It is the 6th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1866.
I'm going to read you a list of names. They all share two things in common. See if you can guess:
Leonardo Da Vinci
Hildegard von Bingen
Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (aka Paracelsus)
And William Whewell
Answer: they all have craters on the moon named after them.
If you count today's show, all of these folks have been referenced here on the Almanac, some with more detail than others. Today we remember the last name on that list, William Whewell. He was one of the more curious men of his generation, an Anglican priest and a list of accomplishments so long he can claim to have been one of the last of what we call, anachronistically, Renaissance Men. William Whewell (looks like We Well, pronounced like Hu ell) was born to a carpenter-father and poet-mother in 1794 in Northern England. A family without means, such as his, would not expect to send a child to school, let alone Cambridge. But the ability he demonstrated won him an opportunity to attend on scholarship.
William Whewell came to Trinity College Cambridge in 1812. By 1820 he was elected a member of the Prestigious Royal Society and was teaching at Cambridge. In the intervening years, he had won awards for his poetry, studies in mathematics, geology, and philosophy. In 1825 he was ordained as an Anglican priest. He spent his career at Trinity College, Cambridge but in various fields. He was a professor of Mineralogy and Moral Philosophy before being named a "Master" of the college and then Vice-Chancellor.
Still not impressed? He coined the term "scientist" and gave Michael Faraday the terms "cathode" and "ion." He wrote on astronomy and politics, architecture and philosophy, and education and theology. His work "Of the Plurality of Worlds" was an important contribution to the 19th-century conversation about alien life form. This particular conversation wondered whether or not alien life forms would need to be redeemed by Christ as well. Whewell believed that our earth was one of a kind and that the existence of so much waste in nature confirmed that despite the size of the Universe, we are really, probably, alone.
There are two important things we can learn about the life and thought of Whewell, although the "Master of Trinity" could certainly teach us more.
First: he was an ordained priest in the Anglican Church. This isn't uncommon for the age to teach at a University. You often needed to be ordained by the church that supports the school. Whewell served the church, but his ordination was likely more a means of control as the English church and the scientific community had a tough time getting along in the 19th century.
But his theological grounding and religious roots are absolutely central to who he was and to his work. He was more than just a "polymath" or one who excels in many fields. He was a Renaissance Man in that those multi-talented men and women had as their foundation the humanist project of the Late Medieval Era. A belief in the knowability of the world and its creator and humility in how much one can grasp is a hallmark of the best of the Humanist and Renaissance tradition (not that they all did it perfectly, but that was the north star of Humanism). Whewell wrote on what today we might call "apologetics" in his work on Natural Theology. Using a mixture of inductive and deductive reasoning, he argued, could lead to genuine knowledge about the character of God from nature alone. He was always somewhere between natural philosophy and moral philosophy, Induction, and Ethics. It would make sense then that he would be the one to help us distinguish a natural philosopher was with a phrase that stuck: scientists.
William Whewell was married and widowed and had no children. He died unexpectedly when he was thrown off his horse on this, the 6th of March in 1866. A popular jingle about him, before and after his death, was:
"In all Infinity, there's none so wise as the Master of Trinity."
The reading for today is a little natural theology via Psalm 19. These are the first and last verses of that Psalm from the treasure that is the Scottish Metrical Psalter.
The heav'ns God's glory do declare,
the skies his hand-works preach:
Day utters speech to day, and night
to night doth knowledge teach.
There is no speech nor tongue to which
their voice doth not extend:
Their line is gone through all the earth,
their words to the world's end.
Who can his errors understand?
O cleanse thou me within
From secret faults. Thy servant keep
from all presumptuous sin:
And do not suffer them to have
dominion over me:
Then, righteous and innocent,
I from much sin shall be.
The words which from my mouth proceed,
the thoughts sent from my heart,
Accept, O Lord, for thou my strength
and my Redeemer art.
That was from Psalm 19 from the Scottish Metrical Psalter.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 6th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Theophrastus Bombastus von Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.