Isaac Newton's Religion:
A Secret World of Arianism, Apostasy, and Prophecy

Merrill Milham

Delivered on April 27, 2008
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County

[Dedicated to Reg Willis, a former UUFHC member who inspired this sermon and also to the memory of Robert H. Frickel—friend, Unitarian, and fellow-physicist who shared more of the spark of Newton's gift for mathematics and physics than any other person I've met in this life's journey.]

First Reading: The General Scholium

Second Reading: White Teeth

Whether for good or ill, Garrison Keillor has raised the Unitarian joke to the level of an established genre in our popular culture. On Keillor's recent joke broadcast, a number of Unitarian jokes were aired including: What's the Unitarian definition of diversity? Subarus of at least three different colors in the church parking lot was the answer. Just for the record, my Subaru is silver colored. The oldest, or perhaps next to the oldest, Unitarian joke I know is: What do you get if you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah's Witness? The answer is: Someone who keeps knocking on doors but has nothing to say.

Another answer to this question, more factual and less humorous, is simply Isaac Newton. There are some extraordinary parallels between the beliefs of modern Witnesses and Newton's seventeenth century beliefs. Witnesses believe the Bible is the foundation of true religion; Newton believed that the Bible is the foundation of true religion. Witnesses believe in prophecy; Newton believed in prophecy. Witnesses emphasize the book of Revelation; Newton emphasized the book of Revelation. Witnesses use the scriptures to predict the end times; Newton used the scriptures to predict the end times. Witnesses believe in the salvation of a small elect; Newton believed in the salvation of a small elect. Witnesses deny the immortality of the human soul; Newton denied the immortality of the human soul. Witnesses say there is no hell; Newton said there is no hell. Witnesses deny the Trinity and believe that Jesus is not God; Newton denied the Trinity and believed that Jesus was not God.

In our time, Witnesses practice their religion openly: it's hard to know how many thousands or millions of doors they've knocked on in order to explain their beliefs. If you'd been alive in seventeenth century England and Isaac Newton had knocked on your door, he might talk to you about the many things he did in his life: mathematics, science, politics, reforming the English currency, or academic affairs. But he would say not a word to you about his religious beliefs. He was a heretic in an age where heresy had consequences, and he went to great lengths to keep his religious convictions secret. After Newton's death, his theological writings were largely disregarded and ended up being consigned to obscurity until they were brought to light in the twentieth century. Newton had succeeded far more than he might have imagined in keeping his Arianism, apostasy, and prophecy out of the public eye. This morning I'd like to share a little of what modern scholars have learned about Isaac Newton's theology.

The seventeenth century has been called the "Century of Genius," and Isaac Newton was the most imposing genius of the century. It's hard to imagine that Newton had any inking of what lay before him as he left the family farm at Woolsthorpe for Cambridge University in the summer of 1661. He left behind a broken childhood and his mother's broken hopes for his future.

A posthumous child, the only father Isaac had known was his stepfather, the Rev. Barnabus Smith. When his mother married the Rev. Smith and moved to the rectory at North Witham, young Isaac was left at Woolsthorpe in the care of his maternal grandparents. Fatherless, Isaac now also had no mother. He felt abandoned and developed a profound hatred for his stepfather. Amongst the sins that an adult Isaac Newton listed was, "Threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them." Rev. Smith never took young Isaac to live in North Witham.

Isaac was ten when Rev. Smith died, and his mother returned to Woolsthorpe. Newton inherited two things from his stepfather that figured in his academic life. First, Newton received a huge, nearly empty notebook, which he called his "Waste Book." Later, as a young adult, Newton first scratched out his ideas of a new mathematics, the calculus, and the beginnings of his approach to mechanics, the science of motion, in this notebook. The other legacy was a library of between two and three hundred books on theology. Even though these books were from his detested stepfather, Newton had shelves constructed in his room at Woolsthorpe for these volumes. Perhaps, it was this collection that launched Newton's voyage into theological thinking.

Two years after his mother's return to Woolsthorpe, Isaac at age twelve was sent away to the grammar school in nearby Grantham where he lodged with the apothecary and his family. The school curriculum emphasized languages, particularly Latin since it was the language of the learned, Greek, and Bible study. In a civil war that started in the year of Newton's birth, 1642, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans had seized political power and replaced English Anglicanism with Puritan Christianity. Grantham was a center of Puritan fervor when Newton was at school there. Perhaps, it was in Grantham where Newton's love of the Bible and Puritan attitudes opposing popery, monks, idolatry, and atheism solidified.

Apothecary Clark had three stepchildren surnamed Storey—two boys, Edward and Arthur, and a girl whose given name is not known. Isaac's relationship with the Storer boys was contentious, he preferred the company of Miss Storer and other girls. Miss Storer later reported that something of a romance developed between them as they moved into their teenage years. She described Isaac as "a sober, silent, thinking lad." This is the only known romantic connection that Isaac Newton ever had. Later Newton was to write about monks saying,

For lust by being forcibly restrained & by struggling wth it is always inflamed. The way to be chast is not to contend & struggle with unchast thoughts but to decline them keep the mind imployed about other things: for he that's always thinking about chastity will always be thinking about woemen & every contest wth unchast thoughts will leave such impressions upon the mind as shall make those thoughts apt to return more frequently.

It takes little imagination to see that Newton is speaking about himself as much as monks.

Newton left the grammar school at Grantham as "top boy," idolized by his teachers and despised by his fellow students. He was seventeen when he returned to Woolsthorpe and desired nothing so much as to continue his education. His mother, however, expected him to assume his rightful position as head of the household and to manage the family farm. He languished in failure at this task for nearly two years. Finally his mother relented and agreed to his matriculation at Trinity College in Cambridge University, but she extracted a price: Isaac went to Cambridge as a subsizer, a poor student who earned his keep by performing menial tasks for others.

At the beginning of the 1660s Cambridge University had suffered through nearly two decades of political and religious unrest and was somewhat the worse for it. In 1660, the year before Newton arrived, the monarchy had been restored, the bishops had come back, and the House of Lords revived. Anglicanism replaced Puritanism and the essential mission of Cambridge University was to prepare young men for the Anglican clergy. The university curriculum was in disrepair and academic discipline was very loose: students, for the most part, went their own way. The university was, in modern parlance, a diploma mill. This was an ideal situation for a self-motivated student like Isaac Newton.

Newton arrived in Cambridge as a provincial lad with a strong Puritanical outlook. He was dismayed by the drinking and loose sexual behavior of his fellow university students. Soon Newton was settled into his lodgings and launched himself into study. He began reading Descartes, working at mathematics, optics, and mechanics with an obsessive passion that all but surpasses imagination. He worked without eating; he worked without sleeping. And he produced magnificent results that no one had ever seen before. In less than a decade he had advanced so far in mathematics and physics that he simply had no peer anywhere in the world. Always a secretive person, he revealed just enough of his results to advance from an undergraduate student to fellowship in Trinity College, and finally to the chair of the Lucasian professor of mathematics.

But as the 1660s drew to a close, Newton's interests turned elsewhere. He turned to investigations of alchemy. Alchemy was widely practiced in the seventeenth century, and is often regarded from our modern outlook as superstitious fakery combining chemistry and the occult with the aim of transforming base metals into gold. Alchemy was, in fact, no single thing; but under various guises it held a common view that there was a life principle at the center of nature. No doubt Newton's motivation for delving into alchemy was complex; but in part it surely was this core animism coupled with theology that moved him. Descartes' mechanical philosophy, which Newton had exploited to great advantage when he developed his science of motion, described nature as inert particles that move, impinge, and collide with each other according to fixed rules. Newton had come to regard mechanical philosophy as atheistic since spirit nowhere fit into this scheme. Therefore Newton asked, without spirit in the universe, how could God be present and exercise his providential care for humanity? Alchemy seemed to offer a path to infusing spirit back into the world. Also, Newton ever attentive to his Bible, read in Genesis that at the creation "the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Newton took this verse to be an alchemical recipe. Perhaps then, in part, Newton's alchemy was directed at an understanding of the very process of creation. In any case, the alchemical fires burned in Newton's imagination and furnaces from the late 1660s until he left Cambridge in the 1690s.

One of the conditions for Isaac Newton to maintain his professorship was that he should be ordained in the Anglican clergy no later than 1675. Most Newton scholars think that it was his approaching ordination that led Newton to begin studying theology in the early 1670s. Newton had sworn his fealty to the Anglican Church four times since coming to Cambridge, and surely he had little anticipation of what was to come when he started his theological studies.

He brought his usual intensity to studying the Bible and the writings of fathers of the Christian church. Newton had a collection of over thirty bibles that included texts in English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and Syriac. He poured over these scriptures and came to the unshakable conclusion that the fourth century declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicea was supported neither by the Scriptures nor the writings of the early church fathers. But there was more: he also identified passages in modern versions of the Bible that had been changed, corrupted in his view, to support the doctrine of the Trinity. Newton concluded that Trinitarian Christianity was a fraud that had been perpetrated on believers by the pope and Catholic monks. Newton's studies had led him to the precipice of a religious and practical crisis. Since Jesus was not God, to worship him was an act of idolatry, which Newton regarded as the greatest of sins. Newton could not accept holy orders and his professorship was in jeopardy.

Now secrecy about his true religious convictions became essential. There were laws prohibiting anti-Trinitarianism and social pressure weighed heavily against those who were even suspected of harboring such thoughts. It's an irony that while representing Cambridge in Parliament, Isaac Newton was assigned to a committee working on a draft of the 1689 Toleration Act, which governed religious dissent in England. The committee added a recommendation that all dissenters be required to "profess Faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, One God blessed for evermore." It must have taken a monumental amount of self-discipline and nerve for Newton to suppress his true feelings and convictions during the committee proceedings. Perhaps, Newton exercised his prerogative as a sober, silent, thinking man. Of necessity, Isaac Newton was a closet Unitarian; outwardly he maintained the appearance of a faithful Anglican communicant. Only as he lay dying did Newton drop the charade: he refused Anglican last rites. This act did not prevent his burial in Westminster Abbey.

Since ordination in the Anglican clergy was no longer possible for Newton, he tried to obtain a dispensation from holy orders. When it wasn't forthcoming, he made preparations to leave his professorship. It's likely that it was Isaac Barrow, Newton's mentor, his predecessor as Lucasian professor, and the King's chaplain who made Newton's a last minute appeal to the King. Barrow was a fervent Trinitarian, and it's a puzzle how Newton might have coaxed Barrow to his side. However the appeal was made, it was successful both with Barrow and the King. Newton's reprieve came in an order from the King. The Lucasian professorship was declared exempt from holy orders in perpetuity. Newton's professorship had been saved.

Newton's views about the Bible were unusual. He believed that the essence of the Bible was not transcendent revealed truths, but prophecy. Biblical prophecy in his view was designed not to pull back the curtain on the future but to show in retrospect God's dominion and providence when prophecy was fulfilled. This led Newton to spend a great deal of effort attempting to demonstrate the correlation of biblical prophecy with history. Newton took a rational approach to religion and interpreting scripture and once remarked, "Tis the temper of the hot and superstitious part of mankind in matters of religion ever to be fond of mysteries, & for that reason to like best what they understand least." Newton did calculate a date for the end times. He predicted that it would not come before the year 2060 but added the caveat, "I mention this period not to assert it, but only to shew that there is little reason to expect it earlier. It is not for us to know the times & seasons which God has put in his own breast."

Science and religion were part of a single Truth in Newton's mind. The Principia mathematica, first published in 1687, is regarded as Newton's greatest scientific work, a seminal book in the birth of modern science. But Newton didn't see the Principia as just a work of science. Shortly after publication of the second edition, Newton wrote to a colleague, "When I wrote my treatise about our system, I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a deity." As we heard in our first reading this morning, Newton describes his concept of God in the General Scholium that he added to the last two editions of the Principia.

As early as the eighteenth century, at least one scholar recognized that the God Newton described in the General Scholium was a Socinian God. Socinians,or the Polish Brethren, were the most intellectually sophisticated Unitarians active in England in the seventeenth century. Newton's religion shows a shift from his early Arianism toward Socinianism as he aged. In his later years, Newton became active in a clandestine network of anti-Trinitarians that included Socinians, other Unitarians, and his friend John Locke, himself a crypto-Socinian. Newton was in full agreement with Socinian ideas about religious tolerance and the separation of church and state—ideas that found their way into our Constitution through the political writings of John Locke.

I'm hearing some not so distant rumbling that makes me think the end times are approaching for this sermon. A UU once wrote to Garrison Keillor to ask if his Unitarian jokes harbored some hostility to Unitarian Universalists. Keillor wrote back saying that his "ill-feeling toward UUs is due to their relentless evangelizing among the dead—UUs are ransacking the past for people who might have been thinking along UU lines and claiming them as members in good standing. Next thing you know they'll be claiming Elvis." If anyone sees Elvis hanging around our Fellowship, let's talk to him. I have an idea for a fundraiser that I prophesy will solve our budget problems until 2060 or whenever the end times come. Isaac Newton, by the way, didn't approve of jokes about religion and severed some personal relationships when they arose in his company.

Isaac Newton is a part of our Unitarian heritage, and we have every right to claim a connection with him. Newton's theology has little appeal for modern Unitarian Universalists; but his struggle to build his theology according to his own conscience, his advocacy of religious tolerance and separation of church and state resonate strongly with Unitarian Universalists. Isaac Newton was forced to remain silent about his religion in seventeenth century England, and more than three hundred years later in America, some are still forced to remain silent about their religion. Religious intolerance has had a long and too healthy life in human societies. On this day I look forward to the end times of religious intolerance and the beginning of a new age in which a free and responsible search for truth and meaning will be open to all. May it be so.


Copyright © 2008 Merrill Milham. All Rights Reserved.

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