Science in Christian Perspective


Boyle, Christian Gentleman
Raymond Seeger
(NSF Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20816

From: JASA 37 (September 1985): 183-184.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Christopher Wren (1632-1723) in their early thirties were regarded by their British contemporaries as "the wonders of the age." Boyle was cited in the poetry of James Thomson and William Cowper. Although called the father of chemistry he was truly an amateur and owed his reputation largely to his social position and personal character.

His industrious father, the first Earl of Cork, said to be the richest man in Great Britain and the most influential in Ireland, had married the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Robert, their fourteenth child, was their seventh son; his mother died when he was two. Studious and truthful, he was tutored at home until eight, when he was sent to Eton; there he developed a passion for reading to acquire knowledge. At twelve he and an older brother Francis were sent with a tutor to study on the continent. At fifteen he was introduced to natural philosophy and mechanics. When his father died the following year, he inherited some estates, including Stalbridge Manor, Dorsetshire. Three years later he spent six years there reading (e.g., F. Bacon, Descartes, Gassendi) and writing (theological concerns).

At twenty-seven through John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, he settled in a house on High Street (where the Shelley Memorial of University College now stands). There he set up a laboratory and secured a staff including assistants (e.g., Robert Hooke), secretaries (he had weak eyes), et al.; he collected various items such as gems. He himself attended the weekly meetings of the so-called "invisible college," where the new experimental philosophy was discussed. (At thirty he was given an honorary Dr. Phys. by Oxford University.) Three years later he went to live with his older sister Katherine, Lady Ranelagh, in her house on Pall Mail, London (he never married). (His oldest brother, then Earl of Burlington and Cork, built the elaborate Burlington House, which has become the headquarters of the Royal Society of London.) Their home became a focus of London society. After some paralytic strokes he died at sixty-one and was buried in the chancel of St. Martins-the-Fields, London-without pomp.

Boyle's life was a model of piety and humility. To his insatiable curiosity and indomitable persistence, he added integrity of mind. To his shrewd business ability and scrupulous honesty, he joined a broad generosity. He refused various honors and appointments, e.g., in the church, a peerage, Provost of Eton, President of the Royal Society (1680). He gave one-third of his Irish income for the propagation of the gospel among the North American Indians (e.g., support of the missionary John Eliot) and the other two-thirds for the poor and ministers in Ireland. In his will he bequeathed the income from his unentailed property for Irish poor, preachers and their wives, and, in general, for good, pious purposes.

Boyle made no epoch-making scientific discoveries. He was more of a laboratory director than an individual researcher. For example, his best known work, Boyle's Law, was largely due to the manipulative skill of Hooke, who produced in 1659 an air pump (now in the Royal Society Library) like that invented five years earlier by Otto von Guericke. Their observations were published in Boyle's first scientific paper "On the Spring and Weight of the Air" (1660). Two years later in a reply to Franciscus Linus he added an appendix which contained the law relating pressure and volume at constant temperature.

Boyle did not continue his work in physics, but concentrated on chemistry; he was always an enthusiast for alchemy. His most famous writing was "The Sceptical Chemist" (1661), in which he criticized the ancients' four elements (earth, water, air, fire) and the medievalists' three principles (mercury, salt, sulfur). In the appendix to the second edition (1680) he defined an element as a substance that cannot be further decomposed by experiment-thus emphasizing empirical analysis.

In 1662 Charles 11 chartered the Royal Society (patron, St. Andrew). Boyle was a founding member and on its first Council (Hooke was made Curator). Prior to Isaac Newton he was its chief glory; all in all, he had 35 articles in its Transactions. Between 1660 and 1673 he published rapidly. He popularized science by demonstrating his experiments and by expounding the new philosophy simply.

Boyle was not just a teacher and propagandist; above all, he was a lay preacher and, through his writings, a prolific author of religious topics. Only one, however, was devoted to dogmatic theology, viz., "Protestant and Papist;" he was opposed to the papacy with its claims of catholicity and infallibility. He was, moreover, unsympathetic with all sectarianism; he preferred the via media of Anglicanism. He hated bitterly all religious strife over creeds and ceremonies. Although a regular church attendant, to him Christianity meant essentially the practice of holy living; its fruits, peace and charity.

Throughout his life he had a conviction of personal Divine Guidance. A turning point occurred when he was thirteen during a night thunderstorm in Geneva; he made a vow of piety; four years later his faith was established. A second crisis occurred when he perceived in science "a means of discovering the nature and purpose of God;" he realized, of course, that revelations about the Creator in the book of nature are not as significant as those about the Saviour in the Scriptures. All his work and thought became saturated with religion, composed in an atmosphere of humility. He definitely eschewed Holy Orders so that he might pursue theology freely-and hence more effectively. In 1661, at the request of Lord Broghill, a brother, he published "Some Considerations Touching the Style of the Scriptures," noting the usual problems of translation associated with when, by whom, to whom, for what purpose. He himself believed in miracles, e.g., Jesus walking on the sea.

He believed the study of nature and the attributes of God were the noblest aim of life. In "The Excellency of Theology, Compared with Natural Philosophy" (1674, written 1665), he noted, "The vastness, beauty, orderliness of heavenly bodies; the excellent structure of animals and plants; and other phenomena of nature justly induce an intelligent, unprejudiced observer to conclude a supreme, powerful, just, and good author."

Boyle had a lifelong passion to educate and Christianize the native populations of Ireland, America, and the Orient. Accordingly, he subsidized various translations of the New Testament, e.g., Arabic, Turkish, et al. In his will, moreover, he left funds for eight annual lectures in a London parish "for proving the Christian religion against notorious infidels." The first Boyle Lecture (1662) on "A Confutation of Atheism," was given by Richard Bentley, then Chaplain to Bishop Stillingfleet (later Master, Trinity College, Cambridge), at St. Martin-in-the- Fields (the remaining at St. Mary-le-Bow's). The author submitted drafts to Newton, who replied in four celebrated letters, generally approving, but adding some additional arguments in support. The last lecture argued in favor of a Divine Providence from the constitution of the universe as demonstrated in the Principia.

This is the fourteenth in a series on scientists and their religion.