Isaac Newton: Heretic
Created | Updated Jun 15, 2015
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The Father is God of the Son
- Isaac Newton
Those who are surprised to discover that Newton was more interested in alchemy than in science should brace themselves for a still greater shock. By far the bulk of Newton's lifetime output was devoted to a highly detailed analysis of the Bible. He attempted to find a hidden meaning in the dimensions of Solomon's Temple that might encode information about the future history of Creation.
This was entirely acceptable - if a little eccentric - in Newton's time. Few of his contemporaries saw any conflict between the study of nature and the study of God's word. (Ironically, it would be Newton's own work that would to great extent drive this division in future; a fact to which he was not oblivious and which seems to have concerned him).
Newton's deep religious beliefs are clear from some of the earliest writings of his that survive. His notebooks from this period are full of notes of his own sins, notably 'Setting my heart on money more than God'. He seems to have had a Puritan upbringing, and judging from his accounts he rarely socialised with other students.
At the time, Newton would have been expected to pay at least lip service to Anglicanism, so he would have had to keep his Puritanism a secret.
Far more potentially damaging to Newton - and something that he kept even more secret than his alchemical researches - were his developing religious views. At a time when those who were not prepared to take an oath of loyalty to the Church of England could not legally attend University, Isaac Newton denied the Trinitarian claim that Jesus was of one substance with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.
Newton held to the doctrine - long held by the 'orthodox' church to be a heresy - that God was a single, indivisible being. Jesus, although no mere human, was a created thing. Jesus may have existed before the world came into being, but he was not an equal part of God.
Arianism - named after Arius, a 3rd and 4th Century theologian - had a long history in the Christian church, and was the cause of much controversy in the early years after the conversion of the Roman Empire. Its beliefs centred on the nature of Christ, whom they viewed as a unique being but not co-equal with God. Instead, Jesus had been created by God at the beginning of time, whereas God himself was uncreated. Jesus and God together had then made the Holy Spirit. (There were probably many sub-sects, and our knowledge of early Arians comes only from attacks made on them by their opponents, so these beliefs may have varied over the years.)
At first declared heresy and illegal, Arianism was welcomed back into the church, then condemned again, all within the space of 60 years. At least two Roman Emperors seem to have been Arians; so this was no mere cult. By the 17th Century, Arianism was undergoing something of a revival among some of the intellectuals of the time, a revival in which Newton would become an influential figure.
It has even been speculated that Newton studied alchemy in an attempt to prove the existence of God, and that it was his alchemical studies that led him to consider the 'mystical' idea of action at a distance when studying gravity. His secret faith, by this view, was an essential part of his scientific genius.
Newton the Arian
Whatever the reasons behind his faith, this secret heresy led to trouble for Newton as he began to progress in the world. At the time, fear of the Catholics taking over England had led to a raft of legislation being attached to the ship of state. It was illegal for a non-Anglican to hold any public office - and this included professorships such as the Lucasian chair, to which Newton ascended in 1669.
Newton must already have perjured himself - he would have been compelled to swear to uphold Trinitarian doctrines on getting his first degree, and again when he collected his MA. So perhaps it was no great deal to take this empty oath again when he accepted the Lucasian Chair. However, the terms of the Chair also stipulated that Newton take religious orders upon his retirement (though it set no maximum length he could hold the seat for), just as the first Lucasian Professor Isaac Barrow had before him, becoming personal chaplain to the King.
At a time when Universities were primarily for the purpose of turning out priests, this was notionally no great hardship. For Newton, however, devoting his life to what he himself considered preaching a heresy, would be just a step too far. Instead, with the backing of Barrow (who now had the King's ear) and Humphrey Babington (a key early sponsor of the young Newton), Newton managed in 1675 to get a Royal exemption from the usual requirements. It is not known exactly how Newton explained his pressing need not to become an Anglican priest, but he seems to have been successful - there is no sign of any stigma being attached to him as a result of this.
It seems to be as part of his need to base his defence of this exemption in Biblical lore that Newton began to study the Bible obsessively, starting around 1672. He concentrated on many of the more mystical books, especially the prophecies of Daniel, in the Old Testament, and the Revelation of St John in the New.
It was not until after his death that his religious writings began to be published, starting with his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended in 1728, the year after his death. In 1733 his Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel (a document which Newton biographer Michael White has described as 'shambolic') was also published. In this, Newton claimed that 'The first religion was the most rational of all others till the nations corrupted it.'
To modern eyes, his views are a strange mish-mash (as indeed is his study of science, alchemy and religion). He believed in the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis (although he did allow that the term 'day' may not refer to a literal period of 24 hours), yet he dismissed any talk of demons or demonic possession as mere superstition. He spent many years developing an intricate future history of the world, on the basis that 'day' in the Bible might mean 'year' in the real world, and that the Antichrist was in fact the Catholic Church.
He used this to calculate that when the Bible said the antichrist would rule for three and a half years, it in fact meant that the Catholic Church would suppress Arian truth for 1,260 years. By dating the start of this to c400 AD1, Newton came to a date of 1700 AD at the latest for the end of the world. Not wanting to be alarmist, Newton adapted this date in various ways, and eventually came up with a chronology that had the Jews retaking Jerusalem in 1899, Jesus returning in 1948 and the end of the world sometime in the 21st Century.
He became convinced that the Biblical descriptions of the dimensions of Solomon's Temple were the key to correct interpretation of Biblical prophecies. He therefore set out to produce a detailed floor-plan of this legendary structure.
Down from the Ivory Tower
In 1687, Newton's religious views were challenged seriously enough to encourage him to emerge from his splendid isolation in Cambridge, just at the time that the Principia was thrusting him into the limelight anyway. Once again, and more directly this time, religion was to guide Newton on the early path to greatness.
To understand this, it is necessary to give a little political background. The monarch at the time was James II of England, who was also James VII of Scotland2. England lived in fear of a Catholic invasion, and not without reason; the Spanish Armada was within living memory, and wars between Catholics and Protestants, in which England was a major player, raged intermittently across Europe. James II was regarded as pro-Catholic3, and there was an almost paranoid fear throughout the southern Kingdom that he was attempting to increase Catholic power by stealth4. Eventually, this would lead to his overthrow in the Glorious Revolution - but that was many years away yet.
For now, James was pushing at the boundaries of his power and public tolerance. Since he had no male heir, and it seemed likely that the throne would revert to a good Protestant when James died, he had a certain leeway in the public view. In 1687, one of the ways that James was promoting his faith was to test the law preventing Catholics from studying at university.
He demanded that a Benedictine monk called Alban Francis be allowed to study at Cambridge. The Cambridge colleges protested, and sent several representatives (including Newton) to the Court of Ecclesiastical Commission to protest this. There was of course a certain irony here - Newton's deep faith made him passionately opposed to Catholics being allowed into Cambridge; yet the law he was supporting was the same legislation that technically banned him, as a secret Arian, from the post he in fact held. Newton was always able to turn a blind eye to failings in himself that he would not stand from others.
James made no secret of his willingness to play hard and dirty. His appointee to hear the case, Judge Jeffreys, had Cambridge vice-Chancellor John Peachell fired. We can only imagine the horror that this must have caused in academics who believed that their tenures were sinecures for life.
In 1688, James finally went too far - the birth of a son and (Catholic) heir led to the 'Glorious Revolution', the arrival of William of Orange and Queen Mary (accompanied by a certain Fatio de Duillier) to take up the regency of England and Scotland. Parliament was dissolved and re-elected to ratify this coup d'etat, and Newton found himself spending a year as MP for Cambridge University. A famous (but unverified) story claims that he spoke just once in parliament - to ask someone to close a window against the draft. As an extreme Whig, he was very much in the minority in a Tory-dominated parliament, so his active involvement was restricted to sending detailed reports back to the University.
This also had the effect of removing Newton from his ivory tower and introducing him into London society. Within a year, he had become acquainted with the philosopher John Locke, who came close to persuading him to publish on his Arian views.
Newton's breakdown of 1693, and abortive attempts to publish Praxis, an overview of his alchemical works, turned out to be temporary setbacks, as in the elections of 1694 the Whigs were elected to power and Newton's close personal friend Charles Montagu became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Newton was now an integral and rising member of high London society - and the root cause was his religious faith.
Faith and Science
We know something of Newton's religious views as they related to his scientific work from a letter he wrote to the Reverend Richard Bentley - later Master of Trinity College and publisher of the second edition of the Principia - in 1692. Bentley wanted to use Newton's Principia as a supporting argument in his Confutation of Atheism, but needed to check a few matters with Newton first. 'When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme,' replied the older man, 'I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity & nothing can rejoice me more than to find it usefull for that purpose.' Newton insisted that gravity could be explained only by the creation of the Universe by a 'Great Geometer'.
The Toleration Act of 1689 gave religious freedom to all Christians except Catholics. But Newton never felt able to speak out about his religious beliefs in public. An illustrative example is the fate of William Whiston. Something of a protégé of Newton's, Whiston was Newton's successor as Lucasian Professor. Perhaps also due to Newton's influence, he shared his predecessor's Arian views. But unlike Newton, he had no interest in keeping his controversial religious views secret, instead publishing them as he would any scientific research. Newton did not merely disown him; when Whiston applied for membership of the Royal Society in 1710 - virtually the end of Newton's life - Newton actively spoke against him.
Although it is arguable that Newton's faith turned him onto the paths that would lead to both financial success and recognition by posterity, it would seem that Newton never managed to reconcile what he believed to be true with what he thought it right to believe.