This essay was the first place winner of the 2017 CT Science Writing Contest.
The scientific revolution hit Western Christendom hard.
Nicolaus Copernicus hypothesized that Earth was not at the center of the universe and, with the emergence of his 1543 publication De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, a bitter struggle ensued between Christianity and science to shape the reigning worldview. Science came to dominate from the Enlightenment forward.
Or so we’ve been told.
But in fact, a Lutheran minister and theologian named Andreas Osiander was the one who published Copernicus’s seminal piece. That should be our first clue that the story of enmity between Christianity and science has often been distorted and overstated, leading us to forget some of history’s most influential science advocates and fueling a false dichotomy that unnecessarily polarizes scientific debates today.
The prevailing narrative that Christianity is inherently anti-science gained acceptance in 1896 with Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christendom. White singled out prominent Protestant pastors such as John Wesley and Increase Mather for promoting an attack on the new science. “From the first to last,” White wrote, “a long line of eminent divines, Anglican and Calvinistic, strove to resist new thought.”
At other points, Wesley had been singled out in 19th-century historiography for opposing scientific reasoning in support of the orthodox Christian faith, as though the two were inherently at odds. Meanwhile, Wesley’s many publications engaging with the science of the time as he advocated for the usefulness of electricity, explored natural philosophy, and promoted natural solutions for curing disease (rather than merely spiritual solutions) were conveniently ignored.
White is correct in at least one regard: If a war had been waged between theology and science, prominent Enlightenment-era pastors would certainly have been leading the charge.
Yet, when we delve into the history of 18th-century clergy, we discover a different story of their involvement in the rise of modern science. We discover pastors who engaged the latest scientific discoveries and experiments in a variety of ways and with a predominantly receptive attitude.
What’s more, the very idea that science and Christianity inherently conflicted would have defied these pastors’ theological mindset. Pastors after the scientific revolution viewed engagement with new science as an opportunity to understand God as Creator with greater depth in order to bring him greater glory. And so, the clergy were frequent promoters rather than detractors, enthusiasts and participants rather than fear mongers. Their observations and contributions through publishing, preaching, and their own scientific pursuits helped enable the advancement of modern science in Western communities. Their examples also model for us the value and necessity of Christian engagement in scientific pursuits and discoveries.
New Science and ‘Hot’ Protestants
If there were any group of clergy opposed to the new science, surely it was Puritans.
The well-known Hawthornesque rendition of the cold, rigid, and judgmental Puritan is image-defining.
In their origins, however, Puritans were not considered cold by their contemporaries. Rather, they were maligned as “hot” for wanting to loosely follow what they considered the rigidity of the Church of England’s liturgy out of the desire to lead worship extemporaneously. Paradoxically, they were stubbornly determined to be sensitive to the free movement of the Holy Spirit.
Though not without their blind spots, Puritans defy common stereotypes and expectations when it comes to new science. Historian George Marsden has shown in his biography of Jonathan Edwards that the Newtonian worldview was embraced by the New England clergy (i.e., that God can work through secondary causes) as were many other important scientific advancements, and they frequently made their positions public. Marsden writes, “New England clergy, being the best educated persons in their communities, were often the chief interpreters of the new science.”
Consider the story of Increase Mather, contemporary of Isaac Newton, a minister, and the sixth president of Harvard. His name is often linked to the Salem witch trials, during which Increase made efforts to curb the hysteria (not without criticism) by discounting the use of spectral evidence in the courtroom. Increase promoted new science by helping to found the Boston Philosophical Society and stringently advocating for pioneering preventative approaches to disease along with his son, Cotton.
In 1721, 60 percent of Boston’s residents contracted smallpox. The medical community was not in support of smallpox inoculation, or the variolation method, yet, which was a practice that inserted scabs or fluids of smallpox disease (or variola) underneath the skin through a small cut in order to immunize. When public debate over the risks versus benefits of the procedure came to the forefront in the city’s newspapers, it was the clergy who advocated on its behalf. David Copeland called it “the most heated newspaper debate in colonial America.” Although inoculation did reduce the risk of dying from smallpox, survival was not an assured outcome (as Jonathan Edwards would discover in 1758).
Increase published two pieces on the subject that year including the elaborately titled Several reasons proving that inoculation or transplanting the small pox, is a lawful practice, and that it has been blessed by God for the saving of many a life. When Cotton wrote the first pro-
inoculation piece for the Boston Gazette, Increase and four other Boston clergy signed it.
Expressing a pro-inoculation position in such a public manner was fairly courageous. An unsuccessful attempt was made on Increase’s life when a bomb was planted in his home. In the end, many lives were saved and much suffering prevented because of pastoral involvement.
The Mathers promoted the new science in the colonies in other ways too. As one of the leading Puritan clergymen of his generation, Cotton also gained widespread acclaim for his observations in botany and writings on nature and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London for his 1721 work, The Christian Philosopher: A Collection of the Best Discoveries in Nature, with Religious Improvements. There the function, use, beauty, and order of vegetables garnered his attention. Even matters as seemingly monotonous as the acclimatization of wheat led Cotton to enthusiastically declare God’s goodness and his admirable design.
This passion for new science was later modeled by Edwards—clerical leader of the Great Awakening and president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). As a young man, Edwards spent considerable time studying arachnids. In his words, “Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider, especially with respect to their sagacity and admirable way of working.” As his personal notebooks attest, Edwards nurtured a lifelong interest in natural science where he reflected on Newton’s theories, including those regarding rainbows and motion.
In these ways and more, prominent Puritan leaders helped to promote modern science.
Meanwhile, the new science was also making headway across the pond in the Calvinist city of Geneva.
New Science and the City of Calvin
Imagine sitting in your pew Sunday morning and listening to your pastor expand on the intricacies of quantum mechanics while exegeting the text. Hearing science in the pulpit was not an uncommon experience for the 18th-century Genevan congregant. In a city where roughly 3,000 worship services were held each year, the sermon was a pivotal means of public communication in shaping theological and biblical understanding, and it provides important insight into cultural mentality.
In his sermon on the importance of Christ’s resurrection, pastor Pierre Mouchon stressed the human inability to escape from sin by comparing sin to corrupted blood that circulates throughout the body. His explanation reflects the perspective of the time that diseases resulted from fluids like blood (hence the practice of “bloodletting”) rather than viruses. With this, Mouchon took the orthodox theological understanding of inherited sin and grounded it in physiological explanation.
Pastor Ezekiel Gallatin also incorporated scientific examples into his preaching. Gallatin turned to the telescope, microscope, and gravity to illustrate the meaning behind 1 Corinthians 13:9–12 (that we see now through a glass dimly). Without the telescope, the naked eye would never have discovered the vast expansiveness of the universe. Similarly, the microscope allowed the discovery of microorganisms 20,000 times smaller than could be seen by the human eye. Yet, even with this, human understanding grasps only a small part of what God has achieved. Even with the telescope and the microscope, we literally look through a glass dimly. For Gallatin, this was not an opportunity to wallow but to revel in God’s revelation through his Son and the promise that our human curiosity and knowledge will be fully satisfied at the end of the age.
Just as science was welcome in the sermon, so clergy were welcome in the academy’s scientific posts. The vast majority of professors holding posts in the new sciences at Geneva’s Academy (today the University of Geneva) were ordained pastors. Geneva’s first chair of mathematics, established in 1704, was held by the ordained pastor François-Etienne Jallabert. His son, Jean Jallabert, was also an ordained Genevan pastor and professor of experimental physics, mathematics, and philosophy.
Founded by John Calvin as a seminary and law school, Geneva’s Academy grew in prestige over the century as it embraced experimental philosophy and mechanistic physics. Supported by Geneva’s Company of Pastors, Jean Jallabert worked at the forefront of experimenting with electricity to treat illness. In fact, his electrotherapy is the reason that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was set in 18th-century Geneva. The clergy also supported the establishment of astronomy in the city by raising funds for an observatory and a professor of astronomy. Their support opened the door for the construction of a meteorological building followed by the establishment of a chemistry laboratory. Finally, although White makes a blanket claim about clerical resistance to the addition of lightning conductors within 18th-century cities, Geneva’s clergy caused no such opposition when professor Horace-Bénédict de Saussure planted a lightning rod in Geneva.
The emergence of the new science was not regarded by the clergy of Geneva as revolutionary, and by 1791, Thomas Jefferson had declared, “On the continent of Europe, no place is comparable to Geneva. The sciences are there more modernized than anywhere else.” Without a doubt, the advancement of new science was considerably due to the role of Geneva’s clergy.
New Science in the 21st Century
The notion that Christianity worked tirelessly to block the progress of science from its inception is a difficult perception to dispel, but time and again it does not reflect the historical record.
Eighteenth-century clergy consistently helped their communities understand and interpret the new science transforming their world. They modeled and advocated engagement with science as they integrated it into their ministry.
Even in the post-Darwinian era, theologian-pastors Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield embraced scientific evidence in favor of evolutionary theory, but they also reframed those results theologically and in light of the doctrine of God.
The intersection of science and Christianity is not inherently and historically antagonistic, as the groundbreaking recent publication of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science nuances for the interested reader.
At the same time, we live in a rapidly changing scientific age when boundaries are being crossed that were once never imagined possible: from genetically engineering pigs to grow organs for human transplant to permanently changing the DNA germline of human embryos. The expectation of a robotically driven economy is coupled with extreme efforts to create artificial intelligence that will supposedly function like a deity.
In this day and age, we need Christians in the field of science and in our churches who are able to engage actively and effectively in scientific advancement as well as provide theological and ethical perspectives that can reframe, redirect, and advance discoveries and understandings adeptly in light of Scripture and the claims of the Christian faith. At the very least, first acknowledging that “all truth is God’s truth” will go a long way toward encouraging a needed posture and practice of listening, embracing, cautioning, and contributing to the new science of our 21st-century world.
Jennifer Powell McNutt is associate professor of theology and history of Christianity at Wheaton College, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She is the author of Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685–1798 (Routledge, 2014).
Was this article helpful? Did we miss something? Let us know here.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more