Michael Faraday—Scientist and Man of Faith
“Father of Electricity.” “Greatest experimental scientist ever.” These are two descriptions of Michael Faraday, born in 1791 in England, whose discovery of electromagnetic induction led to the development of electric motors and power generation.
FARADAY lectured extensively on chemistry and physics at the Royal Institution in London. His lectures to popularize science helped young people grasp complicated concepts. He received accolades from numerous universities. Yet he shunned publicity. He was a deeply religious man, happiest in the privacy of his three-room apartment and in the company of his family and fellow believers. Faraday belonged to what he described as “a very small and despised sect of Christians, known . . . as Sandemanians.” Who were they? What did they believe? And how did this affect Faraday?
“The initial connection between the Faraday family and the Sandemanian church was sealed by Michael Faraday’s grandparents,” notes Geoffrey Cantor, author of Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist. They associated with the followers of an itinerant nonconformist minister whose associates espoused the Sandemanians’ beliefs.
Robert Sandeman (1718-71) was a university student in Edinburgh, studying mathematics, Greek, and other languages when one day he listened to ex-Presbyterian minister John Glass preach. What he heard caused him to quit the university, return home to Perth, and join Glass and his associates.
In the 1720’s, John Glass had begun to doubt some teachings of the Church of Scotland. His study of God’s Word led him to conclude that the Biblical nation of Israel typified a spiritual nation whose citizens came from many nationalities. Nowhere did he find justification for a separate church for each nation.
No longer at ease in his church at Tealing, outside Dundee, Scotland, Glass withdrew from the Church of Scotland and organized his own meetings. About a hundred people joined him, and from the start, they felt the need to maintain unity in their ranks. They decided to follow Christ’s instructions, recorded at Matthew chapter 18, verses 15 to 17, to settle any differences they might have. Later they held weekly meetings where those of like faith assembled for prayer and exhortation.
When a sizable number of people regularly began to attend the meetings of the different groups, responsible men were needed to supervise their worship. But who qualified? John Glass and his associates paid particular attention to what the apostle Paul wrote on this subject. (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) They found no mention of a university education or of the need to understand Hebrew and Greek. So after prayerful reflection on the Scriptural guidelines, they appointed qualified men to become elders. Those loyal to the Church of Scotland considered it “little short of blasphemy” for uneducated men “bred to the loom, the needle, or the plough” to pretend to understand the Bible and preach its message. When, in 1733, Glass and his fellow believers built their own meeting hall in the town of Perth, the local clergy attempted to pressure the magistrates to run them out of town. They failed, and the movement grew.
Robert Sandeman married Glass’ eldest daughter and, at the age of 26, became an elder in the Perth congregation of Glassites. His duties as an elder weighed so heavily on him that he decided to devote all his time to pastoral work. Later, after his wife had died, Robert “cheerfully consented to serve the Lord wherever his lot might be cast,” notes a biographical sketch.
Sandeman zealously expanded his ministry from Scotland into England, where new groups of fellow believers grew. At the time, controversy reigned among English Calvinists. Some of them believed that they were predestined for salvation. Sandeman, on the other hand, sided with those who held that faith was a necessary prerequisite. In support of this view, he published a book that was reprinted four times and also appeared in two American editions. According to Geoffrey Cantor, the publication of this volume was “the single most important event that raised the [Sandemanian] sect above its rather parochial Scottish beginnings.”
In 1764, Sandeman, accompanied by other Glassite elders, journeyed to America, a visit that provoked much controversy and opposition. Nevertheless, it resulted in the establishment of a group of like-minded Christians in Danbury, Connecticut.* There, in 1771, Sandeman died.
Faraday’s Religious Beliefs
Young Michael absorbed the Sandemanian teachings of his parents. He learned that Sandemanians kept themselves separate from those who did not practice what the Bible taught. For example, they refused to participate in the Anglican marriage service, preferring to limit their wedding ceremonies to what was legally necessary.
Subjection to governments, yet neutrality in politics, characterized the Sandemanians. Though respected members of the community, they rarely accepted civic positions. But in the few cases where they did, they avoided party politics. Maintaining this position brought reproach upon them. (Compare John 17:14.) Sandemanians held that God’s heavenly Kingdom is the perfect arrangement for government. They viewed politics as “a trivial, sordid game bereft of morality,” notes Cantor.
Though separate from others, they did not assume Pharisaic attitudes. They declared: “We judge it absolutely necessary to avoid the Spirit and Practice of the ancient Pharisees, in making more Sins or Duties than the Scripture has made; and in making void the divine Precepts by human Traditions or logical Evasions.”
They adopted the Scriptural practice of disfellowshipping any of their number who became a drunkard, an extortioner, a fornicator, or who practiced other serious sins. If the sinner truly repented, they tried to restore him. Otherwise, they followed the Scriptural injunction to “remove the wicked man.”—1 Corinthians 5:5, 11, 13.
The Sandemanians obeyed the Biblical command to abstain from blood. (Acts 15:29) John Glass had argued that God’s people are under obligation to obey the restriction on blood just as God had commanded the first humans to abstain from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. (Genesis 2:16, 17) Disobedience to the command regarding blood was tantamount to a rejection of the proper use of Christ’s blood, namely atonement from sin. Glass concluded: “This prohibition of blood-eating was always, and still is of the greatest and highest importance.”
The Sandemanians’ reasoning on the Scriptures helped them avoid many pitfalls. For example, in the matter of entertainment, they looked to Christ’s instructions as guidelines. “We dare not make Laws where Christ has made none,” they said, “nor dispense with any he has given us. Therefore, as we cannot find where Diversion, public or private, is forbidden; we account any Amusement lawful, that is not connected with Circumstances really sinful.”
Although the Sandemanians thus held many views that were accurately based on Scripture, they did not grasp the importance of the very activity that characterizes true Christians, namely, that each should preach the Kingdom good news to others. (Matthew 24:14) Yet, their meetings were open to all, and there they endeavored to give all who asked them a reason for their hope.—1 Peter 3:15.
How did this pattern of beliefs affect scientist Michael Faraday?
Faraday the Sandemanian
Honored, feted, held in high esteem for his remarkable discoveries, Michael Faraday lived a simple life. When famous people died and those in public life were expected to attend their funerals, Faraday was a notable absentee, his conscience not allowing him to attend and become involved in a Church of England service.
As a scientist Faraday stuck closely to what he could demonstrate to be facts. He thus avoided close association with learned men who put forward their own hypotheses and took sides on issues. As he once told an audience, ‘a fundamental fact never fails us, its evidence is always true.’ He portrayed science as dependent ‘upon carefully observed facts.’ Concluding one presentation on the basic forces of nature, Faraday encouraged his audience to contemplate “Him who hath wrought them.” Then he quoted the Christian apostle Paul: “The invisible things of Him 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, King James Version.
What set Faraday apart as so different from many other scientists was his desire to learn from God’s inspired Book as well as from the book of nature. “Through his Sandemanianism he discovered the way to live in obedience with God’s moral law and with the promise of eternal life,” Cantor observes. “Through his science he came into close contact with the physical laws that God had chosen to govern the universe.” Faraday believed that “the absolute authority of the Bible could not be undermined by science, but science, if practised in a truly Christian way, can illuminate God’s other book.”
Faraday humbly rejected many of the honors that others wanted to bestow upon him. He consistently expressed disinterest in a knighthood. He wished to remain ‘plain Mister Faraday.’ He devoted much time to his activities as an elder, including traveling regularly from the capital to a Norfolk village to care for a small group of like-minded believers living there.
Michael Faraday died on August 25, 1867, and was buried in Highgate cemetery in north London. Biographer John Thomas tells us that Faraday “bequeathed to posterity a greater body of pure scientific achievement than any other physical scientist, and the practical consequences of his discoveries have profoundly influenced the nature of civilised life.” Faraday’s widow, Sarah, wrote: “I can only point to the New Testament as being his guide & rule; for he considered it as the Word of God . . . equally binding on Christians at the present day as when written”—eloquent testimony to an eminent scientist who devoutly lived by his faith.
The last remaining Sandemanian, or Glassite, group in the United States ceased to exist early this century at the latest.
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Installed as lecturer at Britain’s Royal Institution, Michael Faraday popularized science in a way even youngsters could understand. His advice to fellow lecturers contains practical suggestions that modern-day Christians who teach publicly do well to consider.
□ “The utterance should not be rapid and hurried, and consequently unintelligible, but slow and deliberate.”
□ A speaker should endeavor to raise the interest of his audience “at the commencement of the lecture and by a series of imperceptible gradations, unnoticed by the company, keep it alive as long as the subject demands it.”
□ “A lecturer falls deeply beneath the dignity of his character when he descends so low as to angle for claps and ask for commendation.”
□ On the use of an outline: “I always find myself obliged . . . to draw up a plan of [the subject] on paper and fill in the parts by recalling them to mind, either by association or otherwise. . . . I have a series of major and minor head[ing]s in order, and from these I work out my subject matters.”
[Picture Credit Line on page 26]
Both pictures: By courtesy of the Royal Institution