Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (OUP, September 2017)
Newton's unusual — or even downright heretical — religious opinions were well known to a number of his contemporaries. For over two centuries the exact nature of his religious beliefs was a matter of intense debate, but by the middle of the nineteenth century it was public knowledge that he had held highly unorthodox conceptions of the Trinity. Until the early 1970s, very few of Newton's private theological researches had been made publicly available, and scholars did not determine his views with any precision. However, in the last few years millions of words from his previously unpublished religious writings have become publicly available, making it possible to offer a considered account of their content, and to assess what they tell us about the man.
In Priest of Nature, Newton scholar Rob Iliffe does just that. Tracing Newton's life from his birth though his years as a Cambridge don, his tenure as Warden and Master of the Mint, and his twenty-four years as President of the Royal Society, up to his death in 1727, Iliffe examines how Newton managed the complex boundaries between private and public professions of belief. While previous scholars and biographers have attempted to find coherence in his intellectual pursuits, Iliffe shows how wide-ranging and catholic Newton's views and interests in fact were, and in that takes issue with those who have attempted to underestimate their range and complexity.
Arguing that there is no simplistic coherence between Newton's philosophical and religious views, Priest of Nature delves into the religious writings Newton produced during his life, from his account of the sexually depraved lives of the early monks to his views about the creation of the world and the Apocalypse, and his commitment to a simple (anti-Trinitarian) doctrine that he believed had been corrupted in the first centuries of Christianity. Iliffe argues that religious commitments lay at the heart of Newton's earliest scientific research, and shows how his analysis of the techniques he used to prosecute corrupters of Christian doctrine were identical to those he used when dealing with his scientific enemies. Ultimately, Priest of Nature asserts, Newton's ambitious engagement with a tradition central to Western thought displays the same creative energy visible in his mathematical and scientific work, and despite his reluctance to follow any specific sect, he should be seen as a devout layman who made independence of thought a core virtue.
Offering novel insights into the spiritual life of Newton, Priest of Nature is both a scholarly work and a vibrant biography of one of the most influential scientists in history.