Robert Boyle (1627-1691)
In days of pervading atheism when Christians are considered to be a bit feeble-minded concerning science, it is well to consider that the basis of modern science lies in the researches of those who held a biblical worldview with God as the Creator, such as Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell and Robert Boyle. The relationship of the pressure to the volume of a gas at constant temperature, ‘Boyle’s law’, is still taught in schools.
Robert Boyle, the seventh son and fourteenth child of Richard, the 1st Earl of Cork, was sent to Eton aged 8 along with his older brother, Francis. Whilst in his room, the ceiling collapsed along with all the furniture in the room above, but he narrowly avoided harm. He was also nearly killed when his horse threw him, and he recognised God’s providence in sparing his life.
Aged 11, he had a private tutor, Monsieur Marcombes, who sometimes annoyed him, but he controlled his passions by reminding himself of the verse ‘For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God’ (Jam.1:20). Marcombes was diligent in reading and explaining the Scriptures to the brothers. He taught them Calvin’s catechism, held morning and evening prayers and attended church twice a week. At 16, Boyle’s father sent him and his brother on a tour of Europe which lasted 6 years.
An awakening experience
Robert believed in God, but practised only a formal religion. While at Geneva, there was a terrifying storm with torrential rain, deafening thunder and dazzling lightning. Thinking the day of judgement was at hand, he prayed that if God spared him, he would live a life of piety, not as a means to get to Heaven, but as an act of service. He dated his conversion to this time.
However, he began to have doubts, and he turned to the Scriptures to prove to himself why he believed the truths of the faith. Great difficulties followed. Their subsistence money was stolen by a trusted friend, with their tutor keeping them out of his own pocket for two more years. His father then died, so any future income dried up. Marcombes sold some personal jewellery to get them back to England where the Civil War was raging and there were outbreaks of the plague.
The start of a scientific career
Robert returned to his family property in Stalbridge, Dorset, and began his research as a scientist, or a natural philosopher as it was then called. He believed God had revealed himself in two books: the Bible and the book of nature. Determined to get to the truth in both areas, he set about learning Hebrew, Greek, Chaldee and Aramaic so he could read the original manuscripts and avoid mistranslations. In a similar manner he analysed medicines and chemicals to see whether they were contaminated. He met with others who had similar aims, calling themselves the Invisible College, which became the famous Royal Society of today. They shared information rather than keeping it secret for personal gain, as the alchemists did.
To further his research, he moved to his recently constructed laboratory at Oxford in about 1655, where he employed an assistant, Robert Hooke, who would later discover his own law on the elasticity of springs. Hooke helped Boyle construct an air pump to withdraw air from a glass chamber in which he showed how air was vital to allow flames to burn, mice to breathe, and enable the transmission of sound. People thought air was weightless, but Boyle showed it had weight which presses down upon us. He also discovered that at a fixed temperature the volume of a gas varies inversely with its pressure, which is still known as Boyle’s law.
Most alchemists believed all matter was composed of the elements earth, air, fire and water. Boyle’s experiments with various substances proved that these so-called elements could be split into simpler components called corpuscles which were in motion. These experiments paved the way for the elements of the periodic table we use today, and earned him the epithet ‘Father of Chemistry’. He published his results in The Sceptical Chymist in 1661, when he was just 34 years old.
Seeking to honour God in all
Boyle was always busy, but he wrote: ‘The perpetual hurry I live in, my frequent journeys … have left me very little time to converse with any book, save the Bible…’ He found time to write Free discourse against customary swearing, Some motives and incentives to the love of God, and Essay on the Scriptures. For his godly sister Katherine, Boyle wrote Occasional reflections upon several subjects, a collection of allegories giving spiritual meanings to everyday observations. She was so impressed that she insisted he publish it.
King Charles II promised Boyle a bishopric if he entered the church, but he declined as he ‘felt no inward motion to it by the Holy Ghost’. The King made him governor to a corporation for sharing the gospel among the unconverted natives in New England and other parts of America which involved translating and printing the Bible in the native tongue. His Irish property was restored to him and he used all the income for the maintenance of ministers, the relief of the poor and good works. Boyle funded the translation of the Bible into Welsh, Irish, Malay, Arabic and Turkish.
Robert Boyle did everything with a consciousness of the presence of God, and Bishop Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715) observed: ‘He had so profound a veneration for the Deity, that the very name of God was never mentioned by him without a pause and a visible stop in his discourse.’
In 1690, Boyle published The Christian Virtuoso. In it he observed: ‘I could scarce avoid taking notice of the great and deplorable growth of irreligion, especially among those that aspired to pass for wits, and several of them for philosophers.’ That would certainly be applicable today. He reckoned that some things are above reason, but not contrary to reason and believed that ‘greatness of mind is promoted by Christianity’. He wrote that the world ‘cannot have been the effect of mere chance … or of fortuitous concourse of atoms, but must have been produced by a Cause, exceedingly powerful, wise, and beneficent.’
Robert Boyle endowed the Boyle Lectures to defend the truth of Christianity and explore its relationship to science. In later years, despite often being in pain with ague fits and kidney stones and plagued with bad eyesight, he remained a popular figure and had to limit his visitors to certain times in the week, so he could finish his written correspondence. Concerning his death he wrote, ‘one welcoming smile from Christ will make amends for all the scornful smiles of sinful men.’
Will that be our comfort too?