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‘I come to my main Design; to shew what is properly the Religion of a genuine and considering Astronomer; or what are properly the Astronomical Principles of Natural and Reveal’d Religion.’
William Whiston, Astronomical principles of religion, natural and reveal’d (London, 1717), Preface.
Edward Worth collected four books by William Whiston (1667-1752), one of the most controversial theologians to embrace Newtonianism. As an undergraduate at Cambridge in the late 1680s Whiston had more than once had the opportunity to attend Newton’s lectures there (an experience he later truthfully related as being unintelligible), but it was not until he read the Principia that he became a true follower. By 1694 he had met and formed a friendship with Newton and two years later he produced his first Newtonian offering, A new theory of the earth (London, 1696), a copy of which is in the Worth Library. As Snobelen states (1998), this book was ‘the first full-length work to showcase Newton’s new philosophy’.
Whiston’s aim in this work was to demonstrate that the scriptural accounts in the Bible were ‘perfectly agreeable to Reason and Phylosophy’ and he did this by merging Newton’s physics and John Woodward’s geology. His Newtonian theory of the earth was undoubtedly a response to Thomas Burnet’s Cartesian Sacred Theory of the Earth, a work collected by Worth in both the Latin 1681 first edition and the English 1697 third edition. Whiston’s A New Theory of the Earth sought to explain biblical events such as the Flood by using Newtonian ideas, specifically his work on the comet of 1680-81. That Newton approved the work is likely – and it has even been suggested that he read the manuscript before its publication. Snobelen (2004) argues that Whiston’s work, ‘an application of Newtonian physics to natural history’, even at this early stage, went further than Newton might have done. If so it was to be prophetic of their professional interaction over the coming decades.
Closely linked to Whiston’s conversion to Newtonianism was his subsequent conversion to Arianism. Strongly influenced by both Newton and Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) in this regard, Whiston differed from Newton in one essential point: he felt it was his duty to go public about his views. In early eighteenth-century Cambridge this inevitably led to his expulsion from the university and Whiston left to Cambridge for London where he quickly became involved in the experimental lecturing circuit that was popularizing Newtonian ideas there. For Whiston this was a logical move – after all, in his view he had only made explicit what was implicit in Newton’s works but Newton was appalled and gradually began to distance himself from his uncontrollable follower, blocking his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. A stream of theological publications by Whiston followed, some of which hinted at Newton’s own heterodoxy. Far from keeping his distance, Whiston was anxious to draw attention to his links with Newton, dedicating his Astronomical Principles of Religion (1717) to Newton as President of the Royal Society.
Worth collected this text which in effect carried on where A New Theory of the World had left off – Whiston exuberantly applying Newtonian cosmology to the Scripture in an effort to prove the design argument. For Whiston it was necessary to combine the Books of Nature and the Word. A proper understanding of Nature (in his view a Newtonian understanding) would elucidate events described in Scripture and would prove their historical validity. As he said himself, ‘the Frame of Nature will in some Degree, bear Witness to the Revelation’. With this in mind he organised the text so that the first part gave a comprehensive overview of Newtonian astronomical theory. This was then applied to prove the existence of a providential God by arguing that gravity was the mechanism by which God maintained the universe.
Whiston was aware that the application of Newtonian cosmology to Scripture was not straightforward. In the preface to his Astronomical Principles Whiston spent some time discussing the nature of the evidence, pointing out that it was not to be expected that ‘in our Religious Enquiries, overbearing, or strictly Mathematick Evidence, such as is impossible to be deny’d or doubted of by any’ could be expected. It was, however, not to be doubted that ‘Philosophy and Mathematicks are on the Side of both Natural and Reveal’d Religion’. The difficulty was that Whiston’s version of ‘Reveal’d Religion’ (however loyal it might have been to Newton’s version), was not one which Newton wanted preached. The two men might privately agree on the perfidy of Athanasius but they differed radically in their public responses to it. Snobelen (2004) argues that the break between the two men, long in coming, actually occurred in 1714, not long after Whiston had drawn attention to some of the less acceptable theological implications of Newton’s ‘General Scholium’ which Newton had attached to his second edition of the Principia in 1713. Whiston had hurriedly translated the General Scholium into English and attached it to his treatise attacking Athanasius’ doctrine of the Trinity. As Snobelen remarks (2004), ‘this was perhaps the most direct hint about Newton’s heresy Whiston produced during the former’s lifetime’.
What Edward Worth’s attitude to this was is unclear: he collected Whiston’s Astronomical Principles but in the main eschewed the stream of theological publications issuing from Whiston’s pen. He concentrated instead on the English translations of Whiston’s lectures at Cambridge which were printed in 1715-6 and in a sense the Astronomical Principles fitted in well with these texts. This mirrored Worth’s choice of books by the Newtonian theologian, Samuel Clarke: apart from an edition of the Clarke-Leibniz correspondence, the only other work by Clarke which Worth collected was his fourth edition copy of Clarke’s first theological publication, the uncontroversial Three practical essays on baptism, confirmation and repentance (London, 1721). It would seem that what Worth was interested in was the scientific Newtonian spring of Whiston’s thought, not the more biblically prophetic inspired outpourings of later years.
An example of Whiston’s merging of Newtonian comet theory and scripture is attached to the end of Worth’s copy of Whiston’s Astronomical principles of religion, natural and reveal’d (1717) – his The Cause of the Deluge Demonstrated. This had originally been appended to the second edition of the A New Theory of the Earth (Cambridge, 1708) and in 1716 had been published as a separate pamphlet.
The Cause of the Deluge Demonstrated
BEFORE I proceed to my present Demonstration of the Cause of the Deluge, I must premise this, That in my New Theory of the Earth, especially as improv’d and corrected in the Second Edition, I have evidently shewn, that in Case a Comet pass’d by, before the Earth, in its annual Course, on the 17th Day of the Second Month, from the Autumnal Equinox, of Nov. 28. in the year 2349th Year before the Christian AEra, the Phaenomena of Nature and History, and particularly the Mosaick Account of the Deluge of Noah, which are no otherwise to be accounted for, are exactly explain’d; that the Calculations and Proportions, where-ever we can come at them, are on that Hypothesis right, agreeable to one another, to Ancient, especially Sacred History, and to the System of Astronomy; that there are Traces in Ancient Books of a Tradition, that a Comet did appear at the very Beginning of the Deluge; that the very Month and Day mentioned by Moses for such its Beginning, is attested to by other Old Records, and, on this Hypothesis, by Astronomical Calculations also; whence I concluded that it was most highly probable, or rather physically demonstrable, that a Comet did pass by at that time, and was, under the Conduct of the Divine Providence, and as his Instrument in punishing a wicked World, the Cause of that Deluge. The only thing wanting was, to demonstrate from the Period of some Comet, and its Situation in the Heavens, Astronomically stated and computed, that such a Comet did actually come by at that very time: which if it could be once shewn, the whole must be own’d as certain, and demonstrated, and all the natural Corollaries therefrom must be allow’d as true, even by the Obstinate and Incredulous. This indeed at first was look’d upon by me and not at all to be expected; since we then barely began to know, or rather strongly to conjecture that Comets did revolve about the Sun in settled Periods, but without being able to determine any one of those Periods. But of late God has so bless’d the Labours of the Learned; and this Part of Astronomy is so much improv’d, especially by the farther Pains and Observations of the great Inventor himself, Sir Isaac Newton; whose Name will never be forgotten while Mathematicks and Astronomy are preserv’d among Mankind; and by the laborious Calculations of the acute Dr Halley, on the Principles laid down by the former, that what was a few Years ago almost despair’d of, is now in great Measure discover’d, and we know not only that one Comet has come round three of four times already in later Ages, viz. A.D. 1456, 1531, 1607 and 1682, and will no doubt come round again A.D. 1758, as making its Period in about 75 Years; that another has probably come round in the same later Ages twice already, viz. A.D. 1532 and 1661; and so is to return A.D. 1789, or 1790, as making its Period in about 129 Years: But, which is the greatest Discovery of all, that the last most remarkable Comet, whose Descent into our Regions has occasion’d almost all the modern solid Knowledge we have relating to the whole Cometick System it self, has also several times been seen already within the time of certain Records; I mean in the 44th Year before Christ, and again A.D. 531, or 531; and yet again A.D. 1106, besides this its last Appearance A.D. 1680, whereby we know that it revolves in abut 575 Years. This last Comet I may well call the most remarkable one that ever appear’d; since besides the former Consideration, I shall presently shew, that it is no other than that very Comet which came by the Earth at the Beginning of Noah’s Deluge, and which was the Cause of the same. Now considering the Premises, I shall only have occasion, in order to my present Design, to prove these five Things concerning it. (1) That no other of the known Comets could pass by the Earth at the Beginning of the Deluge. (2) That this Comet was of the same Bigness with that which pass’d by at that time. (3) That its Orbit was then in a due Position to pass by at that Time. (4) That its descending Node was then also in a due Position for the same Passage by. (5) That its Period exactly agrees to the same time. Or, in short, that all the known Circumstances of this Comet do correspond, and that it actually pass’d by on or about that very Year, and on or about that very Day of the Year when the Deluge began. All which Things I shall demonstrate in their Order.
‘A.D. 1106. We saw a Comet of wonderful Brightness, from the first Week in Lent, until the Passion of our Lord. An extraordinary Star was seen to shine this Year on Friday in the Evening, Southward and Westward, and appeared bright for 25 Days together, and always at the same Hour.’
‘A.D. 1106 in the Month of February, two Days after the New Moon, a great Comet appear’d South-Westward. A.D. 1106 a Comet appear’d like a Fire, almost all the Month of February.’
‘A very great Comet was seen in the Time of Lent. Praetorius adds, that the Emperor Henry IV died the same Year; which Calvisius also agrees to’.
‘A.D. 1106 a Star, which we call a Comet, appear’d.’
‘A.D. 1106 a dreadful Comet appear’d, from the first Week in Lent, till the Vigil of Palm-Sunday. The same Year the Emperor Henry IV died.’
‘On the Year of our Lord 1106, the 14th of the Calends of March [Feb. 16] a certain strange Star was discovered, and was seen to shine between the South and West for 25 Days, after the same manner, and at the same Hour. It seemed to be small and obscure; but that Light which went out from it was exceedingly bright, and a Splendor, like a great Beam, proceeded from the East and North, and shot it self upon the same Star.’
In these Testimonies, we may see that all the Circumstances of this Comet agree to that of A.D. 1680. I mean the Smallness and Obscurity of its Nucleus, the Brightness and Remarkableness of its Tail, its Position South-West, and the Direction of its Tail North-East. So that there is no Reason to doubt, but it was the very same. Only we must here note, that these two Periods were, one with another, three Quarters of a Year shorter than the last Period. For from September, in the 44th Year before Christ, till February or March A.D. 1106 are but 1148 ½ Years, or two Periods of 574 ¼ a piece, one with another: whereas from the same February or March A.D. 1106 till February or March 1680/1, when this Comet was about the same Position again, there are just 575 Years. It is rather a Wonder, that the three last Periods of our Famous Comet are so very nearly equal, than that there is this small Inequality among them. Nor is it, by the way, any Wonder therefore, that the four first Periods after the Deluge are to be suppos’d one with another rather above 576 Years to agree exactly to that Time. ‘Tis rather a Question whether the rest of the Comets Periods will prove any of them near so equal in Proportion, as even that Allowance makes these to be. Accordingly, Sir Isaac Newton and Dr Halley rightly observe, that these Cometary Orbits are the most easily and sensibly disturb’s by the occasional Nearness of their Comets to other Bodies of all others; and so considerable Inequalities are to be expected among them.
Note (1). That it is highly remarkable, that this is the only Comet yet known, whose Node renders it capable of approaching very near the Body of the Earth; and that the same Node is still so little remote from the Earth’s Orbit, as Dr Halley well observes, that it brought this Comet about as near to the same as the Moon this very last time. Hear his remarkable Words, and consider the Consequence of them in this Matter. ‘No Comet, says, he, has hitherto threatned the Eath with a nearer Appulse than that of 1680. For by Calculation, I find that November 11th 6´ after Noon, that Comet was not above a Semidiameter of the Sun, (which I take to be equal to the Distance of the Moon) to the Northwards of the Way of the Earth. At which time, had the Earth been there, the Comet would, I think, have had a Parallax equal to that of the Moon.’ Nor can I pass over his following Words without setting them down, they are so apposite to my present Purpose. ‘The former Observations, says he, are to be suppos’d as spoken to Astronomers. But what might be the Consequences of so near an Appulse, or of a Contact, or lastly of a Collision of these celestial Bodies (which are none of them impossible) I leave to be discuss’d by the Philosophers’.
(2). Since this Comet’s Period is 575 Years, its middle Distance must be about 5,600,000,000 Miles from the Sun; its longer Axis and greatest Distance twice as long, or nearly 11,200,000,000 Miles; its Aphelion Distance about 14 times as great as the Distance of Saturn; its greatest Distance to its least, as above 20,000 to 1; and so its greatest Light and Heat to its least, as above 400,000,000 to 1.
(3) Since 575 Years appears to be the Period of the Comet that caus’d the Deluge, what a Learned Friend of mine, who was the Occasion of my Examination of this Matter, suggests, will deserve to be considered, viz. Whether the Story of the Phoenix, that celebrated Emblem of the Resurrection in Christian Antiquity; [that it returns once after 5 Centuries, and goes to the Altar and City of the Sun, and is there burnt; and another arises out of its Ashes, and carries away the Remains of the former, &c] be not an Allegorical Representation of this Comet; [which return once after 5 Centuries, and goes down to the Sun, and is there vehemently heated, and its outward Regions dissolv’d; yet that it flies off again, and carries away what remains after that terrible burning, &c] and whether the Conflagration and Renovation of things, which some such Comet in its Ascent from the Sun may bring upon the Earth, be not hereby prefigur’d. I will not here be positive; but I own that I don’t know of any Solution of this famous Piece of Egyptian Mythology and Hieroglyphicks, as this seems to be, that can be compared with it.
Note (4) That none of those Comets whose Orbits are yet known, can come near enough to our Earth in their Ascent from the Sun to cause the Conflagration. This is evident to those who consider Dr Halley’s Table, or my Solar System build upon it; since none of them move in or very near the Plane of the Ecliptick; and those four which have their Nodes nearest the Earth’s Orbit, and so might approach nearest to the Earth, are either such as have these Nodes so near only in their Descent to the Sun; as that in 1472, and that in 1618, and that in 1680; or go not any time much nearer to the Sun than the Earth it self, as that in 1684, and so are on all Accounts utterly incapable of affording Heat enough for such a Conflagration.
Note (5) That therefore the Period of Time for that Conflagration, upon the Supposition that it is to be caused by a Comet, cannot now be discover’d by any natural Means; but must still remain, as formerly, only knowable from Divine Revelation.
Note (6). That hence those remarkable Corollaries, drawn from the accurate Solution of such Difficulties now, as formerly were plainly insoluble; I mean, the great Regard due to the Ancientest Sacred and Prophane Records, and to the inspired Method whence they must have been deriv’d; the Imperfection of Human Knowledge; the Folly of rejecting Revealed Truths, out of regard to uncertain Human Reasonings; the Wisdom of adhering to the most obvious Sense of Scripture; the Reasonableness of believing Scripture-Accounts and Scripure-Mysteries, tho’ not fully comprehended by us; the Justness of expecting Satisfaction in moral Difficulties in the due time from the like Satisfaction afforded already in those that are Philosophical, and the like, do all receive a new and surprising Confirmation; and will therefore deserve a new and serious Consideration.
N.B. Dr Halley having himself given an Account of this Comet lately in Dr Gregory’s English Astronomy, P. 901, 902, 903. I here present it to the Reader verbatim, that he may compare the two Accounts together, for his more entire Satisfaction.
‘But as far as Probability from the Equality of Periods, and similar Appearance of Comets, may be urged as an Argument, the late wondrous Comet of 1680/1, seems to have been the same, which was seen in the Time of our King Henry I. Anno 1106, which began to appear in the West about the middle of February, and continued for many Days after, with such a Tail as was seen in that of 1680/1. And again in the Consulate of Lampadius and Orestes, about the Year of Christ 531, such another Comet appeared in the West, of which Malela, perhaps an Eyewitness, relates that it was … a great and fearful Star; that it appeared in the West, and was send for 20 Days. It were to be wish’d the Historian had told us what Time of the Year it was seen; but ‘tis however plain, that the Interval between this and that of 1106, is nearly equal to that between 1106 and 1680/1, viz. about 575 Years. And if we reckon backward such another Period, we shall come to the 44th Year before Christ, in which Julius Caesar was murder’d, and in which there appear’d a very remarkable Comet, mentioned by almost all the Historians of those Times, and by Pliny in his Natural History, lib. II. c. 24. who recites the words of Augustus Caesar on this Occasion, which leads us to the very Time of its Appearance, and its Situation in the Heavens. These Words being very much to our purpose, it may not be amiss to recite them. In ipsis Ludorum meorum diebus, sydus crinitum per septem dies, in regione Caeli quae sub Septentrionibus est conspectum. Id oriebatur circa undecimam horam diei, clarumque et omnibus terris conspicuum fuit. Now these Ludi were the dedicated Veneri genetrici, (for from Venus the Caesars would be thought to be descended), and began with the Birth-day of Augustus, viz. Sept. 23 (as may be collected from a Fragment of an Old Roman Calendar extant in Gruter, pag. 135) and continued for 7 Days, during which the Comet appeared. Nor are we to suppose that it was seen only those 7 Days, but possibly both before and after. Nor are we to interpret the Words sub Septentrionibus, as if the Comet had appear’d in the North, but that it was seen under the Septem triones, or brighter Stars of Ursa major. And as to its rising, Hora undecima diei, it can no ways be understood, unless the word diei be left out, as it is by Suetonius; for it must have been very far from the Sun, either to rise at Five in the Afternoon, or at Eleven at Night; in which Cases it must have appeared for a long time, and its Tail have been so little remarkable, that it could by no means be call’d Clarum & omnibus Terris conspicuum Sydus. But supposing this Comet to have traced the same Path with that of the Year 1680, the ascending part of the Orb will exactly represent all that Augustus hath said concerning it; and is yet an additional Argument to that drawn from the Equality of the Period. Thus ‘tis not improbable but this Comet may have four times visited us at Intervals of about 575 Years: Whence the Transverse Diameter of its Elliptic Orb will be found V3 575×575 times greater than the annual Orb; or 138 times greater than the mean Distance of the Sun; which Distance, tho’ immensely great, bears no Proportion to that of the Fixed Stars.’
Force, James E. (1985), William Whiston. Honest Newtonian (Cambridge).
Gascoigne, John (2004), ‘Clarke, Samuel (1675–1729)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
Hall, A. Rupert (1999), Isaac Newton. Eighteenth-Century Perspectives (Oxford).
Snobelen, Stephen D. (1998), ‘On reading Isaac Newton’s Principia in the 18th Century’, Endeavour 22 no. 4, pp 159-163.
Snobelen, Stephen D. and Stewart, Larry (2003), ‘Making Newton easy: William Whiston in Cambridge and London’, in Kevin C. Know and Richard Noakes (eds) From Newton to Hawking.
A History of Cambridge University’s Lucasian Professors of Mathematics (Cambridge), pp. 135-170.
Snobelen, Stephen D. (2004), ‘William Whiston, Isaac Newton and the crisis of publicity’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 35, pp. 573-603.by