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Copernicus, Interrupted (Part 2)

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November 4, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Copernicus, Interrupted (Part 2)

Today's entry was written by Brandon Withrow. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

As seen in part 1, from the time of Copernicus, Protestants deemed theology the “queen of the sciences,” with Scripture alone setting the parameters for all scientific inquiry. This was intended to curb the influence of human ideas, as the Reformers saw it, and for most, like Luther, this included Copernicus. This relationship between theology and science helped to set the stage for the delay in receiving Copernicus in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries.

Today, Protestant students in the classroom may not know Copernicus’ name or even what he is known for, but they generally assume the truth of his assertions. So how do we get a sense for the pulse of the intellectual world of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries and account for the gradual changes in the public perception of Copernicus?

Not only does a farmer’s almanac help in figuring when to plant crops, but it also helps historians pinpoint when new ideas were in vogue. Two years after he graduated from Harvard, Zechariah Brigden wrote his An Almanack of the Coelestial Motions (1659). Up until this point it was common for farmers and students to use almanacs based entirely on the Ptolemaic (geocentric) system in which the planets and sun revolve around the earth. Brigden’s Almanack was different in that his was founded entirely on the heliocentrism of Copernicus.

Brigden recognizes the potential controversy immediately and includes a short theological defense of his position at the end of the Almanack. He notes that there are those who object according to “Divine authority,” but says they need to remember that Scripture is “fitted” to the “capacity” of human beings, whether it be the “rudest mechanick” or “philosopher,” and is not intended “so much propriety and exactness, as playness & perspicuity.” (1) In other words, Scripture is not written to explain science, but to communicate a message clearly. Brigden’s work represents some of the first signs of Harvard’s push away from the older, medieval system.

There was a reaction to Brigden’s bold insistence upon using Copernicus, however, as most of his colleagues were still operating on an outdated astronomy. John Winthrop Jr., Governor of Connecticut, sent a copy of Brigden’s work to Puritan John Davenport, a founder of New Haven, who did not share the Governor’s or Brigden’s enthusiasm for the new science. Davenport thanked Winthrop for his gift, but responded specifically to Brigden's statement on Scripture. “However it be, let him [Brigden] enjoy his opinion; and I shall rest in what I have learned, till more cogent arguments be produced than I have hitherto met with.” (2) Despite resistant theologians like Davenport, Brigden’s work helped open up the way for a change in opinion in the academy and eventually on the farm.

The academic world, especially in New England, had to face the resistance of the populist opinion. But ministers had to walk an even tougher line than the professional academics, particularly as their paychecks came only with the approval of their congregations. The Boston minister and evangelical forerunner, Cotton Mather, was convinced by the new science, though theology was still queen. He initially held back on expressing a public opinion, but eventually he raised the issues from his pulpit. As the central figure in the Salem Witch Trials, he was no stranger to controversy. His first mention of Copernicus, however, was seen then as one of poor timing. On December 23, 1714, Judge Samuel Sewall wrote that Mather “spake of the Sun being in the centre of our System” in a sermon. Sewall thought it “inconvenient to assert such Problems.” (3). It appears that the speculation of academia was not yet welcomed in the world of the church layperson.

Similarly, Jonathan Edwards, an evangelical minister in Northampton and an avid amateur scientist, says little about his view. We know he read and appreciated Newton’s work, but his only public comments are strictly geocentric. Edwards scholar Kenneth P. Minkema notes a historical connection to Mather’s situation. “If the (relatively) cosmopolitan community of Boston had trouble accepting Copernicus,” writes Minkema, “then it is possible that Northampton too would object to hearing his view from their pulpit.” (4)

Brigden’s farmer’s almanac and daring ministers like Cotton were the slow, initial steps that eventually made Copernicus practical and assessable for both the academic and layperson. By the nineteenth century, speaking openly of Copernicus was no longer controversial. Fast forward to the 1999 Gallup poll that showed that 18% of Americans were still geocentric; while this number still seems rather high, it is obvious that change can and has occurred.

The nineteenth-century, however, found a new scientific controversy with Darwin. Like Copernicus, Darwin was initially rejected by Christians. Despite this, some theologians discovered evolution’s practical side. The Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921), for example, saw some common sense to evolution as a result of his experience as a cattle breeder. It seems that until new scientific ideas become imminently practical—helping farmers improve their crops or assisting a theologian/cattle breeder in raising better beef—they find only a narrow audience. But once there are ready connections to daily life, the questions about faith and how it relates to those new scientific ideas eventually follow.

In 2009, the Pew Research Center showed that 6 in 10 Americans believe evolution to have occurred, with 22% connecting it to a divine being. However, as in the time of Mather and Edwards, the evangelical pulpit today is one of the last places a receptive understanding of evolution is welcomed. Evangelical Protestants show the greatest resistance with 55% rejecting evolution. Evangelical leaders like Albert Mohler are representative of this large segment, arguing that evolution is incompatible with the gospel of Christ.

Perhaps like my Copernicus-ignorant students, future students of religion will, too, sit in a classroom, forgetting Darwin’s name but assuming he got it right. But if history and the polls are any indication, it could be a long time in coming.


1. Zechariah Brigden, An Almanack of the Coelestial Motions for this Present Year of the Christian Era, 1659, (Cambridge: Samuel Green, 1659), unnumbered pages.

2. Letter of John Davenport to John Winthrop Jr. (1659) in Leonard Bacon, Thirteen Historical Discourses on the Completion of Two Hundred Years from the Beginning of the First Church in New Haven, (New Haven: Durrie & Peck, 1839), 376.

3. Samuel Sewall, Diary of Samuel Sewall: 1674-1729 in vol. 7 of Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: The Society, 1882), 31.

4. Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1723-1729, vol. 14 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale, 1997), 475, n 4.

Brandon G. Withrow (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Historical and Theological Studies and Director of the Master of Arts (Theological Studies) program at Winebrenner Theological Seminary (Findlay, OH). He also teaches courses for a joint Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies program with the University of Findlay. His specialization is the history of Christianity, with research interests in ancient and early-modern Christianity. He is the author most-recently of Katherine Parr: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen. His blog, The Discarded Image, focuses on "living ontologically" by exploring the intersection of faith, philosophy, and science through literature.

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NickMatzke - #38424

November 4th 2010

“Fast forward to the 1999 Gallup poll that showed that 18% of Americans were still geocentric”

I expect that what this poll actually means is that 36% of Americans were making a random guess, and could not give a coherent description of the meaning of heliocentrism vs. geocentrism if they were asked to.

It would be rather like if you surveyed academics about Britney Spears’s boyfriends or something—the chance component of the answer would be very high.

Larry - #38431

November 4th 2010

I expect that what this poll actually means is that 36% of Americans were making a random guess, and could not give a coherent description of the meaning of heliocentrism vs. geocentrism if they were asked to.

The question was given in the article:

As far as you know, does the earth revolve around the sun, or does the sun revolve around the earth?
Earth revolves around the sun   79%
Sun revolves around the earth   18
No opinion   3

The question did use the terms “geocentric” or “heliocentric”, which probably would confuse most Americans.

johan - #38459

November 4th 2010

//Like Copernicus, Darwin was initially rejected by Christians.//

This is false, most of the prominent theologians at the time praised Darwin’s work (since Darwin took the people where they already wanted to go). Among the theologians who praised Darwin’s theory was a famous preacher named Kingsley, who sent Darwin a letter congratulating him on the publication of his book. Another preacher called Josiah Strong wrote a famous pamphlet called America’s Destiny, where he said that Scripture and evolution go hand-in-hand. Others in the British Isles to praise Darwin were Frederick Farrar, James Orr, and Henry Drummond, all famous preachers during Darwin’s day. In America, A.H. Strong and Henry Ward Beecher championed evolution as a valid idea whose time had come.

Darwin thought evolution was theologically appealing because a benevolent God could not be held responsible for the cruelty of the natural world, as this could now be blamed on a blind material process that not even God could control.

Brandon Withrow - #38469

November 4th 2010

@Johan #38459 I don’t mean to imply that no Christian accepted Darwin, which is in part why I include Warfield immediately after that statement given the focus is on evangelicals primarily.  I’m under the impression that the dominant reaction was that of resistance and hesitation in many traditions (though not all), and particularly in the more evangelical world (as it is today), so perhaps I would have to add a qualifier in that sentence and do a part 3. 

As with Warfield, it does not surprise me that there were Christian leaders (Warfield being a professor at Princeton) and scientists that accepted something of it.  That happened with heliocentrism.  I just see the Protestant common reaction and Catholic reaction as slow and suspicious initially, with Pope Pius IX being fairly adamant and with some of the best statements from the Catholic Church being after the 1950s (Pope Pious XII saw it as just a bit more than speculation), and notably in 1996 with John Paul II.  The category of speculative theology did allow Catholic theologians to “speculate” without official statements.

Thanks for your thoughts on that.

Jon Garvey - #38628

November 5th 2010

@Larry - #38431

It was “revolve” they had problems with!

Brandon Craig Rhodes - #38647

November 5th 2010

I would be interested to hear the evidence behind the assertion that most of his Harvard “colleagues were still operating on an outdated astronomy.”

An *incorrect* astronomy? Certainly! But outdated? Geocentrism was very widely believed at the time, and was supported by incredibly strong empirical evidence: that we could not feel the earth’s motion, and that the impetus needed to keep something the size of the earth in motion should be easily felt by anyone on its surface. Copernicanism did not even have a good theoretical underpinning until the publication of the Principia in 1679; and all of Copernicus’s opponents, if you will read some of the excellent Jesuit arguments against his theory, were thoroughgoing empiricists who kept bringing up pesky *facts* when all Copernicus wanted to talk about was how very pretty the *math* was if you made the sun motionless and put it at the center of the universe.

I have no objection to giving a rousing “bravo!” to Zechariah Brigden for guessing correctly and going with the theorists against the empiricists. But it is a very poor comparison to the situation today, where the theory of common descent has some actual evidence on its side.

johan - #38964

November 8th 2010

@Brandon Withrow

//I’m under the impression that the dominant reaction was that of resistance and hesitation in many traditions//

The resistance came primarily from a few notable scientists in Darwin’s day, among Darwin’s critics were the founders of embryology, developmental biology, genetics, systems theory, cellular pathology, biocybernetics, theroretical biology and biosemiotics see (Jacob V. Uexkull (1864-1944), Karl.E.v.Baer (1792-1876), Gregor Johann Mendel (July 20, 1822 -1884),Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) Richard Owen(1804-1892), Johann Reinke (1839–1931), William. Whewell philosopher of science (1794-1866) James C. Maxwell physicist (1831-1879), Rudolf Virchow anthropologist (1821-1902), Oscar Hertwig (1849-1922) St. George Jackson Mivart (1827—1900).

It wouldn’t be fair to say this was a holy war against Darwin, after all the theologians happily praised Darwin for they like Darwin found it to be theologically appealing. Like Francis Ayala recently said:

“When Charles Darwin introduced the concept of evolution by natural selection, he provided a solution to explain the presence of evil in the world.”

b allen - #39036

November 8th 2010

Mr Rhodes,

Please elaborate why you think it is a very poor comparison to the situation today


Chris - #39153

November 9th 2010

The author has curiously left out a name in this brief history. Ptolemy and the earth-centered system came before Copernicus. Ptolemy wrote before the church officially adopted geocentrism. In fact, the church’s error was adopting the scientific position of Ptolemy and then finding Scripture to match. Science changes. The church should not have adopted a scientific position.
Those who advocate the integration of theology and evolution today make the same error. Just as the church ridiculed Copernicus for rejecting sanctioned scientific fact, the BioLogos movement ridicules the ID and YEC movements for rejecting established scientific fact. One fact we do know is that science will change.

b allen - #39169

November 9th 2010

...so does biblical interpretation.

Chris - #39211

November 9th 2010

Change is valued in science as scientists are continually seeking new knowledge. Yet, science has no way of claiming that any given theory is correct for all time. Although biblical interpretation changes, its goal is not change, and it should not be mated to a source of knowledge that: is always changing, values change above stasis, and has no objective “all-time” measure of truth.
Additionally, the fact remains that Ptolemy and the source of the church’s geocentrism (critical pieces of information) were left out of the story.

R Hampton - #39422

November 11th 2010


In Science, truth is valued over change because truth is the only goal - change is but a consequence of discovering truth. In this sense, there is no difference between Science and Theology.

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