Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Science and Religion in Colonial America: The Early Days

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Science and Religion in Colonial America: The Early Days

Article excerpt

Abstract

The use of science to validate biblical accounts or prove the existence of God began in the United States with the publication of Cotton Mather's The Christian Philosopher. Cotton Mather is generally remembered for his role in the Salem Witch Trials but his contribution in bringing science to Colonial America is not well known. Mather had an extensive library, was a member in the Royal Society of London and had contacts with scientists in the great learning centers of Europe. Mather was perfectly positioned to bring scientific ideas to the common man in Colonial America. This overlooked book continues to be useful today to both scientists and religious leaders in understanding the origins of the Creation Science/Intelligent Design controversy in the United States.

Cotton Mather and The Argument From Design

Audis tibi loquentes Lapides; tu ne sis Lapis in hac parte, sed ipsorum Vocem audi, & in illis Vocem Dei. You hear the rocks speaking to you; do not be a rock in this matter, but hear their voice and in them the voice of God. Johann H. Alsted

Today's use of science to glorify the greatness of God's creation, to validate biblical accounts or find evidence for the existence of God is not new. The roots of modern versions of Creation Science and Intelligent Design in the United States can be traced back to the writings of Cotton Mather in Colonial America. Plato formulated the argument from design, an argument for the existence of God based on evidence of the perceived order, design, or purpose in nature. Creation Science is a modern version of this design argument and Intelligent Design takes this a step further by arguing that nature is too irreducibly complex to have been come about by chance, therefore was created by a Creator. Cotton Mather was the first to use science and religion to bring the design argument to Colonial America. Colonial living existed on the periphery of the great European centers of learning. Contemporary books were often collections of curious facts and conflicting theories. It took an informed reader to borrow from them and distill modern scientific ideas into an acceptable format for a Colonial American. Cotton Mather was perfectly positioned to do so.

Most people know of Cotton Mather only from his role as a judge at the infamous Salem Witch Trials in 1692. However, in their volume Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine, Beall and Shryock (1954) argue that it is ironic that Mathers' religious writings and association with the witchcraft trials supercedes his scientific achievements and membership in the Royal Society of London. Solberg (1994) emphasizes Mather's importance in introducing the Englightenment to colonial America, an achievement for which he has received too little credit. Of Mather's writings, none is more important to the introduction of the sciences in America than his The Christian Philosopher, the first comprehensive collection of essays on all the sciences known at the time by an American author. In this book, Mather articulates his evidence for the proof of God's existence based on Mather's perception of the order and design he saw in nature.

Plato had originally formulated the argument from Design, an argument for the existence of God based on evidence of the perceived order, design, or purpose in nature. The Augustinian doctrine, derived from Plato and influenced by Neoplatonism, held that God is the author of both nature and Scripture, which is authoritative. The natural and supernatural must be concordant (Solberg 1994). Mather was familiar with and influenced by these ideas.

Mather, The theologian

Cotton Mather, son of Increase and grandson of Richard, was a Calvinist who followed the tradition that all men's fates are predestined, only the elect are saved, one cannot earn salvation, and Christ's sacrifice allows some men to receive election. It was expected that Mather would be successor to his father's pulpit at Boston's original North Church. …

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