SHiPS Resource Center ||   The Science & Religion of Michael Faraday
The discovery of electromagnetic induction was inspired by a religious view of unity in nature. (No similar gravelectric effect was ever found, however.)

Michael Faraday was among the scientific giants of the nineteenth century. He discovered electromagnetic rotation, electromagnetic induction, and the dynamo. He made significant advances in electrochemistry and produced aluminum by electrolysis. He isolated benzene. And in a brilliant technical insight, he reconceived wine-glass-like chemical vessels to produce the first test tubes. Renowned for his strong empirical research, Michael Faraday also believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. His whole life, both inside the laboratory and out, was dominated by his faith as a member of the Sandemanians, a small Protestant sect in Britain. His science was inseparable from his religion.

Faraday's faith influenced several aspects of his science: his motivation for research; his theoretical orientation; the experimental problems he pursued; his interpretation of phenomena; and his public communication of science. These are most fully and clearly documented in an excellent and provocative book by Geoffrey Cantor (1991).

The Sandemanians believed in both moral law and physical law, and it was the latter belief that made Faraday's science thematically religious. For Faraday, humans could seek no higher goal than to reveal God's laws of creation. Faraday's devotion guided his patient and detailed observations and, on occasions, his great caution in asserting his conclusions. By contrast, Faraday saw religion as independent of science. He did not subscribe to the popular natural theological arguments of his day, that one could prove God's existence from observations themselves. Religion was primary. While science might indeed reveal God's wisdom, our knowledge of or faith in God surely did not depend on it.

The Sandemanian community was small, exclusive, and tightly knit. Their Biblical beliefs in social unity, reciprocity, and harmony resonated in Faraday's views of nature. Faraday commented extensively on the "economy" of nature, by which he meant God's unified design. For example, in his discovery of electromagnetic rotation, Faraday was able to resolve several anomalies in how a current-carrying wire attracted or repelled a magnetic needle. While others before him had noticed the same phenomena, they had relied on a scheme of electical forces as centrally focused, or as directionally only in and out. Faraday, instead, interpreted the motions in terms of circles. Cycles and circles, Cantor notes, were common themes of unity in nature at the time.

Faraday's conception of unity also involved symmetry of action. Thus, when he observed a wire revolving around a magnetic pole, he inferred that a magnetic pole should also revolve around the wire. His inference preceded the confirmation by experiment.

The concept of divine unity in nature influenced Faraday most deeply and extensively in his research on the relationships between various forces of nature (on what we would now call the conservation of energy). Faraday's famous findings on the mutual effects of electricity and magnetism were natural products of these inquiries. The very same beliefs led Faraday to investigate other similar relation-ships, as well. For example, he tried to find how electricity affected polarized light or produced heat. In 1828, he projected a solar spectrum on a copper plate, expecting to show how light could induce electricity under the appropriate conditions. Though these investigations did not yield the same positive results as his electro-magnetic research, they do illustrate the religious orientation that guided his scientific thinking throughout. For Faraday, all these forces must be unified in God's world and his aim was to demonstrate how.

Most impressive of these studies was work done over three decades on the relationship between electricity and gravity. These forces differ greatly and Faraday remarked on this several times--gravity follows straight lines of force only; it is not transferable to other bodies; it exhibits attraction only, no repulsion; etc. Still, Faraday's religious outlook convinced him that a "gravelectric" effect was there, waiting to be elucidated, just like the once unknown electromagnetic effects. He recorded in his Diary on March 19, 1849:

Gravity. Surely this force must be capable of an experimental relationship to Electricity, Magnetism and the other forces, so as to bind it up with them in reciprocal action and equivalent effect. Consider for a moment how to set about touching this matter by facts and trial.
By later that summer Faraday was conducting experiments. He adapted his earlier work on electromagnetic effects, attaching a galvan-ometer to a wire wound around a coil, which would now experience gravitational freefall. His Diary on August 25 captured his ethusiastic expectations:

It was almost with a feeling of awe that I went to work, for if the hope should prove well founded, how great and mighty and sublime in its hitherto unchangeable character is the force I am trying to deal with, and how large may be the new domain of knowledge that may be opened up to the mind of man.
Faraday's spirit was buoyed when he first observed some deflection of the galvanometer needle. He reflected on his experimental arrangement, though, and in later trials he twisted the wires to prevent possibly inducing a current from a loop in the wire passing through the Earth's magnetic field--and he was disappointed to find that the needle no longer moved.

Faraday's evidence suggested that no gravelectric effect existed. Yet in September, he was at work on yet another test, again using his earlier successful work on electromagnetic induction as a model. The apparatus followed the design of an 1831 experiment where a metal bar oscillated through a wire helix. Again, no "success." And again, Faraday retained the same conviction that had promoted all his earlier work. He presented his findings to the Royal Society in November, 1850, noting that the results "do not shake my strong feeling of the existence of a relation between gravity and electricity, though they give no proof that it exists." Indeed, Faraday continued to reflect on the problem. He returned to experiments in 1859, anticipating that the longer freefall distance possible in a lead shot tower would reveal the effect. Throughout all his gravelectric investigations, Faraday applied the same style of thinking that led to his highly celebrated electromagnetic discoveries. Religion motivated and guided both.

Even more remarkably, perhaps, religion shaped Faraday's most "progressive" theoretical thinking. Faraday was unusual for his time in conceiving electricity and magnetism more in terms of fields of force than in terms of distinct particles with forces acting at a distance. For the Sandemanians, God's word in the Bible was immediate and direct. So, too, were his actions in nature. Faraday denied gaps in the physical world. Forces could not act across empty space, for example, but only through a medium. Nor could they could exert influence simultaneously, rather only in real time. Thus the contemporary concept of atomism--of matter in discrete billiard-ball-like units--was unthinkable for Faraday the Sandemanian. Instead, matter was continuous, with each point a center of complex webs of forces. While Faraday never fully developed or formalized this framework, it strongly governed his thinking. Most importantly, it meant that his models of electricity and magnetism continued to be valid when field theory later took hold.

Finally, Faraday often serves as a model for public communication of science. His popular Christmas Lectures for children are perhaps the most well known. In addition, he actively promoted science education in schools. This, too, was part of Faraday's religious mission. The Sandemanians were relatively private in many respects, but they occasionally opened their meeting house services on Sunday to "enlighten" the public. Faraday, likewise, saw it as part of his mission to open the world of science to nonscientists and to bring an understanding of God's creation to everyone. And this Faraday did with great enthusiasm and skill. Over a hundred years later, his Natural History of a Candle still serves as an exercise to introduce chemistry students to exemplary scientific methods.

Faraday's influence was so vast that it is hard to imagine nineteenth century science without him. It is equally hard to imagine Faraday's science without his religion.


  • Cantor, Geoffrey. 1991. Michael Faraday: Scientist and Sandemanian. New York: St. Martin's Press.

    updated: 6/20/07

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