James Clerk Maxwell – Science and Faith

  • Article (two letter excerpts)
  • 350 words
  • Level: all audiences

James Clerk Maxwell is one of the most important figures in the history of science. Students in physics courses everywhere study “Maxwell’s Equations” that mathematically describe electromagnetic waves. These waves include light, radio, x-rays, etc. They are how astronomers learn about the universe and they are the basis of all wireless communication technology, including smart phones.

Maxwell was a devout Christian who spoke of his faith in many of his letters. Below are two excerpts from letters which contain direct references to both his scientific work and his faith.

The first is from a draft of a letter in 1875 regarding membership in “The Victoria Institute”:

I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of. But I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of a society….

Click here for the entire letter from The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: With a Selection from His Correspondence (1882).

The second is from a letter of response to the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, who had written to Maxwell wondering whether the creation of the sun after the creation of light in Genesis 1 can be explained through the newly-developed physics of light. Maxwell replies by noting, in part, that what is new physics now may be discarded wrong ideas later:

If it were necessary to provide an interpretation of the text in accordance with the science of 1876 (which may not agree with that of 1896), it would be very tempting to say that the light of the first day means the all-embracing aether… But I cannot suppose that this was the very idea meant to be conveyed by the original author to those for whom he was writing.

But I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis … The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.

At the same time I think that each individual man should do all he can to impress his own mind with the extent, the order, and the unity of the universe, and should carry these ideas with him as he reads such passages as the 1st Chap. of the Ep. to Colossians (see Lightfoot on Colossians, p.182), just as enlarged conceptions of the extent and unity of the world of life may be of service to us in reading Psalm viii.; Heb. ii 6, etc.

Click here for the entire letter from The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: With a Selection from His Correspondence (1882).