The Heart of a Great Scientist

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

The Heart of a Great Scientist
Posthumous bust of Boyle by Giovanni Battista Guelfi (c. 1723). Source


The third column on Boyle moves from doubt to piety and charity—the heart of this great scientist.

Piety and Charity: Love for God and Humanity

Having taken full ownership of his faith, partly by giving doubt a free reign, Robert Boyle cultivated an active piety that friends noticed and admired–above all in his strict habit of honoring God’s name. Before turning twenty-one, he wrote two essays on the spiritual damage done by swearing that were published only after his death. Nor was he the least bit hypocritical in writing them. His close confidant, Bishop Gilbert Burnet, told mourners at Boyle’s funeral that their deceased friend “had the profoundest Veneration for the great God of Heaven and Earth, that I have ever observed in any Person. The very name of God was never mentioned by him without a Pause and a visible stop in his Discourse, in which one that knew him most particularly above twenty Years, has told me that he was so exact, that he does not remember to have observed him once to fail in it” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, p. 48). When a prominent attorney, Sir Peter Pett, asked Boyle about this practice, this was Boyle’s answer: “not to have an awe upon us when the name of God is spoken of in Company, is a sign of want of Grace.” Boyle approached the Bible with a similar reverence, such that he gently reproved anyone who would use the words of Scripture in jest. As Pett recalled, “he inculcated the sinfulness of mens diminishing thereby the constant awe that the Scriptures should have on their thoughts: and minded the company of the Words of Isaiah to him will I look, who is of contrite heart & trembles at my word” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, pp. 66-7).

Morning devotions were a standard part of Boyle’s daily routine, despite the fact that his eyesight was poor for most of his adult life. Judging from the number of times he cited them, two of his favorite biblical passages were Psalms 119 and 139, and a favorite verse was 1 Peter 1:12: “Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into” (Quoting the Authorized Version, used in Boyle’s Anglican church). In keeping with this text, he hoped for a “dayly increase” in the number of those “who have such a desire as St.Peter tells us the Angels themselves cherish, to look into the Mysteries of Religion, and are qualified with elevated and comprehensive Intellects to apprehend them in some measure” (Style of the Scriptures, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 2, p. 401).

Portrait of James Ussher, after Sir Peter Lely (ca. 1654), National Portrait Gallery, London (Source). Ussher is best known today for calculating the beginning of creation as the evening before Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC, a deed for which he is often ridiculed quite unfairly. It was actually a state-of-the-art calculation by a great biblical scholar, based on reasonable assumptions and the best knowledge of the ancient world available at the time. Ussher was a friend of the family, and Boyle accepted his conclusions about the age of the world.    

This is precisely what Boyle tried to do himself: to develop a very serious interest in biblical scholarship, a trend apparently dating back to his youthful trip to the Continent. In Florence, Boyle met a Jewish refugee from Spanish persecution, a man with whom (according to Burnet) he “had many discourses about the Scriptures,” and “this led him first to enquire into them.” Several years later his father’s friend, the famous Archbishop James Ussher, reproached him for being ignorant of Greek, so “he studied it and read the N[ew] Test[ament] in that Language so much that he could have quoted it as readily in Greek as in English”—an observation affirmed independently by the Anglican rector in whose parish Boyle’s manor house was situated. As his eyes dimmed, he had to give up studying Hebrew, which none of his servants could read, but he was able to get help reading Greek. Despite his poor eyes, however, Pett reported that Boyle “alwaies had in his hand” in church a copy of the Bible in the original languages, which he liked to compare with the reading of the chapters assigned for that Sunday, “wondring to heare our English translation so different” from the original (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, pp. 27-8 and 65).

His love for God found further expression in love for his fellow human beings, starting with the tenants of his estate near the town of Stalbridge in North Dorset, close to the border with Somerset. The poorest residents annually received a cash gift at Christmas, distributed by his bailiff, who was also instructed not to oppress them with onerous rents. On other occasions, money would accompany medicines Boyle had made in his own laboratory for sick paupers. Many felt the gentle hand of his love, freely given and gratefully accepted. “His Charity to those that were in Want,” Burnet reminded Boyle’s friends at his funeral, was “so very extraordinary, and so many did partake of them, that I may spend little time on this Article. Great Summs went easily from him, without the Partialities of Sect, Country, or Relations; for he considered himself as part of the Humane Nature, and as a Debtor to the whole Race of Men.” Burnet had direct knowledge of this, having served often as an intermediary, helping to keep Boyle’s identity unknown to recipients. The donations for which Burnet could vouch (just a portion of Boyle’s philanthropy) sometimes exceeded £1000 per year, a very significant sum at the time—equivalent to roughly 3 million dollars today. Boyle also supported translations of part or all of the Bible into Welsh, Irish, Turkish, and Malayan, andEdward Pococke’s Arabic translation of Hugo Grotius’ important treatise, On the Truth of the Christian Religion.

The title page of John Eliot’s “Indian Bible.” Boyle’s
interest in converting the Indians was shared
by some other members of the Royal Society, including the
Secretary, Henry OldenburgSource

One particular project stands out from the others, especially here in America: the first complete Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere, John Eliot’s translation into the Natick dialect (northern Algonquin) of the Indians in Massachusetts. Eliot’s labors to learn the language and to render it in the Roman alphabet were supported by acorporation established by the English parliament in 1649, during the Interregnum. After theRestoration in 1660, however, the corporation was effectively in legal limbo. Boyle was instrumental in obtaining a new charter from the crown, in response to a request from the Presbyterian divine Richard Baxter, who corresponded with Eliot and strongly supported his work. In 1662 Boyle was appointed the first Governor of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, a position he held until1689 and carried out very conscientiously, with much energy. Although he made at least one large gift of £300 to the Company in 1679 and smaller ones directly to Eliot, his main contributions were political: he used his connections to ensure the viability of the Company, which still exists today. When Eliot prepared a new, revised edition, of his Bible (which appeared in 1685) following the destruction of many copies of the first edition in King Philip’s War, copies sent to England included a separately printed dedication to Boyle.

Christian love is no less evident in Boyle’s attitude toward individual persons in ordinary discourse. As Burnet said, “When he differed from any, he expressed himself in so humble and so obliging a way, that he never treated Things or Persons with neglect, and I never heard that he offended any one Person in his whole Life by any part of his Deportment” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, pp. 50-51).  Boyle’s approach to intellectual opponents was identical, going out of his way on several occasions to treat their positions fairly and their persons graciously, while avoiding gratuitous ad hominem comments. Early in his scientific career, in a pioneering book devoted partly to the philosophy of science, he blazed a noble path in unambiguous prose: “I love to speak of Persons with Civility, though of Things with Freedom.” Concerning “the (very much too common) Practice of … railing at a mans Person,” as if it were “necessary to the Confutation of his Opinions, … I think such a quarrelsome and injurious way of writing does very much mis-become both a Philosopher and a Christian” (Certain Physiological Essays, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 2, p. 26). Read his words again a couple times, and the significance of his faith for the practice of science may start to sink in.

John Michael Wright, portrait of Thomas Hobbes (ca. 1669-70), National Portrait Gallery, London. Although Hobbes had many friends, he also had a knack for making important enemies, not only Boyle but also Boyle’s friends Richard Baxter and John Wallis, the great Oxford mathematician. Hobbes badly wanted to be part of the Royal Society, but his protracted argument with Wallis, his attack on Boyle’s views, differences with other members—and the lingering suspicion that he was religiously subversive—kept him on the outside.

Elsewhere (see my print essay, “Parcere nominibus,” cited below) I have shown the extent to which Boyle consistently kept this policy. Overall, Boyle left a remarkable legacy on this score. The contrast with someone like Galileo—who didn’t hesitate to get personal with opponents—is deafening. Although he was constantly in the public eye, often writing on controversial subjects and speaking with a wide range of people, he seems to have had many intellectual opponents but no real enemies–except philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a sometimes truculent man, “whose hand was against every body, & admir’d nothing but his owne,” to borrow the words of Boyle’s friend John Evelyn (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, p. 89). In the early 1660s, Hobbes and Boyle clashed over how to understand some of Boyle’s experiments with air pumps. Above all, they argued about how to interpret (in both physical and metaphysical terms) the space above the meniscus in a mercury barometer: is it really empty? How do we know that experiments with air-pumps give reliable information about nature?

The dispute with Hobbes took place on multiple levels. Boyle saw Hobbes’ concept of a corporeal God as “dangerous” to religion, and he was undoubtedly eager to respond pointedly for that reason alone. At the same time, he was exasperated by Hobbes’ persistent attack on scientific knowledge itself and offended by Hobbes’ condescending tone toward Boyle and his colleagues at the Royal Society. Nevertheless, even here Boyle sought to mollify rather than to escalate. His reply, taking the form of a supplement to the second edition of his great treatise on air pressure, was calculated “to give an Example of Disputing in Print against a Provoking, though unprovoked, Adversary, without Bitterness and Incivility, and without pursuing those things which [belong more] ... to the Person of an Antagonist then to his Cause.” Inviting Hobbes to respond, Boyle advised “that his Reply be as inoffensive as I have endeavour’d to make [mine],” lest others be inclined to return his incivility (Examen of Hobbes, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 3, pp. 111 and 114). Boyle’s moderation is a lesson for us all.

Looking Ahead

In the next column, we’ll see how Boyle’s charity shaped his attitude toward religious differences, at a time when religious persecution was commonplace in Europe. Charity also led him to take a high view of Christian vocation.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38. Those who want more on Boyle’s efforts to argue respectfully with opponents should read Edward B. Davis, “Parcere nominibus: Boyle, Hooke, and the Rhetorical Interpretation of Descartes,” in Robert Boyle Reconsidered, ed. Michael Hunter (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 157-75. [Contact me privately if you want to read this.]

Information about Eliot’s Bible comes from William Kellaway, The New England Company 1649-1776 (Longmans, 1961), and Richard W. Cogley, John Eliot’s Mission to the Indians before King Philip’s War (Harvard University Press, 1999). For a wide-ranging, highly original, and controversial discussion of Boyle’s dispute with Hobbes, see Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 1985).

Manuscripts by Gilbert Burnet, Peter Pett, and John Evelyn are published in Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends (Pickering & Chatto, 1994). Other quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis.



About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.


Comments are currently not showing correctly. We are working to address the issue. In the meantime, you can access all comment and discussion boards by clicking the link below: