Brilliant people in all walks of life can inspire us, showing us the way to improve our own performance. It is natural that we want to try to elucidate how their minds work, to help us in our own quest for excellence.
Matthew chapter 5, verse 16 says “In the same way let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Michael Faraday (1791–1867) was one of the most influential scientists who worked during the Victorian era, and he certainly let his light shine both in science and in his faith.. His careful and methodical experimentation as well as his insightful analysis and evaluation of the results paved the way for modern chemical analysis, and, more obviously the “electronic” era that led to the benefits that we enjoy today.
What made him tick? Why did he observe details that others had missed, and how did he have the presence of mind to put together these observations and come to new conclusions and theories, then put these to the practical tests in so many ways?
Many researchers have looked at the way Faraday’s fundamental Christian principles influenced the way he lived and worked, and that is what I will discuss in this article. He was a committed Christian, a member of a “fundamentalist” nonconformist sect called the Sandemanians, who believed in simple, humble living with care for the disadvantaged in their community, and the absolute truth of the gospel.
As well as his extensive and meticulous experiments that solved many mysteries of the time about chemistry and electricity (most famously, he was the first to show how an electric motor could work using magnetic and electric forces), he was also active in scientific leadership and was an advisor to many Government bodies. His scientific knowledge helped in such diverse areas as the safety of mines, cleaning the pollution in the Thames, and the preservation of art works and sculptures. Yet he refused to be involved in investigating the use of poison gases during war.
On top of all this, he was paramount in fostering scientific education and the Christmas Lectures that he made famous at the Royal Institution in London (that were originally set up by his mentor Sir Humprhy Davy). These are still widely patronised by “young” people of all ages.
If you are interested in details of his many scientific achievements, there are some suggested easy-to-read references at the end of the article.
Among the many scientific establishments that bear his name, is the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. It’s primary aim is to undertake scholarly research and publication on science and religion.
That Faraday was able to follow his passion and his “calling” to do science at that time in British society was a remarkable feat. That he achieved such heights in both his profession and in the eyes of “high society”, including Queen Victoria herself, is close to miraculous.
In those days, people like Faraday whose families were working class and/or poor got neither the opportunities to do science, nor even an education beyond primary school.
The Sandemonians were not particularly interested in education, believing in the simple ways of the Bible. But Faraday got his break when (due to the necessity of earning a living), he became the messenger boy for a book-binder, and eventually an apprentice. As he was working with the books, he read them and became interested in the scientific experiments described in some of them. He took himself off to some cheap scientific lectures and self-help groups, because his natural curiosity and brilliance made him skeptical of the results of any experiments he couldn’t reproduce for himself, and he wanted to know more. Eventually, the bookbinder, George Riebau, set up a small laboratory for him to use after hours, and so his life of science, with his acute analysis of experimental results, began.
In the early 1800s, it was actually easier for women of privilege (in those days just called “rich, upper class women”) to indulge in a passion for science than it was for poor people such as Faraday. It is relevant here to mention that Faraday knew and corresponded with some of those whose books he was binding. Some of these were women who were not allowed to attend Universities, but because of their social status and help from their families, they also followed their passions in learning about science for themselves. Three of them were: Jane Marcet (who wrote educational material on chemistry); Mary Somerville (who did the same for maths and physics); and Ada Lovelace (famous for helping Charles Babbage with “programming” the very first computer).
“Man of science, man of God” - an enigma?
One thing that fascinates me about Faraday is how he rose from poverty to become such a great and respected man in Victorian society; yet he remained such a humble man, only taking enough for his immediate needs and certainly not living the high life of some of his peers.
Even when he was successful as a scientist, famous and extremely well-respected in high London society, he accepted only modest lodgings as President of the Royal Institution (the research Institution), eschewing the more elaborate dwellings of his peers; he refused a knighthood; he refused the Presidency of Royal Society (the “club” of famous scientists) so he could continue with what he regarded as his God-given talents for research; and he instructed his family to insist on private burial, although he was offered a place at Westminster Abbey alongside Newton. A plaque was subsequently placed there to honour him.
Many researchers attribute this attitude to his deep Christian faith. Although, as a prominent and very well respected scientist, Faraday generally kept his religious views private, it seems to various historians, that his Christian faith informed every aspect of his life - private, public and scientific.
As evidence for this influence, some of his public quotations include: “...the Creator governs his material works by definite laws resulting from the forces impressed on matter.”; “the laws of nature, as we understand them, are the foundations of knowledge of natural things.”; ”the natural works of God can never by any possibility come into contradiction with the higher things that belong to our future existence.”; and “mathemaics offers only a limited training for the mind since it deals with logical relationships and not with the behaviour of physical objects in the world.”
One of the most interesting investigations about the way the Bible influenced Faraday’s thinking has been done by Herbert Pratt, who found Faraday’s two personal bibles that had been extensively annotated. From these, he proposed some of the ways in which Faraday’s faith informed his life and his science. I thought this was a most intriguing way of trying to find out what such a great man was thinking, and what he thought was important.
In particular, it is often quoted that Faraday gained inspiration from Romans chapter 1, verse 20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made ...” because he was known to quote this in one of his public lectures. But there is an enigma. Firstly, in his quotation Faraday left off the final line “… so that people are without excuse” ; secondly, the context of this passage (Romans chapter 2) gives it a totally different meaning, discussing the ideas of judgement on others and by God on you; and thirdly, Pratt has shown that this passage was not underlined in his personal Bibles. Instead, it seems — in his personal reflections — he was more interested in other, deeper reflections.
So why did he quote this passage in his lecture? It seems to me that in his quest for excellence in all things, including public education, Faraday had already learnt the art of how to inspire an audience with a good turn of phrase, and so he used that partial quote from Romans to inspire his audience. His own guidance was from a more reasoned, complex and philosophical reading of his Bible.
The research technique of analysing someone’s notes in their own personal Bibles is a really interesting and insightful way of finding how they gained their guidance for their life’s work, and could also be an inspiration to all of us. If you are interested in this line of research, I suggest you read Herbert Pratt’s paper mentioned in the list below
In conclusion, Faraday’s life and work shows that it is not only possible, but beneficial and inspirational, that “men and women of God” can also be effective “men and women of science” within our society. In Faraday’s words, there is no conflict.
Some extra reading about Faraday’s science and religious views
For a general short overview:
For comments on his Christian faith:
• Michael Faraday: Scientist and Nonconformist by I.H. Hutchinson
• Michael Faraday’s Bibles as Mirrors of his Faith by Herbert T. Pratt in “The Bulletin of the Histoy of Chemistry” vol 11, pp 40-47 (1991). http://www.scs.illinois.edu/~mainzv/HIST/bulletin_open_access/bull91-3-num11.php (This whole issue is dedicated Faraday on the 200th anniversary of his birth)
For excellent Plain English stories on his life and science:
• “The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes (Harper Collins, 2008) (Faraday is discussed in the chapter on his mentor, Sir Humphrey Davy).
• “Five Equations that Changed the World” by Michael Guillen (Abacus, 1995. Reprinted 2000) (Chapter entitled “Class Act”) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Equations_That_Changed_the_World
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children. Dr Tronson writes a daily article for Christian Today Australia (since 2008) and in November 2016 established Christian Today New Zealand.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html