John Ray, 1627 - 1705

John Ray


by David F. Coppedge

He has been called the Father of British Natural History. He influenced Linnaeus, John Wesley and William Paley. He compiled a monumental catalog of plants through his own field work, and was the greatest authority of his day in both botany and zoology. And one of his great works was titled, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation.

John Ray (also spelled Wray) was the son of a poor blacksmith. He had to work his way through college at Cambridge. Though he studied for the ministry, and became an accomplished preacher, his childhood love of plants and animals, nurtured by his mother, directed him toward a career goal of studying the handiwork of God in the world of living things. Dan Graves said of him, “John Ray felt that if man were placed on earth to mirror back to God the glory of all His works, then he ought to take notice of every created thing.”*

With the help of a friend, John Ray set out to catalog all the plants of Britain. The friend died early, but Ray kept up the project, eventually publishing a catalog of 18,600 plants. His systematic encyclopedia was without peer in its day, though the work of Linnaeus soon overshadowed it. It was Ray who divided the angiosperms (flowering plants) into the monocots and dicots. Along with Robert Boyle, he helped found the Royal Society of London.

John Ray was interested in all the works of God. In addition to his botanical studies, he also wrote on English folklore and proverbs, and on metals, birds and fish. Throughout his life he marveled at the wonders of God’s creation and expressed delight in whatever he discovered. He believed in the fixity of species. He opposed the Deistic views of Descartes and others on the Continent. Even during extreme illness in his later years, he carried on his work. His daughters brought specimens to him so he could continue.

Darwin’s Origin was 152 years into the future at the time of John Ray’s death. One can only speculate what John Ray would have thought of the idea that plants emerged without design by an impersonal, aimless process. It is doubtful he would have endured such nonsense. Post-Enlightenment moderns might argue that John Ray was a Christian and creationist only because everybody was at that time. That argument, however, cuts both ways. Could it not be asserted that today’s scientists are similarly products of their secularist culture?

In addition, John Ray’s story defeats the myth that Christian faith is a detriment to science. It was Ray’s confidence in the Word of God and its account of creation that impelled him to spend years observing and collecting and cataloging specimens. Finally, to attribute Ray’s views to his culture does a huge dishonor to a great natural philosopher. Who could deny that he believed it with all his heart when he said, “There is for a free man no occupation more worthy and delightful than to contemplate the beauteous works of nature and honor the infinite wisdom and goodness of God.”

*Dan Graves, Scientists of Faith (Kregel Publications, 1996), p. 64.

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