphasized sobriety, they did not forsake worldly enjoyments. They saw no need to abstain from such social pleasures as the theater or alcohol, provided they were undertaken in moderation. For relaxation Faraday sang and visited the theater, concert hall, or the opera. Popular novels were another source of enjoyment, and he preferred the meat and wine of life to its locusts and wild honey (Cantor 112-113).

Faraday was appointed to the elder's office in October 1840. This election was one of the most important events in his life. For the next 3½ years he played a leading role in the Sandemanian community. However, on 31 March 1844 he was excluded from the sect. The reason usually given for his exclusion is that he was invited to visit the Queen one Sunday early in 1844. By responding to the summons, he failed to appear at the meetinghouse that Sunday. In the published source for this incident, the reason Faraday was excluded was not so much that he accepted the Queen's command, as that he was not repentant but insisted on defending his action. Although there are reasons to question this exact explanation, the exclusion did result from a dispute over discipline. He was restored to the community a month later, having expressed his sincere repentance; however, the exclusion affected Faraday deeply (Cantor 61-64). His exclusion lasted five weeks, but it was a further sixteen years before he was re-elected to the elder's office. He was then an elder for a further four years after which he resigned due to another crisis (Cantor 279). He had been offered the Presidency of the Royal Institution in 1848 and 1858, which he refused (Cantor 134), and was asked again in 1864. If he had undertaken the Presidency, he would have run the risk of compromising his Sandemanian faith, and of a second and final exclusion (Cantor 275 & 278). The repeated requests to be president were enough to precipitate a crisis for Faraday and led to his resignation as elder.

Discipline was a key principle for the Sandemanians, who accepted the Bible not only as the basis for all action, but also as the rule-book for church organization. It was a unified group who achieved an extraordinarily high degree of consensus (Cantor 33). Throughout their history the Sandemanians endeavored to keep themselves distinct from all other religious groups in the belief that they alone were accurately following the directions given in the Bible (Cantor 87). They considered themselves set apart from the world (Hunt 1059).

Faraday's religion affected his science, notably in his conviction that nature was orderly and "economical" and that divinely ordained natural powers were indestructible. His science was also affected in his caution about the speculative interpretation of experimental facts--a caution that paralleled the Sandemanians' adherence to the literal word of the Bible, without interpretation. Indeed, Sandemanian "exhortations" consisted of (carefully chosen) Biblical passages strung together with a minimum of connecting material, just as Faraday's scientific papers ideally consisted of (carefully chosen) descriptions of experimental facts strung together with a minimum of speculative interpretation (Cantor 65; Hunt 1059).

Founding Fathers: Various Disciplines

Here brief descriptions are given of several representative Christians who were founding fathers in the areas of mathematics, chemistry, biology, and geology.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a brilliant mathematician. At age thirty-one he became a devout Christian and all his life carried with him a description of that experience (Pascal, frag. 913, p.309). In his Pensées he has some valuable insights on the relation between science and religion.

God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will (Pascal, frag. 234, p.101).

There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition (Pascal, frag. 149, p.80).

If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing this own wretchedness as to know his wretchedness without knowing God (Pascal, frag. 446, p.167).

He believed that it was useless to try to prove the Bible, because it wouldn't help the atheist and the Bible is sterile without Christ (Pascal, frag. 449, p.169).

Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was founder of the Royal Society in London and is sometimes called the father of modern chemistry (Peacock 149; Hunter). He had a deep theological commitment and was well known for his piety and scruples in matters of religion. This prevented him from taking the oaths required of a president of the Royal Society, which he was offered. He believed there were things we could never know, but that God's purposes were not completely inaccessible to us. God created and supported the world directly, just as He dealt directly with the believer (Knight 200). In his will he left an endowment to provide sufficient income for an annual lectureship to combat the atheism widely professed by wits in taverns and coffeehouses (Harrison 24).

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) looked for life arising from non-life (spontaneous generation) for twenty years without finding it. Referring to this he said, "Science should not concern itself in any way with the philosophical consequences of its discoveries." The facts discovered supporting or refuting spontaneous generation should be presented irrespective of those whose philosophical or political ideas were affected by them. However, he also made it clear that in his beliefs and conduct of life, he took more into account than acquired science. He believed there were two distinct domains in man, the scientist and the man of sentiment and belief, and "woe to him who tries to let them trespass on each other in the so imperfect state of human knowledge." He could not understand certain givers of easy explanations who affirm that matter has organized itself, and who [consider] as perfectly simple the spectacle of the Universe of which Earth is but an infinitesimal part, [and] are in no wise moved by the Infinite Power who created the worlds." (Vallery-Radot 242-244 & 342; Meadows 169, 175-176)

At a time when triumphant Positivism was inspiring many leaders of men, the very man who might have given himself up to what he called "the enchantment of Science" proclaimed the Mystery of the universe; with his intellectual humility, Pasteur bowed before a Power greater than human power. "Positivism," he said, "does not take into account the most important of positive notions, that of the Infinite." He wondered that Positivism should confine the mind within limits. (Vallery-Radot 342, 343)

William Buckland (1784-1856), a professor of geology at Oxford, was known for his sytematic study of Great Britain's geologic structure, and twice served as president of the Geological Society. He was a committed Christian and Anglican clergyman and wrote a two-volume treatise entitled, Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (Heeren 270).

Founding Fathers: Clergy

Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) was an astronomer and clergyman in Poland, though he never went on to become a priest (Hummel 41). He regarded his research as "a loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted"' (Peacock 147).

Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686) was a professor of anatomy and later developed principles for describing sedimentary rocks that are still used today. In his later life he turned from science to theology and was ordained a Catholic priest. He took the vow of voluntary poverty, gave all his possessions to the poor, and finally died from an ordeal of poverty and fasting. One of his public lectures contains a line that is often quoted: "Beautiful is that which we see, more beautiful that which we know, but by far the most beautiful that which we do not comprehend" (Albritton 22, 34 & 38).


Although a definite tension exists between Christianity and science, it is often over emphasized because positive interactions have occurred between the two. Christianity had a part in the development of science in Western Europe and many of the founding fathers of science were Christians. They saw God's finger in nature and used theological arguments with their science (Bynum, Brown & Porter 376). Today we continue to find affirmations of faith among the scientific community as will be discussed in part 3 of this series.


Benjamin L. Clausen

Geoscience Research Institute

Loma Linda, CA


Sources Cited

  • Albritton, Claude C., Jr. The Abyss of Time: Changing Conceptions of the Earth's Antiquity after the Sixteenth Century. San Francisco, CA: Freeman, Cooper, 1980.
  • Brooke, John. "The God of Isaac Newton", IN: John Fauvel, Raymond Flood, Michael Shortland, and Robin Wilson, eds. Let Newton Be! Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.
  • Bynum, William F., E. Janet Brown, and Roy Porter. Dictionary of the History of Science. Princeton Univ. Press, 1981.
  • Cantor, Geoffrey N. Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist: A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
  • Clark, Robert E. D. Science and Christianity--A Partnership. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1972.
  • Harrison, Edward. "Newton and the infinite universe", Physics Today (February 1986): 24-32.
  • Heeren, Fred. Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God. Wheeling, IL: Searchlight Publications, 1995.
  • Hummel, Charles E. The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science & the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986.
  • Hunt, Bruce J. "Faraday at Home and Abroad", Science 256 (15 May 1992): 1059-1060.
  • Hunter, Michael. Robert Boyle Reconsidered. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994.
  • Knight, David. "Corpuscular science", Nature 368(17 March 1994): 200.
  • Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1964.
  • Mandelbrote, Scott. "'A duty of the greatest moment': Isaac Newton and the writing of biblical criticism", British Journal for the History of Science 26(1993): 281-302.
  • Meadows, Jack. The Great Scientists. Oxford Univ. Press, 1987.
  • Pascal, Blaise. Pensées Translated with an Introduction by A. J. Krailsheimer. Penguin, 1966.
  • Peacock, Roy E. A Brief History of Eternity. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990.
  • Shea, William R. "Galileo and the Church", IN: David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds. God and Nature. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986.
  • Vallery-Radot, René. The Life of Pasteur Translated from the French by Mrs. R. L. Devonshire. Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1923.
  • Westfall, Richard S. The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993.
  • Williams, L. Pearce. "Wheat and Chaff: The Harvest of the Faraday Bicentenary", Isis 85(March 1994): 120-124.

APPENDIX – Other Examples of the Relation between Christianity and Science

Numerous additional examples can be given of scientists influenced by Christianity (Heeren 268-297). Below is a brief list of other scientists who intertwined science and theology for the betterment of the world:

Louis Agassiz – Father of glacial science whose father was a Huguenot.

Charles Babbage – Early creator of the computer.

John Bartram – American botanist and a Quaker.

Sir Charles Bell – Anatomist who wrote on natural theology.

Georges Cuvier – Paleontologist and specialist in comparative anatomy, who propounded multiple catastrophes and was a Lutheran.

John Dalton – Chemist and Quaker.

John Flamsteed – Catalogued nearly 3000 stars and was part of the clergy.

John Ambrose Fleming – Father of modern electronics and part of the evolution protest movement.

Joseph Henry – Studied self-inductance and became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Sir William Herschel – Discovered Uranus.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz – Co-inventor of calculus and wanted to re-unite Christianity (Catholic/Protestant, Lutheran/Reformed).

Joseph Lister – Pioneer of antiseptic surgery and a Quaker.

Gregor Mendel – Austrian monk who did experiments on garden peas to study patterns of inheritance.

Samuel Morse – Inventor of the telegraph over which he sent: "What hath God wrought."

Sir William Ramsay – Discovered the noble gases and received the Nobel prize.

John Ray – Contributed to the development of species classification and natural theology.

Bernhard Riemann – Contributed to non-Euclidean geometry and whose father was a Lutheran pastor.

Sir George Stokes – Contributed to wave theory and natural theology and was Lucasion professor at Cambridge and president of the Royal Society.