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The combustible compatibility of science and religion

25 August 2017

Michael Wheeler celebrates the ‘natural philosopher’ and fundamentalist Christian Michael Faraday

World History Archive/SuperStock

Man of parts: a wood engraving of Faraday as a bookbinder’s apprentice, in the laboratory, and lecturing at the RI, of 1881

Man of parts: a wood engraving of Faraday as a bookbinder’s apprentice, in the laboratory, and lecturing at the RI, of 1881

MICHAEL FARADAY died 150 years ago today, on 25 August 1867, at the age of 75, seated in the invalid’s chair that is now preserved in the South Library of the Athenæum Club.

The greatest scientist of early-Victorian England, Faraday was often portrayed lecturing at the Royal Institution (RI), one arm outstretched as he emphasised a point or indicated a piece of apparatus; he enchanted audiences that included the Prince Consort and George Eliot, as well as flocks of children at his Christmas series. He spoke in a quite different setting when “exhorting” his Sandemanian brothers and sisters in their London chapel, where he became one of three elders in 1840.

The story of the genius who rose from the humblest of backgrounds to be garlanded with honours at home and abroad (and was one of Margaret Thatcher’s heroes) was sketched by Samuel Smiles, in Self-help (1859). Faraday’s modern biographers, however, are fascinated by his dual identity as experimental “natural philosopher” and fundamentalist Christian.


FARADAY’S father, James, worked in London as a blacksmith, having moved the family south in search of work. James had joined the London chapel of the tiny sect, which was founded by John Glas when he broke away from the Church of Scotland in 1725; it migrated to England through Glas’s son-in-law, Robert Sandeman.

The Sandemanians, whose lives of simplicity and humility were grounded in the imitation of Christ and a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, placed great emphasis upon community (they adopted the “kiss of charity”). But it was a closed community — the “separation of the righteous” — which had no hierarchy, and which spoke with one voice. Sunday services went on all day and included a nourishing “Love Feast”.

The London chapel that the Faraday family attended on Wednesday evenings as well as Sundays had around one hundred members, one sixth of the national total. Already in decline in the 1830s, the sect dwindled to extinction by the 1980s.

In 1844, Faraday and 18 other members of the London chapel were excluded for a few weeks, probably as a result of a dispute concerning discipline within the sect as a whole. In the same year, he was pressed to describe his faith by the mathematician Ada, Lady Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke), in an exchange of letters.

“There is no philosophy in my religion,” he wrote, “I am of a very small and despised sect of Christians known, if known at all, as Sandemanians, and our hope is founded on the faith that is in Christ. But though the natural works of God can never by any possibility come in contradiction with the higher things that belong to our future existence, and must with every thing concerning Him ever glorify him still, I do not think it at all necessary to tie the study of the natural sciences and religion together and in my intercourse with my fellow creatures that which is religious and that which is philosophical have ever been two distinct things.”


FARADAY had received only a rudimentary schooling before being apprenticed to a bookbinder, at the age of 14. Reading in the bindery, he was attracted to the study of chemistry, and sought instruction. This he found at 53 Dorset Street, near Fleet Street, the home of John Tatum and his City Philosophical Society. Faraday also joined Edward Magrath and other friends in private sessions of mutual improvement, when they worked on one another’s grammar and pronunciation.

Having been given tickets to hear Sir Humphry Davy’s final lectures at the RI, he was subsequently appointed as an assistant in the chemical laboratory in 1813. Soon, he was whisked away on the Grand Tour by Sir Humphry, whose overbearing wife treated Faraday as a valet rather than an aspiring professional, although, in the course of the tour, meetings were held with several leading Continental scientists. On his return in 1815, Faraday resumed his post at the RI and remained there for more than 50 years.

Not long into this was Faraday’s annus mirabilis of 1821: he became acting Superintendent of the House at the RI, discovered what he called “electromagnetic rotation” (the principle behind the electric motor), married Sarah Barnard, and made his profession of faith at the London chapel, thereby joining her in full membership. In a community of few families, the Faradays were unusual in being childless, although at least two nieces spent some years with them in their quarters at the RI.

In 1824, Faraday was elected to the Royal Society, briefly served as acting Secretary of the newly founded Athenæum (a post he handed on to Magrath), and received the first of many scientific honours. By the end of the 1830s, his work on electromagnetic induction — using devices that were, in effect, the first transformer and dynamo — and his construction of the “Faraday cage” had secured him worldwide fame.


ALTHOUGH he kept his religious life separate from his professional activities, Faraday concluded a lecture series on electricity and magnetism in 1846 by declaring that all “the power that God has infused into matter, He uses for various effects in creation.” Both Geoffrey Cantor and Frank James have modified our conception of the “warfare” between science and religion in Victorian England by looking closely at Faraday, who seems not to have engaged with the troubling implications of Lyell’s and Darwin’s findings in geology and biology. Neither Cantor nor James, however, has underestimated the tensions between Faraday’s Sandemanianism and the demands of his public positions, reflected in the breakdowns that he suffered, and in his failing health later in life.

Gorer places Faraday in a tradition that can be termed “scriptural physics”, and argues that his idiosyncratic methods as an experimental “natural philosopher” were not merely the result of his education, or lack of it (unlike several of his peers, for example, he had not studied maths at Cambridge).

In Gorer’s view, natural philosophy and religion were for Faraday two separate and rigid systems. (James Hamilton goes much further, claiming that the Faraday of the RI was “not the same man” as the Faraday of the Sandemanian chapel.) Faraday regarded himself as the servant of both institutions, hence his refusal, later in life, of the Presidency of the RI. And it was loyalty to both that proved to be his mainstay over half a century.


MUCH of Faraday’s time was taken up with work as a scientific adviser — on glass manufacture, on lighthouses, on safety in mines, among other things — and as a trustee of charities and public bodies. In 1858, Queen Victoria enabled a grace-and-favour house on the Green at Hampton Court to be made available to the Faradays, when they needed respite from their accommodation in sooty Albemarle Street.

The man who had humbly submitted to correction of his grammar in his youth, and to temporary expulsion from his chapel in middle age was now regarded as both great and good.


Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library.

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