The Christian Virtuosi
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."
These charter members of the Royal Society felt that by joining forces, they could better promote the "New Philosophy or Experimental Philosophy" that had been the cause célèbre of English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Gentlemen and scholars all, they called themselves "natural philosophers" or "virtuosi"—that is, lovers of learning. The word "scientist," though we use it here for the sake of convenience, was not yet current. It would be some 170 years before that term entered the English language, paralleling the term "artist."
During the century following the Royal Society's founding, England held an unrivalled position of influence in the European scientific community. Men like Robert Boyle and, later, Isaac Newton were recognized as the pacesetters of science.
The society's founding coincided with the Restoration of the English monarchy, and it brought together a mixed group of both Puritans and Anglicans. These Christians of opposing political and religious views would join in drafting and ratifying a charter that bid all members of the society to pursue the study of nature "to the glory of God and the benefit of the human race."
The Puritans among them, though they did not invent the experimental method, drew upon their iconoclastic roots in ...