Michael Faraday: Scientist and Nonconformist
The Faith of Great Scientists,
MIT Independent Activities Period, 14 Jan 96
The purpose of this brief essay about Michael Faraday is to examine how Faraday’s Christian faith and his scientific career influenced one another. Our intention in this IAP series on the Faith of Great Scientists is to put into perspective some practical historical examples of people for whom both faith and science were of great personal significance. In so doing, we are seeking to understand how these areas of human thinking and endeavor may be part of a truly integrated life. Faraday is a fascinating subject for such an investigation both because he is one of the outstanding scientists of the nineteenth century and because he, like many other great scientists down the ages, had a very significant and distinctive religious perspective.
A few words ought to be said at the outset to recall the immense contribution of Faraday to science. Some measure of that contribution can be gained by noting that no less than five different phenomena in science bear his name.
In his early career, Faraday assisted Humphrey Davy as a “research assistant” (to use perhaps the nearest present-day parallel) in establishing the elementary nature of the recently discovered substance iodine (1813). But his first really important personal discovery was to demonstrate in a beautifully elegant experiment (1821) that the effect of a magnetic field on an electric current is to cause it to move perpendicular to both the current and the magnetic field.
He was the first person to liquefy chlorine (1823), he first isolated benzene (1825), and he did important practical research on the alloying of iron (1826). But it is, of course, his researches into electricity for which he is best known. Foremost and first (1831) was his discovery of electromagnetic induction: that varying magnetic fields induce currents to flow in electric circuits that they link. [VG]
The close relationship between electricity and chemistry in his researches (and in all the science of his day) is best exemplified by Faraday’s law(s) of electrolysis (1833) which state(s) that equal equivalent weights of chemicals are electrolysed by equal quantities of electricity.
Of particular interest to me, since I work in plasma physics, it has been said that Faraday was the first plasma physicist. Certainly, his studies of the passage of electricity through ionized gases led him to identify the particular phenomenon of glow discharges now known as Faraday’s dark space (1838).
Perhaps the discovery that shows most clearly both his complete command of experimental technique and also his persistence (one might say stubornness) in pursuing, over a twenty year period, an effect he felt “had” to be present, is his discovery of Faraday rotation (1845). This observation of the rotation of the polarization of light by a magnetic field was a critical demonstration of the link between light and electromagnetism.
Finally, in this abbreviated summary of Faraday’s scientific achievements, one cannot omit his extremely influential, and initially highly unconventional championing of the signficance of fields. Physics today sees the field of force rather than the material substance as the underlying reality. Faraday’s theoretical and philosophical intuition, growing over twenty years or more throughout his experimental researches, and culimnating in his paper “On the physical character of lines of force” (1852), was, in the opinion many, his most influential legacy. A young James Clerk Maxwell certainly took him seriously. His mathematicization of Faraday’s ideas led directly to what we now call Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism.
Throughout his long and productive life, Michael Faraday was also a committed Christian. Not a social church-goer – although he spent more hours in a pew than any of us are likely to; not just a conforming member of a “Christian” society – although he lived in a society which saw itself as Christian; on the contrary, he belonged to a distinctly nonconformist denomination, which demanded from its members an extremely high level of commitment and devotion: the Sandemanians. Moreover, in addition to his lifelong lay involvement, he acted for significant periods of his career as co-pastor (strictly `Elder’) of the London congregation of which he was a member. During those periods he preached (or rather, exhorted) in the services and undertook the spiritual oversight and pastoral care of the people in the congregation.
As we shall see, Faraday kept these two dominant aspects of his life – his religious faith and his scientific research – distinct. Actually this separation was mostly one way. He rarely entered into religious discussions with his fellow scientists, but, to judge by his voluminous correspondence, he did enter into lively scientific discussions with his Sandemanian friends. Moreover, despite his scrupulous focus on natural phenomena in his scientific profession, there is ample evidence that Faraday’s faith had a strong influence on his own practice of science. We shall see two ways in which this influence is manifest. First, in the philosophical framework which was the context in which he approached the study of nature, and second in the social and ethical principles which he believed should underlie the pursuit of the scientific enterprise.
Though he lived well into the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), Michael Faraday came to manhood at a time when Britain was preoccupied with the Napoleonic wars. He was born in 1791, during the turbulent times of the french revolution. His father, James Faraday, a blacksmith in failing health, had moved earlier that year with his family to London from Kirby Stephen, in the north of England. Michael’s youth was poor and his formal education was practically nonexistent. `My education’, he is quoted as saying, `was of the most ordinary description, consisting of little more than the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic at a common day school’.
At age 13 he began to work as an errand boy for a bookbinder and bookseller, Mr G. Reibau, and the following year Faraday became his apprentice. [VG] His real education had begun. Not only did the young Michael develop, through the manual tasks of bookbinding, the physical dexterity that was to be the hallmark of his experimental investigations, but also he read. Here we come to the first critical influence of Christian thinking on this lively mind. Certainly the opportunity for eclectic learning must have existed in the Riebau bookshop, but for someone with no mental framework or study skills, more was eventually needed for the formation of an acute intelligence: a system. Faraday found this system in a book called “The Improvement of the Mind” by an author whose name practically any Christian today still knows: Isaac Watts (1674-1748).
Watts was probably the most prolific author of evangelical Christian hymns of the early eighteenth century. He wrote more than 600 in all. I opened the (1965) Anglican hymnbook and discovered from its index 29 hymns by Watts still in use, second only to the great Charles Wesley himself (38), and well ahead of `Anon’. These hymns are glorious and moving celebrations of Christian faith and include such staples as `O God our help in ages past’, `Joy to the World’, and `Jesus shall reign where ere the sun’, although my own favorite is `When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the prince of glory died…’. Besides his Christian vocation as a one of the most influential dissenting ministers in London, Watts was also something of a philosopher (in the empiricist tradition) and his book on logic became a standard text at Oxford. In 1809 a new edition of his `Improvement of the Mind’ was published. In it Faraday found a common-sense guide to learning, with detailed advice on how best to benefit from lectures, reading, conversation, and observation. Watts advised that a `commonplace’ notebook be kept. In 1809, Faraday began to keep one. Watts recommended attendance at lectures, exchange of letters with persons of similar interests, participation in discussion groups. Faraday began to do all these things. Perhaps more important, Watts gave a philosophical framework for learning that emphasised the importance of observed facts and warned against being `too hasty to erect general theories from a few particular observations …’. Faraday was true to that philosophy throughout his scientific career.
Faraday had adopted the habit of making elaborate and complete copies of lecture notes from the lectures he had begun to attend (1810), notably at the City Philosophical Society, a sort of self-help intellectual club. [VG] His notes were shown by Mr Riebau to the father of a friend, who, as a result, gave Faraday a ticket to a lecture by Sir Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution (1812). As his apprenticeship neared its end, Faraday hoped to find a position of any sort in science, and wrote to the president of the Royal Society, receiving no reply. As fortune would have it, Davy suffered an eye injury, when an experiment he was working on blew up, and Faraday served as his amanuensis for a few days. Later Faraday wrote to Sir Humphrey begging for a position and sending the bound volume of notes which he had taken of Davy’s lectures. A few months later, Faraday became a lowly laboratory assistant at the Royal Institution (1813), [VG] himself emerging not altogether unscathed from the continuing investigations of explosive chmicals! After only six months, Davy was leaving on an eighteen month tour of Europe, and Faraday was engaged to accompany him as an assistant. What better finishing of his unconventional education could a student have than to go on tour with the most popular scientist of his time!
By 1821 Faraday’s place at the Royal Institution was secure and he was accepted in the scientific circles of the day. On the 21st of June, Faraday entered into the marriage to Sarah Barnard that would endure to his life’s end. The following month he entered into an equally enduring commitment; he made his `profession of faith’ before the Sandemanian church, and thereby entered into full membership of the congregation.
The Sandemanian, also know as Glasite, church, arose from the experience of a scot, John Glas (1695-1773). A thoughtful and popular minister in his Church of Scotland parish near Dundee, Glas found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his understanding of the scriptures with the political, and national, role of the established (covenanting) church. In 1725 he and nearly 100 members of his congregation joined together to found their religion on the Bible alone and reject the political covenant. This stance within the church challenged its organizational structure, and thereby (in the minds of its leaders) the social order. Eventually, through a process whose duration speaks a remarkable restraint on the part of the authorities, Glas was deposed in 1730.
Robert Sandeman (1717-71) was attracted to the independent congregation that Glas subsequently founded in Perth, and eventually married one of Glas’s daughters. A partner in a successful weaving firm, Sandeman spent a great deal of time in work for the church, and became its most influential spokesman through the publication of his `Letters on Theron and Aspasio’ (1757), which became a key source for Sandemanian teaching. By the way, Sandeman came to America, visiting Boston in 1764, and promoting the Sandemanian church in the colonies. (Where it died out early this century).
The Sandemanian church expanded only to a total of about forty meeting houses in Britain and a handful in America. At its peak it had only perhaps 1000 full members, but there were undoubtedly many more adherents who had not made their `profession of faith’. In Faraday’s day the church had begun its slow decline. The last meeting house, in Edinburgh, was closed in 1989.[VG]
There has been a tendency by some writers to portray the Sandemanians as a peculiar and unorthodox sect of Christianity. Indeed, this impression is enhanced by a much quoted remark by Faraday himself that he belonged to `a very small and despised sect of Christians’. However, this implication is largely unwarranted. What the Sandemanians wanted to do was to live out a Christian life based purely on New Testament patterns and Biblical teaching. In this sense they were, or intended to be, faithful to orthodox, primitive Christianity, unencumbered by the political accretions of the established churches. Their teaching is predominantly consistent with what C.S.Lewis has dubbed `Mere Christianity’: that God has made possible a reconciliation between himself and fallen humans through the death on the cross of his own son, confirmed by his subsequent resurrection, and that this salvation is a free gift, to be received by faith and not earned by good works.
Here is an example of Sandeman’s writing:
As Jesus came into the world not to suffer for any sin of his own, being without sin, but, as he declares himself, to give his life a ransom for many; so God, in raising him from the dead, gave the highest demonstration of his being well pleased with the ransom which he gave; And as Jesus put the truth of all that he said, upon the issue of his being raised again from the dead, which you see his enemies also were apprised of; his resurrection, by this means, turns out to be the the highest proof of the divine assent to everything he spoke.
This is straightforward teaching of Christian doctrine from Paul’s letter to the Romans (1:4). Or again, here is a passage concerning a Christian’s works as a response to his salvation through the crucifixion:
This leads him to love God and keep his commandments. His motives to his deeds of greatest self denial arise directly from this. His persuasion, that the character of Jesus was so amiable in the eyes of God, as to procure his favour to the guilty, draws him to imitate that character; for ’tis plain, he that says he believes this, and does not make conscience of imitating Jesus, tells a lie.
This is a summary whose spirit most believing Christians today would readily assent to.
Yet the Sandemanians were peculiar in one notable sense, harking back to the roots of their dissent. They tried to live out a New Testament pattern for the church as literally as possible. The New Testament knows no formal ordination or clergy; neither did Sandemanians. There are just two recognized offices in the New Testament, Elders and Deacons; these were the pattern of the Sandemanian’s leadership. As expressed by John Barnard (an early London Sandemanian and probably a forebear of Faraday’s wife), the church is to be
a select society of CHRIST’s disciples united by the truth, and observing all the commands of CHRIST, in the closest fellowship with each other, and therefore of necessity separated from the world, whatever form it may assume, and exposed to its hatred; and especially so, to the hatred of that part of the world which shall take the lead in popular and pharisaical devotion.
The unity of the brethren was of critical importance to the Sandemanian congregation. They took with the utmost seriousness Paul’s plea (1 Cor 1:10) `I appeal to you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement.’ This unity was not at all the universal tolerance that is the politically correct doctrine of today. On the contrary, Biblical moral standards and discipline were to be enforced by the elders, while avoiding any strife, division or ill-feeling. If, in the face of this overwhelming challenge, any division did arise, the only remaining Sandemanian recourse was to exclude the adversaries from participation in the Lord’s supper and the full spiritual benefits of the congregation. They were to be `put away’. And this happened quite frequently, both with individuals and between and among congregations as a whole. Thus, paradoxically, the most distinctive feature of Sandemanian church practice – their emphasis on complete unity – was the primary cause of repeated splits and splinters in the church. Not without reason did our Lord pray on the night of his betrayal that his followers might be one (John 17:11).
Faraday himself suffered exclusion from fellowship for a brief period in 1844. He had been an Elder in the London congregation for four years and, contrary to normal expectations, was absent one week from the service. He apparently showed little remorse, even though the brethren considered inadequate his reasons for absence, namely that the queen had `commanded’ him to dine at Windsor! Although he was restored to fellowship after a few weeks, he was not to act as Elder again for another fourteen years. Such was the seriousness of congregational discipline.
Faraday grew up within the orbit of such a congregation. His father was a devoted Sandemanian, and though his mother never entered into full membership, she was, like many others, a faithful adherent and regularly attended the services. Faraday’s confession of faith, at age 29, was then, so far as we know, not a conversion, but a formal and, in view of the strictness of Sandemanian discipline, a carefully weighed acceptance of the responsibilities of membership in a demanding spiritual fellowship, which he well understood.
Philosophy and Nature
There was another aspect of Sandemanianism that was peculiar, and ultimately fatal, to the sect, namely, its lack of evangelistic effort. Sandemanians placed no emphasis on proselytizing. [In view of their Biblical emphasis I am at a loss to explain why.] This characteristic relieved Faraday of any commission to argue religion with those outside the fellowship, his colleagues or acquaintances for example, and it helps to explain why he was perfectly comfortable maintaining an official separation of his faith from his profession. It would be incorrect, however, to suppose that this separation meant that his faith had no influence on his science. Faraday believed that in his scientific researches he was reading the book of nature, which pointed to its creator, and he delighted in it: `for the book of nature, which we have to read is written by the finger of God’.
One example of the influence of his theological perspective on his science is Faraday’s preoccupation with nature’s laws. `God has been pleased to work in his material creation by laws’, he remarked, and `the Creator governs his material works by definite laws resulting from the forces impressed on matter.’ This is part of the designer’s art: `How wonderful is to me the simplicity of nature when we rightly interpret her laws’. But, as Cantor points out, `the consistency and simplicity of nature were not only conclusions that Faraday drew from his scientific work but they were also metaphysical presuppositions that directed his research.’ He sought the unifying laws relating the forces of the world, and was highly successful in respect of electricity, magnetism, and light. His program was less successful in attempting to unify gravity and electricity, for which failure he may readily be forgiven, since 150 years later we still don’t know how to do that!
Another guiding principle of much of Faraday’s thought finds its motivation in a conception of creation as a divinely planned economy. It is the principle of `conservation of force‘. This rather unclear concept appears at times to be about conservation of energy (remember that this predates Joule’s demonstrations of the mechanical equivalence of heat) at others it appears to be about the divergencelessness of lines of force. Despite Faraday’s lack of clarity, the concept was a driving ideal behind his championing of the reality of lines of force, and hence of the foundations of field theory.
In the common terminology of the day, there was no essential distinction between science and philosophical thought. Faraday always referred to himself as a `philosopher’, not a `scientist’. He was nevertheless at pains to draw the distinction between his scientific `philosophizing’ and his Christian commitment. This must be understood in the context of a society in which the predominant approach to theology was a rationalistic one, exemplified by the liberal Anglicans. They sought to base their religion not on revelation or history – which higher criticism had begun cast doubt upon, in their minds – but on intellectual theorizing, centering around the argument from design. Faraday disavowed their approach, as he stated explicitly in his lecture `Observations on mental education'(1859):
Let no one suppose for a moment that the self-education I am about to commend in respect of the things of this life, extends to any considerations of the hope set before us, as if man by reasoning could find out God. It would be improper here to enter upon this subject further than to claim an absolute distinction between religious and ordinary belief. I shall be reproached with the weakness of refusing to apply those mental operations which I think good in respect of high things to the very highest. I am content to bear the reproach.
For Faraday, intellectual authority could never reside in the products of pure reason, or ungrounded human imagination. He remarked that he was a very `imaginative person, and could believe in the Arabian Nights as easily as in the Encyclopaedia, but facts were important to me & saved me’. He kept this imagination in check by turning to `facts’. A `fundamental fact … never fails us, its evidence is always true’. Primarily, in science, this meant experiments. `Without experiment I am nothing’, he said, and saw all of science as founded on carefully observed facts, distinguished from opinion or conjecture. As his own publications show, this did not mean that science excluded imaginative insights or interpretations, but what remained essential was that the distinction between the experimental facts and the theoretical interpretations should always be scrupulously maintained. Modern philosphers of science would, in the main, regard Faraday’s conception of experimental facts as hopelessly naive. They would insist that all observations are `theory-laden’ and that there is no such thing as a bare fact. However, they are not in Faraday’s privileged position. He was able almost immediately to verify for himself in the laboratory essentially all the the scientific reports he read. `I was never able to make a fact my own without seeing it’, he wrote. Perhaps if today, experimental verification were as immediate as it was in Faraday’s time, the philosphers’ outlook would be closer to his. As an experimentalist myself, I tend to be more in sympathy with Faraday than with them. Moreover, many a modern scientific paper would be greatly improved by maintaining a clearer distinction between experimental observations and their interpretation.
In parallel with this reliance on a direct reading of the book of nature, Faraday, along with his fellow Sandemanians, saw spiritual authority as flowing from a direct reading of God’s other book, the Bible. He saw this as an anchor against the influence of emotion, superstition, and spiritual or political domination. In response to a question about revivalism, he writes,
` … the Christian who is taught of God … finds his guide in the Word of God … and looks for no assurance beyond what the Word can give him …
The Christan religion is a revelation, and that revelation is the Word of God. … No revival and no temporal teaching comes between it and him. He who is taught of the Holy Spirit needs no crowd and no revival to teach him; if he stand alone he is fully taught …
Thus, just as in science the direct access to experimental observations is Faraday’s guarantee of trustworthiness, so in matters of faith, his direct access to God’s word in the scriptures is his spiritual foundation.
The difficulty with Faraday’s reliance on a direct reading of God’s book, whether nature or scripture, is, of course, the question, whose reading? Faraday was not so naive as to be oblivious to the factional interests that so readily govern the practice of science – and of religion. Faraday’s solution in the realm of science again paralleled his religious views. He saw factionalism, patronage, and politics within science as essentially an aberration, to be avoided whenever possible. His ideal of the pursuit of science was that scientists were to be members of a true fraternity, and if differences of scientific opinion should arise, they were to be resolved in a spirit of friendship and brotherhood. In a letter about scientific controversies he says
These polemics of the scientific world are very unfortunate things; they form the great stain to which the beautiful edifice of scientific truth is subject. Are they inevitable? They surely cannot belong to science itself, but to something in our fallen natures. How earnestly I wish, in all such cases, that the two champions were friends.
Faraday’s colleague at the Royal Institution, John Tyndall, reported that in one of their numerous scientific disagreements, Faraday accepted their differences by saying to him `you differ, not as a partisan, but because your conviction impels you’. Tyndall returned the compliment on another occasion, saying that Faraday’s `soul was above all littleness and proof to all egotism’.
Faraday sought to pursue his research in conformity to this idealistic vision of science as brotherhood. But he recognized that his ideals, which were based on his spiritual commitments, were out of step with much of the practice of science in his day. For this reason he strictly limited his political involvements. He felt ill-equiped to undertake positions of leadership that would demand excessive involvement in the political intriguing that he so deplored. He therefore refused the presidency of the Royal Society, when it was offered to him in 1857, and of the Royal Institution in 1864.
The scientific brotherhood that Faraday envisioned was not a closed communion. He was no elitist, whether socially or intellectually. Instead, he committed himself to bringing the results of science to the public. Most notably this took the form of public lectures and scientific demonstrations. His position at the Royal Institution was ideally suited to this objective [VG]. The Royal Institution was itself founded in 1799 by Ben Thompson (Count Rumford) and Humphrey Davy for the dissemination of practical knowledge to the artisan class. But financial difficulties and Humphrey Davy’s genius and social charisma had turned it into a center for chemical research and popular scientific lectures. Such lectures, as well as representing a stimulating evening’s entertainment, were the primary means for the interested public of the day to learn of scientific matters. Today the Royal Institution is still in existence and still organizes annual Christmas Juvenille Lectures. These juvenille lectures, now broadcast very successfully on television, were introduced in 1825, and presented nineteen times by Faraday himself, starting in 1827, as part of his duties.[VG]
Faraday was also concerned to disseminate the results of science in practical ways that brought material benefits to his fellow man. He saw the powers of nature as intended `always for our good’ and therefore the understanding of nature as an opportunity for material improvement. Although this was not his primary motivation, which was to display the structure of the Creation and thereby glorify the Creator, it was, nevertheless, a worthy undertaking, on a par perhaps with his frequent ministrations to the sick and needy of his congregation. So, for example, he spent considerable effort in consultations on the development of improved light sources for light-houses.
Finally, in a more speculative vein, one cannot help but feel that Faraday’s lifelong religious nonconformity lent a certain color to his psychological make-up that enabled him comfortably to champion unorthodox scientific positions. Especially in the matter of his highly influential ideas about the physical reality of lines of force, his views were, at best, tolerated by the scientific establishment of the day, and then only because of the reputation that his experimental research had won. The condescending attitude he faced did not deter Faraday in science any more than it did in religion. His personal conviction, based on his key sources of authority, was sufficient for him. In scientific matters, the judgement of history is unequivocally in his favor. In respect of his religious faith, a more personal assessment is essential. My own is that he was not far from the truth.
For Faraday, then, despite his self-avowed separation of religious and scientific vocations, there was not really the `absolute barrier’ between these different facets of his character that some of his biographers have supposed. While rejecting natural theology as a route to spiritual truth, he nevertheless saw the hand of God in nature and allowed his spiritual perception of the lawful, intelligent, creation to guide his deepest and most influential theorizing. Within the restraining structure imposed by the experimental facts of creation and the teachings of scripture he permitted his active imagination and his joyful heart their productive freedoms. And in his scientific endeavors as much as his spiritual service he understood and lived out the importance of personal character and moral standards in the search for truth.
In his late sixties, but still eight years before his own death, Faraday gives us a detailed insight into his views of mortality, in a letter to his niece packed with scriptural references. Here is a fragment.
… the saying that separation is the brother of death; I think that it does death an injustice, at least in the mind of the Christian; separation simply implies no reunion; death has to the Christian everything hoped for, contained in the idea of reunion.
Among the many tributes to Faraday, I have found none so telling as that with which his first biographer summarizes his life. It is with this that I end.[VG]
That one who had been a newspaper boy should receive, unsought, almost every honour which every republic of science throughout the world could give; that he should for many years be consulted constantly by the different departments of the Government, and other authorities, on questions regarding the good of others; that he should be sought after by the princes of his own and of other countries; and that he should be the admiration of every scientific or unscientific person who knew anything of him, was enough to have made him proud; but his religion was a living root of fresh humility, and from first to last it may be seen growing with his fame and reaching its height with his glory, and making him to the end of his life certainly the humblest, whilst he was also the most energetic, the truest, and the kindest of experimental philosophers.
To complete this picture, one word more must be said of his religion. His standard of duty was supernatural. It was not founded upon any intuitive ideas of right and wrong; nor was it fashioned upon any outward expediencies of time and place; but it was formed entirely on what he held to be the revelation of the will of God in the written Word, and throughout all his life his faith led him to endeavour to act up to the very letter of it.
I have depended chiefly upon three biographical studies of Faraday to which I am deeply indebted.
L.Pearce Williams, Michael Faraday, Basic Books, New York, 1965, is an eminently readable general account of Faraday’s life and work.
Geoffrey Cantor, Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist, MacMillan, London, 1991, is a more recent scholarly work focussing on the religious aspects of Faraday’s personality, and drawing on some previously inaccessible Sandemanian sources.
H.Bence Jones, The Life and Letters of Faraday, 2 volumes, London, 1870, is the first and most indispensible biographical source.