He sees in Nature’s laws a code divine,
A living Presence he must first adore,
Ere he the sacred mysteries explore,
Where Cosmos is his temple, Earth his shrine.
Among great scientists with profound religious convictions, Michael Faraday – the famous British physicist and chemist of the 19th century – is one of the most frequent references. “I am of a very small and despised sect of Christians, known, if known at all, as Sandemanians.” That was how Faraday introduced himself to Ada, Countess of Lovelace, in 1844. The Sandemanians form a very closed group defined by a strict adherence to the precepts of Christianity as laid down in the New Testament; they lead their lives by following in the footsteps of Christ’s perfect thoughts and deeds. Faraday’s grandparents, who lived in Clapham, North Yorkshire, first encountered the sect in the early 1760s. Faraday’s father, James, also became a devoted member. In his early years, as an errand-boy, Faraday was often seen hurrying to deliver his newspapers on Sunday mornings so as to get home in time to make himself neat to go with his parents to the chapel. Thus having a religious upbringing, Faraday was admired not just for his marvelous discoveries, but also for his reverential attitude towards Nature, Man, and God. His two well-worn Bibles (King James version of 1611 respectively published in 1776 and in 1817) are now preserved in the archives of the Royal Institution in London. They have numerous markings in the form of one or more straight vertical markings, short horizontal lines, wavy vertical lines, notes, comments, etc., penciled against numerous passages. About 1978 verses were marked in the 1776 Bible and 460 verses were marked in the 1817 Bible. The subject matters of these marked verses are relating to God, to Jesus, and to the practical aspects of religion. For example, he marked two thirds of all the verses in Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew, which contains the essence of Jesus’ teachings.
Faraday lived by the precepts and examples of the New Testament. J.H. Gladstone, his close associate and biographer, describes Faraday as a gentle and kind person, having warmth of temperament, a respect and love for others, and a reverence not only for God, but also for his fellow men. He described Faraday as having a child-like simplicity, which reminds us of Jesus’ statement enjoining his followers to become like small children. Another such instance of simplicity and purity can be witnessed in these remarks by physicist and contemporary biographer John Tyndall about Faraday’s prayer before a meal they shared at Faraday’s home, “… petition of a son into whose heart God had sent the Spirit of his Son, and who with absolute trust asked a blessing from his father.” Faraday was also known for his charity and benevolence. He would give away much of his yearly income to the church and various needy individuals. One biographer writes how Faraday “… was continually pressed to be the guest of the high and noble, but he would, if possible, decline, preferring to visit some poor sister in trouble, assist her, take a cup of tea with her, read the Bible and pray.” Although wealth and high social position were within Faraday’s reach, he declined them to remain humble and lead a simple life. He never patented any of his inventions. “Tyndall, I must remain plain Michael Faraday to the last”; with these words, he turned down the Presidency of the Royal Society. He prized the love and sympathy of men more than the renown his scientific discoveries brought him. He remarked, “Tyndall, the sweetest reward of my work is the sympathy and good will which it has caused to flow in upon me from all quarters of the world.” Perhaps Faraday’s personal values are best summed up in a letter written in 1860 to his friend the German chemist Christian Schönbein: “Though your science is much to me, we are not friends for science sake only but for something better in a man, something more important in his nature, affection, kindness, good feeling, moral worth; and so, in remembrance of these, I now write to place myself in your presence …”
Faraday’s science, particularly his detailed researches, seems very independent of his religious beliefs. However, several historians have presented valuable insights about the harmonious blend between his religion and his science. James Riley, for example, presented that Sandemanianism was ‘the key to so much of Faraday’s character’ and Geoffrey Cantor in his famous book ‘Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and scientist’ systematically examines the close similarities between how Sandemanians read the Bible and how Faraday read the book of nature. John Tyndall writes, “The contemplation of Nature, and his own relation to her, produced in Faraday a kind of spiritual exaltation which makes itself manifest here. His religious feeling and his philosophy could not be kept apart; there was an habitual overflow of the one into the other.”
Faraday’s scientific quest to unravel the mysteries of nature was to discover the manifestations of God. He often quoted this passage in his public lectures, “the book of nature, which we have to read, is written by the finger of God” (1854 lecture, “Observations on Mental Education”). Faraday strongly suggested that the physical world manifests its divine origin, often paraphrasing a verse from Romans (1:20): “Even in earthly matters I believe that 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; and I have never seen anything incompatible between those things of man which can be known by the spirit of man which is within him, and those higher things concerning his future, which he cannot know by that spirit”. Pearce Williams has suggested that Faraday’s science was rooted in his religion, which emphasized the intelligibility, beauty and symmetry of the universe. He writes, “his deepest intuitions about the physical world sprang from this religious faith in the Divine origin of nature”. Faraday’s preoccupation with nature’s laws was influenced by theological beliefs. “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.” His private memorandum about his ideas on atoms and fields contains several references to God, one of which expresses his wonder about how God would not as easily put “power” round point centers as he could about material nuclei. His belief in an all-powerful God led him to the idea of point centers, and thus of fields around them.
Faraday served as an elder in the Sandemanian church from 1840 to 1844 and from 1860 until 1864. Most Sundays he was at church, engaged in communion service and other services for teaching and prayer. John Tyndall attributed Faraday’s weekday strength to ‘his Sunday exercises’, adding that ‘he drinks from a fount on Sunday which refreshes his soul for the week’. The teaching or preaching by the elders were referred to as the “exhortation”. Gladstone describes Faraday’s preaching as follows, “It may be his turn to preach. On two sides of a card he has previously sketched out his sermon with the illustrative texts, but the congregation does not see the card, only a little Bible in his hand, the pages of which he turns quickly over, as, fresh from an honest heart, there flows a discourse full of devout thought, clothed largely in the language of Scripture.” Four sermons preached by Michael Faraday were recorded in a small volume entitled Selected Exhortations Delivered to Various Churches of Christ by the Late Michael Faraday. These contain a series of quotations from both the Old and New Testaments interspersed with commentary by Faraday. Faraday laid great emphasis and importance to the knowledge gained through revelation. He considered that the practical application of science for the benefit of mankind “conveys the gifts of God to Man.” In the closing remark of the first sermon delivered in London on July 7, 1861, Faraday stated: “And therefore, brethren, we ought to value the privilege of knowing God’s truth far beyond anything we can have in this world. The more we see the perfection of God’s law fulfilled in Christ, the more we ought to thank God for His unspeakable gift.” Faraday’s strong religious beliefs are not widely known as he tended to make his religious convictions a private matter. James Rorie commented that these exhortations exhibited “… a comparatively little known phase of his character, viz., his belief in a still higher means of reaching truth than by scientific investigation alone, namely, as laid open for the instruction and hope of mankind by Divine Revelation.”
A short letter written to physicist De la Rive, during his final days, discloses his inner spiritual strength: “Such peace is alone in the gift of God, and as it is He who gives it, why should we be afraid? His unspeakable gift in His beloved Son is the ground of no doubtful hope.” After Faraday’s death, Mrs Faraday replied, when asked about her husband’s religious belief, “… I only point to the New Testament as being his guide and rule; for he considered it as the Word of God… “.
A great experimental philosopher, Michael Faraday is highly admired as a gifted scientist as well as for his synthesis of science and religion, his strong confidence in the authority of Scripture, and his sincere faith in Christ. To summarize with the words of John Tyndall, Faraday was: “Just and faithful knight of God”.