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The Faith of a Great Scientist: Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation, Part 1

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August 8, 2013 Tags: Science as Christian Calling
The Faith of a Great Scientist: Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation, Part 1

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

Note: The picture above is Johann Kerseboom's Portrait of Robert Boyle (ca. 1689). Kerseboom and his assistants painted multiple versions of this portrait. This one, called the Shannon Portrait after the family that owned it,was unknown to scholars until early this century, when it came up for auction in London and was purchased by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

Over the past several months, I’ve introduced readers to John Polkinghorne, a leading modern scientist who is also an outspoken Christian. This new series will introduce you to a great scientist from the period often called the “Scientific Revolution,” when modern science came into existence. The English chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) is an outstanding example of a Christian scientist whose faith interacted fundamentally with his science. His remarkable piety was closely linked with his interest in science, and his Christian character shaped the ways in which he conducted his scientific life. A deep love for scripture, coupled (ironically) with a lifelong struggle with religious doubt, led him to write several important books relating scientific and religious knowledge. We’ll explore aspects of this fascinating interaction over the next few months. I hope you’ll join us for the conversation.

Who Was Robert Boyle?

Robert Boyle is best known today as the person who published “Boyle’s Law,” the inverse relation between the pressure and volume of gases that is a standard part of a basic chemistry course. Often this is shown graphically as in this illustration,  but Boyle didn’t present it in that way, nor did he write it down as an equation, such as PV = k, where P and V are the pressure and volume of the gas and k is a constant numerical value.

Graph of Boyle’s Law (http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/images/neemo_graph_boyles_law.jpg).

Boyle didn’t usually think in abstract mathematical terms. Rather, he thought concretely about specific measurements and how to make them as accurately and precisely as possible. Thus, he presented the relationship simply by giving a table of measured values for the pressure and volume of a small sample of air that he trapped under a column of mercury in a glass tube.

​Boyle’s “table of the condensation of the air,” from New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Air: Whereunto is Added A Defence of the Authors Explication of the Experiments, Against the Obiections of Franciscus Linus, and, Thomas Hobbes (1662). Source: http://jap.physiology.org/content/87/4/1543/F1.medium.gif.

This was a major scientific discovery, but he did much more. Over a period of more than three decades, Boyle wrote extensively about various properties of matter in all three of its basic phases—liquid, solid, and gaseous. He also discussed important aspects of physiology, medicine, the planet earth (including the oceans and the atmosphere), while contributing key insights to matter theory and the philosophy of science. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Boyle was one of the founders of the modern scientific laboratory—conceive an experiment to test a hypothesis, assemble the apparatus and the people needed to carry out the experiment, and publish the results.

Boyle’s books and articles were in high demand throughout Europe during the Scientific Revolution. They were often pirated on the Continent, where his name was recognized everywhere that science was being done. One reason for his international reputation, I am convinced, was the exquisitely detailed, very clear descriptions of his experiments. Others could repeat them to check the results, or modify them to test further hypotheses of their own. Either way, they could count on Boyle to report honestly exactly what he had done and found—even when the experiment didn’t work, a frequent occurrence. Because of his many important contributions to science, Boyle is often described as “the father of chemistry and brother of the Earl of Cork,” to borrow an old witticism that is—quite wrongly—said to be the epitaph on his tombstone. What is absent from this popular image, however, is a deeper understanding of a deeply religious man who wrote as much about the nature of God as he did about the nature of air.

Evidence of Boyle’s intense religiosity and its influence on his scientific work is abundant. A particularly striking example involves Richard Baxter, the eminent Puritan divine. After reading one of Boyle’s meditative works in the summer of 1665, Baxter wrote Boyle to express appreciation: “I read your Theologie as the Life of your Philosophie, & your Philosophie as animated & dignifyed by your Theologie; yea indeed as its first Part.” Once we realize that when Baxter used the word “Philosophie,” he meant what we call “science,” we start to see the point. As historian Michael Hunter has recently said, “The central fact of Boyle’s life from his adolescence onwards was his deep piety, and it is impossible to understand him without doing justice to this.” [Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), vol. 7, p. 106.] The columns in this series should be understood as my effort to do it justice.

Richard Baxter
, oil painting after Robert White (1670), National Portrait Gallery, London (http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw00391/Richard-Baxter)

Looking Ahead

Please return in about two weeks, when I’ll explore Boyle’s adolescent religious experiences, especially his dark, personal encounter with doubt—which had lifelong implications for his theological writings.

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. All articles from that journal number can now be downloaded at http://www.scienceandchristianbelief.org/toc.php?type=by_volume&volume=19&issue=2. That is where readers can find complete bibliographical information about my sources, many of them written either by Boyle himself or by people who actually knew him.

The principal biographer of Boyle, Michael Hunter, offers a short overview of “The Life and Thought of Robert Boyle” that is well worth reading in full. Hunter also created the Homepage of the Robert Boyle Project, where readers can view hundreds of pages of manuscripts from the Boyle Papers, housed at the library of the Royal Society in London.

Information about Boyle’s life and work is readily available online, but some is unreliable and much is not original—the same old material tends to be regurgitated, often by copying it verbatim without acknowledgement: plagiarism is rampant on the internet. Readers who want to go further are invited to visit a print library to consult the following authoritative sources:

R. Hooykaas, Robert Boyle: A Study in Science and Christian Belief . Translated by H. Van Dyke.  University Press of America, 1997. The late Reijer Hooykaas, one of the leading historians of science of the last century, provides a sensitive and insightful account of the role of Christian beliefs in Boyle’s life and work. (The description of the author at amazon.com is erroneous.)

Michael Hunter. Boyle: Between Science and God. Yale University Press, 2009. Hunter knows more about Boyle than anyone else since Boyle’s own day. There really is no substitute for this book.


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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GJDS - #82399

August 8th 2013

Excellent choice for a discussion on science and faith Ted. I look forward to the future intallments. It is important to clearly show how honesty and a love for what is true in a laboratory, an experiment, or a hypothesis, is central to science, and this quality shines through these Christain scientists and their work - and a willingness to discuss our failures in science, be they experimental or a theory/hypothesis.

Merv - #82404

August 10th 2013

Thanks, Ted.  Future installments are much anticipated.  Reading through the overview by Hunter to which you linked, my curiosity is piqued by the mention of Boyle’s debt to alchemy.  I am aware of some of the ways alchemy contributed to experimental science, but still it is always fascinating to delve deeper into a great mind like Boyle’s to see (to the extent that we can) the various influences at work.  Even if you don’t end up spending time on that, you’ve inspired me to seek as time may allow some of those works.

Ted Davis - #82405

August 11th 2013

I won’t have very much to say about alchemy, Merv, mainly b/c it’s peripheral to the themes I’ll stress but also b/c I don’t know very much about the whole topic, including Boyle’s own activities and very strong interest in it. The history of alchemy—including alchymy/chymistry in the Scientific Revolution—is an whole world in itself. I know just enough about it to know how much I don’t know, and for me to start talking about it beyond superficial observations would be an example of the blind leading the blind.

It was very important to a lot of important early natural philosophers, however, including Boyle and Newton; indeed, for Newton it was if anything an even bigger part of his life. Boyle’s good friend John Locke (the famous political philosopher who was trained as a physician) was also into alchemy, and he was given the responsibility of holding some of Boyle’s papers after his death, including alchemical stuff. Among other things Locke did, was to complete the publication process for this book: http://www.riley-smith.com/hamish/document_view.php?cat=1&doc=165. Boyle was in effect Locke’s mentor: http://www.egs.edu/library/john-locke/biography/, and some of Locke’s most important ideas were inspired or influenced by Boyle.

Anyway, Newton wrote Locke after Boyle’s death, asking about certain alchemical secrets he assumed (rightly, if memory serves well) were buried among Boyle’s papers. All 3 of those guys were into alchemy.

If you want to go further with this, start here: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6328.html. As Principe and some other historians have pointed out, the standard view of Boyle in chemistry textbooks is the reverse of the truth. They typically present him as the “father of chemistry” in the modern sense, as someone who attacked the alchemists for not being modern chemists and as someone who promoted the modern notion of a chemical element. In fact, he was an alchemist himself and he didn’t believe that chemically irreducible substances had been shown to exist.

GJDS - #82414

August 11th 2013

Like most of the physical sciences, chemistry has beginnings which often are difficult to understand today - and understanding alchemy may be especially difficult because most was kept secret. I leave the details to historians and make a couple of points that most chemists probably associate with Boyle and his importance to Chemistry. The first point is the extraodinary advances Boyle made to experimentation - I think someone may have said he coined the term and practice of analysis - a central theme in chemistry. He also advocated ideas that later led to our understanding of elements and compounds, although in his day differing from the four elements from the Greeks and advocating other notions was seen as differences in philosophical thinking.

I too find it difficult to get a detailed view of Boyle and chemistry within today’s context, but I am left somewhat in awe of the ability of people like Boyle (and Newton, Dalton etc) to think past the established views (most in his day seemed to be outmoded Greek thinking). It is this intellectual vigour and capacity to come up with original ideas and outlooks that makes these people so impressive today. 

Merv - #82424

August 12th 2013

Thanks so much for the links, Ted—I haven’t pursued them yet, though I still intend to.

Google attempts to correct any search on the word “Chymistry” which it will initially insist on changing to “chemistry” (until you indicate that you meant exactly what you typed!)

As a science teacher I’ve been appallingly ignorant of this history of both Boyle and Newton.  And I’m sure this isn’t the last time I will be appalled.  If I had ever heard mention of their involvement in alchemy I had totally forgotten it.  And according to this site, none of this is recent news in the discipline of the history of science.  I discovered this link:


from a professor William R. Newman, professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University.   He provides other interesting links and mentions the 1937 “rude shock” to the world of Newton scholarship at finding Newton’s alchemical writings. 

He also writes:

Already in 1946, John Maynard Keynes used the alchemical papers to make his famous claim that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”


Even as I’m only warming up to the whole largely forgotten history of great early scientists here, I already have a personal judgment to make that I don’t think Keynes gets it right either.  So many want there to be a clean division between the soldiers of enlightened truth and those of errant, superstitious darkness—they want to imagine a definitive circle drawn, inside of which are all the soldiers of truth (leading of course to modern science), and outside of which is everybody else, with nary a productive exchange between the two.  And it should be a matter of curiousity to everyone that every author and blogger who divides historical people this way is always coincidentally inside the “good circle of enlightenment” from which he can dispense his “objectively discerning” judgments.   (And just when the self-proclaimed champions of critical thought might be in the highest need of their own merchandise, it is tragically and entirely AWOL!)

I’ll at least suggest that Keynes would have been closer to accuracy to say Newton was both (and even that would oversimplify too much the slow evolution to our current states of knowledge).  I imagine that quite the same sentiments might apply to Boyle and many others.


Ted Davis - #82452

August 15th 2013


Keynes’ famous comments, “Newton, the Man,” are at http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Extras/Keynes_Newton.html

Merv - #82460

August 16th 2013

Thanks for that link too.  I now see that my hasty judgment of an isolated comment does not do justice to all that Keynes said.

One last note on Newton (thanks for your patience here in this thread about Boyle) is a good piece titled “Birth of a Masterpiece” by Gail Christianson.  In it he references observations by Newton’s assistent, Humphrey Newton.  It gives interesting insights into Newton’s personal life and some interactions with Halley and others.


Ted Davis - #82467

August 16th 2013

Christianson’s piece is nice. For an even closer look at Newton and his career, I recommend

The Career of Isaac Newton A Scientific Life in the Seventeenth Century

The American Scholar

Vol. 50, No. 3 (Summer 1981), pp. 341-353

You’ll need access to an academic library to find it, but the journal is common so almost any academic library will do. Or, order a copy from ILL at a public library. Effort will be repaid handsomely.

Jon Garvey - #82429

August 12th 2013


The note on Richard Baxter is interesting, showing that the link between theology and science was a two-way street in Boyle’s time. Baxter himself practised medicine (for parishioners too poor to afford doctors). His treatments were sometimes pretty crude by our standards, but derived from the most advanced physicians of the day. And he seems to have come to a good understanding of depression and its management, in particular, by observation of many cases (“more than any physician that I know”) and empathy.

Ted Davis - #82451

August 15th 2013

I didn’t know that about Baxter, Jon. Thank you very much for mentioning it. In a subsequent column I’ll talk about Boyle’s own efforts to bring better medicine to country folk, especially through the collection he called Medicinal Experiments: http://www.nli.ie/blog/index.php/2012/02/23/do-not-try-this-at-home/. As you may know, John Wesley did exactly the same thing in the next century: http://www.pirages.com/pages/books/CJM1019/john-wesley/primitive-physic-or-an-easy-and-natural-method-of-curing-most-diseases.

Jon Garvey - #82457

August 16th 2013

And I didn’t know about Boyle’s philanthropic medical work, Ted - that no doubt explains much of Baxter’s interest in him, or vice versa.

There used to be a Richard Baxter Society, whose main contributor was a Baxter scholar of encyclopaedic  knowledge, but it folded after he withdrew. He’d have been the guy to give chapter and verse on any correspondence with Boyle - apparently they’re preparing an edition of Baxter’s correpondence in 9 volumes!

Ted Davis - #82496

August 21st 2013


Michael Hunter’s edition of The Correspondence of Robert Boyle contains just one letter from Boyle to Baxter (it’s all we know about), but four from Baxter to Boyle (we know about the existence of a fifth that is now lost). Chapter and verse for the one I quoted is: vol. 2, pp. 473-8, dated 14 June 1665. The original (I assume in Baxter’s hand) is in the Boyle Letters (Royal Society), but there’s a scribal copy in Baxter’s Letters, at Dr Williams Library, London, in case you have an opportunity to see it.

Jon Garvey - #82540

August 30th 2013


Apologies for my rudeness in not acknowledging your reply. I’ve been away in France celebrating the marriage of my (other) daughter.

Trips to distant London are as rare as trips to France nowadays, but who knows if I may not get a chance to delve into the correspondence at some stage?

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