Copernicus, Interrupted (Part 2)

| By Brandon Withrow

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to Brigden’s bold insistence upon using Copernicus, however, as most of his colleagues were still operating on an outdated astronomy.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.


References & Credits

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.

About the Author

Brandon  Withrow

Brandon 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.