The Christian Character of Michael Faraday
as Revealed in His Personal Life and Recorded Sermons
Ball State University
Muncie, IN 47306
From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (June 1993): 92-95.
During his scientific career Michael Faraday was a well-known public figure. For more than a century now, his scientific activities have been studied and described by various authors. There was another, more private aspect of Michael Faraday - his religious beliefs and activities. Contemporaries, such as Tyndall, Gladstone, and others have given us some insights into Faraday's personal life and character. However, little has been written regarding his religious activities. As an elder in the Sandemanian church, Faraday often presented sermons, or "exhortations," as they were called. Only a few of these have been preserved, but those that have been give us a view which is quite different from the typical biographical information. Here we see not Michael Faraday, the scientist, but Michael Faraday, the Christian.
A considerable amount of research has been done on Michael Faraday as a scientist and on the seeming dichotomy of his scientific and religious beliefs.1 In contrast, little has been written regarding Faraday as a practicing Christian. There are two main sources of information on this topic. One is the various comments made by Faraday's contemporaries, and the other is to be found in his recorded sermons. Both of these sources will be discussed briefly.
It is universally agreed that Michael Faraday was one of the most important
scientists in history. Some historians of science have gone so far as to refer
to him as perhaps "... the greatest experimentalist in the history of
science."2 Faraday was also a devoutly
religious man and a member of the Sandemanian church. His parents were
Sandemanians, he was raised in the beliefs and practices of this religious
group, and continued as a member until his death.
Although Faraday lived a very public scientific life, we know very little of his private life and religious activities. The Sandemanians were a very closed group, and not known especially for their evangelism. In his biography of Faraday, Tyndall pointed out that he was not one to force his religious beliefs upon others. Tyndall commented regarding this, "Never once during an intimacy of fifteen years did he mention religion to me, save when I drew him on to the subject. He then spoke to me without hesitation or reluctance ..."3
Tyndall was Faraday's coworker and succeeded him as head of the Royal Institution. Although his biography deals primarily with scientific matters, there are a few remarks concerned with the character of Michael Faraday. He speaks for example of Faraday's nobleness and gentleness. One of Tyndall's comments is especially interesting. He stated that "[t]he fairest traits of character sketched by Paul, found in him perfect illustration. For he was `blameless, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, apt to teach, not given to filthy lucre.' "4 These attributes referred to by Tyndall are, of course, used by Paul to describe elders or presbyters in the early church. It is interesting that Faraday served as an elder in the Sandemanian church for many years.
One of the most personal biographies of Faraday was written by J.H. Gladstone, who was another close associate of Faraday at the Royal Institution.5 Gladstone wrote of the gentleness and kindness which were so characteristic of Faraday.6 He also described him as having a warmth of temperament, a respect and love for others, and a reverence not only for God, but also for his fellow man.7 He described Faraday as having a child-like simplicity, which parallels Jesus' statement that his followers must become as small children.
Gladstone recounts a statement by Tyndall referring to a meal which he had in the Faraday home. Tyndall described Faraday's prayer as the "... petition of a son into whose heart God had sent the Spirit of his Son, and who with absolute trust asked a blessing from his father."8
The charity and benevolence of Faraday was known to those around him. Gladstone relates how much of his yearly income was given away to the church and various needy individuals. Another biographer described how Faraday "... was continually pressed to be the guest of the high and noble, but he would, if possible, decline, preferring to visit some poor sister in trouble, assist her, take a cup of tea with her, read the Bible and pray."9
In addition to these glimpses of the personal life of Faraday, Gladstone has
recorded one of the few descriptions of Faraday in public worship. Faraday was
an elder in the Sandemanian church from 1840 to 1844 and from 1860 until
1864.10 For most of his adult life he met with his
brethren in the "plain little meeting-house in Paul's Alley, Red-Cross
Street" in London.11
There was no clergy in the Sandemanian church, a noted departure from the Church of Scotland from which this group emerged. The teaching or preaching, which the Sandemanians referred to as the "exhortation," was done by the elders on a rotating basis.
Gladstone described a typical Sunday in which Faraday is to present the exhortation.
It may be his turn to preach. On two sides of a card he has previously sketched out his sermon with the illustrative texts, but the congregation does not see the card, only a little Bible in his hand, the pages of which he turns quickly over, as, fresh from an honest heart, there flows a discourse full of devout thought, clothed largely in the language of Scripture.12,13
Gladstone not only provided us with this interesting description of Faraday's manner of presentation, he also recorded two critiques of his preaching.
One who heard him frequently, and was strongly attached to him, says that his sermons were too parenthetical and rapid in their delivery, with little variety or attractiveness; but another scientific friend, who heard him occasionally, writes, "They struck me as resembling a mosaic work of texts. At first you could hardly understand their juxtaposition and relationship; but as the well-chosen pieces were filled in, by degrees their congruity and fitness became developed, and at last an amazing sense of the power and beauty of the whole filled one's thoughts at the close of the discourse."14
Four sermons or exhortations preached by Michael Faraday were recorded in a small volume entitledSelected Exhortations Delivered to Various Churches of Christ by the Late Michael Faraday, Wm. Buchanan, John M. Baxter, and Alex Moir.15 These sermons are all similar in format. As was already pointed out, these contain a series of quotations from both the Old and New Testaments interspersed with commentary by Faraday. It becomes readily apparent from reading these sermons that Faraday, and no doubt his listeners, were very familiar with the scriptures. Such an extensive use of biblical references would not be possible without an intimate knowledge of the Bible.
The first of these exhortations was delivered in London on July 7, 1861. The main text of the lesson was Matthew 19:16 and John 17:3. This is a short exposition of the account of the Rich Young Ruler. In this sermon Faraday emphasized that salvation cannot be earned by the keeping of the law, and that perfection can come only through Christ who lived a perfect life. Faraday stated, "The law of God required perfect obedience, which man could not render, and it was in the room and stead of guilty man that Christ fulfilled it."16
In the closing remarks Faraday stated:
And therefore, brethren, we ought to value the privilege of knowing God's truth far beyond anything we can have in this world. The more we see the perfection of God's law fulfilled in Christ, the more we ought to thank God for His unspeakable gift.17
I think it interesting to note in passing that these words were penned by a man who is considered by many to be one of the greatest experimental scientists in history. Yet, Faraday clearly places the knowledge of "... God's truth far beyond anything we can have in this world." Thus, for Faraday empirical knowledge gained through science was not of greater value than knowledge gained through revelation. Further, this statement reveals to us a side of Faraday which is not often apparent in his scientific writings, but nonetheless an integral part of his being.
It would seem that Rorie, the editor of the Selected Exhortations, was aware of the significance of these writings in illustrating the religious aspect of Faraday's life. Faraday, as noted above, tended very much to make his religious convictions a private matter, and thus his strong religious beliefs were not known to the general public. Regarding this, Rorie commented that these exhortations exhibited "... a comparatively little known phase of his character, viz., his belief in a still higher means of reaching truth than by scientific investigation alone, namely, as laid open for the instruction and hope of mankind by Divine Revelation."18
The second sermon by Faraday was delivered in London on June 29, 1852. The
text for this sermon was Hebrews 3:12-13. This sermon was very similar in format
to the first, and was an exposition of the portion of the text which reads: "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of
The third sermon was delivered on June 7, 1863, and the text was Mark 8:34
and 38. The theme of this lesson was encouragement toward what Faraday referred
to as "Christian obedience."
Faraday made a very interesting comment in this exhortation regarding the nature of the church.
Think for a moment, brethren, of the Church of Christ, what it means and what it ought to be. Where the Word of God has sounded, there His people are drawn together; in small companies (and we may consider there are many such scattered over the world of whom we know nothing), gathered out of the world, to the obedience of all things that Christ has commanded.19
Michael Faraday presented what is thought to be one of his last sermons in Dundee, Scotland, on August 9, 1863. Gladstone commented on this particular event as follows:
Among the latest of his sermons was one that he preached at Dundee about four hears before his death. He began by telling his audience that his memory was failing, and he feared he could not quote Scripture with perfect accuracy; and then as said one of the elders present, "his face shone like the face of an angel" as he poured forth the words of loving exhortation.20
This exhortation was preached in the meeting-house of the original Sandemanian church, started by John Glas in 1730. Riley gives some additional insight into this event.
As Faraday's long life drew to a close the desire grew upon him to visit the birthplace of the faith that was the mainspring of his being and on 9th August 1863 he preached in the little octagonal meeting house in Dundee built by the followers of John Glas... Faraday's message is a simple homily compounded of Biblical texts and is all the more impressive for its lack of adornment.21,22
The text for this exhortation was taken from John 11:25-26. This is the account of the raising of Lazarus. At this point in time Faraday was 72 years old and of ill-health. No doubt the great hope in the resurrection held by Faraday was of comfort to him as he looked to the day when his time upon this earth would come to an end.
In a letter written some two years earlier to de la Rive, Faraday had referred to his hope of "the future life which lies before us."23 His health continued to decline over the next four years. Gladstone recorded the following account of Faraday's last days:
When his faculties were fading fast, he would sit long at the western window, watching the glories of the sunset; and one day, when his wife drew his attention to a beautiful rainbow that spanned the sky, he looked beyond the falling shower and the many-colored arch, and observed, "He hath set his testimony in the heavens." On August 25, 1867, quietly, almost imperceptively, came the release. There was a philosopher less on earth, and a saint more in heaven.24
The funeral was simple, as Faraday had requested, and attended primarily by
family and brothers and sisters in Christ. He was laid to rest in Highgate
Cemetery in London.
1For a discussion of this topic see:
P. Eichman, "Michael Faraday: Man of God - Man of
Science,"Perspectives on Science and Christian
Faith, Vol. 40, No. 2, 1988, pp. 91-97.
2C.A. Russell,Cross-Currents: Interactions Between Science and Faith, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1985), p. 257.
3J. Tyndall,Faraday as a Discoverer (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1879), p. 185.
4Tyndall, p. 207.
5J.H. Gladstone,Michael Faraday (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1873), pp. 34-37, 52-55. Gladstone himself was deeply religious. He had desired early in life to become a minister, but was persuaded by his family to study science. In later life he was involved in religious movements, wrote several religious pamphlets, and wrote a few hymns.
6Gladstone, p. 88.
7Gladstone, pp. 54, 88.
8Gladstone, pp. 118-119.
9J. Kendall,Michael Faraday: Man of Simplicity. (London: Faber and Faber, 1955), p. 171.
10Gladstone (p. 52) explains the gap in the time Faraday was an elder as follows: "The reason...is said to have been that one Sunday he was absent from the lovefeast, and on inquiry being made, it appeared not only that he had been the guest of the queen, but that he was ready to justify his own conduct in obeying her commands. He, however, continued to worship among his friends, and was, after a while restored to the rights of membership, and eventually to the office of elder." Recently it has been suggested that his dismissal may have had to do with dissention within the Sandemanian church. See: G. Cantor, "Why was Faraday excluded from the Sandemanians in 1844?"British Journal for the History of Science Vol. 22, 1989, 433-437.
11Gladstone, p. 53.
12Gladstone, p. 53.
13Several of these cards are in the archives of the Royal Institution. An example of the note cards has been reproduced in H. Bence-Jones, The Life and Letters of Faraday (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1870) Vol. II, p. 101.
14Gladstone, pp. 54-55.
15Selected Exhortations Delivered to Various Churches of Christ by the Late Michael Faraday, Wm. Buchanan, John M. Baxter, and Alex Moir, J[ames] R[orie], editor, (Dundee: John Leng and Co., Ltc., 1910), p. 5 (hereafter referred to asExhortations). Rorie, an elder in the Sandemanian church in Dundee, was also a scientist and physician.
16Exhortations, p. 16.
17Exhortations, p. 18.
18Exhortations, p. 5.
19Exhortations, p. 26.
20Gladstone, p. 55.
21J.R. Riley,The Hammer and the Anvil (Yorkshire: The Dalesman Publ. Co., 1954), pp. 37-38.
22There is some evidence that Faraday may have travelled to Scotland due to problems in the church (Cantor, personal communication).
23L.P. Williams,The Selected Correspondence of Michael Faraday (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), p. 1001.
24Gladstone, p. 80.