Quakers and Science
Detail from an 1862 framed print entitled "Distinguished men of science 1807/8". It depicts a meeting of the Royal Society. Quaker scientist John Dalton is at the left of the centre table. [Lib. Ref. F142]
Today religion and science are sometimes seen as opposing forces. Yet from the foundation of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in the 1650s, it seems to have produced scientists out of proportion to its size. In recent years it is perhaps more accurate to say that it has attracted scientists rather than produced them – for most now come to Friends as adults. The reason for this strong link between Quakerism and science is debateable. Geoffrey Cantor in his 2005 publication Quakers, Jews and Science: religious responses to modernity and the sciences in Britain, 1650-1900 (Lib. Ref. 052.5 CAN) draws attention to the influence of the Quaker Testimony to Truth. Quakers hold that no doctrine, theory or belief can be taken as manifestly true, but must always be subject to questioning in the constant quest for Truth. Many scientists might see their work in the same way.
To early Quakers the physical universe was not only God’s creation but infused with religious meaning. It was this belief that led Quaker schoolmaster and botanist Thomas Lawson (1630-1691), in his 1680 book A Mite into the Treasury (See right) to recommend that Quaker children should be taught to “read the Nature, Use and Service of Trees, Birds, Beast, Fish, Serpents, Insects, Earths, Metals, Salts, Stones Vulgar and Precious …”
[Lib. Ref. Box 45/12]
Quakerism was also born in defiance of the established Church of England; and until the later nineteenth century Friends were excluded as “Dissenters” from Oxford and Cambridge. Since the curriculum of the ancient English universities was then dominated by classical studies, exclusion meant greater freedom for Quaker schools to develop scientific studies. Many studied at university in Scotland or elsewhere in Europe where universities had dispensed with religious tests.
Plaque in Stramongate, Kendal, Cumbria
In the mid-nineteenth century many Quakers were influenced by the evangelical spirit of the time, with its strong emphasis on the word of the Bible. This may have made them less responsive to the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species than one might have expected from their earlier reputation, although Cantor describes some Quaker scientists as “judicious supporters” of the theory of natural selection. However, many were influenced by natural historian and evangelical Quaker Edward Newman (1801-1876), who claimed that Darwin’s theories were “not compatible with our notions of creation as delivered from the hands of a Creator”. Yet by the time of the Friends’ Conference in Manchester in 1895 - generally seen as a turning point in the modernisation of the Society, yet also looking back to the earlier spirit of enquiry – attitudes had changed. A keynote speaker at the Conference was distinguished physicist Silvanus P. Thompson (1851-1916) who entitled his talk Can a scientific man be a sincere Friend? In this he affirmed that Quakerism, with its emphasis on the Inner Light, could find a natural ally in science. More recently Quaker astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell has stated:
"In both Quakerism and science you must be completely ready to revise what you hold to be the truth; you always hold things provisionally, and you are always open to revising them."
S.Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Quoted in the Belfast Telegraph, 13th June 2007
All images in this exhibition are from the Library's picture collection unless otherwise stated. If you have any questions or comments concerning the images or the exhibition then please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This exhibition has been created by Joanna Clark and Julia Hudson.
© The Library of the Religious Society of Friends.