Christian History Home > Issue 30 > The Faith Behind the Famous: Isaac Newton
The Faith Behind the Famous: Isaac Newton
He has been called "the greatest scientific genius the world has known." Yet he spent less time on science than on theology.
Nature, and Nature’s Laws, lay hid in Night.
God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light.
Alexander Pope’s well-known epitaph epitomized Isaac Newton’s fame. Even in Newton’s lifetime, his contemporaries’ adulation verged on worship. Following his death in April 1727, Newton lay in state in Westminster Abbey for a week. At the funeral, his pall was borne by three earls, two dukes, and the Lord Chancellor. Voltaire observed, “He was buried like a king who had done well by his subjects.” No scientist before or since has been so revered and interred with such high honor.
Who was this man whose stature has dominated the scientific landscape for three centuries? Why did his achievements have such an impact on society? What role did Newton’s faith play in his life and work?
For Newton the world of science was by no means the whole of life. He spent more time on theology than on science; indeed, he wrote about 1.3 million words on biblical subjects. Yet this vast legacy lay hidden from public view for two centuries until the auction of his nonscientific writings in 1936.
Newton’s understanding of God came primarily from the Bible, which he studied for days and weeks at a time. He took special interest in miracles and prophecy, calculating dates of Old Testament books and analyzing their texts to discover their authorship. In a manuscript on rules for interpreting prophecy, Newton noted the similar goals of the scientist and the prophecy expositor: simplicity and unity. He condemned the “folly of interpreters who foretell times and things by prophecy,” since the purpose of prophecy was to demonstrate God’s providence in history when “after [prophecies] were fulfilled, they might be interpreted by events.”
A member of the Anglican church, Newton attended services and participated in special projects, such as paying for the distribution of Bibles among the poor, and serving on a commission to build fifty new churches in the London area. Yet Newton seldom made public pronouncements regarding his theology. He is remembered instead for his pioneering scientific achievements.
Birth and Childhood
In June 1642 England began to suffer its first civil war. The year also witnessed both the death of Galileo in Italy and the birth of Isaac Newton in England.
Newton’s life took place against the backdrop of three locations within one hundred miles of each other: Lincolnshire, Cambridge, and London. Newton’s parents were country folk who lived on a small farm in Woolsthorpe north of London. Hannah Newton’s husband died soon after their marriage, at age 36. On Christmas Day, 1642, friends came to assist the young widow with the birth of her son Isaac. The baby was very premature and given little hope of survival; he was so small he could have been fitted into a quart pot.
When Isaac was 3, his mother—a strong, self-reliant woman—remarried and moved to a new home in the next village. The child stayed on at the isolated house, cared for by his grandmother, for the next eight years. Recent biographers have seen that separation from his mother, between the ages of 3 and 10, as influential in forming the suspicious, neurotic personality of the adult Newton.
In 1654, at the age of 12, Isaac entered the Old King’s School in Grantham, which had a good reputation for preparing students to enter Cambridge and Oxford. The boy reached the top of his class, became interested in chemistry, and continued building intricate mechanisms, including a windmill and a water clock. Instead of taking part in the rougher games at school, young Isaac became an avid reader. Early in life he developed a self-sufficiency and resourcefulness that served him well in later years of research.
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