Five hundred years ago, on February 19, 1473, Nicholas Copernicus was born in Torun, Poland, the youngest of four children. No one in that little town on the Vistula River could have guessed that little Nicholas would advance a theory that would be recognized for centuries as a turning point in human thought. Indeed, his ideas were not widely known even in his lifetime and were opposed for years after his death.

Nicholas’ father died when the boy was only ten, and the children were adopted by their maternal uncle, a Catholic priest in Prussia. In time Nicholas was sent to the university at Cracow, where he became interested in mathematics, the calendar, and astronomy. The age of discovery had begun, and Columbus discovered America while Nicholas was a university student. Also, the age saw the rise of a new learning. In 1453 Constantinople had fallen, and many scholars from the East had fled to Italy. Among the books brought to Italy at that time was the Almagest of the astronomer Ptolemy (ca A.D. 150). The work had been known in Arabic, but now it became available in the original Greek and was soon translated into Latin.

Copernicus studied for a while in Bologna, Italy, and visited Rome in 1500. As early as perhaps 1512 he wrote a short synopsis of his new views and circulated this “Little Commentary” to a few of his friends.

About this time he drew up his great work, Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, but he did not publish it until thirty years later and then at the instigation of his assistant, Rheticus. In the meantime he revised it and added further observations. Then the new views of the Lutheran reformation spread to Prussia, and the controversy touched Copernicus, who was a canon of the Cathedral of Fraudenberg. His friend Giese wrote a book against Lutheran ideas that Copernicus supported. But the two were more tolerant than some others, and they deplored the wars and persecutions of the times.

It is commonly supposed that all the theologians of the day denounced Copernicus’s new theory of a heliocentric universe and that he dared not publish his work for fear of persecution. This opinion has been broadcast largely on the basis of references in the quite unreliable History of the Warfare of Science with Theology by A. D. White. White quotes Calvin as saying, “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?” No source is given, though reference is made to Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis. About the quotation Hooykaas remarks:

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There is no lie so good as the precise and well-detailed one, and this one has been repeated again and again, quotation marks included, by writers on the history of science, who evidently did not make the effort to verify the statement. For fifteen years, I have pointed out in several periodicals concerned with the history of science that the “quotation” from Calvin is imaginary and that Calvin never mentioned Copernicus; but the legend dies hard [R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, p. 121],

Indeed, Calvin’s sentiments in his Commentary on Genesis are quite otherwise. Dealing with the fact that Saturn is larger than the moon, Calvin says (on Genesis 1:16):

Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, the study is not to be reprobated, nor this science condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them.

Luther is quoted by White as saying of Copernicus, “This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.” White gives his source as Luther’s Table Talk. The Table Talk was compiled from students’ notes of Luther’s “off the cuff” remarks, and this section was “only printed (from the memory of his guests) twenty seven years afterward (1566),” (Hooykaas, p. 122).

More details about Lutheran views on Copernicus are given by John W. Klotz in his Modern Science inthe Christian Life. It turns out that two friends and disciples of Copernicus were on the faculty of Luther’s university at Wittenberg. Rheticus (also spelled Rhaticus) was a professor of mathematics there. In 1539 he went to work with Copernicus. “No one interfered with his going; indeed, his position was held open for him.… In 1541 he returned to Wittenberg, resumed his work as a professor, and was named dean of the arts faculty” (Klotz, p. 88). It should be noted that in the meantime, 1540, this Rheticus, a Lutheran professor, published his brief Narratio Prima, the first published exposition of the new Copernican theory! Later Rheticus left Wittenberg, but obviously not to avoid persecution for his views, as White says. He went to Nuremberg, a Lutheran city. There he helped oversee the printing of Copernicus’s great work, a copy of which reached Copernicus on his deathbed. Then Rheticus went to Leipzig to teach in another Lutheran university.

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Another professor at Wittenberg who espoused the theory of Copernicus was Erasmus Reinhold, who became dean of the arts faculty in 1547 and rector of the university in 1549.

Of course, no one claims that Calvin and Luther were perfect in wisdom and judgment. Yet it should be recorded that in leading Protestant circles the new and somewhat startling views on astronomy were not heavily assailed. Different persons reacted in different ways, of course, but the Copernican revolution was not generally condemned or its progress hindered. Melanchthon condemned it in a book in 1549 but removed that condemnation in the second edition a year later.

In Catholic circles, tied as much to Aristotle as to the Bible, the new views had harder sledding. They were approved by one pope, attacked by the next, and placed on the Index for some time. This was doubtless due to principles of authoritative approach taken by the Roman church in distinction to the Protestant method of searching the Scriptures to see whether these things were so.

The theory of Copernicus concerned only the position of the sun and the motion of the heavenly bodies. A surprising number of people assume that almost everybody before Copernicus thought the world was flat. Naturally, in illiterate areas of Medieval Europe many people thought little about this subject and may have assumed flatness. But in New Testament times and in the Graeco-Roman world, the sphericity of the world was well established. Ptolemy in A.D. 150 gave the argument in an offhand way: a ship’s hull disappears before its mast, heavenly phenomena are seen in the east earlier than in the west, and so on. Ptolemy had calculated the circumference of the earth (though he made it somewhat too small). The Greeks held that a circle was a perfect figure. They pictured the planets and stars as rotating around the earth in concentric transparent spheres. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth quite accurately in 250 B.C. (for the details of his method see the Eycyclopedia Brittanica). Actually earlier Greek astronomers had advanced the heliocentric theory of astronomy, but the Ptolemaic geocentric view was advanced with much learning, and the great name of Ptolemy carried the day for centuries.

Copernicus did not have accurate instruments, and his observations were not exact enough to prove his view without question. It remained for Galileo with his telescopes to clinch the matter and for Kepler to show that the planets move in elliptical orbits, not circles, as Copernicus thought. So one discovery followed another. Protestant theologians, at least, were open to and often encouraged the new science. And Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo all sincerely professed the Christian faith, though Galileo suffered at the hands of Rome for his views.

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Nathan Cole quit his plow
& hurry’d to hear Whitefield preach
& found his religion useless ash
before the stern words
“election” “grace”
“Hellfire hellfire
ran Swift in my mind
“And while these thoughts
were in my mind
God appeared unto me
and made me Skringe: …
and I was Shrinked away
into nothing”
And in that nothing
Nathan Cole burst
with light, found
Farmington, Connecticut
ablaze with matter for praise:
all walls & common fences
weeds, trees,

and vines in special;

stones he’d earlier envy’d
for lack of soul
now were new tongues to hymn
Election’s glory,
Jehovah’s sure salvation.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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