Among the Sandemanians

John Hedley Brooke

  • Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist by Geoffrey Cantor
    Macmillan, 359 pp, £40.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 333 55077 3

The serene face of Michael Faraday radiates from all directions: first in disguised profile on a postage stamp, then more handsomely on the £20 note. Illuminating the dark warrens of the London Underground, he now advertises an exhibition at the Science Museum to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth. Visitors to this intimate and thoughtful display are reminded of how much the modern world owes to the gentle giant of experimental science, whose insights into electro-magnetism were eventually to find application in motors and machines which transformed human life even as they transformed electrical currents. Observing the video reconstruction of one of his Royal Institution lectures one begins to think of him as a latterday magus, informing an incredulous audience that his great object had been to get electricity from a magnet.

Visitors to Exhibition Road may also experience some incredulity, for the first caption they come to is dominated by that text from Romans 1.20 which suggests that those who fail to discern the finger of God in creation are without excuse: ‘For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.’ In Faraday’s Bible, also prominently on display, the same passage is marked. The message is even spelled out for the inattentive: Faraday belonged to a small Christian sect, the Sandemanians, and ‘believed firmly that in studying science he was investigating the laws written into the Universe by God.’

This is not the stuff of which arresting exhibitions are usually made. But if Geoffrey Cantor is right in his enthralling new book, the Museum deserves credit for placing the more familiar rings and coils of Faraday’s electrical research in precisely this religious context. It is Cantor’s principal thesis that we have an impoverished view not only of the man, but also of his science, if we fail to see how his pre-occupation with the relations between natural forces was motivated, even guided, by beliefs rooted in his Biblical religion. On Cantor’s reading, the pursuit of science was, for Faraday, a profoundly religious experience: not as a secular alternative to sacramental religions, but in perfect harmony with the simple piety of the Sandemanian community in London with whom he shared his deepest and most cherished values.

The Sandemanian connection has often been noted but rarely explored, and never in as exciting and challenging a way as here. Other facets of Faraday’s biography have tended to displace it, and not without reason. More accessible images of his life and career have been constructed, each with its own seductive charm. There is the Faraday publicly admired by Margaret Thatcher (and her successor no doubt), the Faraday who without the privilege of a university education but with bags of initiative rose from book-binder’s apprentice at the age of 14 to such eminence in science that he was offered (though he declined them) the Presidencies of the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. There is the romance of Faraday the great ‘discoverer’: of electro-magnetic rotation, of electro-magnetic induction, and of the laws of electrochemical equivalence. Because he valued the application of science and enjoyed long-term links with government agencies, he has appealed to those suspicious of the secluded ‘pure’ scientist. At least one historian of the Royal Institution has described him as a Mr Fixit, the compliant servant of capitalist interests. Historians and philosophers of science, having reason to believe that no amount of experimental dexterity can by itself generate significant knowledge, have even fashioned a Faraday with unswerving theoretical conceptions of the world derived ultimately from Roger Joseph Boscovich, a Jesuit natural philosopher of the 18th century who had described the workings of nature not in terms of material atoms but of attractive and repulsive forces emanating from non-material centres. In an age of concern about the public understanding of science, yet another image of Faraday finds favour: the great communicator of natural knowledge, whose Friday-evening discourses and children’s Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution are but the visible symbols of a lifetime’s concern at the poverty of scientific education in England. He has indeed become everyone’s favourite scientist, even his one foible (a poor competence in mathematics) endearing him to those similarly afflicted.

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