Owen D. Yeates and Dr. Richard Vetterli, Political Science
The scope of my initial research proposal was quite wide, simply stating that I would study the writings of the Cambridge Platonists and Oxford Reformers and those surrounding them to discover the effects of religious thought on the concepts of virtue and liberty as transmitted from the initial Christian humanist movement in Italy to the American Founders. After reading some information gathered from Dr. Vetterli I decided to focus my research on Isaac Newton and included science and reason with religion, virtue, and liberty in the thrust of my research.
Before going to England I read some of the biographical information as well as books purporting to analyze his views on history, philosophy, and religion in order to gain a general idea of the prevalent views on him. Upon arrival in England, I went to Cambridge and gained access to the university library. The largest collections of his writings now reside in the Cambridge University Library, the library of King’s College at Cambridge, and at the University of Jerusalem. Microfilms of all these are housed at the Cambridge University Library. I spent a week and a half in the rare books room reading those books which had been published. The remaining two and a half weeks were spent in the manuscripts room reading microfilm.
The sheer volume of his writings is staggering. Cambridge University has 34 reels of microfilm alone. I restricted my readings largely to the Yahuda collection from Jerusalem and some from Oxford as these collections contained primarily writings on history, theology, and the early church. Approximately a quarter of this was written in Latin. Newton also rewrote everything many, many times. This repetition further eliminated parts of the remaining reading material, which I read very quickly until I found the information pertinent to my queries. The result was 122 pages of notes touching all of the desired themes. This information, which I can only touch on here, will form the basis of my thesis for graduation with University Honors.
As Dr. Vetterli has discovered in his research of the other scholars of that era, there has been an extreme amount of historical revisionism and, particularly in Newton’s case, censorship. At his death, the majority of Newton’s writings were deemed unpublishable. The result was a carefully groomed view of his thought and the influences on it which has been perpetuated ever since. Yet even within these views there is conflict. He has been portrayed as a staunch supporter of the Anglican Church and merely tolerant of other beliefs. He has also been portrayed as the father of modern rationalism in which the natural world, human behavior, and everything else may be explained without making recourse to God. That he wrote on or did anything beyond mathematics has been filtered out of general knowledge.
What I discovered is that a great portion of the scholarship on Newton’s thought is rubbish, based on regurgitation of his image as carefully formed in the years after his death. He was part of a commission from Cambridge that defied Charles II and forced him to back down on religious encroachments. He was a member of the Convention Parliament which placed William and Mary on the throne and defined the processes and laws by which their political and religious liberties would be guaranteed from farther encroachments from the crown. He analyzed and wrote extensively on the scriptures. His favorite theme, or at least most reoccurring one, is that of the General Apostasy from Christianity as he defined it from scriptural passages and early church writings. He believed such Apostasy began at the time of Paul, would last until the Second Coming of Christ, and at some point would pervert the doctrine of the whole of Christianity which retained that name. He outlined where specific passages of scripture had been altered and delineated by whom and for what reason. He attacked the Council of Nicaea and explained why they formed the creed they did. By an exegesis of scripture he demonstrated his idea of the nature of God and Christ. He places them both as gods and as distinct beings and that while both are to be worshiped, “supreme” worship belongs only to the former. This belief distinguishes him from any Christian church of his day, and any present church which holds to the doctrine of the trinity as set down by the Nicene Creed. He felt that an overwhelming necessity to study the scriptures so as to recognize the signs of the Lord’s coming and to avoid the “false” churches all over the Christian world. He believed that all of the laws of science had been created by God and were subject to his will, not the other way around. He felt that the order and beauty in the laws of nature were proofs of God’s existence. The reason why he didn’t publish more of his writings–for some were published but never reprinted–was that he despised discord and dispute among the Christian faith. He stated that the highest laws of God were to love Him and one another, and to such end Christians should not be disputing about more difficult points of doctrine but should instead preach love and help one another practice it.
Bearing such points in mind, the contemporary view of Isaac Newton is erroneous. What information I was able to obtain will be compiled in my thesis. I desire to someday continue the research and more fully publish it. I hope this research will lead to a revision of the way Isaac Newton and his thought is viewed and an interest to more fully delve into his writings so as to accurately ascertain his views. Within the larger context of the scholarship of the period and the initial parameters of the research proposal, this research demonstrates the great effect which religion and Christian ideals had on all of the scholarship of the period.