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Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

August 2016 | by Nigel Faithfull

We are living in days when we can be easily intimidated by institutionalised atheism. Children in school science lessons may detect a sneer when they say they believe God created the earth and the first humans.

When we enter museums, we are bombarded with information which promotes Darwinian evolution and its associated timescales, to the exclusion of creation. We have in Michael Faraday, however, a world-famous scientist who was not afraid to declare his belief in a creator God, and his personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Honoured

Albert Einstein kept a picture of Faraday on his study wall, alongside those of Sir Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell.

Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), a Nobel prize-winner and the father of nuclear physics stated: ‘When we consider the magnitude and extent of the discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time’.

Faraday revealed the principles behind the electric motor, dynamo and transformer. He formulated the laws of electrolysis and of electromagnetic induction. He was interested in all materials and processes, including glass-, steel- and copper-making.

Michael was born on 22 September 1791 at Newington Butts, Southwark, where his father traded as a blacksmith. He earned money delivering Sunday newspapers before his family went to church, and did this so conscientiously that his employer, who ran a bookselling and binding business, took him on for seven years (1805-1812) as an apprentice.

As books came in for binding, Michael’s naturally inquisitive mind was fed by reading them, including the section on Electricityin Encyclopaedia Britannica. He read Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry and claimed to have been taught to think by Isaac Watts’ (1674-1748) The improvement of the mind.

Method

This last book, written from a biblical perspective, structured Faraday’s future method of working. Watts says, ‘Let the hope of new discoveries, as well as the satisfaction and pleasures of known truths, animate your daily industry’.

Faraday lived above his laboratory at the Royal Institution and worked long hours at the bench. He was so motivated by the thrill of uncovering truths about God’s creation and the laws by which it operates, that his face lit up and his hands trembled with excitement at the prospect of a new discovery. His infectious enthusiasm made his lectures popular with children as well as adults.

Watts also advised, ‘Once a day call yourselves to an account what new ideas, what new proposition or truth you have gained, what confirmation of known truth and what advances you have made in any part of knowledge … Avoid a dogmatical spirit till you have some firm and unalterable ground for it, and till you have arrived at some clear and sure evidence’. Every day he entered his ideas and discoveries in a notebook, and by 1859 these amounted to nearly 16,000.

More directly, Watts stated, ‘Christianity … obliges us by the precepts of Scripture to invoke the assistance of the true God in all our labours of the mind, for the improvement of ourselves and others’.

Sandemanian church

Faraday’s parents brought Michael up in the Sandemanian church. This church was founded by John Glas (1695-1773) and carried forward by his son-in-law Robert Sandeman (1718-1771). It believed in separation of the church from state control and aimed to implement the spirituality of the church in apostolic times. It held that coming to faith in Christ should be by a bare mental assent to the truth of the gospel, because if feelings played a part, then salvation would depend to some extent on works. Christmas Evans (1766-1838), the famous one-eyed Welsh preacher, who followed Sandemanianism for a while, found it led to coldness and a ‘spiritual frost’.

Faraday started his career travelling around Europe from 1813-1815 as assistant to Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), who had isolated sodium and potassium and invented the miners’ safety lamp.

He was unable to attend church, and the Sandemanians disapproved of going to other denominations, leading him to observe, ‘Travelling, too, I find, is almost inconsistent with religion (I mean modern travelling)’. Inside, he was in a tussle: ‘I appear moral, and hope that I am so, though at the same time I consider morality only as a lamentably deficient state’.

He concludes, ‘What a singular compound is man! What strange contradicting ingredients enter into his composition’.

Love under test

Faraday had a great love for his family, and often wished he was back home with them instead of travelling in Europe. He also had high ideals of brotherly love: ‘I define a true friend to be one who will serve his companion next to his God’.

Faraday considered every topic from all angles before coming to a conclusion. He was still unattached at the age of 24, and weighing up the relative merits and disadvantages of marriage. Davy had married the wealthy widow Jane Apreece (1780-1855) before their European tour, and she treated Faraday like a servant, making him travel on the outside of their coach. ‘Lady Davy is of another humour. She likes to show her authority, and at first I found her extremely earnest in mortifying me’.

Shortly after, he made an entry in his notebook of a poem, commencing, ‘What is the pest and plague of human life? And what the curse that often brings a wife? ’Tis love’. It continues, ‘The noble heart will ne’er resign reason, the light of mental day, Or idly let its force decline before the passions’ boisterous sway’. Faraday was determined to be cautious before committing himself in marriage.

In July 1818, he set off by coach from Piccadilly to Bristol for a walking tour of Wales. On the following day, a Sunday, he explored Clifton and Hot Wells. He stopped by the quay to listen to ‘a very respectable man, preaching in a very respectable manner from the top of a dog-house to a number of persons, among whom were many seamen and poor women, extremely neat and clean in their dress’.

One wonders if this sermon reminded him of the gospel of salvation. He observed the great Dowlais steelworks at Merthyr, the tallest waterfall in South Wales at Henrhyd, walked over the mountains from Devil’s Bridge to Machynlleth, and climbed Cader Idris in a thunderstorm.

He witnessed blasting at the Penrhyn slate quarries near Bangor, which produced a ‘noble roar’, and ended his tour with a visit to Llangollen. He recorded no thoughts which might give any idea of the spiritual condition of his heart at this time.

Two commitments

His heart, however, was soon captured by Sarah Barnard (1800-1879), daughter of an elder at his Sandemanian church, and they became engaged in 1820 and married on 12 June 1821.

They were devoted to one another for all their married life and he wrote to her most affectionately when working away from home. They had no children, but two nieces lived with them at the Institute and kept Sarah company.

About this time, Faraday experienced another change in his heart, this time a spiritual one. His thoughts are not recorded, but a month after his marriage he made his confession of sin and profession of faith before the church. Sarah asked why he didn’t give any warning of his intention, but he replied simply, ‘That is between me and my God’.

He was elected an elder in 1840, preaching alternate Sundays. He avoided any attempt at eloquence and mainly connected a chain of texts together in support of his theme, prompting the comment, ‘No-one could lecture like Faraday, but many might preach to greater effect’. His Bible was well marked, with over 4,300 verses having vertical lines alongside them.

Public witness

When, on 26 February 1849, Prince Albert visited the Royal Institution for a private lecture on magnetic bodies, Faraday declared, ‘I cannot doubt that a glorious discovery in natural knowledge, and of the wisdom and power of God in the creation, is awaiting our age…’

If speculations about a future life were being made from physical observations (table-moving and spiritism were then in vogue), Faraday was quick to define the limits of man’s knowledge. When in 1854, Prince Albert again attended a lecture, on ‘Mental education’, Faraday stated, ‘I believe that the truth of that future [life] cannot be brought to his knowledge by any exertion of [man’s] mental powers, however exalted they may be; that it is made known to him by other teaching than his own, and is received through simple belief of the testimony given.

‘Even in earthly matters I believe that ‘the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead’ (Romans 1:20). This was particularly appropriate, as Faraday’s science explored the invisible forces of electricity and magnetism, and for a time, gravity.

Sadly, his health was probably affected by working for many years in the presence of mercury vapour. He suffered from headaches, dizziness, tiredness and memory loss. In 1858 Queen Victoria offered him a house on the Hampton Court estate, which he was pleased to accept.

The following year he wrote, ‘The thought of death … brings to the Christian the thought of [Christ] who died, was judged, and who rose again for the justification of those who believe in him. Though the fear of death be a great thought, the hope of eternal life is a far greater’.

As his death approached, he meditated on Psalms 23 and 46, and then, on 25 August 1867, while sitting peacefully in his study chair passed into the presence of his Lord.

Nigel T. Faithfull is a retired analytical chemist and member of St Mellon’s Baptist Church, Cardiff. In 2012, he published Thoughts fixed and affections flaming (Day One), concerning Matthew Henry.

References:

J. H. Gladstone, Michael Faraday, Macmillan, London, 1874.

Bence Jones, The life and letters of Faraday, Longmans, Green & Co., 1870.

J. Tyndall, Faraday as a discoverer, 1893.

Isaac Watts, The improvement of the mind, New Brunswick, 1813