The Christian Virtuoso

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February 20, 2014 Tags: Science as Christian Calling

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Christian Virtuoso

Posthumous portrait of Boyle from the early eighteenth century, attributed to Jonathan Richardson, Royal Society of Chemistry, London.

When we hear the word “virtuoso” today, we think of great musicians, often violinists or pianists. In the seventeenth century, however, the word was often used for scientists. Indeed, the word “scientist” didn’t even exist until the 1830s. Early members of the Royal Society, including Boyle, often saw themselves as “virtuosi,” leading the dramatist Thomas Shadwell to write a successful satirical play about them, The Virtuoso.

Boyle as Christian Virtuoso

Boyle applied the term to himself in his final theological work, The Christian Virtuoso. The pages were printed in the winter of 1690-91, almost exactly one year before his death, but he had started writing it decades earlier, and a large amount of additional material that Boyle had originally intended to include was published several decades after his death in 1744.


Book cover: “The Christian Virtuoso”

Title page of The Christian Virtuoso (1690), from a copy owned by the University of Pennsylvania. Boyle published this work under the initials, “by T[he]. H[onourable]. R[obert]. B[oyle].,” the same byline he had used for the treatise about design discussed in an earlier column. Under the title, Boyle announced this as “The First Part,” alerting readers that more would be coming, but he died before it was ready for the printer. Fortunately his eighteenth-century editors, Henry Miles and Thomas Birch, skillfully reconstructed two sequels from the surviving manuscripts.

The subtitle of his book nicely encapsulates Boyle’s understanding of his own Christian vocation: “SHEWING, That by being addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to be a Good Christian.” His labors were not in vain. So strongly did he convey his message, that when the great Cotton Mather wrote The Christian Philosopher [PDF link] (1721), the first American effort to engage the new science of the previous century, he originally intended to name his own book The Christian Virtuoso. Mather’s Puritan soul was irresistibly drawn to Boyle’s deep piety, and his opening words echo Boyle’s: “The Essays now before us will demonstrate that [natural] Philosophy is no Enemy, but a mighty and wondrous Incentive to Religion, which will carry with it a most sensible Character, and victorious Evidence of a reasonable Service” (The Christian Philosopher, ed. Solberg, p. 7, italics Mather’s).


Book cover: “The Christian Philosopher”

Title page of Cotton Mather’s The Christian Philosopher, the work that “introduced the Enlightenment to America,” as his modern editor, Winton U. Solberg, succinctly states. Solberg describes this book as “the first comprehensive treatise on all the sciences known at the time” by an American author, adding that Mather tried “to demonstrate the harmony between religion and the new science associated with the illustrious name of Sir Isaac Newton” (The Christian Philosopher, ed. Solberg, pp. xi-xii). Mather was, like Boyle, a fellow of the Royal Society.

Perhaps to make sure that no one had somehow missed it, Boyle restated his position on natural theology one more time in The Christian Virtuoso: “’tis not by a slight Survey, but by a diligent and skilful Scrutiny, of the Works of God, that a Man must be, by a Rational and Affective Conviction, engag’d to acknowledge with the Prophet [Isaiah 28:29], that the Author of Nature is Wonderful in Counsel, and Excellent in Working” (Christian Virtuoso, I, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 11, p. 297). He also introduced a new line of thinking, elegantly linking the character of the Christian virtuoso with the actual practice of science. The Christian virtuoso was to be known for personal honor and trustworthiness; devotion to one’s work as a divinely ordained vocation, even a religious duty; and independence of mind sufficient to rely on what he (elsewhere) called “the visible testimony of Nature her self” (Hydrostatical Paradoxes, in Works, vol. 5, p. 198), not mere human opinion. Also, the virtuoso ought to place the pursuit of truth over personal gain and sensual pleasure, openness and generosity over secrecy. (I follow the analysis of Steven Shapin, cited below.)

Above all, Boyle believed that the Christian virtuoso benefitted from the hard work of explicating natural phenomena, which “does insensibly work in him a great and ingenuous Modesty of Mind” (Christian Virtuoso, I, in Works, vol. 11, p. 322). The cultivation of humility was vital, since “the higher degree of knowledge” that the scientist attains “seems more likely to puff him up, than to make him humble” (Christian Virtuoso, II, in Works, vol. 12, p. 490). It’s not that he sought no credit for his own discoveries—like most scientists of any era, Boyle wanted his fair and appropriate share. It’s rather that he wanted all scientists “to mind more the Advancement of Natural Philosophy than that of their own Reputations” (Certain Physiological Essays, in Works, vol. 2, pp. 13-14). How little some things change in 300 years! He actually found the experimental life itself to be conducive to modesty. As he said at the end of a lengthy and detailed description of inconclusive experiments about bubbles in ice, “I shall not think I have altogether mis-spent my time, especially if so many past Experiments, both new, and not altogether impertinent, by their not having taught us enough about so despicable a subject as a Bubble, shall, as they justly may[,] teach us Humility” (New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold, in Works, vol. 4, p. 319).


Jon Kip, “A Prospect of Pall Mall” (ca. 1710-20), looking east

Jon Kip, A Prospect of Pall Mall (ca. 1710-20), looking east. For the last twenty-three years of his life, Boyle lived in the London home of his sister, Katherine Jones, located at nos. 83-84 on the south side of Pall Mall, the main street parallel to the line of trees in this nearly contemporary view. The spire of the old St Martin-in-the-Fields—their church—dominates the skyline in the background. Both houses were pulled down long ago, and today the property is occupied by the Royal Automobile Club.

Robert Boyle died in the home of his beloved sister, Katherine, shortly after midnight on the final day of 1691. She had died herself just eight days before, and it is probably true that grief hastened his passing, although he was never robust and had been in declining health for several years. Laid to rest close to her in the chancel of their parish church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the precise location of his grave is no longer known, because when the church was rebuilt thirty years later the old tombs were removed. The humility suggested by this fate is entirely fitting to the character of one of the greatest scientists who has ever lived.

Looking Ahead

In two weeks, look for an epilogue to this series, in which I will pretend to be Robert Boyle, presenting his own life and work to Christians today. If that intrigues you, join us: there simply was no finer example of a Christian scientist than Robert Boyle.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38. Additional information is from Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, ed. Winton U. Solberg (University of Illinois Press, 1994), and Steven Shapin, “Who was Robert Hooke?”, in Robert Hooke: New Studies, ed. Michael Hunter and Simon Schaffer (The Boydell Press, 1989), pp. 253-85. Other quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Merv - #84575

February 20th 2014

Ted wrote: 

“It’s not that he sought no credit for his own discoveries—like most scientists of any era, Boyle wanted his fair and appropriate share. It’s rather that he wanted all scientists “to mind more the Advancement of Natural Philosophy than that of their own Reputations”

Ted, if your influence may be needed in the trendy world of entertaining video pedagogy.  A series of videos called “Crash Course” includes a chemistry series with several dedicated just to gases.  As in many of the Crash Course series tantalizing (and flashingly brief) narratives are thrown in about historical figures involved.  This one takes a critical tone about Boyle’s Law really having come from the much less wealthy Henry Power through his friend Richard Towneley.  Boyle isn’t really villainized or anything like that ... just maybe lowered a notch or so on his pedestal.  Any thoughts on the accuracies of this brief impression?

On a related note, the very next Crash Course Video (Chemistry #13) hints that Boyle thought of Joseph Gay-Lussac as a scoundrel.  That just begs for more story as well, and I wonder if you know any more about that?

Ted Davis - #84599

February 25th 2014

Thank you for the invitation to comment on this, Merv.

The video on Boyle’s law greatly over-simplifies the actual historical situation, and not properly to Boyle’s credit. He deserves part of the credit, frankly, but not all of it—and, he never claimed all of it. It’s only subsequently (when, I don’t know) that we started to call this “Boyle’s Law,” and the French started calling it “Marriotte’s Law” (crediting neither Towneley nor Power).

I lack time for too lengthy a reply, which is what it would take to correct the video. So I will reply only in two ways.

(1)    Let me quote Boyle himself, from the place where he puts the table of data that amounts to “Boyle’s Law.” He says, “Now, if to what we have thus delivered concerning the compression of Air we adde some Observations concerning its spontaneous Expansion, it will the better appear how much the Phænomena of these Mercurial Experiments depend upon the differing measures of strength to be met with in the Airs Spring, according to its various degrees of Compression and Laxity. But, before I enter upon this subject, I shall readily acknowledge that I had not reduc’d the tryals I had made about measuring the Expansion of the Air to any certain Hypothesis, when that ingenious Gentleman Mr. Richard Townely was pleased to inform me, that having by the perusal of my Physico-Mechanical Experiments been satisfied that the Spring of the Air was the cause of it, he had endeavoured (and I wish in such attempts other ingenious men would follow his example) to supply what I had omitted concerning the reducing to a precise estimate how much Air dilated of itself loses of its Elastical force, according to the measures of its Dilatation.He added, that he had begun to set down what occurred to him to this purpose in a short Discourse, whereof he afterwards did me the favour to shew me the beginning, which gives me a just Curiosity to see it perfected. But, because I neither know, nor (by reason of the great distance betwixt our places of residence) have at present the opportunity to enquire, whether he will think fit to annex his Discourse to our Appendix, or to publish it by it self, or at all [TD: it was in fact never published]; and because he hath not yet, for ought I know, met with fit Glasses to make an any-thing-accurate Table of the Decrement of the force of dilated Air; our present design invites us to present the Reader with that which follows, wherein I had the assistance of the same person [TD: Robert Hooke, Boyle’s assistant at the time] that I took notice of in the former Chapter, as having written something about Rarefaction: whom I the rather make mention of on this occasion, because when he first heard me speak of Mr. Townley‘s suppositions about the proportion wherein Air loses of its Spring by Dilatation, he told me he had the year before (and not long after the publication of my Pneumatical Treatise) made Observations to the same purpose, which he acknowledged to agree well enough with Mr. Townley’s Theory: And so did (as their Author was pleased to tell me) some Tryals made about the same time by that Noble Virtuoso and eminent Mathematician the Lord Brouncker, from whose further Enquiries into this matter, if his occasions will allow him to make them, the Curious may well hope for something very accurate.”

In this passage, Boyle clearly says that he had the idea from Towneley; he doesn’t mention Power, but as Webster says (see below) what Towneley sent Boyle didn’t clearly indicate that Power had played a role; otherwise, I think we can assume that Boyle would also have mentioned Power.

(2)    The two scholars who’ve assessed this matter most carefully are I. Bernard Cohen, “Newton, Hooke, and ‘Boyle’s Law’,” Nature (14 Nov 1964): 618-21, and Charles Webster, “Richard Towneley and Boyle’s Law,” Nature (19 Jan 1963): 226-28. Neither one would likely have agreed with the presentation in the video. Let me quote Cohen’s overall assessment: “Hence this is a law discovered by Power and Towneley, accurately verified by Hooke, accurately verified again by Boyle (aided in some degree by Hooke), first published by Boyle, but chiefly publicized by Mariotte, in short, the ‘law of Power and Towneley, and of Hooke and Boyle, and—to some degree—of Mariotte’. This example certainly shows the complexities in making precise the individual contributions in the common multiply-discovered scientific law and thus argues the folly of eponymy in science.” I couldn’t say it any better myself, Merv.

Ted Davis - #84600

February 25th 2014

As for the statement in the video that ” Boyle thought of Joseph Gay-Lussac as a scoundrel,” that’s not what the video says.

If it did say this, it would clearly be wrong, b/c Gay-Lussac wasn’t born until 1778, and Boyle died in 1691.

What it says is this: ” published by Joseph Gay-Lussac, who wasn’t a scoundrel—yes, I’m looking at you, Robert Boyle…” That’s simply outrageous, and you should say so loudly, Merv, if you have the opportunity to do so; and, you can quote me. I just explained why it’s outrageous: Boyle never claimed to discover “Boyle’s law,” and he properly credited Towneley (though not Power) for the insight.

Merv - #84601

February 25th 2014

Wow!  That should cure me for a little while at least of my fascination with “quick and dirty” internet education—- in this case it was both.  Thank you Ted for taking the time you did to show what you did from Boyle’s own hand on this.

And on the matter of Gay-Lussac I’m just properly embarrassed.  It never occurred to me to check if Lussac had even been born yet!  I don’t know what motivated their comment, but I’ll try to find out.

Ted Davis - #84608

February 26th 2014

You’re welcome, Merv.

I see where that video has had an enormous number of viewers. The people who made it are, to be frank (again), are engaging in irresponsible myth-making. This happens all the time, doesn’t it? Scientists (or science educators) think they know something about the history of science, make casual comments that are intended more to be witty than to be accurate, and zillions of children end up believing pure historical bunk.

It would be a great favor to me personally, Merv, as well as to Boyle’s memory and to historical accuracy, if you would take time to debunk the bunk on that site itself, steering fans of those videos back here for a more accurate picture. It might also bump our own readership up, but my motive in all truth is simply the truth.

Please follow up in this way, if at all possible.


Merv - #84613

February 26th 2014

I would be honored to be an enlistee in your crusade to bring truth with integrity to the video-watching masses—my own enthusiasm checked only by my awareness of how often I’ve belonged on the receiving end of your criticism.

Teachers often feel a need to compete in an entertainment arms race with the mediasphere at large.  We feel justified and when we find material that appears to teach in an entertaining way.  I’m more than willing to believe it may come at the expense of helping to develop scholarly research habits.

I did already leave a comment at one site, but my comment is among those from hundreds of gushing fans.  It feels a bit like walking into a rock concert and hoping to get the attention of the star on the stage.  I’m told that “they” (a research team) regularly sweep through the comments looking for recommended corrections, but this one has been posted for most of a year by now, so we’ll see.  I will keep looking into it, and all the more so having your encouragement.

You may shudder to think there is a whole history series too with his brother John Green.  I do admit to enjoying some of these such as this one about the history of Christianity—and have no substantial criticisms of their content; maybe because I’m not a real historian.  If you have time, amuse (or horrify) yourself.  They do seem to be done in a genuine spirit of sprinkling knowledge into the cybersphere.  As long as one sees it as an invitation to delve deeper into real scholarship.  That’s the rub; how many of us actually do that?

Jon Garvey - #84615

February 27th 2014


Your last point is good. In theory, “Braveheart” or “The da Vinci Code” could be incitements to check out historical truth. But in practice people prefer to reinforce their societal myths, and the films do that, whereas the orginal sources don’t.

Which of us, for example, is willing to have our contemporary prejudices challenged by the real Boyle? Wouldn’t we rather cherry-pick what fits neatly into what we already think we know, and shake our heads sadly where he shows how unenlightened he is?

Ted Davis - #84609

February 26th 2014

Incidentlly, Boyle elsewhere credits Power for certain observations with (basically) barometers; so, if he had fully realized in 1662 that Power and Towneley had been full collaborators, I can’t see why he would have credited only Towneley for what Boyle himself calls “Towneley’s theory” or “hypothesis,” not “Boyle’s law.” This claim that Boyle stole credit from Towneley and Power, and got away with it b/c he was wealthier, is completely irresponsible.

His wealth and influence probably were factors leading others, later, to name the discovery after him—he was (after all) the first to publish it. But, as we’ve seen, he in no way took credit for anything more than doing careful experiments to verify it.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84581

February 21st 2014


Thank you very much for the story of Peter Boyle and how he with others founded modern science. 

Please bear with me a little while I try to suggest this narrative as the background for the evolution debate.

It has been claimed that Western Culture is based on three “Pillars;”  Philosophy, Christianity, and Modern Science.  Right now I see all three in intellectual tatters.

Today’s Philosophy is Relativism.  Today’s Christianity is based on a dated reading of the Bible.  Today’s Science is Scientism. 

When I read about the justification for naturalism, I hear a reaction against Aristotelian teleology and Bible based science.  That is understandable.  Science needs to stand on its own two feet and be free to work under its own rules and standards.

At the same time Philosophy, Science, and Theology must work together to givew individuals and society a full and healthy understanding of Reality.  I am sure that this Boyle would aqgree with that statement.  

We need to bring the three pillars back together again, but we cannot do it by going backward in time, however attractrive this may seem.  We must rebuild Philosophy from the top down and the bottom up using all our resources from Theology and Science until we have a solid intellectual foundation for all.

Boyle helped begin this process by stripping Nature of her philosophical pretensions, but we need to rebuild Nature as a bridge between God and humanity, along with other bridges found in Reason and Faith.          

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