The Fiat and Finger of God: The Bridgewater Treatises

  • John M. Robson


‘Science was not generally seen as in opposition to religion before the publication of the Origin of Species, but as part of a widely accepted natural theology.’ This judgment by T.W. Heyck is well based,1 though it is not correct to see 1859 as the end of natural theology for scientists. An examination of evidence that might be used to support such a judgment, however, suggests an excitement not completely compatible with complacency about the effect on religious belief of scientific facts and theories, especially on the untutored mind. In particular, the series of Bridgewater Treatises, published initially from 1833 to 1836, invites conclusions and speculations about the perceived relations between science and religion.2


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  1. 1.
    ‘From Men of Letters to Intellectuals: The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Nineteenth-Century England’, Journal of British Studies, 20 (Autumn 1980) 162.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Pages 5–6 in the principal source on these matters, Correspondence Regarding the Appointment of the Writers of the Bridgewater Treatises between Davies Gilbert and Others (Penryn, [1877]), prepared (but not very well) by Gilbert’s nephew, John D. Enys, for private circulation only.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
  4. 10.
    Kidd’s letter of 15 October indicating acceptance is in Enys, pp. 18–19. The letter from Blomfield to Chalmers of 1 October is in William Hanna, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Chalmers, 4 vols (Edinburgh, 1849–52) 3: 308–9; Enys gives his affirmative response, dated 15 December; the date must be mistaken, as all but Kirby had been enlisted by mid-November, or else his agreement had been signalled by other means earlier. I have not found letters covering Prout’s accession.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
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  6. 12.
    I. Todhunter, William Whewell, 2 vols (London, 1876) 1: 42.Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    Bonn’s business was sold in 1864, so after that date ‘Bohn’s Scientific Library’ was published by Bell and Daldy (after 1872, Bell alone). One instance of its popularity: Buckland’s treatise, edited by his son Frank, in 1858 sold 5000 copies in three days (Lynn Barker, The Heyday of Natural History, 1820–1870 [London, 1980] 144).Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    The astonishing Brougham included a discussion of the cells of bees that takes up 119 pages, and an account of Newton’s Principia that stretches for 237. The major reviews took serious notice of the work. Other relevant works of the period include: Alexander Crombie, Natural Theology, 2 vols (London, 1829, but reviewed in Quaterly Review, 51 [March 1834] 213–28, in relation to the Bridgewater Treatises); [John Minter Morgan,] The Critics Criticized: with Remarks on a Passage in Dr. Chalmers’s Bridgewater Treatise (London, 1834); Thomas Wallace, Observations on Lord Brougham’s Discourse (London, 1835); A.C.G. Jobert, Two Words on Lord Brougham’s and Dr. Paley’s Natural Theology (London, 1835; the two words were not short); William J. Irons, On the Whole Doctrine of Final Causes (London, 1836); Nicholas Wiseman, Lectures on the Connexion between Science and Revealed Religion (London, 1836); ‘A Student in Realities’, Serious Thoughts, Generated by Perusing Lord Brougham’s Discourse, 4 pts (London, 1836, 1837); Charles Mountford Burnett, The Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as Displayed in the Animal Creation (London, 1838); Fowler De Johnstone, Truth, in Defence of the Word of GodAddressed to the Rev. William Buckland (London, 1838); and Baden Powell, The Connexion of Natural and Divine Truth (London, 1838). And, of course, Charles Babbage’s The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment (London, 1837), which went into an enlarged second edition in 1838. Its description as ‘A Fragment’ should not be taken very seriously; the second edition has 440 pages. In dissociating himself from the official series, Babbage says he thinks it permissible to ‘connect with’ his ‘reflections … a title which has now become familiarly associated in the public mind, with the evidences in favour of Natural Religion’ (vi).Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    The fullest account I have seen is in Charles Coulson Gillispie’s valuable Genesis and Geology (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), 209–16; his attitude is perhaps not fairly caught in his characterisation of the Bridgewater Treatises as a ‘strange and, to the modern reader, deadly series’ (209). See also Chadwick, The Victorian Church (cited in n. 22 below); D.W. Gundry, ‘Historical Revision No. CX: The Bridgewater Treatises and Their Authors’, History, n.s. 31 (September 1946) 140–52; and ‘Sir Charles Bell and the Bridgewater Treatises’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 12 (July 1942) 314–22. A judgment nearly mid-way between their times and ours may be seen in Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 2 vols (New York, 1896) 1: 43–4.Google Scholar
  10. 40.
    Edinburgh Review, 65 (April 1837) 38.Google Scholar
  11. 41.
    See the reviews by Brewster, ibid., 15, and Scrope, Quarterly Review, 56 (April 1836) 62n.Google Scholar
  12. 42.
    ‘Evolution as Fact and Theory’, Hen’s Teeth and Horses’ Toes (New York and London, 1983) 255. I am indebted for the reference to J.S.P. Robson.Google Scholar
  13. 65.
    Whewell, ‘Preface to the Seventh Edition’, Astronomy and General Physics, new edn (Cambridge and London, 1864) ix. (Note that Whewell, at this distance from the beginning of the plan, includes ‘the being’ of God, which was not part of the original charge.) Brewster chides Buckland for forgetting ‘the general reader’ in one description (Edinburgh Review, 60 [October 1834] 161); he asks (ibid., 179) for ‘a popular abridgement’, but his emphasis is on ‘abridgement’.Google Scholar
  14. 66.
    Quarterly Review, 56 (April 1836) 62.Google Scholar
  15. 71.
    Paley Refuted in His Own Words (London, [1847]) v (my italics).Google Scholar
  16. 72.
    ibid., 9, 10.Google Scholar
  17. 74.
    Introductory Lectures on Political Economy (London, 1831) 114–15.Google Scholar
  18. 79.
    ‘Lord Brougham, Discourse’, Edinburgh Review, 64 (January 1837) 275.Google Scholar
  19. 80.
    Edinburgh Review, 58 (January 1834) 429.Google Scholar
  20. 82.
    Whewell, ‘Bridgewater Treatises. Mr. Whewell’s Reply to the Edinburgh Review’, British Magazine, 5 (March 1834) 266.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard J. Helmstadter and Bernard Lightman 1990

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  • John M. Robson

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