Scotland in the Age of the Disruption

By Stewart J. Brown; Michael Fry | Go to book overview

universe subject to decay and dissolution, sustained and repaired by acts of divine intervention. The need to combat a rising tide of secularism, stirred up by the false science of The Constitution of Man, and of Vestiges, helped to impel them along this path. This need was particularly acute in an era of religious upheaval and fragmentation: the timing of Vestiges, one year after the Disruption, could hardly have been worse in this respect.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that either the publication of Vestiges or the Disruption itself led to the emergence of a distinctively Evangelical or 'Free Church' style of science, since a wariness of 'natural laws' and all-embracing theories had been evident, at least in embryonic form, well before the 1840s. The appearance of Vestiges did, however, encourage the establishment of the chair of natural science at New College in 1845, to which Fleming was appointed. 65 From the beginning, some in the Free Church had wanted New College to be more than a mere theological college and offer the entire range of university subjects. Even those who took a narrower view of New College recognised that science was becoming something of an ideological battleground and that the Free Church clergy would need to be intellectually armed for the fray. Fleming specifically referred to the challenge posed by the Vestiges in the debate at the Free Church General Assembly in Inverness in 1845, when the decision to establish the chair was taken. 66

Although these ecclesiastical and scientific issues undoubtedly played a part in the process, in the case of Brewster and Miller it is tempting to look for secondary reasons in their personal and social experiences. Brewster, as an opponent of the undulatory theory of light, was an increasingly isolated and embittered figure in the scientific community. At St Andrews, he became embroiled in further controversies with the ruling Moderate establishment. After the Disruption, his adversaries tried unsuccessfully to eject him from his post of principal for having quit the Established Church. 67

Miller also reaped a bitter harvest during his later years. By the late 1840s, he was increasingly prone to ill health, brought on partly by the rigours of his early life as a stonemason and partly by the pressures of editing the Witness. By the 1850s, his mind, as well as his body, showed signs of illness and he began to suffer from terrifying visions. In December 1856, after a particularly horrifying experience of this kind, he wrote a farewell note to his wife and shot himself It is perhaps not too fanciful to suggest that men suffering these kinds of dislocations in their personal lives should increasingly view the natural world as a place that was disordered and out of joint.


NOTES
1
John H. Brooke, "'The Natural Theology of the Geologists: Some Theological Strata'", in L. J. Jordanova and R. S. Porter (eds), Images of the Earth: Essays in the History of the Environmental Sciences (Chalfont St Giles, 1979), pp. 39-64.
2
David Brewster ( 1781-1868). The only full-length biography of Brewster is by his daughter, Margaret Maria Gordon [née Brewster], The Home Life of Sir David Brewster ( Edinburgh, 1869). Many aspects of Brewster's career are covered in A. Morrison-Low and J. R. R. Christie (eds), 'Martyr of Science': Sir David Brewster 1781-1868 ( Edinburgh, 1984). This contains the fullest

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