Sometime in 1664 the young Isaac Newton abandoned his hitherto dutiful undergraduate note-taking on the standard Cambridge curriculum, dominated, as it had been for centuries, by classical languages and the works of Aristotle. Instead, his notebooks begin to trace his excited response to radical new scientific and philosophical ideas culled from the works of René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi. This risqué engagement with suspect French Catholic thinkers, considered in Restoration Cambridge the last word in avant-garde modernity, was to trigger the emergence of Newton’s own far greater scientific genius. With astonishing rapidity, the earnest and melancholy young loner moved from admiring assimilation to pioneering explorations in philosophy, mathematics, and the physical sciences. Over the next three years, during which plague raged and London burned, Newton laid the groundwork for the innovations in mathematics, optics, astronomy, and theoretical physics whose gradual (and on Newton’s part sometimes reluctant) publication in the 1670s and 1680s would transform Western science.
Newton’s astonishing precocity in what his age called “Natural Philosophy” is well known. Reported and embellished in his own lifetime by admiring disciples, it made him that unlikely thing: a celebrity intellectual. The first scientist ever to be knighted, for the last twenty-three years of his life he dominated English thought as president of the Royal Society, and his name became Enlightenment England’s shorthand for transcendent scientific genius—in Alexander Pope’s famous couplet:
Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light.
What was less well known to his contemporaries, and largely forgotten for centuries after his death, was that Newton did not consider the mathematical and scientific discoveries on which his fame rested to be the most important aspects of his life’s work. The greatest scientific mind of the Enlightenment was also an ardent alchemist who accumulated the most remarkable library of alchemical books and manuscripts in Europe. Years of refined but futile experimentation with mercury and other poisonous metals in search of an alchemical panacea to cure all ills may well have undermined his health and contributed to at least one bout of insanity. Even more remarkably, Newton laid more weight and devoted more time to the study of the Bible and the history of religion than to more strictly scientific pursuits. From the late 1670s onward he was increasingly preoccupied with theological study and writing, to which at times his scientific pursuits seemed an irritating interruption.
Almost none of the resulting theological writing saw the light of day in Newton’s lifetime, and until the late twentieth century it was studiously ignored, patronized, or dismissed by biographers and historians of science as an embarrassing aberration. But its importance for an understanding of Newton’s mind can be gauged from its sheer bulk. When a collection of his private papers was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1936, it contained more than 200,000 words on biblical chronology and another million on biblical interpretation, church history, and other branches of theology. These papers attracted few buyers, and many were later donated to the National Library of Israel. A separate cache of over a thousand pages of notes on biblical chronology is in New College, Oxford, there are more on chronology and ancient history in the Bodleian Library, while another collection on ecclesiastical history and doctrine, somewhat improbably rescued and donated by the economist John Maynard Keynes, is in the library of King’s College, Cambridge.
Some of Newton’s theological speculations were directly related to his scientific work. His conception of the universe as infinitely extended, for example, flowed from his belief that all being involved extension, and since God was an illimitable being, the infinite extension of space was a necessary consequence of God’s existence. In a similar way, he believed that because human beings were made in the image of God, reflection on how immaterial human minds could move our material bodies to action could throw light on the question of how God as pure spirit related to the physical creation. This was the root of his controversial claim that the infinite space of the universe in some way operated as the “sensorium” of God, as bodies do for souls, a claim that predictably brought accusations that he had followed Spinoza into materialism, and that he was subsequently forced to qualify.
But Newton’s theological explorations took him far beyond the borderlands between physics and metaphysics. The obscurity surrounding his theological activity was no accident. He went to considerable trouble to conceal its nature and extent from all but a few trusted friends, because from the later 1670s onward Newton knew himself to be an arch-heretic. Secrecy in any case came naturally to a man whose personality had a strong paranoid streak. William Whiston, Newton’s onetime friend, disciple, and successor in the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, described him as a man of “the most fearful, cautious, and suspicious Temper, that I ever knew.”
In this matter, caution was fully justified. Had Newton’s religious opinions been made public, they would certainly have resulted in his ignominious expulsion from the university and the probable end of his scientific career. For Newton had come to believe that for almost a millennium and a half the entire Christian world, including the Church of England, had been in the grip of a deadly and idolatrous delusion, fraudulently propagated by corrupt priests and monks led by “Saint” Athanasius. The false and blasphemous doctrine of the Trinity, which made Christ equal to God, was, he believed, the “great Apostasy” and the conduit for the spread of other deadly perversions of true Christianity—vowed celibacy and the monastic life, the claims of the priesthood, and the growth of papal authority chief among them.
Newton had of course imbibed his belief in the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church from the Puritan tradition, in which he had been nurtured and which was still a powerful influence in Restoration Cambridge. That the pope was Antichrist was an axiom of seventeenth-century Protestantism, and many of Newton’s Cambridge teachers and mentors spilled oceans of ink and preached hours of sermons detailing the darkness into which papal abomination had plunged the Western church. In all this, the mysterious prophecies of Daniel and the Book of Revelation loomed large. The outpoured vials, trumpets, horsemen, and plagues of biblical Apocalypse were believed to be components of a divine code, from which those with the right key could read detailed information about the past and future history of the church and the world.
The days and dates mentioned in the Bible were believed to be a crucial part of this code, and Cambridge had a strong tradition of scholarship in biblical chronology and prophecy, designed to pinpoint exactly when the Catholic Church had sold its soul to Satan, and to alert readers to the turning points of history, the likely date of the longed-for downfall of the papal Antichrist, and the historical upheavals that would precede Christ’s Second Coming. It was a tradition in which Newton was known to be immersed, and those in the know hoped that this genius might bring a new mathematical accuracy and refinement to deciphering these mysteries.
But most of the exponents of this tradition combined hatred of Rome with acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity as a central plank of true Christianity, and believed the Church of England to be firmly on the side of the angels in the struggle against Antichrist. And the religious politics of Restoration England, with the alarming prospect of the succession of Charles II’s Catholic brother James to England’s Protestant throne, brought a new urgency to their already avid interest. Some of the best minds of the day were convinced that history was moving toward a final confrontation between Protestant light and papal darkness. Henry More, a poet, philosopher, and theologian, and one of the Cambridge teachers who had exerted influence on the young Newton, wrote and published a series of urgent apocalyptic commentaries in 1680, prompted by the so-called Popish Plot to assassinate Charles II.
Not so Newton. He was as horrified as anyone else by the advent of a Catholic king, and he played a prominent and dangerous part in the university’s resistance to James II’s attempts to establish Catholics in Cambridge. But for him the Great Apostasy went far deeper than popery, and the Church of England itself, by enforcing Trinitarian belief, was deeply compromised. True Christianity was known and practiced only by a handful of enlightened souls like himself: “I mean not all that call themselves Christians, but a remnant, a few scattered persons which God hath chosen, such as without being blinded, led by interest, education, or humane authorities, can set themselves sincerely and earnestly to search after truth.”
His own search after truth led Newton to immerse himself not only in biblical commentaries but in an exhaustive reading of the history of the early church, and the writings of the Church Fathers. From these he constructed a sorry narrative of defilement and decay, as the original purity of the Gospel was contaminated by the exaltation of a creature, Christ, to the throne of God himself, and the consequent seepage of idolatry into every area of the church’s life, above all in the worship of the dead (in the cult of the saints) and of material bread in the eucharist. The villain of this narrative was Athanasius, who at the Council of Nicaea in 325 had beguiled the church into accepting the unity of substance between God and Christ, and whose biography of Saint Anthony had been instrumental in spreading the poison of monasticism. Over the centuries the deepening deception had been promoted by crafty priests whose self-interest had enslaved the minds of Christians and branded as heretics those who held fast to true Christianity.
Newton’s heterodoxy was not confined to the internal history of the church. For anyone who accepted the literal truth of biblical narrative, the existence of the multitude of contending world religions was a puzzle. If all but a single family of the human race had been wiped out in the Flood, how had the religions of the Gentiles arisen? These questions were much debated, and the conventional answer was that the descendants of the sons of Noah—Ham, Shem, and Japheth—had fallen away from the truth inherited from the Patriarchs, and polytheism had been the result.
Newton accepted this solution in broad outline, but added to the speculations of earlier scholars his own remarkable refinements. He ransacked centuries of scholarly speculation and synthesized biblical and pagan sources for the ancient history of the Near East to construct an extraordinary treatise, endlessly redrafted—“The Philosophical Origins of the Gentile Theology.” The religion of the Patriarchs and of Noah, he believed, had been in essence the rational worship of the God of Nature. There was no way “to come to the knowledge of a Deity but by the frame of nature.” True religion and sound astronomy went together. The ancients had understood the real nature of the heavens, knowing them to be composed of a limitless vacuum in which the planets orbited the sun. The earliest temples, Newton believed, had been models of the solar system, circular enclosures surrounding a sacred fire that represented the sun. “The whole heavens they recconed to be the true & real Temple of God & therefore…they framed it so as in the fittest manner to represent the whole systeme of the heavens.”
But humanity’s inherent inclination to idolatry, and the crafty pursuit of power by kings and priests, had combined to corrupt both true knowledge of the heavens and true worship of the God who had made the heavens. The genuine understanding of the universe that had been expressed symbolically in ancient philosophy and religious worship began to be interpreted literally, the circling stars imagined as embedded in crystal spheres. Over the course of time the stars and other heavenly bodies were given the names of honored ancestors, the descendants of Noah’s children who had divided the world among themselves. Eventually those ancestors came to be venerated as kings, then projected into the heavens and worshiped as gods.
Newton’s attempt to construct a coherent single narrative of the origin and decline of true religion, encompassing all known ancient civilizations, involved extraordinary ingenuity and formidable scholarship in arcane sources. It also involved a drastic reduction of “real” Christianity to little more than the ancient natural religion he thought had been practiced by Noah and the Patriarchs. Christ was the Messiah and the most exalted of God’s messengers, but he stood in a long line of prophets from Moses onward who had sought to recall mankind from idolatry and corrupt religion. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Newton saw himself as standing in that same illustrious line of reformers.
But if Newton burned with indignation against what he took to be the doctrinal corruptions prevailing across the Christian world, natural timidity prevented him from making any prophetic stance. In the mountains of paper he devoted to tracing the perversion of true religion he raged against priests, creeds, and institutional Christianity in language reminiscent of the contemporary diatribes of skeptics and deists. Like them, Newton rarely participated in public worship, being a notorious absentee from his college chapel. He avoided subscription to the teachings of the Church of England by obtaining a royal dispensation from the requirement that fellows of Trinity College should be ordained. But his manifest moral earnestness and his interest in biblical interpretation earned him a reputation for serious but conventional piety. He seems only once to have come close to a public declaration of his real opinions.
In the early 1690s Newton formed a close friendship with the philosopher John Locke. They shared many interests, and Locke was deeply impressed by Newton’s astonishingly detailed knowledge of the Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity had come increasingly under attack from Unitarian Christians, like the followers of the heretical Polish theologian Fausto Sozzini, as well as from outright religious unbelievers, and Locke took a close interest in the issue, accumulating an extensive library of mainly anti-Trinitarian books. Emboldened by this, in November 1690 Newton sent Locke a draft treatise attacking two of the principal New Testament texts used in support of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
This was “An Historical Account of two notable Corruptions of Scripture, in a letter to a Friend.” The scriptural passages in question were I John 5:7, the so-called Johannine Comma, and I Timothy 3:16. As these passages occurred in the King James Bible, each contained explicit statements of the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. In fact, these Trinitarian references were additions to the original Greek text, inserted at the time of the Arian controversy in the fourth century—they are omitted or noted in the margin in all modern editions. In 1690, however, Newton’s demolition of their authenticity was a potential bombshell, which would have clearly identified him as an anti-Trinitarian heretic, a likelihood compounded by the pamphlet’s pugnaciously dismissive tone:
Tis the temper of the hot and superstitious part of mankind in matters of religion ever to be fond of mysteries, & for that reason to like best what they understand least.
Locke was impressed, and undertook to have the treatise translated into French and published anonymously in the Netherlands, an offer Newton eagerly accepted. Predictably, he soon developed cold feet, pretended that he had never authorized publication, and insisted that the treatise be suppressed. It would eventually resurface fifty years later and, since Newton was then safely dead, it was published under his own name. But in his lifetime, Sir Isaac’s reputation remained unsullied. His views were nevertheless contagious, and some of his most talented disciples would be more outspoken, and would pay the price. His successor in the Lucasian Chair, William Whiston, adopted Newton’s anti-Trinitarianism and loathing of Athanasius, but unlike his master, campaigned openly against the Athanasian corruption of Christianity. For his pains he was denounced in Convocation, stripped of his college fellowship, and expelled from the university. Whiston was compelled to make a living lecturing on science and mathematics in the London and Bath coffeehouses. Characteristically, Newton disowned him.
Newton’s religious heterodoxy is well documented, and has been explored by previous biographers like Frank Manuel and Richard Westfall. So in one sense, Priest of Nature, Rob Iliffe’s exhaustive new study of Newton’s religion, offers few real surprises. But no previous study has so thoroughly laid out the relation between Newton’s religious writings and the relevant works by his predecessors and contemporaries. And no previous study has conveyed so vividly the dominance of these religious preoccupations through most of his long career. Newton’s scholarly life, Iliffe insists, “was suffused with an overriding religious purpose.” He brought to bear on his religious explorations the same formidable intellectual resources and methods that made him so great a scientist, the “heroic intellectual labour that produced the monumental works in theology, natural philosophy and mathematics that survive today.”
All that is true enough, and the reader who perseveres through Iliffe’s dense and demanding book will emerge with a heightened appreciation of Newton’s extraordinarily complex and idiosyncratic mind. And even if one does not entirely buy Iliffe’s argument for the essential continuities between Newton’s religious and scientific endeavors, his juxtaposition of them is salutary. The Catholic Church’s disastrous handling of the Galileo affair helped entrench the notion that religion and science are incompatibles, inevitably at odds. Iliffe’s painstaking exploration of the consuming religious preoccupations of the greatest of early modern scientists certainly complicates any such crudely binary perception.
What Iliffe does not dwell on, however, is the sense that any reader, no matter how religiously well disposed, must have of the monumental waste of genius depicted in these pages. We must not patronize the past, but we cannot entirely dispense with the benefits of hindsight. Newton’s conviction that the Book of Revelation held the key to history is simply untrue, based as it was on a precritical misunderstanding of the nature of Jewish apocalyptic thought. The long labors he lavished on its decipherment, however ingenious, were entirely misplaced. And Newton’s feverishly monocausal reading of the Christian past as one vast conspiracy to pervert and pollute the aboriginal religion of reason was ultimately paranoid and delusional, the product of hysteria rather than of history. In 1681 John Dryden wrote:
Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.
He had in mind the first Earl of Shaftesbury, at that time in the Tower charged with high treason—but he might just as well have been commenting on the religious obsessions of his great contemporary, Isaac Newton.