Aldous Huxley was once asked what historical person’s life he would most like to relive. His answer was Michael Faraday. Everybody loves Faraday. It’s hard to find any negative comment about him. His was a Cinderella story, the embodiment of a Horatio Alger novel, with plenty of human interest that makes for a satisfying plot. But it’s not just a good story; it was a life that changed the world. Faraday was a “nobody” who trusted God, applied himself, and succeeded – to his own amazement – beyond his dreams. He became the world’s greatest experimental physicist. To this day he is often admired as such, notwithstanding the ultra-tech toys modern chemists and physicists have at their disposal. The president of the Institution for Electrical Engineers (IEE), for instance, at the unveiling of a Michael Faraday statue in 1989, said, “His discoveries have had an incalculable effect on subsequent scientific and technical development. He was a true pioneer of scientific discovery.”
Faraday enraptured audiences with his public demonstrations. He discovered some of the most important laws of physics and chemistry, discoveries which revolutionized the world economy. But none of this mattered to him as much as one thing: his Christian faith. He would rather be praying and studying the Bible with his fellow church members than be at an awards ceremony or have audience with royalty. Steadfast and humble, Faraday remained absolutely committed to Biblical truth from early childhood throughout his long life. He would have been considered a “fundamentalist” Christian, had the term existed in his day. Nothing, not even the rising tide of skepticism in Britain leading up to the Darwinian revolution, shook his confidence in the word of God. And Faraday was not one to ever hear a snicker from skeptics; he was too highly esteemed for that. His contemporaries would have concurred with the praise Lord Rutherford expressed in 1931, 64 years after his death: “The more we study the work of Faraday with the perspective of time, the more we are impressed by his unrivalled genius as an experimenter and natural philosopher. When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and industry, there is no honor too great to pay to the memory of Michael Faraday—one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time.”
Start listing the things that run on electric motors – automobiles, fans, clocks, airplanes, pumps, vacuum cleaners, and so much more – and you begin to get a hint of what Faraday’s work brought forth. Add to the list generators, transformers, electrolysis devices, electromagnets, and many other products of his lab, and Faraday’s importance to the history of science and technology starts to come into focus. It has been said that the wealth generated by the inventions based on Faraday’s discoveries exceed the value of the British stock exchange. This is probably an understatement. Yet Faraday remained a modest, unpretentious soul who never sought financial profit from his work. He accepted a cottage from the government in his senior years, but rebuffed honors. When the queen wanted to knight him, he declined, wishing to remain plain old Mr. Faraday to the end. The glory of Jesus Christ was the only reward he sought.
This series on scientist Christians (too bad we cannot reverse the order of the terms, no thanks to Mary Baker Eddy) has a recurring theme: circumstances are not the sole determiner of success. There have been some who came from well-to-do families (Boyle, Joule) but others (Newton, Kepler, Carver) seemed to have everything against them. Teachers should take note that a child from a poverty-stricken family and a bad neighborhood might turn out to be the next Michael Faraday. “Man looks on the outward appearance,” Samuel reminded Jesse, the father of a ruddy shepherd boy destined to become King David, “but God looks on the heart.” The most precious gift a poor mother and father can give their children is an example of faith, diligence, and godliness. The Faraday household had little of this world’s goods, but they had the intangible treasures of God’s Word. The centrality of worship in their life made them resolutely confident in the sovereignty and grace of God. Michael gained from his faith a sense of purpose and drive and fortitude to withstand the rigors of life. He developed values that subjugated worldly passions and promoted honorable work. And for the benefit of science, his faith provided curiosity about God’s creation and a deep belief in the unity of nature. As we will see, this belief steered him right toward his most fundamental discoveries.
In this regard, young Michael Faraday was a rich child, even though outwardly his clothes were shabby, his shoes were worn out with holes, and he knew hunger. His father, a blacksmith, became an invalid and went for extended periods without work. More than once Michael was given a loaf of bread by his mother and told it needed to last him a week. The boy had to learn how to work hard and bear responsibility at an early age. Properly understood and applied, these challenges can build character: Jeremiah said, “It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth” (Lam. 3:27). Faraday was living proof of that. Rather than turn him into a thief or vagabond, hardships and deprivation instilled in Michael an appreciation for the few good things he had, a desire to succeed, and a deep hunger for knowledge. That hunger began to be satisfied when he took a job as an apprentice bookbinder at the age of 13.
Prior to his apprenticeship, he had attained only the rudiments of education through Sunday school: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Though math would never be his strong point, he learned good penmanship, mastered writing and note-taking, and was a voracious reader. In the print shop, he often read the books that were to be bound. At first, his boss found him wasting his time on fiction, and urged him instead to read things of real value. To his credit, Faraday accepted the advice and began reading articles on science. A book on chemistry attracted his attention so much, he began imitating the experiments. When he read in Encyclopedia Britannica about the new discoveries being made about electricity, including Volta’s new invention that could supply a constant current, he was so fascinated, he cobbled parts from around the shop, including bottles, rags and clamps, and made his own Voltaic pile, a recently-invented battery; with this and jars he purchased with meager savings, he made his own capacitor and electrostatic generator.
Around this time, Faraday was also strongly influenced by a book written by the English hymnwriter Isaac Watts, author of such famous hymns as O God, Our Help In Ages Past, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, I Sing the Mighty Power of God, Jesus Shall Reign and Joy to the World. The book was entitled The Improvement of the Mind. Michael resolved to discipline himself by reading profitable books, taking good notes at important occasions, and observing the habits of influential people. These helped to fill in deficiencies from his substandard schooling. Whenever he could, he asked friends and acquaintances to help him with grammar, spelling and punctuation. He also began attending scientific lectures and formed friendships with other like-minded young men eager to improve their circumstances.
Michael dreamt of becoming a scientist, but felt confined by his poverty and lack of education to a shopkeeper’s vocation. His mother and family members depended on his income, even more so when his father passed away when he was 19. By now he was a journeyman bookbinder working for Mr. Riebau, a French businessman. One day, he was given a stub of paper that was to become the ticket to his dreams: free passes to four scientific lectures at the Royal Institution by one of Britain’s most eminent scientists, Sir Humphry Davy.
The Royal Institution was a showcase of science built in 1799 by Benjamin Thompson (1753–1814), an eccentric but intelligent philanthropist born in Massachusetts, who became Count Rumford in Bavaria before moving to London (later to marry Lavoisier’s widow in France). He designed the Royal Institution, a combination research laboratory, library and lecture hall, as a showcase of applied science. It contained one of the largest Voltaic piles of the era. Well stocked with chemicals, wire and magnets, it was the place to learn physical science in London. Humphry Davy, famous for inventing the miner’s safety lamp, was an early experimenter with electrolysis and used it to discover six elements: potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, and magnesium. Davy was another Christian man of science. Henry Morris summarized his testimony: “he was a Bible-believing Christian, highly altruistic and generous, though not as spiritually minded and patient as was Faraday. He was also a poet and, for a while, something of a Christian mystic. In his declining years, however, he returned to Biblical Christianity and found peace therein.” (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 38).
Sir Davy’s public lectures at the Royal Institution were very popular and brought in revenue from wealthy patrons (since it relied on subscribers). One can imagine how Faraday, now a young man and well read in chemistry and electricity, would have longed to hear Davy. He had already been attending Wednesday night meetings of the City Philosophical Society, a group of working men interested in science. He kept voluminous notes of these meetings, which his boss often showed off to customers. One customer was so impressed, he gave Michael free tickets to four lectures by Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution. The year was 1812; Faraday was now 21. He came early with ample note-taking materials and sat on the front row.
Spellbound by all Davy presented on stage, Faraday wrote down everything, recopied it neatly at home, and bound it into a book 386 pages long. Months went by as Faraday continued to dream of becoming a scientist like Davy. His apprenticeship over, he took a job as a bookbinder across town, but found the business tedious and unsatisfying. He took a bold step. He wrote to Davy and asked for a job. With his request, he enclosed a bound volume of notes he had taken at the lectures. Davy’s reply was polite, but disappointing; there were no positions available. In October of that year, Davy was temporarily blinded by an explosion in the laboratory. Faraday managed to become his secretary for a few days, but when Davy recovered, there were still no positions available.
A carriage pulled in front of Michael’s home one evening with a letter from Davy. Excitedly, Michael tore it open. It was a summons to appear at the Royal Institution the next day! Davy’s assistant had just been dismissed for involvement in a brawl, so now a position was available, and Davy had not forgotten the eager young man. Davy had discovered many things, but as he later admitted, his greatest discovery was Faraday.
It would require a substantial pay cut to take the job, but Michael enthusiastically accepted. His position at first was little more than janitor: washing bottles, setting up for lectures, keeping records, repairing things, and assisting the master as needed. But to have the opportunity to learn at the feet of one of the greatest scientists in England was a science education par excellence for the disadvantaged young man. Faraday applied himself diligently. He learned everything he could, keeping detailed notes, studying books in the evening, and working long hours willingly. In short order, Michael became the equal of any chemist in the world. What’s more, in 1813, Davy invited him on come along as his personal secretary on a tour of Europe, including Italy, Switzerland, Holland and Germany, for a year and a half. Faraday had the opportunity to meet some of the most important scientists on the continent, including Volta and Ampere. It was not always easy; the talkative and snobbish Mrs. Davy had the habit of treating Michael like a servant, but overall, the experience was an invaluable supplement to Faraday’s ongoing education.
Faraday was like a kid in a toy shop at the Royal Institution. His experiments are legendary. Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes some of his important discoveries:
Faraday, who became one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, began his career as a chemist. He wrote a manual of practical chemistry that reveals the mastery of the technical aspects of his art, discovered a number of new organic compounds, among them benzene, and was the first to liquefy a “permanent” gas (i.e., one that was believed to be incapable of liquefaction). His major contribution, however, was in the field of electricity and magnetism. He was the first to produce an electric current from a magnetic field, invented the first electric motor and dynamo, demonstrated the relation between electricity and chemical bonding, discovered the effect of magnetism on light, and discovered and named diamagnetism, the peculiar behaviour of certain substances in strong magnetic fields. He provided the experimental, and a good deal of the theoretical, foundation upon which James Clerk Maxwell erected classical electromagnetic field theory.
This summary conceals decades of hard work, and many lonely yet adventurous days and nights in the laboratory. Sometimes Faraday used his tongue as a voltmeter or chemical taster, and explosions were not uncommon. But he was a stickler for accuracy, kept good records, and published faithfully. “Work, finish, publish” was his motto, as he constantly strove to explore the frontiers of physical science.
Michael also developed skill in the art of lecturing. Understanding his responsibility to his audience, he made it a personal project to determine the most effective techniques for holding an audience’s interest and giving them a satisfying and edifying hour in the lecture hall. Within a decade of his employment by Davy, Faraday had exceeded his master in eminence. He was now a skilled lecturer, well-known experimentalist, and published scientist, with many major papers to his credit. He was also a married man, having wed Sarah Barnard, a member of his church, in June, 1821. By 1824, this self-educated bookbinder was elected to the Royal Society, and the following year succeeded Sir Humphry Davy as Director of the Royal Institution.
The Faradays lived upstairs at the Royal Institution for forty years. Michael would usually work long hours at his lab in the basement, where Sarah would often bring him dinner. She never pretended to understand his research (which was fine for Michael, because she could be the “pillow for his mind” after long hours focused on experiments), but the two of them loved each other deeply and faithfully all their lives. It was their deepest misfortune not to have children of their own, since both were fond of children. The disappointment was partially assuaged by the presence of two nieces who came to live with them. Though not opposed to socializing, Michael was most content to be working at experiments in his laboratory; experiments were “beautiful things,” he felt, and they provided the confidence he needed in his investigations of the laws of nature. So confident was he in nature’s laws, he once performed a risky experiment with himself as the subject. He built a twelve-foot-square metallic cage and charged it so high with static electricity that lightning-like sparks leaped off the sides. To prove that the electric field on a conducting surface resides only on the exterior, he went inside the cage to verify the absence of any detectable field in the interior.
Michael made some of his most important discoveries in the early years of their marriage. These included the physical foundations of the electric motor, generator and transformer. Many consider his crowning achievement the discovery of electromagnetic induction, the production of a steady electric current from the mechanical action of a magnet. (This principle was apparently discovered simultaneously and independently by Joseph Henry in America, another committed Christian, but Faraday published it first.) This became the foundation of the electric dynamo or generator, a new source of cheap energy that was to outpace the steam engine in the coming years and revolutionize the world energy economy.
Though known primarily as the great experimentalist, Faraday also possessed outstanding theoretical insight. His concept of an electromagnetic field, the idea that space was permeated with energy that followed lines of force (as demonstrated by the common children’s experiment with iron filings aligned by a magnet on a sheet of paper), was revolutionary in its day. It provided the fruitful insight that Maxwell later rigorously developed into his four laws of electrodynamics.
Since Faraday lived on a meager salary and the Royal Institution was often strapped for funds, most of his epochal discoveries were made with clever contraptions he devised himself out of inexpensive materials. Hermann von Helmholtz remarked, “A few wires and some old bits of wood and iron seem to serve him for the greatest discoveries.” The breadth of fundamental discoveries this math-challenged, poorly-paid, self-taught scientist made continues to astonish historians today. (For a good review of his work, with illustrations, see John Meurig Thomas, Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution, ch. 4). His work in chemistry alone would have made him famous; add to that electromagnetism, electrolysis, diamagnetism, paramagnetism, field theory, acoustics, light, and more, and his lifetime record stands unexcelled. He is the only physicist with two international units named after him: the faraday (a unit of electrical quantity) and the farad (a unit of capacitance). He is also remembered for the Faraday effect (the influence of magnetism on polarized light) and Faraday’s laws of electrolysis. Each of these had immense practical application that were soon exploited by entrepreneurs.
Added to his experimental fame, Michael Faraday’s public lectures and stage demonstrations set a high standard that influenced many who followed, and continues at the Royal Institution to this day. As a popularizer of science, Faraday is emulated but rarely surpassed. How he managed to design and execute so many Friday Night Lectures at the Royal Institution, each thoroughly planned and rehearsed, illustrated with experiments usually of his own making, is remarkable, considering how busy he was and how little he earned. One of his most poignant legacies was the annual Christmas Lectures for children. Adults had to stand in the back as the children got all the front seats for these delightful events. Faraday could keep the young audience in rapt attention as he made the ordinary seem extraordinary. His most popular Christmas Lecture series was called The Chemical History of a Candle, which, transcribed into book form, remains a classic today (there have been 70 Japanese editions alone). Faraday could take a simple household object, a candle, and draw out of it all the diverse wonders of nature. That’s a prime illustration of Muir’s Law: “Any time we try to isolate something by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
What turns a poor young man into the world’s greatest experimental scientist? What separated Michael Faraday from the other poor boys of his neighborhood? Undoubtedly, his Christian faith was the biggest factor. His parents grounded him in the Biblical world view. Historians find it intriguing that Faraday, a scientist, remained so loyal to his church all his life. The Faradays were “Nonconformists,” in that they rejected the official state church, with its high church liturgy (and social acceptance), preferring instead to meet in small groups to study the Bible and obey the teachings of Jesus Christ. Puritanism and Methodism are other examples of Nonconformist groups; John Dalton, Joseph Priestly and Joseph Henry were also scientists of nonconformist faith. The Faraday family belonged to a denomination known as the Sandemanians, a breakaway sect from the Scottish Presbyterian church, founded a century earlier by John Glas. The name Sandemanian comes from his son-in-law, Robert Sandeman, who became the leader. The Sandemanian church was basically a “back-to-the-Bible” movement. Critical of the traditions the high church had added to the Scripture, and the corruption that often ensued, they sought to return to the primitive, apostolic Christianity of the New Testament. Some distinctives of their worship included a plurality of elders, closed communion, foot washing, reading of Scripture and long prayers. Members were treated as equals, with no division between clergy and laity. They frowned on wealth accumulation and other forms of worldliness, and extolled humility, simplicity, and charity. Their services and fellowship meals took up a good part of each Sunday. Faithful attendance on the Lord’s Day and at Wednesday night prayer meetings was expected, especially for elders (Faraday lost his eldership for missing church to visit with the queen; only after a period of contrition over his lack of priorities was his position restored.)
How could such worship habits, seemingly so devoid of scientific interest, influence the lab work of a young scientist? This topic is explored by Jack Meadows in a sidebar of his chapter on Faraday in The Great Scientists, entitled “Nonconformist Religion and Science” (p. 135). “The growth of modern science overlapped the dramatic religious changes of the Reformation,” he begins. Though he admits the connection between these developments is sometimes obscure, he points out some features of Nonconformism that contributed to scientific endeavor and produced some of the greatest scientists from the ranks of Nonconformists. For one thing, Nonconformists were social outcasts to one degree or another; though often tolerated, they had been been through severe waves of persecution at times (one only has to remember the Pilgrims leaving all to sail to the New World primarily for religious freedom; later, Robert Sandeman also immigrated to America because of religious pressure in England). This kind of treatment harked back to the Reformation itself, a nonconformist tradition of the first order; yet when some Protestant churches became the new establishment, new reformers often felt compelled to break away. In so doing, they suffered some of the same reproaches endured by the early Reformers (Here is where you can use that longest word in the English language, antidisestablishmentarianism). This much is attributable to human social weakness (the “us vs. them” mentality), but often the outcast group, now on the defensive, becomes the more eager to delineate their positions, and the more motivated for change – attitudes that sometimes can reap positive results in other areas.
Secondly, as outcasts, they were rugged individualists. Nonconformists were often subject to legal restrictions. They were prevented from attending the state schools and universities, intertwined as those institutions were with the state church. One result of this was a fresh infusion of new attitudes and nontraditional methods in education. Nonconformists developed “dissenting academies,” whose “curriculum was much wider than in traditional schools and universities,” Meadows explains; “in particular, it contained a significant science component.… The dissenting academies became an important seedbed of science.”
But why would religious people concerned about imitating the early church care about science? This is where Meadows draws the most pertinent connection: “Many of the Nonconformist sects continued to hold a favorable view of science and technology, and the industrial revolution in England in the 18th century owed a great deal to them.” He doesn’t mention it explicitly, but this favorable view of science could only have been derived from a commitment to the Biblical doctrine of creation. A conviction that God created a world of order, beauty and purpose, operating under His natural law, gives impetus to scientific endeavor; for that reason, “It is not surprising that a person of Faraday’s Nonconformist background should develop an interest in science.” Add to that belief the promotion of excellence (whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God—I Corinthians 10:31), the well-known “Protestant work ethic” (if any would not work, neither should he eat—I Thessalonians 3:10), and the commitment to Truth (Thou shalt not bear false witness—Exodus 20:16) and you have the qualifications for a good scientist.
Many have noted that Faraday’s conviction that the forces of nature were unified, a belief that stemmed from his Biblical belief that they all derived from one Creator, strongly influenced his lab work. It directly motivated his experiments on electromagnetic induction and other attempts to relate electricity, magnetism, chemical energy, motion and even gravity (though he failed in the latter; some are still seeking that unification today). Although the unity of the forces of nature is not a uniquely Christian doctrine (it was also shared by some ancient Greeks and by modern cosmologists), in Faraday’s case it provided a clear instance where belief in creation led directly to outstanding scientific accomplishment. His confidence in the Biblical worldview is also seen in his writings about the conservation of force: “To admit, indeed, that force may be destructible or can altogether disappear, would be to admit that matter could be uncreated.…” (Thomas, pp. 101–102).
Moreover, because Faraday loved God, he loved God’s creation. John Meurig Thomas writes, “the beauty of nature, especially the hills of Devonshire, the vales of South Wales, all the Alpine landscapes and the seascapes of Brighton or the Isle of Wight, could move him to lyrical ecstasy. And in contemplating waterfalls, the rainbow or lightning, his responses were often Wordsworthian, though never expressed in verse” (Thomas, p. 118). No wonder he viewed the pursuit of scientific discovery as a holy calling, the understanding of nature as a gift of God. Christian faith was Faraday’s energy source. His friend and successor John Tyndall, though a skeptic, could not help but notice: “I think that a good deal of Faraday’s week-day strength and persistency might be referred to his Sunday Exercises. He drinks from a fount on Sunday which refreshes his soul for the week.”
That persistency nearly drove him to exhaustion at one point. Faraday was strong and athletic, but the long hours and stress caught up with him, producing a period of “mental muddiness,” as he called it. His friends insisted he take an extended rest. Would that we all had the energy of the “resting” Michael Faraday. Mulfinger writes, “His body was still strong, and when he took a rest in Switzerland when he was fifty, he took daily walks of thirty miles. His wife worried about him only on the day he walked forty-five miles.”
Faraday lived through the Darwinian revolution, but it never troubled him. Thomas writes, “Serene in the security of his religious conviction, he was untroubled by the apparent conflict between science and religious beliefs” (apparent being the key word). Faraday was no easy believer; gullibility was definitely not part of his character, as judged by his zeal for accuracy in all his measurements and his reluctance to state a conclusion before proved by experiment. He angrily scorned the naivete of the spiritualists, for instance. Speaking of the table-turning craze in his time (a fad that even captivated the co-“discoverer” of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace) Faraday scolded with rare impatience, “What a weak, credulous, incredulous, unbelieving, superstitious, bold, frightened, what a ridiculous world ours is, as far as concerns the mind of man. How full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities it is” (Thomas, p. 127). Yet his confidence in the Word of God was unshakeable. When asked if he had any speculations about the afterlife, a reporter must have been startled by his abrupt and firm response: “Speculations? I have none. I am resting on certainties.” Quoting I Timothy 1:12 with the apostolic conviction of St. Paul, he continued, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.”
That persuasion carried him into his old age. Michael suffered from memory loss that began in his twenties and gradually became severe in his later adulthood. It was not incoherence or mental incompetence, but simple forgetfulness, perhaps brought on by exposure to mercury or other lab chemicals. One benefit for historians is that his condition forced him to write everything down; Faraday left a monumental legacy of letters and documents that provide glimpses into his character, written with an elegance and expressiveness that has a “hypnotic quality” according to Thomas, and “continues to reward the historian of science, kindle the hearts of the young and to strike sparks in the mind of aspiring and mature scientists alike” (Thomas, p. 95; see Faraday’s Writings, ch. 5). Thomas brags on not only the style, but the content, the “elegant simplicity of his arguments” written in a magical way that “elicits admiration and conveys information in equal measure.” This is all the more remarkable considering the meagerness of his early education. Thomas provides some extended quotes to show off this legacy of literature, which includes 450 original papers and 2000 letters. Faraday’s humility and faith shine in his words: “There is no hunger after popular applause, no jealousy of the work of others .… His versatility, originality, intellectual energy and sheer stamina leave us in awe. There is also the wonder with which, as a natural philosopher, he is imbued as he contemplates the world and the forces and mechanisms that hold it together” (Thomas, pp. 96–97). His tactful, self-effacing, thoughtful wordsmithing could calm a disputatious opponent, gently express righteous indignation, graciously decline a favor or humbly accept an honor. In a book review in Nature (29 May 1997, pp. 469–470) celebrating a new publication of The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, Thomas said, “The letters of Faraday are remarkable not only for their vivacity and freshness but for their elevated tone and excellent composition – they are true specimens of the lost art of letter-writing.” In his biography, Thomas was especially struck by Faraday’s gift at introducing a subject; due to space, one example must suffice:
The science of electricity is that state in which every part of it requires experimental investigations; not merely for the discovery of new effects, but what is just now of far more importance, the development of the means by which the old effects are produced, and the consequence more accurate determination of the first principles of action of the most extraordinary and universal power in nature:— and to those philosophers who pursue the inquiry zealously yet cautiously, combining experiment with analogy, suspicious of their preconceived notions, paying more respect to a fact than a theory, not too hasty to generalize, and above all things, willing at every step to cross-examine their own opinions, both by reasoning and experiment, no branch of knowledge can afford so fine and ready a field for discovery as this. Such is most abundantly shown to be the case by the progress which electricity has made in the last thirty years: Chemistry and Magnetism have successively acknowledged its over-ruling influence; and it is probable that every effect depending upon the power of inorganic matter, and perhaps most of those related to vegetable and animal life, will ultimately be found subordinate to it.
In this prediction and many others, his insight proved correct. As he aged, his body remained strong, but his memory continued to fail. Faraday continued lecturing till age 70, but only with difficulty. He accepted his lot with equanimity and grace. He wrote to a friend, “I am, I hope, very thankful that in the withdrawal of the power and things of this life,—the good hope is left with me, which makes the contemplation of death a comfort—not a fear. Such peace is alone in the gift of God, and as it is He who gives it, why shall we be afraid? His unspeakable gift in His beloved Son is the ground of no doubtful hope; and there is the rest for those who like you and me are drawing near the latter end of our terms here below” (quoted in Mulfinger, p. 94). Upon his retirement from the Royal Institution, the queen awarded him and his wife a house in Hampton Court near the palace, in appreciation for his many contributions to science. He shrugged off knighthood and requested only his name be written on his tombstone. One thing he never forgot as the mental fog crept in was his love for the Lord and confidence of His good promises. He spent the remaining nine years of his life at Hampton Court, quietly fading away, looking forward to heaven, which he entered on August 26, 1867. The world below basks in the light of discoveries made by plain old Michael Faraday.
Afterword: Lessons Learned
Undoubtedly you have been encouraged by Faraday’s story. Not an ounce of guile or inconsistency mars his memory. We can, however, with the benefit of hindsight, speculate on some things that might have been. One area of particular interest to the historian of science is the fact that Faraday’s life spanned the Darwinian revolution, the rapid rise of evolutionism and materialism that in twelve short years (1859–1871) turned the science of the natural philosophers, mostly Christians, into the science of the skeptics like Huxley and Haeckel. Even John Tyndall, Faraday’s admirer and successor, was part and parcel of the revolution. Faraday personally knew almost all the great scientists of his day; why did the Darwinian revolution occur on his watch? Why did his Christian testimony have so little influence on those who were sowing the seeds of skepticism, atheism, methodological naturalism, and higher criticism all around him?
For one thing, Faraday was 69 when Darwin published On the Origin of Species; by then, his memory was severely impaired. Nevertheless, movements have roots, and throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, seeds of doubt that were to undermine Biblical faith were already growing. Lyell’s geological theories had cast doubt on Biblical chronology. Pre-Darwinian evolutionary tracts and books, like Robert Chambers’ Vestiges, were gaining a widespread hearing. Though Faraday was undoubtedly aware of such skeptical movements, it is difficult to find any account of Faraday speaking out against them, even though his outburst over spiritualism shows that he was capable of having strong opinions. It’s troubling to read in an appendix of Thomas’ biography of Faraday, that as Director of the Royal Institution, he personally invited a mixed bag of scientists to give lectures: Christians, like Maxwell, Kelvin, Stokes and Whewell, but also skeptics, like Tyndall, Lyell and even Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley. Huxley spoke four times at the Institution from 1852 to 1861, two years after The Origin was published, a year when England was ablaze with controversy over evolution. Huxley’s 1861 topic was “On the nature of the earliest stages of the development animals.” It’s not hard to imagine what Huxley, the most avid popularizer of Darwin in Britain, had to say about that. In 1855, Faraday wrote a letter to Tyndall that is a model of conciliation and peacemaking; but within 20 years, this same Tyndall would announce before the British Association the triumph of scientific naturalism. Just a few years after Faraday’s retirement, his Royal Institution became another mouthpiece of the Darwinians. In all fairness, the Royal Institution was a non-religious body, and Faraday had a responsibility to allow leading scientists to speak; inviting a speaker does not imply endorsement. Yet the silence is puzzling. Why didn’t Faraday speak up, write essays, lecture on science and the Bible, or do more to prevent the war over science and the nature of reality that he should have seen coming?
Without having Faraday here to defend himself, it would be unfair to judge his apparent inaction as real; he may have done and said more than history recorded. All we can do is argue from the silence, make inferences from rare quotations, and analyze cultural and political trends of the day. We have the benefit of hindsight to see the evil fruit these skeptical trends produced – eugenics, Marxism, Nazism, social Darwinism and higher criticism. To Faraday, they were philosophical issues bantied about in a culture that still survived by inertia on Christian presuppositions. Michael Faraday strived to live peaceably, a good and noble personal goal, but there is a time and place to oppose evil. Faraday had the gifts and the credibility to help define the issues and influence the direction of science. He certainly advanced the secular part of it, and his personal character was impeccable, but the dichotomy between his church life and scientific life seems almost schizophrenic. It is regrettable, knowing what followed, that he did not speak and write more on the Christian philosophy of science and the relation of Biblical faith to scientific endeavor, or to respond to the increasing arguments favoring naturalistic evolutionism when it was most needed. He underlined I Timothy 6:20–21 and Romans 1:20 in the privacy of his study, but did he spread the message?
Another factor was the growing acceptance of methodological naturalism that can be traced to Sir Francis Bacon: the assumption that it is possible, even desirable, to approach science secularly, to discover truth through the pure accumulation of empirical facts and making inductive conclusions from the facts. Presumably, this does not imply metaphysical naturalism, that nature is all there is. Ultimately, however, the naturalistic method of science led to scientism, logical positivism and to the complete takeover of all branches of knowledge, even history and the arts, by secularists and materialists. The Christian natural philosophers did not predict this outcome; they thought God was glorified in our discovering the laws of nature that He had set up. This is a half truth— of course the discovery of God’s natural laws honors His wisdom, but the emphasis on natural law, and the de-emphasis on His sovereignty and free will, gradually had the effect of removing the possibility of God intervening in any way in His world. Nature became the clock that God wound up at the beginning and left to run down on its own. Ultra-Newtonianism pictured a predictable, clockwork universe that could be described by equations, provided we knew all the variables. That such a view of nature is naive and simplistic is acknowledged by most moderns, but if we transport ourselves to Faraday’s world, we can understand the obsession to uncover natural laws –a worthy, though incomplete, goal. John Herschel, William Whewell and others who promoted methodological naturalism were Christians who believed in an all-wise Creator, but their assumption nature could be approached inductively without metaphysical presuppositions denies the Lordship of Christ in all areas of life. Methodological naturalism works to a point, as when measuring charge, force, temperature and other observable, repeatable causes and effects, but what are the limits? By not defining the limits of science, the natural philosophers opened the door for the secularists to consider all fields open to secular inquiry, even psychology and origins. The intelligent design movement is the latest skirmish in the battle of worldviews. The secularists think that the universe can be described fully in terms of particles acting under chance and necessity or a combination of the two. The design scientists add another fundamental entity: information. Information is the fingerprint of designing intelligence that cannot be reduced to natural law. If information is detectable and conserved, trying to reduce the universe and life to equations about particles is doomed to failure. William Dembski has diagrammed an “Explanatory Filter” that ensures that chance and necessity are given appropriate consideration as causes, and that information (from an intelligent designer) is the explanation of last resort. This approach addresses the concerns of earlier philosophers over “God of the gaps” explanations, without reducing science to the art of just-so storytelling in vain attempts to force evidences of design into the molds of chance and necessity.
In part also – and here is a lesson for modern Christians – the Sandemanian church may carry some blame for allowing the Darwinian revolution to succeed without a fight. They so emphasized separation from the world, it appears they failed to be the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” Jesus admonished. Their members tended to marry within the group. Their beliefs forbade them to fellowship with other groups of Christians, and frowned on getting involved in political or social issues. Their faith seemed to be a personal thing, shared fervently on Sunday and Wednesday nights, but producing little impact on their community the rest of the week. Undoubtedly they expected believers to work honestly and diligently in their careers (as Michael Faraday exemplified), but evangelism did not seem to be a high priority. Consequently, they never became a large or influential movement. This may be an incomplete evaluation of a long-defunct denomination, but why are references to God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, creation, or any other Biblical theme so rare in Faraday’s scientific writings? Is not the author of Scripture the author of nature? Faraday would certainly have believed it, and his personal faith is vibrant in his letters, but it appears he said little about this to his colleagues. His scientific letters and lecture notes, though imbued with Christian presuppositions, seem as secular as any. To what extent was Faraday influenced by his closed-door, uninvolved church? A famous evangelist warned, “It takes evangelistic unction to make orthodoxy function.” The Sandemanian movement stressed orthodoxy, but lacked the unction to share their faith, and so petered out. The movement would be almost totally forgotten were it not for their famous member, Michael Faraday. Churches today need to get their salt out of the shaker. Its savor must flavor every part of life, including science. Salt stings, but bad things happen when it is the missing ingredient.