‘Very few men’, said Sir William Bragg, ‘have changed the face of the world as Faraday has done. He was one of the greatest experimental philosophers that ever appeared … and of his discoveries none has had more consequences than that which he made in 1831 … on this has been founded all those applications of electricity which form the muscles and nerves of our modern life’.
Michael Faraday had a humble start in life. His father was a village blacksmith who migrated to London in search of a living wage. Michael was the third child in the family and was born in rented rooms in London’s Elephant and Castle district in 1791.
He grew up in a poor, overcrowded home above a coach-house, receiving the slenderest education, and spending most of his early boyhood playing in the street.
Yet the Faraday family was happy, sharing a Christian faith which meant a great deal to them all. Young Michael Faraday never missed a Sunday at a chapel in St Paul’s Alley, the City of London, where a small congregation of Christians held firmly to the Bible as the infallible Word of God.
Here Faraday – the scientific genius who gave electricity to the world – learned a faith which shaped his life and became for him the most important message in the world.
At thirteen he took a job as a newspaper and book delivery boy. As he tramped the cobbled streets of early nineteenth-century London, clad in his elder brother’s shabby overcoat, he decided to get work as a stationer and bookbinder.
But once he became apprenticed another influence intervened. His inquisitive mind began to explore the scores of books which passed across his binder’s table. Fascinated, he ploughed through Isaac Watts’ book On the mind, and began to hunger after a better education.
He absorbed complete sections of the Encyclopaedia Britannica while rebinding a worn ‘E to F’ volume, returning again and again to the article on electricity. At home he tried to imitate experiments described in the article, and began to track down everything he could find about this fascinating new science.
Faraday’s brothers and sisters thought he was entering a dream world when he began to look for a career in science. But Faraday was determined. He wrote a letter to the renowned scientist Sir Humphrey Davy, enclosing a leather-bound volume of beautifully written lecture notes, taken at the great man’s lectures which he attended.
With youthful optimism, he asked if there was any chance of a laboratory job.
One evening Faraday was at home when there came a sharp knock at the door. Peering out of his bedroom window he saw an elegant carriage, and a footman holding a letter. It was the letter he had dreamed about – Sir Humphrey inviting him to attend an interview.
That interview marked the beginning of Faraday’s spectacular scientific career. He was appointed as a residential laboratory assistant at the Royal Institution, with a modest salary and two rooms at the top of the house.
Faraday had been brought up to believe that people, though capable of many good things, are basically corrupt and sinful. Faraday believed that people could only be reconciled to God by seeking his forgiveness and trusting in the Saviour who paid the penalty of sin for all who love him.
Faraday also believed in the necessity of a personal life-changing conversion. But by the time he was twenty-two he was suffering from many doubts. Once he came under the spell of Sir Humphrey Davy, the doubts gave way to open disbelief. Surely, he thought, Sir Hum-phrey was living evidence that a man could be good and great without believing in Christ.
But the closer Faraday got to his ‘model’ man, the less he liked what he saw. For eighteen months, as Sir Humphrey’s personal assistant, he travelled with him on a grand tour of Europe.
Throughout the journey the great man had been ill-tempered, rash, conceited, unfair and unkind. Faraday returned gratefully to the warm hearts of his family circle and the wisdom of the humble, kindly elders at the old, familiar chapel.
Back at the Royal Institution, Faraday extended his own scientific education by the most formidable programme of reading. But he did not forget his family, and went without dinner every other day in order to pay for his younger sister’s schooling.
As the years passed, leading scientists began to realise that the quiet, steady worker in Davy’s shadow was no ordinary assistant. Before he was thirty, he had made many important discoveries (including that of benzene) and his reputation was growing rapidly.
When Faraday wanted to marry Sarah Bernard, the twenty-year-old daughter of one of the chapel elders, she told him that she was rather frightened of ‘a mind with a man attached’.
However, they entered into one of the most blissful marriages ever recorded in the annals of the famous. To the day of his death, 47 years after their marriage, they were firmly bound in a tie of understanding, devotion and affection.
A month after the happy wedding day, Faraday publicly nailed his Christian colours to the mast by openly testifying of his faith before his chapel congregation and seeking full church membership.
He told the congregation how he had asked the Lord to forgive his sin, and had yielded his life to Christ. He told them how sure he was that God had changed his heart, and made him a true Christian.
He had been an earnest member of the congregation from boyhood, but not until the age of thirty – having passed through his troubled sea of doubts and proved the reality of Christ for himself – did he take this step of joining the church.
Within three years of his marriage Faraday embarked on the great quest for usable electrical power without batteries. Working in his lofty, shelf-lined laboratory at the Royal Institution he made countless experiments on ‘electrical phenomena’.
Having been elected a fellow of the Royal Society – despite surprising opposition from Sir Humphrey – he was now in the very forefront of electrical research. When Sir Humphrey died, an unhindered Faraday took complete control of research at the Royal Institution.
In those days electric currents were produced in the laboratory by unsophisticated machines which rubbed plates together, or by cumbersome batteries.
Then, in 1831, came Faraday’s great discovery. In ten days of experimentation and intense thought, he created the first real dynamo. He had produced electricity without a battery, and opened the door to electrical power and the electronic age.
Not surprisingly, at the age of forty-four, Faraday was recognised by all as the leading man of science, honoured with a doctorate by Oxford University and granted a generous government allowance to assist him in his work.
Faraday had little interest in the antics of fashionable society. His personal life was centred around his family and his chapel. The twenty or so families that formed the chapel membership elected Faraday as an elder when he was 51.
Every week with unfailing regularity he preached at the chapel from notes written on a small white card. Often scientific friends would go along to see what it was that Faraday believed, which made him the best-loved man in his profession.
One visitor recorded his impression: ‘He read a long portion of one of the Gospels, slowly, reverently, and with such an intelligent and sympathising appreciation of the meaning that I thought I had never before heard as excellent a reader’.
Another said that Faraday’s object seemed to be to make the most of the words of Scripture, and that his sermons reflected a thorough knowledge of the Bible, for he quoted extensively and accurately.
‘Throughout his life’, said fellow-scientist Lord Kelvin, ‘Faraday adhered faithfully to his faith. I well remember at meetings of the British Association in Aberdeen and Glasgow, how he sought out the meeting places of his church’.
Faraday’s lectures were often adorned by references to the Christian faith. Lecturing before the Prince Consort in 1854, he uttered these words:
‘[Concerning man’s] future life, I believe that the truth of that future cannot be brought to his knowledge by an exertion of his mental powers however exalted they may be. It is made known to him by a teaching other than his own, and is received through simple belief of the testimony given.
‘Let no one suppose for a moment that the self-education I am about to commend in respect of the things of this life, extends to any consideration of the hope set before us, as if any by reasoning could find out God.’
Faraday, who died in 1867, had found an understanding of life’s purpose by studying and believing the teaching of the Bible, and by seeking a personal experience of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This article has been edited and abridged from Men of Purposeby Peter Masters, which brings together eleven outstanding people whose lives were changed by a sight of real Christianity. Also includes Henry Heinz, Felix Medelssohn, Lord Kelvin and Daniel Defoe. A revised, illustrated edition is being issued by Wakeman on 1 December, £7.50; available from Christian bookshops. ISBN 1-870855-41-8.