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.

With so much to admire in the public face of Faraday, it is not surprising that his private life, within a sect Cantor describes as ‘fundamentalist’, should have been largely eclipsed. For biographers wishing to pay only lip-service to his seeming idiosyncrasy, Faraday himself conveniently provided an excuse. Addressing Ada, Countess of Lovelace, in October 1844, he remarked that ‘I do not think it at all necessary to tie the study of the natural sciences and religion together, and, in my intercourse with my fellow creatures, that which is religious and that which is philosophical have ever been two distinct things.’ Such a statement may imply that Faraday was able to compartmentalise his scientific and religious commitments – a conclusion as comforting to those who cannot empathise with his Christian convictions as to religious apologists familiar with the damage done to their case by heady mixtures of scientific and religious beliefs in the past.

A Faraday whose religion was irrelevant to his science is not, however, the Faraday whom Cantor presents. His revisionist account is provocative precisely because he does see connections, as well as shared values, between them. It therefore becomes necessary to take a closer look at the beliefs and practices of the Sandemanians in whose fellowship Faraday’s spirituality was formed. The sect, now virtually extinct, has origins that can be traced to Scotland in the 1720s, where, from his ministry near Dundee, John Glas dissented from the practice of covenanting and insisted that a national church of Scotland under Parliamentary control was not sanctioned by the Bible. In the growth of the breakaway church Glas’s son-in-law Robert Sandeman played a seminal role: writing, travelling (even to America), and establishing a certain doctrinal identity by contesting the Calvinist doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’, whereby God supposedly attributed Christ’s righteousness to the elect. Salvation for the Sandemanians was not predestined but freely available through Christ’s ransom. In return, nothing less was required than the imitation of Christ and obedience to his commands.

To this demanding creed Michael Faraday subscribed when he made his profession of faith in 1821. By then, the Sandemanian community in London numbered about a hundred, attracting an increasingly middle-class membership and a growing proportion of women. They were bound by the belief that on matters of faith and personal conduct the Bible had a plain and authoritative meaning. One was to be in this world, but not of it. There is a visible symbol of such renunciation in the Science Museum exhibition, where Faraday’s gravestone is depicted bearing only his name and the dates of his birth and death. Among the Sandemanians there was not even a burial service, since the Bible offered no precedent. The point that Cantor brings out so well is that they perceived themselves to be outside and above both ecclesiastical and national politics. As one of a faithful remnant, and eventually an elder in its organisation, Faraday experienced both the security and the anxiety that such exclusivity may offer – the security that comes from distancing oneself from the turbulence of political events, the anxiety that comes from fears about one’s acceptability within the fellowship. For a brief period in 1844 he did suffer the pain of exclusion, though whether this was due to his impenitent acceptance of an invitation to visit the Queen on a Sunday, as often surmised, is called into question by Cantor’s evidence.

Excluded once, the penitent could be reinstated. To be excluded twice was to be excluded for ever. About this severe disciplinary rule Faraday was to express certain doubts, ironically bringing himself to the very brink he so feared. In the interests of unity and consensus he was prepared to relent, thereby avoiding a crisis that would have had the deepest repercussions for his identity. From Cantor’s research we see how large a part of that identity came from a full participation in the worship and daily activities of his meeting-house. He would deliver exhortations comprising sequences of Biblical texts; he would share in the weekly love feast, breaking bread with his brethren and washing their feet. He was a valued mediator when schism threatened, as it did irremediably in 1854 when the London and Dundee communities differed from Edinburgh on whether the killing of game was subject to the injunction of Acts 15.29 that ‘ye abstain from meats offered to idols, from blood, and from things strangled’. Sharing the detachment from worldly politics and worldly gain that was characteristic of his sect, he replied to an importunate publisher in 1859 that money was no temptation to him: ‘I have always loved science more than money; and because my occupation is almost entirely personal, I cannot afford to get rich.’ What makes Cantor’s account so compelling is that a portrait emerges not only of a man who was his own man, but of one who, whilst accepting payment and recognition for work well done, valued scientific research too highly to hitch it to a profit motive. The face on this portrait is one that would frown on any attempt to capitalise on his prowess for political ends. Despite lecturing before Prince Albert and having a house at Hampton Court placed at his disposal by Queen Victoria, in the inner man he was arguably less of an establishment figure than Charles Darwin, who played out, albeit in secular terms, the roles of squire and parson. Those who have claimed him as a Tory have missed the point of his apoliticality, whilst any attempt today to assimilate him to the religion of the market would fall under the censure of his last lecture to the City Philosophical Society in which he expatiated against dogmatism: ‘The man who is certain he is right is almost sure to be wrong; and he has the additional misfortune of inevitably remaining so.’

Explaining how he had turned to the private world of the laboratory, Faraday stated that his desire had been to ‘escape from trade’, which he thought ‘vicious and selfish’. He had loved science more than money. But what bearing did his religion have upon it? A connection that one might expect to find is barely in evidence. Faraday, unlike such Oxbridge scientists as William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick or William Whewell, refrained from burdening science with proofs of design. As one who believed that knowledge of God was to be obtained through the plain teaching of Scripture, he regarded elaborate schemes of natural theology as superfluous and misguided. In his public lectures he would affirm the presence of design in the world but this was not made the basis of a formal apologia of the kind we associate with William Paley. It was a prior conviction, not something to be proved. In an analysis of impressive subtlety, Cantor effectively argues that the real connections have to be located elsewhere: in certain resemblances of practice in the interpretation of God’s two books, and more intimately in the role of such metaphysical principles as the economy of nature in regulating the direction of his research.

In interpreting the book of God’s words and the book of his works certain parallels can be drawn. That earlier master of nature’s forces, Isaac Newton, had specified rules for the correct reading of each. It is striking how similar they were for the two books, Newton himself having drawn attention to the quest for simplicity as a common desideratum. As with Newton, so with Faraday. Cantor penetrates a mind that found security in facts, a mind that cherished plain meanings in nature as in Scripture, a mind wary of hypotheses that claimed to be anything more than scaffolding for the attainment of scientific laws. One reason why Faraday cavilled at revivalist preachers was that they were inserting themselves between the Bible and the reader. Ostentation and controversy in science were likewise to be deplored, symbols both of our fallen nature. One is reminded again of Newton, for whom disputation over the facts of nature was the equivalent in science of controversies in religion that symbolised the progress of idolatry.

Faraday knew, of course, that there is more to science that the accumulation of facts. Laws of nature were the greatest prize. Electricity was not, after all, the mysterious power of the magus. Its beauty, Faraday wrote, consists in the fact that it is ‘under law’. But the same could he said of the life of a Sandemanian Christian. Cantor puts it succinctly: ‘he lived by God’s (moral) law and discovered God’s (physical) laws.’ As with Newton, there is more than a hint of an obsessive psyche – a meticulous concern for order, an ease that could come only in retreat from the wild of politics. His public lectures, for all their polish, cost him dearly in effort and anxiety. One of Cantor’s conclusions is, I think, established beyond doubt: ‘To be a scientist did not threaten his religious persona: rather science provided a relatively safe area in which he could practise his Sandemanianism.’ The highest moral integrity was required by both, the highest rationale for science consisting not in its technological utility but in mental and spiritual edification. The Sandemanian brotherhood even afforded a model of scientific organisation. ‘When science is a republic,’ Faraday wrote, ‘then it gains.’ He would stress that he was no republican in other matters, but he was emphatically on the side of reform for a Royal Society that was not yet a meritocracy.

By emphasising such parallels, Cantor avoids crude causal explanations of the kind that might imply a derivative relationship between Faraday’s science and his religion. He correctly points out that his subject was not a scriptural physicist in the same sense that some of his contemporaries were ‘scriptural geologists’, deducing the details of their ‘science’ from Genesis. This is not to say, however, that Faraday’s science bore no imprint from his theology of nature. There are numerous, well-authenticated examples from the history of science to show that metaphysical preferences can shape and constrain scientific work, often exercising a selective role in favouring one theoretical formulation rather than another. In the 17th century such preferences for simplicity, economy, elegance and harmony in scientific constructions had almost always been articulated in theological terms, as had Descartes’s principle of the conservation of motion. That such metaphysical principles mediated between Faraday’s theology and his science Cantor is in no doubt. His claim is that in several respects Faraday’s science was coloured (not determined) by his heartfelt theism.

A conviction of the economy of nature had definite religious overtones, but also found expression in the very laws Faraday discovered. The direct proportionality between the chemical power of an electric current and the absolute quantity of electricity that passes would constitute an example. His conviction that natural forces are indestructible followed from the belief that God alone could create and destroy the powers with which matter had been invested, but also found expression in experiments designed to establish the interrelations between the forces of electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity and gravity. Indeed his failed attempt to produce electrical effects from gravitational forces shows why it is entirely appropriate to speak of metaphysical principles guiding research. He could report to the Royal Society in November 1850 that his negative results ‘do not shake my strong feeling of the existence of a relation between gravity and electricity, though they give no proof that such a relation exists.’

Similar metaphysical principles were arguably at work in Faraday’s resistance to the hard, chemically indivisible atoms of John Dalton. A world in which invisible powers operated according to divinely conceived laws was both less materialistic in the theological sense and conducive to the scientific proposal that there is no void space. The magnetic ‘lines of force’, which for most of us may be his most familiar legacy, and in the physical reality of which he came to believe, were envisaged as permeating all of space. If he was unable to mathematise them, as his great successor James Clerk Maxwell went on to do, the reason may lie not merely in his mathematical shortcomings but in another deep conviction – that mathematics was not, after all, the appropriate language for understanding God’s creation. For communicating the results of experimental science to a wider public, Faraday was adamant that this was so. Confronted by the sophistication of Maxwell’s symbols, Faraday felt what it was like to be in the audience. Thus he would protest to Maxwell himself in 1851 that it was to be hoped mathematicians would translate their conclusions ‘out of hieroglyphics that we might work on them by experiment’.

It is possible to argue that by the highest standards of mathematical physics, Faraday’s science was idiosyncratic. That mathematics is the language of nature had been cogently argued by Galileo some two hundred years earlier. This does nothing, however, to undermine Cantor’s thesis, for he sees idiosyncrasy in Faraday’s science matched by his idiosyncrasy in religion. Precisely because his subject was exceptional, he wisely refrains from sweeping generalisations about the historical relations between science and religion. Whilst he invites his readers to reconsider their attitudes to this age-old question, he has no apologetic axe to grind.

The crux for the scholars will be the extent to which Cantor may be said to have distanced Faraday too far from scientific contemporaries who held similar beliefs about the correlation of forces. It has usually been supposed that Faraday’s vision of nature’s dynamism, though excited by Oersted’s demonstration of the magnetic effect produced by an electric current, was initially derived from Humphry Davy, who had after all given him his break. Significantly, Cantor reduces this original debt to one-liners in his account. If both Davy and Faraday could spin variations on the theme of Boscovich, if they could share the same distaste for Dalton’s atoms, if (as was certainly the case) they could insist on the same sharp distinction between hypotheses and laws, if they were both affected by the intimacy between electrical and chemical forces, the gap between their philosophies of nature might begin to close. It would be intriguing were it to do so because in so many other respects Davy came to symbolise the antithesis of Faraday’s value system. By the time Faraday became a fully professing Sandemanian, his mentor had set new standards for the upwardly mobile, having acquired a snobbish wealthy widow for a wife, a knighthood, a baronetcy, and that coveted Presidency of the Royal Society that his young assistant would one day decline. If Cantor’s strongest claims for the relevance of Faraday’s values to the content of his science remain unproven (and it could hardly be otherwise given the subconscious level on which such influences operate), he has nevertheless written an absorbing book that can be enjoyed by as wide an audience as Faraday himself would have been pleased to address.