Charles Petzold

Clever Cosmogonies of the 17th Century

October 8, 2019
Sayreville, NJ

In 1700, almost everybody in Europe believed that the earth was about six thousand years old. That’s the approximate timeframe derived from chronologies in the Old Testament beginning with the description of Creation in the book of Genesis. It’s not exact. The author of one 18th century book on sacred history collected over 200 different estimates of the date of Creation ranging from 3483 BC to 6984 BC.

Even Isaac Newton believed that the events described in Genesis were literally true, his only qualification being that Moses described them as if they would be perceived by a naive human observer rather than as interpreted by a natural philosopher familiar with physical laws. (See Rob Iliffe, Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton, Oxford University Press, 2017, pg. 241)

But that was 1700. By 1900, virtually all scientifically literate people had accepted the science indicating that the earth was very old. (In the early decades of the 20th century, a “young-earth” creationism was revived as described in Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, University of California Press, 1992, but that’s a whole other historical arc.)

For Chapter 4 of my book-in-progress Computer of the Tides: Lord Kelvin’s Machine to Disprove Evolution, I wanted to show how the paradigm shifted between a young earth and an old earth, and after much trial and error, I was able to restrict the timeframe to the hundred years between (roughly) 1750 and 1850 — from the 1749 publication of the first volume of the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière) to the 1850 publication of The Principles of Geology Explained, and Viewed in Their Relations to Revealed and Natural Religion by Rev. David King, who happens to be the brother-in-law of the not-quite-hero of my book, William Thomson, later known as Lord Kelvin.

I originally wanted to go back further than Buffon. I wanted to begin in the late 17th century with three books by two English theologians and one English fossil collector who tried their best to combine literal readings of Genesis with natural explanations of the origin of the world. This blog entry contains material that I originally researched and wrote for Chapter 4 but which had to be removed for considerations of length.

The two theologians are Thomas Burnet and William Whiston, and the naturalist and fossil collector is John Woodward. The way they straddled scripture and nature I found quite fascinating. The assumption common among them was that God tended to manifest Himself in natural processes that adhered to natural law. They never doubted that these natural processes were initiated and guided by God and foretold in scriptural prophecy, but in the spirit of Descartes (and later, Newton), they preferred describing a universe that progressed by laws rather than overt miracles.

This is not easy, and each of these three writers set up particular problems for themselves that they then had to solve. They thought long and hard about these problems and came up with very clever solutions.

Thomas Burnet’s Theory of the Earth

Theologian Thomas Burnet (c. 1635 – 1715) was just seven years older than Newton, and although he knew Newton and corresponded with him, Burnet’s approach to natural history is more Cartesian than Newtonian. Like Descartes, he seemed to believed that pure reason was a better guide to understanding the universe than empirical or experimental evidence. While Descartes proposed a cosmology of vortices that required no divine intervention, Burnet’s cosmogony likewise functions through natural causes, despite following a course that has been preordained by God and foretold in scripture.

Burnet’s published the first volume of Telluris Theoria Sacra describing Paradise and the Deluge in Latin in 1681. Under the encouragement of King Charles II, Burnet published an English translation in 1684 as Theory of the Earth (in some later editions titled Sacred Theory of the Earth).

A few years later Burnet was writing the second volume describing the future Conflagration and Second Coming. By that time, James II had come to the throne and trouble was brewing. The conflicts between Protestants and Rome heightened the book’s apocalyptic urgency (as recorded by Margaret C. Jacob in The Newtonians and the English Revolution, page 107 and following) and spilled over into Burnet’s professional life: As master of the Charterhouse School, he blocked James’ attempt to install a Catholic pensioner there, a move that was rewarded following the Glorious Revolution when Burnet was made chaplain to William III and Clerk of the Closet, handling much of the church-related administration of the sovereign.

The second volume of Theory of the Earth was published in Latin in 1689. According to historian Margaret C. Jacob, the Glorious Revolution had seemed to at least delay the showdown with the anti-Christ, so the millenarian fervor was toned down for the English edition of the second volume in 1690. The two volumes contain a total of four “books.”

Taken in its entirety, Burnet’s book is a spectacular (and highly readable) narrative of the earth from the Creation through its Conflagration and beyond, symbolized by its famous frontispiece that shows the earth in seven stages: the initial chaos; the pristine featureless globe following Creation; the waters of the Deluge; the current form of the earth; followed by its destruction in fire; becoming an unblemished sphere again for the thousand years of peace; and finally, a star, the first and last images linked by the figure of Jesus.

That the world has a beginning and also an end was extremely important to Burnet, as it was to many of the Christians who wrote or thought about earth’s history. The belief that the earth existed forever was considered very atheistical, for it implied that there couldn’t have been a Creation at all. Aristotle believed that the earth had been around forever, but the idea was more closely associated with the atomism of Epicurus and Lucretius, whose first-century BC poem De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”) had been rediscovered in the Renaissance and later became an important Enlightenment text (as chronicled by Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern).

Burnet spends 10 pages (Book I, Ch. IV, pages 34–44) using both scripture and reason to argue against Aristotle’s notion of an eternal earth. He notes that explorers are still discovering new lands and inventors are creating new devices. If the earth were eternal, these discoveries and inventions would have happened already. If the earth were eternal, all the mountains would have decayed and washed into the oceans, followed by all the land.

I do not say the Earth would be reduc’d to this uninhabitable form in ten thousand years time, though I believe it would, but take twenty, if you please, take an hundred thousand, take a million, ‘tis all one, for you may take the one as easily as the other out of Eternity; and they make both equally against their supposition. (Book I, Chapter IV, page 38)

If the earth were eternal, moreover, it would be overrun with people. (Over 150 years later, William Thomson will argue against the eternity of the universe based on the thermodynamic principle of entropy.)

The most startling aspect of Burnet’s theory epitomizes the rationalist mind at work: Burnet attempts to calculate the enormous quantities of water required to flood the entire earth and submerge all the mountains, and he simply cannot see how this is possible. Where did the water come from and where did it go? He rejects those who say that God simply used the “miracle of Omnipotency” to create the water for the Deluge and then conveniently destroy it afterwards:

methinks they make very bold with the Deity, when they make him do and undo, go forward and backwards by such countermarches and retractions as we do not willingly impute to the wisdom of God Almighty. (Book I, Chapter III, page 20)

Burnet has no choice but to come to conclude that the waters didn’t have to cover the mountains because prior to the Deluge, there were no mountains. Instead, “the Earth before the Deluge was of a different frame and form from the present Earth…. the face of the Earth before the Deluge was smoother, regular and uniform; without Mountains, and without a Sea.” (Book I, Chapter IV, page 32; Chapter V, page 51) The hard surface of the earth enclosed a body of water around the earth’s core. This paradisiacal earth has no tilt to it axis, guaranteeing an eternal spring. But after over sixteen centuries of constant sunshine, part of the crust dried up and collapsed; “the frame of the Earth broke and fell down into the Great Abysse,” (Book I, Chapter VI, page 68) letting loose the flood waters. Because the globe is smooth and featureless, the waters of the Deluge easily cover the surface, but in the process tear it apart into mountains and seas, knocking the rotational axis the earth askew, and leaving the remnants in a massive ruin.

We must therefore be impartial where the Truth requires it, and describe the Earth as it is really in it self; and though it be handsome and regular enough to the eye in certain parts of it, single tracts and single Regions; yet if we consider the whole surface of it, or the whole Exteriour Region, ‘tis as a broken and confus’d heap of bodies, plac’d in no order to one another, nor with any correspondency or regularity of parts: And such a body as the Moon appears to us, when ‘tis look’d upon with a good Glass, rude and ragged; as it is also represented in the modern Maps of the Moon; such a thing would the Earth appear if it was seen from the Moon. They are both in my judgment the image or picture of a great Ruine, and have the true aspect of a World lying in its rubbish. (Book I, Chapter IX, page 110)

The familiar earth is returned to its pre-Deluge state following the fires of the Conflagration. This is again triggered by a preordained natural cause, such as the earth getting too close to the sun, and concludes in the second coming of the Savior, who reigns over the New Earth for a thousand years, at which time the earth becomes a star.

Burnet’s conception of this “great Ruine” influenced for decades how the English viewed the great mountains of Europe. As Marjorie Hope Nicholson describes in her book Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, these towering objects were seen not as majestic peaks but as ruins of a once pristine and perfect earth. They were not considered beautiful as such, but instead sublime.

What’s glaringly missing from Burnet’s theory of the earth is an account of the six days of Creation. He devotes the entire second book of Theory of the Earth to describing the Paradise that existed prior the Deluge, but not the familiar part of the story in which the world is assembled.

In 1692, Burnet revealed the reason for this omission and in the process committed professional suicide. His Latin book Archæologiæ Philosophicæ: Sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus (“The Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Originals of Things”) assembled Creation stories from ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Arab, and Jewish cultures, and from the ancient Greeks, including Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus. But it was the last four chapters of the book on Genesis that caught people’s attentions.

Like others before him, Burnet contends that the descriptions in Genesis are not intended for modern natural philosophers who know about the strides made by Copernicus and Galileo and Newton. They were instead intended for the common people — the “vulgar” in the language of the times.

The problem with Archæologiæ Philosophicæ is not so much the idea that the six days might be a simplification, but the glee that Burnet takes in demolishing passages of Genesis — even fabricating a ridiculous dialogue between Eve and the Serpent — and cumulatively putting the Genesis narrative of Creation into such doubt as to question the validity of the entire account as well as the concept of Original Sin.

Burnet had intended for Archæologiæ Philosophicæ to be read only by his fellow clerics, but the deist philosopher Charles Blount included an English translation of two chapters in the 1693 compendium Oracles of Reason so that anyone could read it. In this English rendition, Burnet notes that “betwixt the Learned and the Vulgar there are two different Systems of the World, whereof one supposes the Sun to be the Center, and t’other the Earth.” (page 53) The order of Creation in Genesis implies that the earth is “the center of the whole Work,” so it is obviously written for the less sophisticated reader.

(Blount’s Oracles of Reason is available through Early English Books Online. Blount’s book translates Book II, Chapters VII and VIII and an Appendix on the religion of the Brahmins. The entire text of Archæologiæ Philosophicæ does not seem to have been ever translated into English, but the two chapters from Blount plus translations of Chapters IX and X (but numbered as Chapters 1 through 4) were published by E. Curll in 1729 and J. Fisher in 1736. These two books also contain translations of Book II, Chapters I through VI, as well as the Appendix on the Brahmins, along with some other material by various authors. These two books contain mostly the same material, but not in the same order. Page numbers in this blog entry refer to Blount’s book.)

Burnet cites theological and physical evidence that most of the universe existed prior to the description of Genesis, so that “the Mosaical Epocha of about six thousand years, does not comprehend the Original of the whole Universe, but the Age of our present Earth, and the time since it was formed out of its Chaos.” (page 61) Burnet distinguishes between this formation and

the Creation of all Things out of nothing, or out of no pre-existent Matter, ‘tis what cannot be doubted, as also that they were not from Eternity; (for we cannot form to our selves any Idea of a thing created from Eternity) but to prescribe the divine Creation to short an Epocha, as the limits of Six Thousand Years, ‘tis what I never durst [dared]. I had rather leave that together with several other Things amongst the hidden secrets of God. (page 73)

Thomas Burnet was once believed to be on his way to becoming Archbishop of Canterbury and a very big man in the Church of England, but Archæologiæ Philosophicæ crossed the line. Despite atonement and explanations, in 1695 Burnet had to retire from his position as Clerk of the Closet, and he was immortalized by a poetical wag who accused Burnet of proving

That all the Books of Moses,
Were nothing but Supposes,
That he deserv’d Rebuke, Sir,
Who wrote the Pentateuch, Sir,
 ‘Twas nothing but a Sham.

That as for Father Adam,
And Mrs. Eve his Madam,
And what the Serpent spoke, Sir,
‘Twas nothing but a Joke, Sir,
 And well-invented Flam.

For the origin and subsequent history of these verses, see my block entry “All the Books of Moses / Were nothing but supposes”

Burnet retreated into a quiet life of theological writing for the next twenty years, and died at the age of 80.

William Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth

The six days of Creation were rehabilitated in an exceptionally inventive manner by William Whiston (1667 – 1752), a theologian and historian in Isaac Newton’s circle. William Whiston’s 1696 book had the full title A New Theory of the Earth, From its Original, to the Consummation of all Things. Wherein The Creation of the World in Six Days, The Universal Deluge, And the General Conflagration, as laid down in the Holy Scriptures, Are shewn to be perfectly agreeable to Reason and Philosophy.

Whiston begins, however, with a separately paginated 96-page introductory “Discourse Concerning the Genuine Nature, Stile, and Extent of the Mosaick History of the Creation.” When he takes aim at those who assert Genesis to be “a meer Popular, Parabolick, or Mythological relation; in which the plain letter is no more to be accounted for or believ’d, than the fabulous representations of Æsop” (page 2), he is speaking of Burnet. Yet, Whiston too admits that the narrative was written for the “Vulgar Sense” (page 59). His close analysis of the various tasks allotted to days of Creation reveals them to be rather lopsided, and he is particularly concerned about the 6th day. The description of that day includes “male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27), but beginning with Genesis 2:4, a more extensive account of the origin of the first parents seems not to fit within that single day.

Whiston presents a theory in which the earth is formed from the Chaos of a comet. While Burnet asserted that earth’s axis didn’t tilt until the Deluge, Whiston’s newly created earth doesn’t rotate at all. This has the unusual astronomical effect of making the day the same length as the year. Between sunrise and sunset, a year passes, which allows plenty of time for all the events in Genesis to occur. The earth only begins rotating on its axis after the Fall, and marks one of “the sad Effects of the Divine Malediction upon the earth after the Fall of Man” (page 102).

In Whiston’s theory, the earth itself developed from a comet, and another comet passing near the earth causes tidal effects that constitute the Deluge. As a Newtonian, Whiston is able to calculate that a comet “half as big as the Earth” passing “eight times as near as the Moon, or Thirty thousand Miles off us” would have been adequate, so that “the elevation of the Abyss, or the height of the Tide above its former Position must have been near eight Miles” (page 153). The tail of this comet passing across earth manifests itself as rain.

Like Burnet’s vision, Whiston also includes a Conflagration. We can expect another comet in the future that will retard the earth’s revolution around the sun, causing its orbit to descend: “the Sun it self wou’d scorch and burn, dissolve and destroy it in the most prodigious degree” (page 368).

The Laputans that Samuel Gulliver encounters in his travels must have read Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth, for they are terrified of getting absorbed by the sun, or the sun burning out entirely, or that they will pass through the tail of a comet.

They are so perpetually alarmed with the Apprehensions of these and the like impending Dangers, that they can neither sleep quietly in their Beds, nor have any Relish for the common Pleasures or Amusements of Life. When they meet an Acquaintance in the Morning, the first Question is about the Sun's health, how he looked at his Setting and Rising, and what Hopes they have to avoid the Stroke of the approaching Comet. (Jonathan Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (1726) Part III, Chapter II, p. 31)

Whiston’s theory is probably the closest we have to Isaac Newton’s own ideas about the balance between natural processes and miracles that characterizes the origin and continuing existence of the universe. After publication of New Theory of the Earth, Newton promoted Whiston’s career and in 1702, Whiston succeeded Newton as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Newton provided the subject of Whiston’s 1707 Boyle Lecture, The Accomplishment of Scripture Prophecies; both Newton and Whiston believed that the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy was the basis for the truth of Christianity.

Like Newton, William Whiston applied empirical methods to history and scripture, and he researched extensively for knowledge about the Trinity. Like Newton, Whiston’s research forced him into nontrinitarian and Arian beliefs that Jesus is neither coeternal nor consubstantial with God. Unlike Newton, however, Whiston made his views public. He campaigned for the Church of England to return to the “primitive Christianity” that existed before the suppression of Arius and the dogma of the Trinity. He was “a kind of New Luther whose appointed task was to revivify primitive Christianity and thus, to usher in the millennium.” (James E. Force, William Whiston: Honest Newtonian, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 111. This book is an essential source for Whiston and his times.) Whiston continued to write and publish books such as Primitive Christianity Reviv’d: In Four Volumes (1711 – 1712).

By that time, Whiston had been expelled from Cambridge and was charged with heresy. Over the years, he was mocked relentlessly by Tories (most notably, Jonathan Swift) and came to be viewed as a crank. In the final engraving of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1734) an inmate of Bedlam is celebrating his lunacy by sketching on the wall William Whiston’s solution for calculating longitude at sea. (see Force, illustration 1) Some years after his death in 1752, he served as the model for the Rev. Dr. Primrose, the doctrinally obsessed title character of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield.

John Woodward’s Natural History of the Earth

In the second half of the 17th century, geological strata became increasingly studied for what they revealed about the early history of the earth. The first systematic exploration and explanation of the earth’s strata is generally credited to Nicholas Steno, a Danish clergyman and natural philosopher of the 17th century who later converted to Roman Catholicism and became a bishop. In its broadest sense, Steno’s book of 1669 discusses how solid materials become naturally contained within other solids. Some solids, such as fossilized shark’s teeth or seashells, existed prior to becoming embedded in stone, while other solids, such as veins of calcite, were liquid before filling crevices in stone. Seashells in particular were found everywhere on earth, most mysteriously on mountaintops thousands of feet above the surface of the sea. (Steno’s life and work is the subject of Alan Cutler, The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius who Discovered a New History of the Earth, NY: Dutton, 2003, p. 117.)

Steno saw patterns in the superimposed layers of rock that made up the earth. The strata revealed a history starting from the bottom and working up through successive layers of sediment. The hardening of settled sediment would normally create horizontal strata, but Steno hypothesized how these horizontal layers could be undermined by earthquakes or the actions of water. The strata sometimes collapsed or broke apart, becoming diagonal or vertical.

Steno assumed that the sediment that forms the strata originated during the Creation or during the Deluge or later local floods. It was not for him to use stratigraphy to question the age of the earth.

In 1671, copies of Steno’s book arrived in England and these early concepts of stratigraphy were disseminated among the members of the Royal Society. The association between the Deluge and strata was furthered by John Woodward (1665 – 1728), a medical doctor and professor of physick (medicine) at Gresham University, who had also amassed an extensive collection of fossils. Woodward elaborated on Steno’s ideas in a 1695 book with another glorious 17th century title An Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth: and Terrestrial Bodies, Especially Minerals: As also of the Sea, Rivers, and Springs. With an Account of the Universal Deluge: And of the Effects that it had upon the Earth.

Early on in his Natural History of the Earth, Woodward includes a declaration of his quintessentially Newtonian approach: “that Observations are the only sure Grounds whereon to build a lasting and substantial Philosophy” (page 1). He vows to treat Moses as he would any other historian (Preface, last page). Despite these claims, however, the sole purpose of Woodward’s book is to demonstrate how his observations of the earth agree with a strict reading of the narrative in Genesis. Woodward doesn’t bother much with the Ark or the pairs of animals or Noah’s family. He instead focuses on the causes and consequences of the Flood itself. The seashells found on mountaintops “are all Remains of the universal Deluge, when the Water of the Ocean, being boisterously turned out upon the Earth, bore along with it, Fishes of all sorts, Shells, and the like…” (page 27)

In the early Newtonian era, a certain tension existed between the impulse to describe natural occurrences with reference to fixed law and a reluctance to block entirely the hand of divine providence. Woodward’s analysis allows miraculous events to occur during the Deluge:

All the Stone and Marble of the Antediluvian Earth: all the Metalls of it: all Mineral Concretions: and, in a word, all Fossils whatever that had before obtained any Solidity, were totally dissolved, and their constituent Corpuscles all disjoined, their Cohæsion perfectly ceasing…. I say all these were assumed up promiscuously into the Water, and sustained in it, in such manner that the Water, and Bodies in it, together made up one common confused mass. (pages 74, 75)

As the waters receded, these materials settled into strata based on their greater or lesser “degree of Gravity” (page 75) and hardened. Originally deposited in horizontal layers, later “the Strata were broken, on all sides of the Globe: that they were dislocated, and their Situation varied, being elevated in some places, and depressed in others.” (page 80) This is largely due to the actions of earthquakes and volcanos caused by “a nearly uniform and constant Fire or Heat disseminated throughout the Body of the Earth, and especially the interior Parts of it.” (page 121) This interior heat is what caused the waters of the Deluge to emerge from “a mighty Collection of Water inclosed in the Bowels of the Earth, constituting a huge Orb in the interiour or central Parts of it.” (page 117)

Woodward was not a theologian, yet one of the most extraordinary sections of his Natural History of the Earth is a 15-page deeper probe into the intention behind “the most horrible and portentous Catastrophe that Nature ever yet saw; an elegant, orderly, and habitable Earth quite unhinged, shattered all to pieces, and turned into a heap of ruins.” (page 82) Woodward sees in this act the trace of a “steady Hand, producing good out of evil… acting with the most exquisite Contrivance and Wisdom.” (page 83)

The original earth was “much more fertil than ours is” (page 84). The “Soil was more luxuriant” and required little farming, allowing the first humans more time “to Purposes more agreeable to the Design of their Creation.” (page 85). Following the Fall, however,

a strange imbecility immediately seized and laid hold of him … And now these exuberant Productions of the Earth became a continual Decoy and Snare unto him: they only excited and fomented his Lusts, and ministred plentiful Fewel to his Vices and Luxury … he was laid open to all manner of Pravity, Corruption, and Enormity … particularly addicted to Intemperance, Sensuality, and Unchastity … the Cause of this Corruption, the Fertility of the Earth, being so universal, so diffusive and epidemical … the World was little better than a common fold of Phrenticks and Bedlams. (pages 86 – 88)

The Fall brought disease and death, but with the Deluge came an extensive restructuring of the earth “by dissolving it: by reducing all the Matter of it to its first constituent Principles” (page 89) and then in an act of divine tough love, “leaving only so much of it near the Surface as might just sufficiently satisfie the Wants of humane Nature, but little or no more” (page 90).

For the Destruction of the Earth was not only an Act of the profoundest Wisdom and Forecast, but the most monumental proof that could ever possibly have been, of Goodness, Compassion, and Tenderness, in the Author of our Being. (page 94)

So closely was Woodward identified with the Deluge that to Jonathan Swift, the Deluge became Woodward’s “great beloved Catastrophe.” (Nicholson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, p. 246.)

Upon his death in 1728, John Woodward left his fossil collection to Cambridge University, and bequeathed an academic seat with the title Professor of Fossils. That seat was later renamed, and a Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge exists to this day.

The Aftermath

Burnet’s Theory of the Earth, Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth, Woodward’s Natural History of the Earth all went through several editions in the first half of the 18th century and continued to be read.

By 1749, these three theories were still sufficiently known even on the Continent that they were the subject of three articles in the first of Buffon’s 36 volumes of Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière. (An English translation of 1785 is available.) For Buffon, however, these earlier theories were insufficient and obsolte. It was now more sensible to describe a possible origin and history of the world that didn’t rely on Genesis in the slightest.

But that’s a story for Chapter 4 of Computer of the Tides.