Since the publication in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of an article by Simon Schaffer in 1977, it has been a historiographical commonplace that there was an ‘underlying unity’ to the religio-philosophical opinions of Edmond Halley, specifically on issues concerning the age of the world. This article (i) argues that the evidence adduced for this claim—specifically the account of a lecture given by Halley to the Royal Society in 1693—has been misinterpreted, and (ii) brings forward some new evidence concerning the mysterious events surrounding Halley's unsuccessful attempt to secure the Savilian Professorship in Astronomy in 1691 and the nature of his religious heterodoxy, both as it was developed by himself and as it was perceived by contemporaries. It thus functions as a full revisionist account of one of the key players in the destabilization of the relationship between natural philosophy and Genesis in the first decades of the Royal Society.
The 1977 volume of Notes and Records contained a major piece of historiographical revisionism concerning one of the leading figures in the early Royal Society and in the development of early modern science more generally.1 Earlier studies had posited a contrast between the public and private cosmological and religious views of Edmond Halley (figure 1), specifically concerning the age of the world. Drawing on new manuscript evidence, Simon Schaffer argued that ‘this new evidence gives us a much more consistent picture of Halley's work, and it refutes the view that there were two Halleys—the public orthodox face and the private heterodox one.’2 This conclusion has been accepted in virtually all the subsequent historiography (see below), and no one has offered any direct challenge to the evidence presented. Unfortunately—it will now be argued—Schaffer misinterpreted the evidence that he discovered. Consequently, we must reconsider his conclusion concerning ‘the underlying unity in Halley's work’, which, as Schaffer interpreted it, consisted of an ‘unrelenting pursuit of scientific consistency rather than in worries about religious orthodoxy.’3 In addition to this reinterpretation, new evidence has come to light that offers some clarification concerning the rather murky events surrounding Halley's failed attempt to secure the Savilian Professorship in Astronomy at Oxford in 1691.
Halley and eternalism in the early 1690s
Let us quickly recapitulate the known evidence. In June 1691—upon being presented by Peter Mews, bishop of Winchester, to the lucrative rectory of Brightwell, Berkshire—Edward Bernard (1638–97) announced his intention to resign from Oxford's Savilian Professorship of Astronomy.4 Halley—who had been touted as a successor to Bernard as early as 16785—immediately put himself forward, alongside David Gregory and John Caswell. At this point, doubts about Halley's religious orthodoxy began to spread. On 22 June Halley wrote to his friend Abraham Hill, a central figure in the Royal Society who was also much interested in debates concerning the compatibility of natural philosophy and Genesis, stating:
An affair of great consequence to myself calls me to London, viz. looking after the Astronomy-Professor's place in Oxford, I humbly beg of you to intercede for me with the archbishop Dr. Tillotson, to defer the election for some short time, 'till I have done here [Pagham, where Halley was assisting in the salvage of some sunken cargo], if it be but for a fortnight: but it must be done with expedition, lest it be too late to speak. This time will give me an opportunity to clear myself in another matter, there being a caveat entered against me, till I can shew that I am not guilty of asserting the eternity of the world.6
There is nothing whatsoever in Halley's career preceding this moment that explains this rumour; neither is it clear from whom it emerged (see further below).7 Hill was at this point comptroller to John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also head of the appointments committee for the Savilian chairs. The usual account of what followed, relying on testimonies from several decades later by John Hough, Thomas Hearne and William Whiston, claims that Halley was interviewed independently by Tillotson, Edward Stillingfleet (Bishop of Worcester) and Richard Bentley (then Stillingfleet's chaplain), responding with such colourful answers as ‘I declare myself a Christian and hope to be treated as such’ or that he ‘belieued a God and that was all’.8 All this is highly dubious—some rather more solid evidence about the events of 1691 will be presented below.
On 11 November Halley obtained a letter of recommendation for the job from the Royal Society.9 But Gregory had a recommendation from Newton.10 By Christmas Eve, Christopher Wren could report that Gregory had been elected.11 In the meantime, Halley had read (on 25 November) to the Society a paper on terrestrial magnetism, offering a four-pole theory that posited a second concentric sphere (and perhaps more) within the Earth (Michael Dahl's portrait of Halley in the Royal Society shows him holding a sketch of his multi-shell model). Consequently, he speculated on whether the ‘internal earth’ might be inhabitable, suggesting that ‘there are severall other means of producing light’ beyond the Sun ‘which may be sufficient to illuminate these internall Spheres’ and that ‘for warmth it is certain, that there is continuall temperature deep underground.’12 I can see no evidence for Schaffer's claim that ‘Halley produced his first suggestion of his proof that the world must come to an end in the final section’ of this paper.13 In another paper read on 2 December, however, Halley did suggest that it was ‘the wisdom of the Creator’ that had ‘provided for … the means … of producing light’.14 It was only on 27 January 1692, after the result of the Savilian election had been announced, that Halley next spoke on the subject, and this paper was ‘ordered to be inserted in the [Philosophical] Transactions’, appearing as the final article in volume 16.15 Here Halley offered several encomia to the wisdom of the Creator in facilitating life in the subterraneous sphere,16 culminating in a precise methodological statement:
And whereas I have adventured to make these Subterraneous Orbs capable of being inhabited, 'twas done designedly for the sake of those who will be apt to ask cui bono, and with whom Arguments drawn from Final Causes prevail much.17
These physico-theological passages are not discussed by Schaffer, who instead focuses on the final paragraph, in which Halley argued that his hypothesis solved another problem: now that the partially hollow Earth could be shown to have a smaller specific gravity than the moon, their synchronized motion was explicable, ‘for otherwise the Earth would leave the Moon behind it, and she become another Primary Planet.’18
Halley was here building on a (highly erroneous) calculation in the first edition of Newton's Principia about the relative masses of the Earth and the Moon.19 But he disagreed with Newton about the resistance offered by outer space to moving bodies; where Newton had considered it negligible, Halley—based partly on Ole Rømer's recent measurement of the speed of light—believed that the aether effected a measurable drag on objects passing through it, including the planets.20 This idea—the very strong non-Newtonianism of which is worth underlining—was elaborated in the important paper read to the Society on 19 October 1692, ‘Concerning the Motion of Light’. The Earth should be slowing down, and the years getting longer. But this was not evident from the ancient astronomical observations of the Chaldeans (ca. 750 bc) as cited in Ptolemy, Hipparchus (ca. 150 bc) and al-Battānī (ca. 900 ad). Ingeniously, Halley solved this by claiming that they had modified their observations to create an artificial concord: Ptolemy, for example, was ‘obliged to suppose Babylon nearer to Alexandria by about half an hour than the same author in his Geography hath placed it.’21 Now, this had a fundamental theological consequence: ‘the Ether obstructing the progressive motion of the Earth will not allow eternity to it or any of the Planets’ as according to Proposition 15 of the second volume of Principia a logarithmic spiral will ensue, ‘and at length [they] must be swallowed up in the Sun’. ‘Hence,’ Halley triumphantly declared,
will necessarily follow the necessity of that Act of Creation and that these Globes of the Planets were not only formed with a wonderful and incomprehensible designe and contrivance as well as power to Execute, and that the motion they now have was impressed upon them at first in much more proportionate Distances and with such Degrees of Swiftness as may Enable them to subsist many millions of years but that they should not be capable of eternity in the state they now are.22Eternalism had been defeated; the Creation saved. Halley was ordered to ‘prosecute this Notion, and to publish a discourse about it’;23 however, nothing occurred until 18 October 1693, when Halley presented a new paper on the subject, entitled ‘Some observations on the motion of the sun’.
The lecture of 18 October 1693
That paper is the key to Schaffer's revisionist interpretation. Let us quote in full the summary from the Royal Society's Journal Book:
Halley read a Paper of his own, concerning a Demonstration of the Contraction of the year, and promising to make out thereby the necessity of the worlds coming to an end, and consequently that it must have had a beginning, which hitherto has not been evinced from any thing, that has been observed in Nature. Of this he was ordered to print a Dissertation.24
The only thing that appears to have changed is that Halley now believed that the year was getting shorter rather than longer: the crucial theological conclusion, meanwhile, remained intact. But, on Schaffer's reading, this lecture ‘has been the object of considerable confusion, mainly because the report of its content in the Journal Book for 18 October 1693, on which all previous analyses of this paper have been based, does not in fact completely tally with the manuscript version I have reproduced’—that is to say the account in the seventh volume of the Royal Society's Register Book. The account there confirms why Halley changed his mind on the duration of the year and did not publish his original lecture, as instructed: ‘coming more nicely to consider it I found that instead of a slower motion in the Sun it became more swift’, a change explicable by the Earth's coming closer to the Sun as it traversed its logarithmic spiral, ‘which will perfectly render an account of the Phenomenon.’25 But Schaffer also assigns to Halley a much more spectacular change of mind: ‘although it is the case that Halley does announce that the length of the year is getting less rather than greater, that is, that the Earth is accelerating in a spiral towards the sun, he does not conclude that the world must therefore come to an end.’26 What is the evidence for this remarkable conclusion? Schaffer announces that ‘the final words of the paper deserve some emphasis’; they are:
If the Honble Society shall command me to explain this matter as difficult as it is, and requiring the greatest [space for single word] both of [space for single word] and Geometry to make it out I shall endeavour if possible to make it intelligible, there still wanting a valid argument to evince from what has been observed in nature that this Globe of the Earth ever did begin or ever shall have an end.27
Yet when Schaffer quotes the final clause in the body of his text, he makes a subtle alteration:
There [is] still wanting a valid argument to evince from what has been observed in Nature that this Globe of the Earth ever did begin or ever shall have an end.
He then concludes:
Since Halley did read this paper to the Royal Society, this demonstrates that Halley did not, after 1693, sheepishly toe the orthodox line on the age of the Earth. … This is crucial in a reassessment of his position on the relation of theology and natural philosophy.28
This, it seems to me, is a fundamental misreading of the evidence. The insertion of ‘[is]’ into the passage to suggest that an anti-eternalist argument had still to be developed after Halley's lecture is unwarranted. What Halley meant is that such an argument had not been developed until his lecture—just as the initial Journal Book clearly states. Even if the language were more ambiguous, it would surely be preferable to rely on the interpretation of the author of the Journal Book entry, who had actually heard the lecture. But we can clearly recreate Halley's meaning even from the words of the Register Book entry. If we were to insert any parenthetical clarification into the passage at all (although I am not convinced that any is required), it would look something like this: ‘There still wanting [until now] a valid argument to evince from what has been observed in Nature that this globe of the Earth ever did begin or ever shall have an end.’
Schaffer's reading has been widely accepted in the historiography, and his parenthetical insertion frequently redeployed. Sara J. Schechner changes his present-tense ‘[is]’ into the past-tense ‘[was]’, claiming that ‘Halley confessed that “there still [was] wanting a valid argument to evince from what has been observed in nature that this Globe of the Earth ever did begin or ever shall have an end”.’ (She then develops an elaborate socio-political reading of Halley that depends almost entirely on this misunderstanding.)29 James E. Force confines himself to Schaffer's present tense.30 And even William Poole, undoubtedly the world's leading scholar of the whole late-seventeenth-century controversy over the age of the world, has claimed that ‘only two years after the troubles over eternalism [i.e. the Savilian election], Halley was unrepentant, asserting at the end of a paper before the society: “there still [is] wanting a valid argument to evince from what has been observed in nature that this Globe of the Earth ever did begin or ever shall have an end”.’31 Others have accepted Schaffer's conclusions without quoting the passage either in the original or in his emended version.32
The events of 1691: a new account
The claim that Halley's ‘pessimistic conclusion to the paper of 1693 … is scarcely the statement of a man worried by an accusation of Aristotelian heresy’33 is thus unsustainable: on the contrary, the conclusion is optimistic about the possibility of disproving precisely that heresy. But where does that leave our account of Halley's heterodoxy and its connection to the 1691 competition for the Savilian Astronomy Chair?
Here, newly recovered evidence is of some significance. It will be recalled that the standard story—based on much later testimony—posits a series of colourful interviews with Tillotson, Stillingfleet and Bentley some time in the autumn of 1691. Nicolas Fatio de Duillier wrote to Christiaan Huygens on 9 May/29 April 1692 to say that Halley had lost ‘à cause des opinions qu'on lui a voulu imputer sur la Religion.’34 Halley's fullest biographer—rightly sceptical of the value of the later testimonies—has stated that this ‘seems to be the only contemporary reference to Halley's views.’35 This is incorrect, for there exist several letters in the Bodleian Library in Oxford between the outgoing incumbent of the Savilian Chair, Edward Bernard, and his friend of long standing, the antiquary Thomas Smith, which shed significant light on the episode. On 27 June 1691—five days after Halley's letter to Hill—Smith wrote to Bernard the following:
Mr Hooke of gresham Coll told mee <lately> that mr Halley layes in here to bee your Successor & I suppose some who are resident in ye university will not be wanting to themselves in <yt> endeavour of being advanced to so considerable a post.36
He was clearly fishing for information, and he was not disappointed, for three days later Bernard replied:
Mr Haley being an Englishman & a master of Arts not by exercise done but by creation, cannot appear for yt place I have so long unworthily sustaind unless he have letters testimonial frm his Diocesan, ye Bp. of London, concerning his assent to ye 39 Articles before his grace for dr in Medecine be proposed on sub poena periurii: wch upon complaint of several persons frm here to ye ABp touching ye irreligion + even blasphemous discourses of Mr Haley, othrwise a most able astronomer, will not easily be granted. So yt place is left for Mr Caswell a sober, pious + skillfull person to try his interest in competition wth Mr David Gregory who is also a good mathematician. Two of ye three have ye iustice of my certificates + ye third more nearly knowne for vertue as well as science, shall command ye like wn he pleaseth.37
This important letter requires some unpacking. Halley, as is well known, left Oxford in 1676 without a degree so that he could go to St Helena in time for the forthcoming transit of Mercury across the Sun. Upon his return, he was granted an Oxford MA by the command of the king, but the Savilian statues required any Englishman who held the chair to be ‘at least a master of arts, who, without any dispensation, either of the time or of the scholastic exercises, has lawfully taken that degree.’38 Evidently Halley was attempting to circumnavigate this problem by taking a DM, a fact that has been unknown to previous Halley scholarship. For this he needed an affidavit of his acquiescence to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England from the Bishop of London—also one of the electors for the Savilian Chair39—who at that point was Henry Compton. Bernard, however, was not optimistic. This did not stop him from writing on Halley's behalf (the contender ‘known for virtue’ for whom he had not yet written was surely Caswell). This in itself is an interesting fact: Bernard, a high-church Anglican who was extremely sceptical about the recent attempts of natural philosophers to act as scriptural exegetes,40 either did not believe the rumours of Halley's impiety or considered them less important than his astronomical ability. But Smith shared Bernard's pessimism about Halley's prospects, for in his reply of 11 July he wrote:
I am very sorry, that Mr H[a]ly his Skeptikall and Atheisticall discourse has rendred himselfe so obnoxious to the just censure of the world: & I believe there is such a deep prejudice against him, that it will put him wholly by his pretensions of succeeding you: for wch otherwise by reason of his excellent Skill in Astronomy and sober Mathematical learning hee is so highly qualifyed.41
Halley, then, not only seemed unlikely to get the chair because of reports of his heterodoxy, but was also not even eligible to apply. However, he clearly spent his autumn productively, for when he next appears in the correspondence on 5 December (by this point Bernard had formally resigned), we hear from Smith:
Mr Halley appeares briskly for the Mathematicall chaire, wch you have made voyd by your resignation. It is likely that hee went hence yesterday for Oxon, & will bring with him an ample certificate from the Bp of London. He makes a <fierce> defense of himself against the calumnyes & aspertions, wch his enemyes oppress him with, out of designe to defeat him of his expectation & pretense to the Lecture. I perceive Hee & Flamstead, who is a grievous Whig, & guilty of ye worst principles, are at a great variance, & make good the usual saying, yt two of a trade scarce ever well agree … 42
Contrary to Bernard and Smith's expectations, Halley had succeeded (or at least so Smith—by this point based in London and generally well informed about such things—believed) in obtaining an affidavit from Compton, despite the calumnies of his opponents, one of whom seems to have been Flamsteed (more on this below). A week later, however, Smith's opinion had changed again:
I pray look upon the Last Philosophical Transactions, where Mr Halley pretends to play the Critick: but his corruption of Suidas, as to the measure of a Saros, is grosse & justly to be condemned. I beeleive hee will meet with some difficulty in getting the degree of M. D. the prejudices run so high against him. of wch in a little time you will be able to informe mee.43
The first half of this passage refers to some emendations to the Suda suggested by Halley in a recent article on Pliny's Natural History in Philosophical Transactions;44 it is the second that is of interest to us, for here Smith reveals (i) that Halley was still seeking to secure the DM degree, so close to the Savilian election, and (ii) that Bernard was particularly well informed about the election process. This is confirmed by the next and final letter in the sequence, of 17 December, in which Bernard wrote to Smith:
Our Caswell desists, so yt my place lyes between our Gregory & Mr Haley. The latter hath written me a letter this weeke to recommend him againe to ye Electors, but his name is not in ye ArchBps order to wch I returnd my answer before his letter arrived to me. I have not seen ye Transaction, where our freind corrects Suidas about Saros.45
This is a remarkable piece of evidence. We see that Halley went directly to the holder of the chair in what appears a desperate final attempt to convince Tillotson, who was chairing the appointments committee. We have confirmation—the word ‘againe’—that Bernard had already written on Halley's behalf. And we see that Tillotson by this point seems to have stopped considering Halley as a candidate, for his ‘order’ to Bernard did not mention him. Unfortunately, we do not know what occurred with Halley's quest to obtain a DM. But just as interesting is the fact that Tillotson was requesting Bernard's opinion about his successor—evidently late-seventeenth-century professorial appointments were no less ‘informally’ conducted than modern ones.
Let us, then, summarize what can be known about the events of 1691. On 22 June Halley wrote to Hill about rumours of his impiety—specifically his belief in the eternity of the world—declaring his intention to clear them and asking Hill to ask Tillotson to defer the election. Before the end of that month, Hooke was telling Smith that Halley intended to go for the job, and Bernard in turn telling Smith that Halley could not get the job not only because of the rumours but also because they would preclude him from obtaining the appropriate qualifications. Smith soon confirmed that there was ‘a deep prejudice against’ Halley. Yet by December Halley had seemingly secured Compton's testimony to his orthodoxy and still had hope of obtaining the DM. However, a week later Smith believed that the DM was unattainable because of the ‘prejudices’ against Halley—this seems to be confirmed by the lack of any evidence for Halley's even being considered for the degree. Another five days later, Bernard confirmed that Halley's attempts at the chair had failed, for he was not included in Tillotson's final ‘shortlist’. Within another week and a half, Gregory had the job.
Two major conclusions can be drawn. First, there is no mention in any of this of interviews with Tillotson, Stillingfleet or Bentley; indeed, it is unclear why the last two would have been involved at all—despite repeated claims in the historiography, there is no evidence that Stillingfleet was on the appointments committee (according to the statutes, there is no reason for him to have been). The key clerical actor (apart from Tillotson's continued indirect importance) seems to have been Compton, who—if he had any initial scepticism—was soon convinced of Halley's orthodoxy. Second, the nature of the accusations against Halley is somewhat crystallized. In his biography of Halley, Alan Cook discusses who lodged the caveat against him, concluding that ‘it must have been Flamsteed’ and that ‘there can be little doubt that Flamsteed was responsible for the caveat, for he effectively claimed it himself.’46 The evidence adduced for this—a note appended by Flamsteed to a letter from John Wallis in December 1698—does not warrant these confident assertions, because in it Flamsteed says nothing other than that he supported Gregory and opposed Halley when they were ‘competitors’.47 However, Smith's letter of 5 December does seem to imply that Flamsteed was one of those accusing Halley—of course, this would not be the last time, even to Smith.48 But the other letters make it clear that Halley had many other accusers, not least in Oxford. It remains unclear who entered the ‘caveat’ against him referred to in his letter to Hill; however, it was not that caveat but a more widespread intransigence on the part of a much wider group of people that scuppered his attempt to secure the astronomy professorship.
Halley and the eternity of the world
Schaffer's position is that Halley ‘made public his own debate over … the eternity of the world’; as we have seen, this judgement is not supported by the evidence. Nonetheless, Halley certainly did hold opinions that would have been considered heterodox by almost all of his contemporaries. Here the evidence has been well known for some time, so we may cover it quickly, correcting some other historiographical errors as we go.
Despite being instructed to do so, Halley again did not publish the lecture of October 1693; instead he delivered on 25 October and 8 November two more lectures on putative errors in al-Battānī's observations; the conclusions were soon published in Philosophical Transactions, without any reference to questions about the world's age.49 However, he returned to the subject a year later in a lecture ‘About the Cause of the Universal Deluge’ read to the Society on 12 December 1694. Halley advanced a theory of periodic catastrophism; specifically, he suggested—two years before a similar idea was put forward by William Whiston—that the Flood was caused by a comet.50 A week later, after conversations with ‘a Person whose Judgement I have great Reason to Respect’, Halley suggested that ‘what I … advanced, ought rather to be understood of those Changes which might possibly have reduc'd a former World to Chaos’: the unnamed person was surely not Newton, as suggested by Schaffer, but Hooke, whose own theory—developed in lectures given since the late 1660s—much more closely resembled Halley's.51 Schaffer is certainly wrong to claim that in these later lectures ‘Halley was prepared to question the finite age of the Earth in public’52—Halley simply did no such thing. He did advance a theory of the partial corruption of the biblical text that was by then only mildly controversial.53 But it was his idea that the great catastrophic changes had preceded the chaos that was utterly radical, as William Poole summarizes: ‘in other words … there was a world before this one … Genesis therefore recorded the creation of a new geography out of an old landscape.’ It is this, and only this (and certainly not ‘Halley's empirical approach’54) that marked Halley's lectures out as particularly outré and led him to ask for the suppression of their publication (they finally appeared in Philosophical Transactions in 1724). That he was going beyond any other natural philosopher is confirmed by the opening of a subsequent lecture on measuring gradual changes in the salinity of the seas, published in Philosophical Transactions in 1715:
There have been many Attempts made and Proposals offered, to ascertain from the Appearances of Nature, what may have been the Antiquity of this Globe of Earth; on which, by the Evidence of Sacred Writ, Mankind has dwelt about 6000 Years; or according to the Septuagint above 7000. But whereas we are there told that the Formation of Man was the last Act of the Creator, 'tis no where revealed in Scripture how long the Earth had existed before this last Creation, nor how long those five Days that preceeded it may be to be accounted; since we are elsewhere told, that in respect of the Almighty a thousand Years is as one Day, being equally no part of Eternity; Nor can it well be conceived how those Days should be to be understood of natural Days, since they are mentioned as Measures of Time before the Creation of the Sun, which was not till the Fourth Day.55
No one among the English natural philosophers had ever said anything remotely as far away from the ‘standard’ biblical account; the one partial exception is Hooke, who had very tentatively and cautiously hinted that the multi-catastrophic scheme that he proposed might require a longer chronology than the biblical one allowed.56
Here we might make two further historiographical interventions. First, we can certainly correct the judgement of Halley's fullest biographer, Alan Cook, that ‘Then, as now, those who believed in the literal truth of the scriptures might have cavilled at Halley's approach, but it would have been quite acceptable to many in the Church of England and in particular to Tillotson and his latitudinarian followers.’57 Cook—who surprisingly never cites Schaffer's seminal article—was both a brilliant practising scientist and a practising Anglican; his scepticism about accusations of heterodoxy directed at Halley led him to many astute judgements.58 Unfortunately, this is not one of them. There is a world of difference between, say, Stillingfleet's preference for the chronology of the Septuagint over the Masoretic version of the Bible, and Halley's claim that salinity measurements may reveal that ‘the World may be found much older than many have hitherto imagined.’59 It is simply not true that ‘many people at that time speculated that the world was eternal.’60 Neither is it correct to claim, as has Sara Schechner, that ‘in treating Scripture as allegorical, and searching for a naturalistic explanation of the Deluge, Halley was not original. To varying degrees, Burnet, Ray, and Hooke had preceded him; Whiston and others would follow.’61 Burnet, Ray, Whiston and Newton had all used the exegetical technique of accommodation—the claim that Moses (or God working through him) had accommodated his language to the capacities of the Bible's contemporary auditors—to explain natural philosophical gaps in the text of Genesis and to claim that their readings were ‘literal’, as Protestant hermeneutics demanded: for them scripture was still true in a phenomenalist sense (even if Burnet's ‘political’ version of accommodationism landed him in hot water).62 Hooke and Halley (the latter much more explicitly) went well beyond this method; as Poole has summarized, ‘Hooke and Halley were developing a theory of catastrophism that had chronologically disconnected itself from biblical exegesis.’63
To summarize: Halley developed an account of the world's history that was the most theologically idiosyncratic, and the most devolved from scriptural authority, of all the many natural philosophers, theologians and scholars who considered the issue in the wake of Thomas Burnet's Telluris theoria sacra (1681). However, the one theological idiosyncrasy that there is no evidence for him ever stretching to is belief in the eternity of the world.
Should we, then, return to the conclusions of the pre-Schaffer historiography, that Halley was an eternalist disingenuously misleading his audience for tactical reasons?64 It seems to me that we should not. As the evidence presented above has been designed to show, there is a significant difference between two different heterodox opinions: the eternity of the world and the supra-biblical age of the world. Halley had what he thought were good geomorphological reasons for believing the latter. But although he went beyond anyone else in his conclusions, they were still attached to a biblical framework (in the broadest sense): he still spoke of a Flood, and of the allegorical meaning of the ‘days’ of Genesis. The same could never be said about eternalism. Neither is there any evidence that Halley thought there were any good reasons from observation for believing the world eternal: he did say his proof of non-eternity was the first valid one, but this does not mean that he thought the case for eternalism was based on good evidence (in fact, it is difficult to see what might have constituted such evidence within the realms of astronomy and geomorphology in which the debates about the age of the world were being conducted).
Nonetheless, Halley does seem to have accommodated to circumstance to some extent, contra the uninhibited continuity at the heart of Schaffer's interpretation. On a general level, this is the case with the issue of eternalism: now that we have established the consistency of Halley's position after 1691—and recalling his silence on the matter before then—it does seem more likely that his arguments were developed in response to accusations (although that does not mean that they were held disingenuously). But more pertinent are the specifics of Halley's language, especially in the first publication generated by the lectures, that of 1692, where he spoke of ‘designedly’ working ‘for the sake of those who will be apt to ask cui bono, and with whom Arguments drawn from Final Causes prevail much.’65 This is surely an unambiguously conciliatory tone, referring to a well-known contemporary debate: where Bacon and Descartes had rejected the search for final causes, Boyle had encouraged it.66 All of Halley's speculations about inhabitants inside the Earth were based on these teleological assumptions. He did not consider them invalid, but he also felt that natural philosophy could be done without them. The frustrated tone he adopted is probably a sign of the times: the early 1690s witnessed—partly in the wake of the Burnet controversy—a new fashion for rather staid statements of natural philosophical piety, most notably John Ray's The wisdom of God manifested in the works of the creation (1691).67 Halley may well have been offering a resigned nod to this genre, and his comments on teleology may be a deliberate self-alignment with recent fashions. That he started making them in 1691 is neither a sign of dissimulation and radical discontinuity nor of complete continuity: rather, it reflects his realization that different tools were required for different tasks.
My warmest thanks to Michael Levitin, Scott Mandelbrote, Tessa Webber and the two anonymous referees for their assistance and suggestions.
↵1 Apart from this introductory statement, I eschew the anachronistic ‘science’ in favour of ‘natural philosophy’.
↵2 Simon Schaffer, ‘Halley's atheism and the end of the world’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 32, 17–40 (1977), at p. 17.
↵3 Ibid., p. 29.
↵4 Thomas Smith, Vita clarissimi et doctissimi viri, Edwardi Bernardi (London, 1704), pp. 45–47. For Bernard's scholarly career, see G. J. Toomer, Eastern wisedome and learning: the study of Arabic in seventeenth-century England (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996), pp. 299–305; and for his works on oriental astronomy, see Raymond Mercier, ‘English orientalists and mathematical astronomy’, in The ‘Arabick’ interest of the natural philosophers in seventeenth-century England (ed. G. A. Russell), pp. 148–214 (Brill, Leiden, 1994), at pp. 177–192.
↵5 Flamsteed to Bernard, 8 February 1678, in The correspondence of John Flamsteed, first Astronomer Royal (ed. E. G. Forbes, L. Murdin and F. Willmoth) (3 volumes), vol. 1, pp. 599–600 (Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol, 1995–2002).
↵6 Halley to Hill, 22 June 1691, in Correspondence and papers of Edmond Halley (ed. E. F. MacPike) (Oxford University Press, 1932), p. 88.
↵7 The one very small exception being Halley's Latin ode to Newton's Principia, later modified by Bentley in the second edition: see W. R. Albury, ‘Halley's ode on the Principia of Newton and the Epicurean revival in England’, J. Hist. Ideas 39, 24–43 (1978); I agree with Michael Hunter's judgement that this analysis seems ‘to go too far on rather little evidence’ (Science and society in Restoration England (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 215).
↵8 All this evidence is collected in Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 18 (and more fully in MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), pp. 264–265, mis-cited by Schaffer in his n. 9)—unfortunately, Schaffer takes an uncritical view of the reliability of the sources. Their unreliability is recognized in Alan Cook, Edmond Halley: charting the heavens and the seas (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 247; however, this account is beset by other difficulties (see below).
↵9 MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), p. 226 [= Royal Society Journal Book, vol. 8, 11 November 1691]: ‘It was ordered, that the Society doe give a recommendatory Letter to Mr. Halley signifying their opinion of his abilities to perform the Office of Professor of Astronomy in Oxford now vacant, as likewise to testifye, what he has done for the advancement of the said Science, and that Dr. Gale be desired to draw up the Testimoniall.’ (Thomas Gale was then secretary of the Society.)
↵10 Cook, op. cit. (note 8), p. 247. As well as the evidence collected there, it is clear that Newton also canvassed on Gregory's behalf: see Newton to John Wallis, 27 July 1691, Bodleian Library, Oxford (hereafter Bod.) MS Ballard 24, fo. 20r, not printed in The correspondence of Isaac Newton (ed. H. W. Turnbull) (7 volumes) (Cambridge University Press, 1959–77). Caswell withdrew some time in early December: see Edward Bernard to Thomas Smith, 17 December 1691, Bod. MS Smith 47, fo. 98r (on this correspondence, previously unknown to students of the events, see below).
↵11 Thomas Smith to Bernard, 26 December 1691, Bod. MS Smith 57, fo. 240r, reporting on a meeting with Wren on Christmas Eve, where he was imparted the information.
↵12 MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), pp. 226–227 [= Royal Society Journal Book, vol. 8, 25 November 1691]. The best account is N. Kollerstrom, ‘The hollow world of Edmond Halley’, J. Hist. Astron. 23, 185–192 (1992). Cf. Alan Cook, ‘Edmond Halley and the magnetic field of the Earth’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 55, 473–490 (2001), esp. p. 478; Patricia Fara, Fatal attraction: magnetic mysteries of the Enlightenment (Icon Books, Thriplow, 2005), pp. 15–80; S. Chapman, ‘Edmond Halley and geomagnetism (Halley Lecture)’, Nature 152, 131–144 (1943). Halley's earliest exploration of a four-pole theory is in ‘A Theory of the Variation of the Magnetical Compass’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 13, 208–221 (1683).
↵13 Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 21.
↵14 MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), p. 227 [= Royal Society Journal Book, vol. 8, 2 December 1691].
↵15 Edmond Halley, ‘An Account of the cause of the Change of the Variation of the Magnetic Needle; with an Hypothesis of the Structure of the Internal parts of the Earth: as it was proposed to the Royal Society in one of their late Meetings’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 16, 563–578 (1686). Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 36, n. 29, incorrectly assigns this article to vol. 17.
↵16 Ibid., pp. 573 (water not leaking from the top to the subterraneous sphere), 575 (the dispersal of water in the subterraneous sphere) and 575–576 (multiple ways of producing light).
↵17 Ibid., p. 577.
↵18 Ibid., p. 578.
↵19 Kollerstrom, op. cit. (note 12).
↵20 All the details of Halley's application of Rømer's findings and on the resistance of the aether are well summarized in Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 22–24 and p. 36, nn. 31–32.
↵21 ‘Concerning the motion of light by Mr Halley, 19 October 1692’, Royal Society MS Register Book Copy, vol. 7, p. 392, reproduced in Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 29–32; MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), p. 229 [= Royal Society Journal Book, vol. 8, 19 October 1692].
↵22 Halley, op. cit. (note 21), in Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 31–32.
↵23 MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), p. 229 [= Royal Society Journal Book, vol. 8, 19 October 1692].
↵24 MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), p. 232 [= Royal Society Journal Book, vol. 8, 26 July 1692].
↵25 Halley, ‘Some observations on the motion of the sun’, in Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 32 [= Royal Society Register Book Copy, vol. 7, p. 365]. The Moon, meanwhile, was not orbiting the Earth more quickly because of its higher density (see above).
↵26 Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 26 (emphasis in the original).
↵27 Halley, op. cit. (note 25), in Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 33 [= Royal Society Register Book Copy, vol. 7, p. 365]. The version in the Royal Society MS Register Book Original, p. 299 contains no significant differences—the comma after ‘intelligible’ is there a colon, but this does not change the meaning.
↵28 Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 26.
↵29 Sara J. Schechner, Comets, popular culture, and the birth of modern cosmology (Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 171–173.
↵30 In a review of N. J. W. Thrower's edition of Halley's Paramore voyages in Eighteenth-Century Studies 17, 344–348 (1984), at p. 346.
↵31 William Poole, ‘The Genesis narrative in the circle of Robert Hooke and Francis Lodwick’, in Scripture and scholarship in early modern England (ed. A. Hessayon and N. Keene), pp. 41–57 (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2006), at p. 46.
↵32 Others have simply misunderstood him: see Kollerstrom, op. cit. (note 12), p. 189 (speaking of Halley's work on the resistance of the aether): ‘Schaffer has argued that he [Halley] aimed thereby to evade the charge of atheism’. Cf. Patricia Fara, ‘Hidden depths: Halley, hell and other people’, Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 38, 570–583 (2007), at p. 572 (the author also uncritically accepts the stories of Halley's interviews with Stillingfleet and Bentley).
↵33 Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 27.
↵34 Duillier to Huygens, 9 May/29 April 1692, in Œuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens (22 volumes) (M. Nijhoff, The Hague, 1888–1950), vol. 22, p. 146. Duillier also claimed that ‘had I presented myself I would have Mr Bernard's place with no difficulty’ (‘si je m’étois presenté j'aurois eu sans difficulté la place de Mr Bernard').
↵35 Cook, op. cit. (note 8), p. 247.
↵36 Bod. MS Smith 57, fo. 217r. Throughout, angle brackets (<> ) indicate interlinear insertions, very obvious contractions are silently expanded and illegible deleted words are ignored.
↵37 Bod. MS Smith 47, fo. 87r.
↵38 Cook, op. cit. (note 8), pp. 84–85; Oxford University Statutes, vol 1: Containing the Caroline Code, or Laudian Statutes (tr. G. R. M. Ward) (Pickering, London, 1845), p. 277.
↵39 By statute, the electors were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chancellor of England or Keeper of the Great Seal, the Chancellor of the University, the Bishop of London, the first Secretary, the Chief Justice, the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, the Lord Chief Justice, the Chief Baron of the Exchequer and the Dean of the Court of Arches, ‘calling in, if they please, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford to advise’ (Statutes, op. cit. (note 38), p. 277).
↵40 Bernard told Smith that Thomas Burnet wrote ‘more for his own sake, yn either yt of truth or of Moses’ and that William Whiston had written ‘a mad booke … Derogatory to holy Moses, & voyd of good mathematiques as well as theology’; letters of 16 January 1693 and 26 Jun 1696, Bod. MS Smith 47, fos 124r and 203r.
↵41 Bod. MS Smith 57, fo. 219r.
↵42 Bod. MS Smith 57, fo. 237r.
↵43 Bod. MS Smith 57, fo. 239r.
↵44 E. Halley, ‘Emendationes & Notae in Tria Loca Vitiose Edita in Textu Vulgato Naturalis Historiae C. Plinii’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 16, 535–540 (1686), at pp. 537–538.
↵45 Bod. MS Smith 47, fo. 98r.
↵46 Cook, op. cit. (note 8), pp. 247 and 407.
↵47 Turnbull (ed.), op. cit. (note 10), vol. 4, p. 290 (‘Dr Gregory is a freind of Mr Halleys tho he was his competitor but I perceive by this transaction he is no freind of mine tho I showed him more freindship than he could reasonably expect on yt occasion & Mr Halley as much enmity … ’).
↵48 See Flamsteed to Smith, 1 November 1700, in Forbes et al. (eds) op. cit. (note 5), vol. 2, p. 872: ‘all the dust he [Halley] raises is onely by the help of our Young lewd gentlemen, whom he encourages in their vices, and they renumerate him by spreadeing his slanders.’
↵49 MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), pp. 233–234 [= Royal Society Journal Book, 25 October and 8 November 1693]; Edm. Halley, S.R.S., ‘Emendationes ac Notae in vetustas Albatênii Observationes Astronomicas, cum restitutione Tabularum Lunisolarium ejusdem Authoris’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 17, 913–921 (1693).
↵50 MacPike, op. cit. (note 6), p. 234 [= Royal Society Journal Book, 12 Dec 1694]; Edmond Halley, ‘Some Considerations about the Cause of the Universal Deluge, Laid before the Royal Society, on the 12th of December 1694’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 33, 118–123 (1724). For Whiston, see his A new theory of the earth (London, 1696) and James E. Force, William Whiston, honest Newtonian (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 32–61.
↵51 Edmond Halley, ‘Some Farther Thoughts upon the same Subject, delivered on the 19th of the same Month’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 33, 123–125 (1724); Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 39, n. 51. The suggestion that the unnamed person was Hooke is first made in William Poole, The world makers: scientists of the Restoration and the search for the origins of the Earth (Peter Lang, Oxford, 2010), pp. 108–109, to which I am heavily indebted.
↵52 Schaffer, op. cit. (note 2), p. 26.
↵53 Halley, op. cit. (note 50), pp. 118–119. For the non-controversial status of such suggestions, see Noel Malcolm, ‘Hobbes, Ezra, and the Bible: the history of a subversive idea’, in Aspects of Hobbes, pp. 383–431 (Oxford University Press, 2002); D. Levitin, ‘From sacred history to the history of religion: pagans, Jews and Christians in European historiography from Renaissance to “Enlightenment”’, Hist. J. 55, 1117–1160 (2012).
↵54 Schechner, op. cit. (note 29), p. 169.
↵55 Edmond Halley, ‘A short Account of the Cause of the Saltness of the Ocean, and of the several Lakes that emit no Rivers; with a Proposal, by help thereof, to discover the Age of the World’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 29, 296–300 (1714), at p. 296.
↵56 Poole, op. cit. (note 51), pp. 118–124 and 127–130, passim; Yushi Ito, ‘Hooke's cyclic theory of the Earth in the context of seventeenth century England’, Br. J. Hist. Sci. 21, 295–314 (1988). The singularity of Halley's salinity thesis is also recognized in Rhoda Rappaport, When geologists were historians, 1665–1750 (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1997), p. 197.
↵57 Cook, op. cit. (note 8), p. 411.
↵58 See, for example, Cook, op. cit. (note 8), pp. 247–248 (the unreliability of accusations of heterodoxy against Gregory and the purely academic reasons for Gregory being chosen ahead of Halley), 407–408 (correctly dismissing the importance of Newton's putative complaints about Halley's irreligion) and 408–410 (demonstrating conclusively that there is no evidence for Halley's being the target of George Berkeley's The analyst (1734)). For Cook's life-long Christianity, see Terry Quinn, ‘Sir Alan Cook. 2 December 1922 – 23 July 2004’, Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 51, 87–100 (2005), at pp. 89 and 98. Cook seems to have been particularly careless in respect to the competition for the Savilian Chair, dating it to 1683 (p. 407), 1693 (p. 411) and (the correct) 1691; cf. the reference to Tillotson as successor to archbishop ‘Sanford’ at p. 246.
↵59 Halley, op. cit. (note 55), p. 300. For Stillingfleet, see his Origines Sacrae (London, 1662), esp. pp. 557–558.
↵60 Cook, op. cit. (note 8), p. 246.
↵61 Schechner, op. cit. (note 29), p. 168.
↵62 For the general approach, see Stephen D. Snobelen, ‘“In the Language of Men”: the hermeneutics of accommodation in the scientific revolution’, in Nature and scripture in the Abrahamic religions (ed. J. M. van der Meer and S. Mandelbrote) (4 volumes), vol. 2, pp. 691–731 (Brill, Leiden, 2008), and the works cited there. For the classic account of the idiosyncrasies of Burnet's use of accommodation, see Scott Mandelbrote, ‘Isaac Newton and Thomas Burnet: biblical criticism and the crisis of late seventeenth-century England’, in The books of nature and scripture: recent essays on natural philosophy, theology and biblical criticism in the Netherlands of Spinoza's time and the British Isles of Newton's time (ed. J. E. Force and R. H. Popkin), pp. 149–178 (Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1994).
↵63 Poole, op. cit. (note 51), p. 109.
↵64 D. C. Kubrin, ‘Providence and the mechanical philosophy’, PhD thesis, Cornell University (1968), pp. 234 and 251–252; idem, ‘Newton and the cyclical cosmos: providence and the mechanical philosophy’, J. Hist. Ideas 28, 325–346 (1967), at p. 344 (the Savilian competition is here misdated to 1694); Richard S. Westfall, Science and religion in seventeenth-century England (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1973 ), pp. 113–114.
↵65 As note 17. Cook, op. cit. (note 8), pp. 411–413, gives much useful incidental evidence for Halley's theism.
↵66 For a convenient summary of this much-studied theme, see Timothy Shanahan, ‘Teleological reasoning in Boyle's Disquisition about Final Causes’, in Robert Boyle reconsidered (ed. M. Hunter), pp. 177–192 (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
↵67 For the ‘popularization’ of pious natural philosophy, see Larry Stewart, The rise of public science: rhetoric, technology, and natural philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660–1750 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 31–60.
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