A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
Chapter 12 - From Magic to Chemistry and Physics

The Triumph of Chemistry and Physics

Just at the middle of the seventeenth century, and at the very centre of opposition to physical science, Robert Boyle began the new epoch in chemistry. Strongly influenced by the writings of Bacon and the discoveries of Galileo, he devoted himself to scientific research, establishing at Oxford a laboratory and putting into it a chemist from Strasburg. For this he was at once bitterly attacked. In spite of his high position, his blameless life, his liberal gifts to charity and learning, the Oxford pulpit was especially severe against him, declaring that his researches were destroying religion and his experiments undermining the university. Public orators denounced him, the wits ridiculed him, and his associates in the peerage were indignant that he should condescend to pursuits so unworthy. But Boyle pressed on. His discoveries opened new paths in various directions and gave an impulse to a succession of vigorous investigators. Thus began the long series of discoveries culminating those of Black, Bergmann, Cavendish, Priestley, and Lavoisier, who ushered in the chemical science of the nineteenth century.

Yet not even then without a sore struggle against unreason. And it must here be noticed that this unreason was not all theological. The unreasoning heterodox when intrusted with irresponsible power can be as short-sighted and cruel as the unreasoning orthodox. Lavoisier, one of the best of our race, not only a great chemist but a true man, was sent to the scaffold by the Parisian mob, led by bigoted "liberals" and atheists, with the sneer that the republic had no need of savants. As to Priestley, who had devoted his life to science and to every good work among his fellow-men, the Birmingham mob, favoured by the Anglican clergymen who harangued them as "fellow-churchmen," wrecked his house, destroyed his library, philosophical instruments, and papers containing the results of long years of scientific research, drove him into exile, and would have murdered him if they could have laid their hands upon him. Nor was it entirely his devotion to rational liberty, nor even his disbelief in the doctrine of the Trinity, which brought on this catastrophe. That there was a deep distrust of his scientific pursuits, was evident when the leaders of the mob took pains to use his electrical apparatus to set fire to his papers.

Still, though theological modes of thought continued to sterilize much effort in chemistry, the old influence was more and more thrown off, and truth sought more and more for truth's sake. "Black magic" with its Satanic machinery vanished, only reappearing occasionally among marvel-mongers and belated theologians. "White magic" became legerdemain.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, physical research, though it went on with ever-increasing vigour, felt in various ways the reaction which followed the French Revolution. It was not merely under the Bourbons and Hapsburgs that resistance was offered; even in England the old spirit lingered long. As late as 1832, when the British Association for the Advancement of Science first visited Oxford, no less amiable a man than John Keble - at that time a power in the university - condemned indignantly the conferring of honorary degrees upon the leading men thus brought together. In a letter of that date to Dr. Pusey he complained bitterly, to use his own words, that "the Oxford doctors have truckled sadly to the spirit of the times in receiving the hotchpotch of philosophers as they did." It is interesting to know that among the men thus contemptuously characterized were Brewster, Faraday, and Dalton.

Nor was this a mere isolated exhibition of feeling; it lasted many years, and was especially shown on both sides of the Atlantic in all higher institutions of learning where theology was dominant. Down to a period within the memory of men still in active life, students in the sciences, not only at Oxford and Cambridge but at Harvard and Yale, were considered a doubtful if not a distinctly inferior class, intellectually and socially - to be relegated to different instructors and buildings, and to receive their degrees on a different occasion and with different ceremonies from those appointed for students in literature. To the State University of Michigan, among the greater American institutions of learning which have never possessed or been possessed by a theological seminary, belongs the honour of first breaking down this wall of separation.

But from the middle years of the century chemical science progressed with ever-accelerating force, and the work of Bunsen, Kirchhoff, Dalton, and Faraday has, in the last years of the century, led up to the establishment of Mendeleef's law, by which chemistry has become predictive, as astronomy had become predictive by the calculations of Newton, and biology by the discoveries of Darwin.

While one succession of strong men were thus developing chemistry out of one form of magic, another succession were developing physics out of another form.

First in this latter succession may be mentioned that line of thinkers who divined and reasoned out great physical laws - a line extending from Galileo and Kepler and Newton to Ohm and Faraday and Joule and Helmholtz. These, by revealing more and more clearly the reign of law, steadily undermined the older theological view of arbitrary influence in nature. Next should be mentioned the line of profound observers, from Galileo and Torricelli to Kelvin. These have as thoroughly undermined the old theologic substitution of phrases for facts. When Galileo dropped the differing weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, he began the end of Aristotelian authority in physics. When Torricelli balanced a column of mercury against a column of water and each of these against a column of air, he ended the theologic phrase that "nature abhors a vacuum." When Newton approximately determined the velocity of sound, he ended the theologic argument that we see the flash before we hear the roar because "sight is nobler than hearing." When Franklin showed that lightning is caused by electricity, and Ohm and Faraday proved that electricity obeys ascertained laws, they ended the theological idea of a divinity seated above the clouds and casting thunderbolts.

Resulting from the labour of both these branches of physical science, we have the establishment of the great laws of the indestructibility of matter, the correlation of forces, and chemical affinity. Thereby is ended, with various other sacred traditions, the theological theory of a visible universe created out of nothing, so firmly imbedded in the theological thought of the Middle Ages and in the Westminster Catechism.

In our own time some attempt has been made to renew this war against the physical sciences. Joseph de Maistre, uttering his hatred of them, declaring that mankind has paid too dearly for them, asserting that they must be subjected to theology, likening them to fire - good when confined and dangerous when scattered about - has been one of the main leaders among those who can not relinquish the idea that our body of sacred literature should be kept a controlling text-book of science. The only effect of such teachings has been to weaken the legitimate hold of religion upon men.

In Catholic countries exertion has of late years been mainly confined to excluding science or diluting it in university teachings. Early in the present century a great effort was made by Ferdinand VII of Spain. He simply dismissed the scientific professors from the University of Salamanca, and until a recent period there has been general exclusion from Spanish universities of professors holding to the Newtonian physics. So, too, the contemporary Emperor of Austria attempted indirectly something of the same sort; and at a still later period Popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX discouraged, if they did not forbid, the meetings of scientific associations in Italy. In France, war between theology and science, which had long been smouldering, came in the years 1867 and 1868 to an outbreak. Toward the end of the last century, after the Church had held possession of advanced instruction for more than a thousand years, and had, so far as it was able, kept experimental science in servitude - after it had humiliated Buffon in natural science, thrown its weight against Newton in the physical sciences, and wrecked Turgot's noble plans for a system of public instruction - the French nation decreed the establishment of the most thorough and complete system of higher instruction in science ever known. It was kept under lay control and became one of the glories of France; but, emboldened by the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, the Church began to undermine this hated system, and in 1868 had made such progress that all was ready for the final assault.

Foremost among the leaders of the besieging party was the Bishop of Orleans, Dupanloup, a man of many winning characteristics and of great oratorical power. In various ways, and especially in an open letter, he had fought the "materialism" of science at Paris, and especially were his attacks levelled at Profs. Vulpian and See and the Minister of Public instruction, Duruy, a man of great merit, whose only crime was devotion to the improvement of education and to the promotion of the highest research in science.

The main attack was made rather upon biological science than upon physics and chemistry, yet it was clear that all were involved together.

The first onslaught was made in the French Senate, and the storming party in that body was led by a venerable and conscientious prelate, Cardinal de Bonnechose, Archbishop of Rouen. It was charged by him and his party that the tendencies of the higher scientific teaching at Paris were fatal to religion and morality. Heavy missiles were hurled - such phrases as "sapping the foundations," "breaking down the bulwarks," and the like; and, withal, a new missile was used with much effect - the epithet "materialist."

The results can be easily guessed: crowds came to the lecture-rooms of the attacked professors, and the lecture-room of Prof. See, the chief offender, was crowded to suffocation.

A siege was begun in due form. A young physician was sent by the cardinal's party into the heterodox camp as a spy. Having heard one lecture of Prof. See, he returned with information that seemed to promise easy victory to the besieging party: he brought a terrible statement - one that seemed enough to overwhelm See, Vulpian, Duruy, and the whole hated system of public instruction in France - the statement that See had denied the existence of the human soul.

Cardinal Bonnechose seized the tremendous weapon at once. Rising in his place in the Senate, he launched a most eloquent invective against the Minister of State who could protect such a fortress of impiety as the College of Medicine; and, as a climax, he asserted, on the evidence of his spy fresh from Prof. See's lecture-room, that the professor had declared, in his lecture of the day before, that so long as he had the honour to hold his professorship he would combat the false idea of the existence of the soul. The weapon seemed resistless and the wound fatal, but M. Duruy rose and asked to be heard.

His statement was simply that he held in his hand documentary proofs that Prof. See never made such a declaration. He held the notes used by Prof. See in his lecture. Prof. See, it appeared, belonged to a school in medical science which combated certain ideas regarding medicine as an art. The inflamed imagination of the cardinal's heresy-hunting emissary had, as the lecture-notes proved, led him to mistake the word "art" for "ame," and to exhibit Prof. See as treating a theological when he was discussing a purely scientific question. Of the existence of the soul the professor had said nothing.

The forces of the enemy were immediately turned; they retreated in confusion, amid the laughter of all France; and a quiet, dignified statement as to the rights of scientific instructors by Wurtz, dean of the faculty, completed their discomfiture. Thus a well-meant attempt to check science simply ended in bringing ridicule on religion, and in thrusting still deeper into the minds of thousands of men that most mistaken of all mistaken ideas: the conviction that religion and science are enemies.

But justice forbids raising an outcry against Roman Catholicism for this. In 1864 a number of excellent men in England drew up a declaration to be signed by students in the natural sciences, expressing "sincere regret that researches into scientific truth are perverted by some in our time into occasion for casting doubt upon the truth and authenticity of the Holy Scriptures." Nine tenths of the leading scientific men of England refused to sign it; nor was this all: Sir John Herschel, Sir John Bowring, and Sir W. R. Hamilton administered, through the press, castigations which roused general indignation against the proposers of the circular, and Prof. De Morgan, by a parody, covered memorial and memorialists with ridicule. It was the old mistake, and the old result followed in the minds of multitudes of thoughtful young men.

And in yet another Protestant country this same mistake was made. In 1868 several excellent churchmen in Prussia thought it their duty to meet for the denunciation of "science falsely so called." Two results followed: upon the great majority of these really self-sacrificing men - whose first utterances showed complete ignorance of the theories they attacked - there came quiet and widespread contempt; upon Pastor Knak, who stood forth and proclaimed views of the universe which he thought scriptural, but which most schoolboys knew to be childish, came a burst of good-natured derision from every quarter of the German nation.

But in all the greater modern nations warfare of this kind, after the first quarter of the nineteenth century, became more and more futile. While conscientious Roman bishops, and no less conscientious Protestant clergymen in Europe and America continued to insist that advanced education, not only in literature but in science, should be kept under careful control in their own sectarian universities and colleges, wretchedly one-sided in organization and inadequate in equipment; while Catholic clerical authorities in Spain were rejecting all professors holding the Newtonian theory, and in Austria and Italy all holding unsafe views regarding the Immaculate Conception, and while Protestant clerical authorities in Great Britain and America were keeping out of professorships men holding unsatisfactory views regarding the Incarnation, or Infant Baptism, or the Apostolic Succession, or Ordination by Elders, or the Perseverance of the Saints; and while both Catholic and Protestant ecclesiastics were openly or secretly weeding out of university faculties all who showed willingness to consider fairly the ideas of Darwin, a movement was quietly in progress destined to take instruction, and especially instruction in the physical and natural sciences, out of its old subordination to theology and ecclesiasticism.

The most striking beginnings of this movement had been seen when, in the darkest period of the French Revolution, there was founded at Paris the great Conservatory of Arts and Trades, and when, in the early years of the nineteenth century, scientific and technical education spread quietly upon the Continent. By the middle of the century France and Germany were dotted with well-equipped technical and scientific schools, each having chemical and physical laboratories.

The English-speaking lands lagged behind. In England, Oxford and Cambridge showed few if any signs of this movement, and in the United States, down to 1850, evidences of it were few and feeble. Very significant is it that, at that period, while Yale College had in its faculty Silliman and Olmsted - the professor of chemistry and the professor of physics most widely known in the United States - it had no physical or chemical laboratory in the modern sense, and confined its instruction in these subjects to examinations upon a text-book and the presentation of a few lectures. At the State University of Michigan, which had even then taken a foremost place in the higher education west of the Great Lakes, there was very meagre instruction in chemistry and virtually none in physics. This being the state of things in the middle of the century in institutions remarkably free from clerical control, it can be imagined what was the position of scientific instruction in smaller colleges and universities where theological considerations were entirely dominant.

But in 1851, with the International Exhibition at London, began in Great Britain and America a movement in favour of scientific education; men of wealth and public spirit began making contributions to them, and thus came the growth of a new system of instruction in which Chemistry and Physics took just rank.

By far the most marked feature in this movement was seen in America, when, in 1857, Justin S. Morrill, a young member of Congress from Vermont, presented the project of a law endowing from the public lands a broad national system of colleges in which scientific and technical studies should be placed on an equality with studies in classical literature, one such college to be established in every State of the Union. The bill, though opposed mainly by representatives from the Southern States, where doctrinaire politics and orthodox theology were in strong alliance with negro slavery, was passed by both Houses of Congress, but vetoed by President Buchanan, in whom the doctrinaire and orthodox spirit was incarnate. But Morrill persisted and again presented his bill, which was again carried in spite of the opposition of the Southern members, and again vetoed in 1859 by President Buchanan. Then came the civil war; but Morrill and his associates did not despair of the republic. In the midst of all the measures for putting vast armies into the field and for saving the Union from foreign interference as well as from domestic anarchy, they again passed the bill, and in 1862, in the darkest hour of the struggle for national existence, it became a law by the signature of President Lincoln.

And here it should not be unrecorded, that, while the vast majority of the supporters of the measure were laymen, most efficient service was rendered by a clergyman, the Rev. Dr. Amos Brown, born in New Hampshire, but at that time an instructor in a little village of New York. His ideas were embodied in the bill, and his efforts did much for its passage.

Thus was established, in every State of the American Union, at least one institution in which scientific and technical studies were given equal rank with classical, and promoted by laboratories for research in physical and natural science. Of these institutions there are now nearly fifty: all have proved valuable, and some of them, by the addition of splendid gifts from individuals and from the States in which they are situated, have been developed into great universities.

Nor was this all. Many of the older universities and colleges thus received a powerful stimulus in the new direction. The great physical and chemical laboratories founded by gifts from public-spirited individuals, as at Harvard, Yale, and Chicago, or by enlightened State legislators, as in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, Kansas, and Nebraska, have also become centres from which radiate influences favouring the unfettered search for truth as truth.

This system has been long enough in operation to enable us to note in some degree its effects on religion, and these are certainly such as to relieve those who have feared that religion was necessarily bound up with the older instruction controlled by theology. While in Europe, by a natural reaction, the colleges under strict ecclesiastical control have sent forth the most powerful foes the Christian Church has ever known, of whom Voltaire and Diderot and Volney and Sainte-Beuve and Renan are types, no such effects have been noted in these newer institutions. While the theological way of looking at the universe has steadily yielded, there has been no sign of any tendency toward irreligion. On the contrary, it is the testimony of those best acquainted with the American colleges and universities during the last forty-five years that there has been in them a great gain, not only as regards morals, but as regards religion in its highest and best sense. The reason is not far to seek. Under the old American system the whole body of students at a university were confined to a single course, for which the majority cared little and very many cared nothing, and, as a result, widespread idleness and dissipation were inevitable. Under the new system, presenting various courses, and especially courses in various sciences, appealing to different tastes and aims, the great majority of students are interested, and consequently indolence and dissipation have steadily diminished. Moreover, in the majority of American institutions of learning down to the middle of the century, the main reliance for the religious culture of students was in the perfunctory presentation of sectarian theology, and the occasional stirring up of what were called "revivals," which, after a period of unhealthy stimulus, inevitably left the main body of students in a state of religious and moral reaction and collapse. This method is now discredited, and in the more important American universities it has become impossible. Religious truth, to secure the attention of the modern race of students in the better American institutions, is presented, not by "sensation preachers," but by thoughtful, sober-minded scholars. Less and less avail sectarian arguments; more and more impressive becomes the presentation of fundamental religious truths. The result is, that while young men care less and less for the great mass of petty, cut-and-dried sectarian formulas, they approach the deeper questions of religion with increasing reverence.

While striking differences exist between the European universities and those of the United States, this at least may be said, that on both sides of the Atlantic the great majority of the leading institutions of learning are under the sway of enlightened public opinion as voiced mainly by laymen, and that, this being the case, the physical and natural sciences are henceforth likely to be developed normally, and without fear of being sterilized by theology or oppressed by ecclesiasticism.

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