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Reason and Faith

Plate from Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, Physique sacrée
Plate from Johann Jakob
Scheuchzer, Physique sacrée
(Amsterdam, 1732–37) –
General Research Division, NYPL

In the “General Scholium” to the second edition of the Principia, Newton made a rare public profession of faith, enumerating the power and attributes of the “Lord God” while affirming that the “most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets, could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Newton’s religiosity was proverbial. But he was also an anti-Trinitarian heretic, although he took care (unlike some of his disciples) to conceal his convictions. Also concealed from public scrutiny were his extensive researches into the prophecies of the books of Daniel and Revelation, the divinity of Christ, and the history of the church.

Noël Antoine Pluche, Histoire du ciel
Noël Antoine Pluche, Histoire du ciel
(The Hague, 1740) – General Research
Division, NYPL

Despite these precautions, Newton’s presumed religious sentiments – based on his known piety and the few gleanings to be had from the Principia and the Opticks – offered a wide scope of action for proponents of a variety of religious (and not so religious) doctrines. All were eager to co-opt the authority of the great Newton to enhance their respectability. Newton was thus invoked by English and Continental Protestants seeking to promote natural theology as well as by those eager to make him into the patron saint of deism and even materialism. Conversely, orthodox theologians and laymen of various denominations considered that such malleability justified their suspicion that Newtonian science could lead to irreligion or atheism.

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