Researching Early Modern History

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Mandelbrote Lectures, RBE 18 – T.D. Jacobs

I will explain what I’ve been doing for the last month in my following post. However, in this blog entry, I wanted to talk about two lectures I attended last week by Dr Scott Mandelbrote of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. The first, “What was early modern physico-theology?” was given as part of the class on Intellectual History taught by Dr Steven Vanden Broecke at Ghent University. We read Dr Mandelbrote’s chapter on “Early Modern Natural Theologies” in the Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology and discussed it in relation to John Ray’s 1693 work, Three Physico-Theological Discourses. During this talk, Dr Mandelbrote contextualized his earlier research, concluding that these discourses were not actually about theories or laws, but about things– objects, and things observed, and described, and how to place them within the religious framework of the time. Such works went on to spawn other genres of physico-theology, covering subjects ranging from botany to anthropology. The term and its cognates originated with Boyle and were then taken up by authors such as Ray. The basic premise of such authors was that reason was insufficient for resolving metaphysical questions. Physical arguments were indeed used, but this did not make this “secular science.” Physico-theology, therefore, is not merely a synonym for natural-theology.

The second lecture, “The Origins of Newton’s Heterodoxy Reconsidered” was the more interesting of the two, and it was hosted by the Sarton Centre for History of Science at Ghent University. In it, Dr Mandelbrote, who is involved in the digital humanities Newton Project, talked about the purported heterodoxy of Isaac Newton. His thesis – the Newton’s heterodoxy was not extraordinary, and that it was actually the product of his institutional surroundings. This is in conflict with much of the Newton scholarship, which paints the mathematician as an isolated genius working in a kind of intellectual backwater. Dr Mandelbrote said his conclusions would not come as a surprise to people outside the field of Newton scholarship, but I must disagree. The earlier literature on Newton has fed into his image in popular culture as a lone madman conducting alchemy experiments while hopped up on lead fumes. The reality, however, is much more interesting.

The question is not whether Newton became heterodox, but when– and concomitantly – how? Previous scholarship has focused on his purportedly Puritan upbringing, and a 1675 patent allowing him to hold a chair at Cambridge without taking Holy Orders. Neither of these ‘evidences’ are satisfactory. The former is practically apocryphal, and the latter doesn’t tell us anything about what Newton believed. All it tells us is that he didn’t want to enter the Anglican priesthood, a decision for which he may have had various reasons having nothing to do with his theological views. Dr Mandelbrote, while examining the previously unexplored realm of post-Restoration Cambridge as an institution, found several interesting pieces of evidence to contribute to the debate, and which push back the dates on Newton’s manuscripts on the subject of religion. Rather than being private musings, it turns out that they were produced in response to work being carried out at Cambridge by Hebraists and theologians, such as Joseph Beaumont, the Regus Professor of Divinity from 1674 onwards.

In that role, Beaumont revitalized an older institutional requirement, the so-called Divinity Act. This was a requirement that every scholar resident for four years had to engage in a public disputation, to which the divinity professor would write a response. Additionally, professors had to give a practice sermon. Newton – despite having obtained a dispensation for taking orders – filled these requirements. In doing so, he was forced to engage in theological scholarship that was of interest to Beaumont, who picked the subject of the disputations. Dr Mandelbrote pointed out that the division between specialist and lay divinity writing in the seventeenth century rested on one’s ability to read Greek and Hebrew, and that Newton was really on the margin of this. Nevertheless, he engaged in the topic in the mid-1670s. Did his research for the disputation later influence his heterodox position? That is more difficult to say, but it was certainly not a position that he developed on his own, without environmental influences, which can be traced through library acquisitions and a close examination of the subjects that fascinated his colleagues. Moreover, Dr Mandelbrote points out that the hierarchy within the university meant that Newton – a professor mathematics – was forced to perform as a supplicant, under the tutelage of the professor of divinity. The argument that Newton was a lonely ‘heretic’ simply does not hold water in the face of his institutional context and intellectual environment. 

In addition to getting to listen to these fascinating lectures, I also received a lead from Dr Mandelbrote with regard to my side project examining changes in epistemology and evidence in discussions of identity through the lens of the theory that Native Americans were the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. It turns out that I may be able to find related source materials by tracing the debate on whether there was one act of creation, or two, rather than trying to track works directly covering the topic. All in all, I find it is well worth my time to attend regular lectures that are somewhat outside of field. I plan to continue to do so in the future because it is both relaxing and – sometimes – relevant to other things I am interested in researching.


Mandelbrote, Scott. “Newton and Eighteenth-Century Christianity.” In R. Iliffe and G. Smith eds., The Cambridge Companion to Newton, 2nd edition, pp. 554-85. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Mandelbrote, Scott. “Early Modern Natural Theologies.” In Russell Re Manning, ed., The Oxford Handbook to Natural Theology, pp. 75-99.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Ray, John. Three Physico-Theological Discourses.Second Edition. London: Samuel Smith, 1693.


The Newton Project 

The Sarton Centre for History of Science at Ghent University 

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