Enlightenment-era pastors didn’t oppose modern science. They helped advance it.
This essay was the first place winner of the 2017 CT Science Writing Contest.
The scientific revolution hit Western Christendom hard.
Nicolaus Copernicus hypothesized that Earth was not at the center of the universe and, with the emergence of his 1543 publication De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, a bitter struggle ensued between Christianity and science to shape the reigning worldview. Science came to dominate from the Enlightenment forward.
Or so we’ve been told.
But in fact, a Lutheran minister and theologian named Andreas Osiander was the one who published Copernicus’s seminal piece. That should be our first clue that the story of enmity between Christianity and science has often been distorted and overstated, leading us to forget some of history’s most influential science advocates and fueling a false dichotomy that unnecessarily polarizes scientific debates today.
The prevailing narrative that Christianity is inherently anti-science gained acceptance in 1896 with Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christendom. White singled out prominent Protestant pastors such as John Wesley and Increase Mather for promoting an attack on the new science. “From the first to last,” White wrote, “a long line of eminent divines, Anglican and Calvinistic, strove to resist new thought.”
At other points, Wesley had been singled out in 19th-century historiography for opposing scientific reasoning in support of the orthodox Christian faith, as though the two were inherently at odds. Meanwhile, Wesley’s many publications engaging with the science of the time as he advocated for the usefulness of electricity, explored natural philosophy, and promoted …