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Newton's Interest In Theology And Bible Prophecy


By Dan Falk


The genius who gave us three laws of motion wrote even more about the Apocalypse and the Whore of Babylon. Eventually, all of his work -- about 10 million words -- will be on the Web. Dan Falk reports


When we think of Isaac Newton, we usually think of his insight into gravity (remember the falling apple?), or perhaps his work on optics, or his invention of calculus.


Yet if we go by sheer word count, physics was only one of Newton's intellectual priorities. He devoted more time to what we would now regard as non-scientific topics such as theology and alchemy, writing treatise after treatise on early church history and biblical prophecy.


Scholars have long known that Newton dabbled in the occult, but the sheer magnitude of his devotion to such matters has only recently come to light, bolstered by a British-led project trying to put all of his writings -- about 10 million words in all -- on the World Wide Web.


"We think of Newton, obviously, primarily as a scientist," says Stephen Snobelen, a historian of science at King's College in Halifax. "So this awareness that there is this four-million-word corpus of theological texts, and another one million words on alchemy, is quite a revelation for many people."


Prof. Snobelen is the leading Canadian contributor to the Newton Project, which is based at Imperial College, London, and also involves researchers at Cambridge and at universities in France and the United States.


The project was also a major topic of discussion at a conference held at King's College this week. The conference, titled Circulating Knowledge, was jointly organized by the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science and the leading British and U.S. history-of-science associations.


The Newton Project ( began in 1998 with a 330,000 (about $800,000) grant from the British Arts and Humanities Research Board, and may take 20 years or more to complete. It is by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated such project dealing with Newton, and one of the largest Web-based projects involving any single historical figure.


The project will involve Web versions not only of transcriptions of Newton's writings, but also color images of the original documents, as well as the annotations and margin notes from the books he kept in his personal library -- most of it never before made public.


It will use the latest XML (Extensible Markup Language) technology -- essentially "a more robust version of HTML," the familiar code that most Internet sites currently use, says Robert Iliffe of Imperial College, an editorial director of the project.


The XML format allows, among other things, virtually endless "links" between different sections of the website as well as electronic "tagging" that makes the files easier to search and catalogue.


Perhaps the most startling aspect of the Newton Project is what it is revealing about the magnitude and depth of Newton's non-scientific output, as well as the contrast between his private writings and those he made public.


"The sheer amount of manuscripts on the Whore of Babylon, the two-horned and 10-horned beasts, the two witnesses, all this stuff -- is amazing," Prof. Iliffe says. "It is 50 years of his work. That's what he spent most of his time on. He never stopped."


Many early-Newton scholars, eager to secure his place as Britain's greatest scientist and an icon of the Enlightenment, played down his non-scientific interests. "The old Enlightenment view was that Newton did his theology when he was senile," Prof. Iliffe says. "But that's not true. He did it when he was at his most powerful as a thinker."


Although Newton was a deeply religious Christian, he held starkly anti-Catholic and anti-Trinitarian views. For him, there was only "God the father." (Denying the Holy Trinity was a criminal offence in England in Newton's day.)


He also obsessed over the early history of the church, especially the third, fourth and fifth centuries, when, in his view, Christianity became corrupted.


Not surprisingly, Newton kept most of his theological musings to himself. And yet he often wrote in a very formal style -- not at all like the kind of writing you would expect to see in notebooks to be read only by their own author.


"I've argued -- I hope it's not banal -- that he's writing it for God," Prof. Iliffe says. "Or maybe for some other people who are yet to come. But there's no evidence that he showed most of this material to anybody."


And yet he did allow an "inner circle" of friends and colleagues -- like-minded individuals whom he could trust to keep his secrets -- in on his speculations.


For example, he once sent an apocalyptic time chart to philosopher John Locke. The chart covers most of the events described in the Book of Revelation, from the appearance of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the time when "the Word of God makes war with ye Beasts & Kings of ye earth" and to the creation of a "new heaven, new earth & new Jerusalem."


Yet even some of Newton's published writings seem to contain allusions to his theological beliefs.


For example, Prof. Snobelen argues that Newton left clues to those beliefs hidden "between the lines" even in some of his most famous works. Much of Newton's writing is "layered," he says -- the surface layer being accessible to everyone, with a deeper layer accessible only to an elite group of followers.


For Prof. Snobelen, this aspect of Newton's character is reminiscent of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mathematician who led a cult-like group of young thinkers, all of whom were sworn to secrecy.


"Newton was extremely careful about his wording," he says. "He was walking on a knife edge. If he presented [his theology] too openly, then he would have been caught. If he didn't present it openly enough, no one would have seen the message."


Meanwhile, the larger scholarly debate continues to focus on the links between Newton's theological views and his science. Part of the problem is that so much has changed since his day. For example, we now think of science and theology as completely separate disciplines. But even the term "scientist" is relatively new; it was coined only in the 1830s.


Newton would have seen himself as a "natural philosopher," someone whose interests included -- but were not limited to -- what we would now call science.


He also clearly saw God as an essential part of nature, the "first cause" on which everything else depended. "He thought that doing natural philosophy was a religious activity," Prof. Iliffe says.


In Newton's view, God revealed himself in two books -- Scripture and the "book of nature." The latter Newton investigated directly through his science; the former, presumably, was equally worthy of his attention. "There's certainly a religious and a theological element to his science," Prof. Iliffe says.


And yet scholars are still struggling to comprehend how such a rational thinker -- the man who gave us three laws of motion, the law of universal gravitation and so much more -- could have simultaneously immersed himself so deeply in arcane matters. It almost seems, at times, like there were two Isaac Newtons -- or, at the very least, one man who led two very different lives.


"He's one of the most prominent public officials in the country, he's president of the Royal Society, he's Master of the Royal Mint," Prof. Iliffe says. "And then when he goes back to his Chelsea home, he does all this stuff on the Apocalypse and the Whore of Babylon. . . . This is a guy who lives out his day in the public sphere and deals with this world -- and then he goes home and he deals with the third, fourth, fifth century."


Part of the answer, Prof. Iliffe suggests, is the scope of Newton's hunger for knowledge. Whatever facts he had obtained, whether about nature or theology, were never enough.

"He's just incredibly ambitious," Prof. Iliffe says. "He's supremely confident he's a 'chosen one' -- a chosen person who can overturn centuries and millennia of error. And now is the time when truth is being revealed. And that's the case in both his private theology and in science and mathematics."


The Newton Project will let scholars probe the connections between the many facets of Newton's persona more closely than ever before.


"Not only can you read his manuscripts about theology and church history and heresies, but you can actually 'drill down' and have access to the original manuscripts and books in his own library that he's using to construct his arguments," says Dolores Iorizzo, a colleague of Prof. Iliffe at Imperial College. "And that's a completely new idea about how to do research."


Dan Falk is a science writer and broadcaster based in Toronto.



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