Robert Boyle, the Conversion of the Jews, and Millennial Expectations

  • J. Wojcik
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 175)


Apocalyptic and millennial expectations have tended to flourish during times of upheaval and stress, a fact illustrated by the conditions leading up to, and during, the Puritan Revolution in mid-seventeenth-century England. The Puritans, especially, saw themselves as clearing the way for Christ’s kingdom on earth; it has been estimated that some seventy-percent of the ministers supporting Parliament saw the conflict in millennial terms.1 Many royalists, too, saw the war in these terms although, apparently, millennial expectations were not quite so widespread on that side.2


British Library Intellectual Communication Hebrew Language RealI Philosophy True Religion 
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  1. 1.
    B.S. Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men: A Study in Seventeenth-century English Millenarianism (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 38.Google Scholar
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  3. 3.
    Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626–1660 (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1976), 32–50, 67–77 and 500 (for Boyle’s association). See also Richard H. Popkin, “The Third Force in 17th-Century Philosophy: Scepticism, Science and Biblical Prophecy,” Nouvelles de la r¨¦publique des lettres 3 (1983), pp 35–63, and Richard H. Popkin, “Hartlib, Dury and the Jews,” in Samuel Hartlib and Universal Reformation: Studies in Intellectual Communication (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 118–136.Google Scholar
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    British Library Harleian 7003, fol. 180r, quoted by Jacob, Robert Boyle and the English Revolution, 121.Google Scholar
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    For Boyle’s family background, see Nicholas Canny, The Upstart Earl: A Study of the Social and Mental World of Richard Boyle,first Earl of Cork, 1566–1643 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). The most complete account of Boyle’s early life is found in R.E.W. Maddison, The Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle F.R.S. (London: Taylor and Francis, 1969). For Lady Ranelagh’s Interregnum activities, see Webster, The Great Instauration, 62–3. The best overall account of Boyle’s interests and activities during this period is Michael Hunter, “How Boyle Became a Scientist,” History of Science 33 (1995), 59–103.Google Scholar
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    An excellent account of Boyle’s political activities during the Interregnum is Malcolm Oster, “Virtue, Providence and Political Neutralism: Boyle and Interregnum Politics,” in Robert Boyle Reconsidered, ed. Michael Hunter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 1936.Google Scholar
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    Boyle, Works, l:xxxv. Tallents was a divine and Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, who had tutored some of the relatives of the wife of Boyle’s brother Roger, Baron Broghill. Boyle visited Cambridge in December 1645 and most likely met Tallents at that time.Google Scholar
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    Boyle, Works, 6:45. See also 2:312, where Boyle claimed that “the revolution of monarchies, the fates of princes, and destinies of nations, are but illustrious instances and proclamations of his providence.” Here, he noted that both the Flood and the eventual destroying of the earth by fire exemplify God’s justice.Google Scholar
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    John Napier, the Scottish inventor of logarithms, had predicted the fall of Rome in 1639; John Goodwin predicted that Christ’s reign would begin in 1650; 1656 was a popular date because that was the number of years believed to have elapsed between Creation and the Flood; see Michael J. St. Clair, Millenarian Movements in Historical Context (New York and London: Garland, 1992), 198–200.Google Scholar
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    According to Revelation 13:18, 666 is the sign of the Beast; Napier had predicted that the end of the world would occur in 1688; Goodwin had predicted that Christ’s reign would be complete in 1695; St. Clair, Millenarian Movements in Historical Context, 198–200.Google Scholar
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    Maddison, Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle, 73. Boyle had returned to the Netherlands in 1648 for a visit and to accompany his brother Francis and Francis’ wife home from The Hague (Maddison, Life, 72). Menasseh ben Israel was a Jewish theologian who served as a self-styled liaison to Christians and who petitioned Cromwell for the readmission of the Jews to England; see especially Popkin, “Some Aspects of Jewish-Christian Theological Interchanges in Holland and England 1640–1700,” esp. 5–6, and Katz, Jews in the History of England, 108–109, 113–121. For Boyle’s mentions of Menasseh, see Works, 1:279, 2:18, 280 (where Boyle mentions his visit with Menasseh), 301; and 5:172, 183.Google Scholar
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    For Boyle’s account of Ussher’s influence, see Works, 1:xlviii, which consists of a portion, now lost, of Boyle’s early “Essay of the holy Scriptures,” most likely written around 1652 (on this “Essay,” see Jan Wojcik, Robert Boyle and the Limits of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 55–9. Boyle made numerous references to the importance of a knowledge of both Hebrew and Greek for the proper understanding of scripture; see, for example, in addition to the reference above, Works, 2:264, 4:16–17.Google Scholar
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    Boyle, Works, Birch’s “Table of Contents,” l:xxx.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., “Preface,” 1:ii.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Several other manuscripts also exist only in Latin; these, including the essay on “Diversity of Religion,” will be made available in English for the first time in the forthcoming Pickering edition of Boyle’s Works, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis; this part of the Pickering project is being financed by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. I am grateful to Dr. Hunter for having provided me with both a Latin transcription of the manuscript and an English translation, as well as a draft of his introduction to the forthcoming edition of Boyle’s Works, in which he discusses these manuscripts. In his introduction, Hunter suggests that Boyle’s having paid various deserving individuals to translate papers from English into Latin may have had philanthropic motives.Google Scholar
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    Boyle realized, of course, that Judaism (as well as each of the other three major religions) is subdivided into various sects with different beliefs. He considered this an irrelevant factor when considering the diversity of religions, claiming that each of the world’s sects can be classified as belonging to one of these four foundations, and if the foundation of a religion can be found to be defective, then all subdivisions within that religion will be equally defective.Google Scholar
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    Boyle was wrong about this, the events of the New Testament not having been recorded immediately.Google Scholar
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    Boyle made many of the same claims about the spread of Christianity in Christian Virtuoso, Works 5:534–536, where he noted that the conversion of the entire world (including the conversion of the Jews) was foretold.Google Scholar
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    Boyle Papers, Vol. 6, fols. 281–2.Google Scholar
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    British Library, Harleian 7003, fol. 179, quoted in James R. Jacob, Robert Boyle and the English Revolution, 97.Google Scholar
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    Further, Boyle noted in the letter to Mallet that “Learning” at the time was “discountenanc’d” (British Library, Harleian 7003, fol. 179). He went on to claim that he expected a “Revolution” in divinity in which “Reali Philosophy” would flourish (British Library, Harleian 7003, fol. 180r; both of these texts are quoted in Jacob, Robert Boyle and the English Revolution, 97); perhaps he thought that after such a revolution Christians would be less likely to be susceptible to Jewish conversion attempts.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 2:267. See also 2:277–278, where Boyle argues that some passages of scripture (not necessarily prophecies) that were not currently understood might become clear in the light of some future heresy, foreseen by God, “which will not perhaps be born till we be dead.”Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Ibid., 4:11. James 3:6 reads, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity; so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” 2 Peter 3:7, 10, and 13 read, “But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men¡. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up¡. Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Ibid., 4:15–16, 20–21. Boyle went on to note that although “I shall not allow myself the presumption of framing conjectures about those remote dispensations, which will not, most of them, have a beginning before this world shall have an end; so on the other side I would not discourage you, or any pious enquirer, from endeavouring to advance in the knowledge of those attributes of God, that may successfully be studied, without prying into the secrets of the future” (21).Google Scholar
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    Malcolm Oster, “Millenarianism and the New Science: The Case of Robert Boyle,” in Samuel Hartlib and Universal Reformation: Studies in Intellectual Communication, eds. Mark Green-grass, Michael Leslie, and Timothy Raylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), esp. 148.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Wojcik
    • 1
  1. 1.Auburn UniversityUSA

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