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Reference group
Authors of the Bridgewater Treatises (act. c.1833–1836) were a group of eight men of science selected in 1830 by the president of the Royal Society (Davies Gilbert), with the assistance of the archbishop of Canterbury (William Howley) and the bishop of London (Charles James Blomfield), to write works on the ‘power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation’ in accordance with the terms of a munificent bequest of Francis Henry Egerton, eighth earl of Bridgewater. The resulting eight Bridgewater Treatises, published between 1833 and 1836, were widely read and reviewed (despite being published at gentlemanly prices ranging from 9s. to £1 15s.) and became iconic of early nineteenth-century attempts to demonstrate that modern science was supportive of orthodox Christianity.

Egerton's bequest of £8000 was to be paid to ‘such person or persons’ as the president of the Royal Society should nominate to write ‘a work’ of natural theology. By involving Howley and Blomfield in the selection Gilbert not only gave it unimpeachable religious authority but also removed it from the contemporary debate in the Royal Society concerning meritocratic reform. The choice of authors was nevertheless a matter of controversy, with critics both within the society and in the public press, where charges of nepotism prompted a public riposte from Gilbert. Several recommendations of and applications from potential authors were received at an early stage, but Howley's view was that the bequest was not intended ‘to give a prize to an ingenious young man’, and that a valuable publication could best be produced by ‘selecting a certain number of eminent persons’ to write on different topics (Enys, 4). It was not until June 1830, some sixteen months after the earl's death, that this became the agreed plan. Thereafter the selection of authors was carried out somewhat hurriedly as Gilbert's presidency became increasingly beleaguered, and the process was completed before his resignation in November 1830.

As critics later observed, the choice of eight authors seems to have been suggested by the amount of the bequest, so that each author received a round £1000. Rather than carving up the subject matter in a logical manner, Gilbert and his advisers worked piecemeal. They included topics as they occurred to them, tailoring them to suit desirable authors (frequently acquaintances) and to reflect particular examples suggested in Egerton's will. Consequently, while most critics were generally satisfied with the calibre of the authors employed, the apportioning of subjects left almost all dissatisfied. Some of the topics were standard ones in the literature of natural theology, like astronomy and natural history, but there was also a clear intention to demonstrate the religious tendency of newer sciences, notably geology, comparative anatomy, physiology, and chemistry. Two treatises on the ‘Constitution of man’ were particularly topical in the light of George Combe's controversial and recent phrenological work of that title. Other titles, however, were criticized for favouring Egerton's own suggested examples of the human hand and the function of digestion.

The authors chosen were men of science of some eminence and established reputation. The youngest, 36-year-old William Whewell, who contributed Astronomy and General Physics (1833), was already a Cambridge professor and a leading spokesman for British science, but their average age was fifty-one. With the exception of the Scottish churchman, theologian, and political economist Thomas Chalmers, author of the two-volume treatise On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man (1833), all were fellows of the Royal Society. Several, indeed, were prominent in the society's business: the physiologist Peter Mark Roget, who wrote Animal and Vegetable Physiology (1834), was one of the secretaries and the geologist William Buckland, author of Geology and Mineralogy (1836), was a member of the council, as had been the chemist William Prout, whose contribution was on the theme of Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion (1834). Moreover, all were highly regarded in their respective scientific fields, and several were renowned for scientific discoveries or theoretical innovations. The Royal Society's prestigious Copley medal had been awarded to Buckland for his widely discussed research on fossil cave remains and to Prout for his chemical categorization of foodstuffs (although he is now better known for ‘Prout's hypothesis’, concerning the fundamental composition of matter). Charles Bell, who carried out Egerton's suggestion in his The Hand: its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design (1833), had published important researches concerning brain anatomy and nerve function.

While only Chalmers was a theologian, it was clearly important to the selectors that the authors should be orthodox Christians. Moreover, all were at least nominally members of the established church (in the case of Chalmers, controversially, the presbyterian kirk). Chalmers was one of four authors who were clergymen, although by the time of his appointment he, along with Buckland and Whewell, was a university professor. Chalmers had also been active in pastoral work, like the Suffolk parson and entomologist William Kirby, author of On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation of Animals and in their History, Habits, and Instincts (1835). The remaining four authors were medical men, of whom the surgeon Bell and two of the physicians, Prout and Roget, were Edinburgh-trained. These three practised in London, where they were involved in both research and education. Charles Bell was the most active pedagogue, becoming one of the founding medical professors at London University. The Oxford-educated John Kidd, who contributed On the Adaptation of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man (1833), took a leading role there in scientific education, eventually obtaining the regius professorship of physic.

This involvement in academic pedagogy reflects the premium placed by the selectors on the authors' abilities as communicators. All were experienced authors, and most had written for non-specialist audiences. Kirby and Whewell were both authors of textbooks, and Whewell was particularly noted for his metascientific reviews in the quarterlies. Chalmers and Roget had written encyclopaedia articles, and both Roget and Bell had written popular treatises for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Significantly, moreover, several of them had addressed the relevance of science to modern Christianity in print. Chalmers's Astronomical Discourses (1817), demonstrating the consistency of modern astronomy with Christianity, had established his national reputation. Buckland's inaugural lecture in Oxford, Vindiciae geologicae (1820), had defended the religious value of geology, as had his well-received Reliquiae diluvianae (1823). Kidd's inaugural had likewise demonstrated the religious value of comparative anatomy to a sceptical Oxford audience, and Bell's cheap treatises, Animal Mechanics (1827–9), had sought to exhibit design to materialist workers.

Yet, for all they had in common, the Bridgewater authors were not a close-knit faction, nor did they even share a common approach. While some (for instance, Buckland and Whewell) were well acquainted, others (including Kidd and Chalmers, whose topics were closely related) neither met nor corresponded before writing. Buckland, Kirby, and the three London-based authors convened to discuss their commission in December 1830. However, with Gilbert no longer in office they decided to publish their contributions as separate treatises and thereafter had little contact, although Roget acted as an unofficial secretary to the group. Not surprisingly reviewers were quick to criticize both the overlaps and the divergences between the resulting treatises. Nevertheless, since the treatises were not all ready simultaneously, the slower authors (most notably Kirby) had the advantage of being able to respond to the treatises published first.

Although Howley and Blomfield were both high churchmen, the authors ranged theologically from the high church Kirby to the evangelical Chalmers, and most were not identifiably members of a religious party. There was a similar political range from liberal whig (Bell) through Peelite conservative (Buckland, Chalmers, and Whewell) to traditional tory (Kirby). All the authors were, unsurprisingly, keen to demonstrate the agreement between the sciences and orthodox Christianity. They also shared the notion that new scientific discoveries would always be found congruent with the Bible, and that scientific inquiry should therefore be unshackled by religious dogma. Indeed, in avowing a long earth history, Buckland famously argued that the Bible was not primarily intended to convey scientific truth, and the other authors agreed. The one exception was Kirby, whose spiritualized, symbolical interpretation of the supposed scientific meaning of the Hebrew scriptures reflected the by now quaint approach of the naturalist and theologian John Hutchinson (1674–1737).

In their attitudes to the argument from design, the authors were less united. Buckland most straightforwardly saw himself expanding on the foundational natural theology of the canonical Natural Theology (1802) of William Paley. Most of the other authors, however, were more circumspect about the notion that knowledge of God could be obtained by the exercise of natural reason independent of revelation. Chalmers and Whewell (the most theologically and philosophically astute of the authors) admitted significant limitations to natural theology, reflecting a wider evangelical critique. Others emphasized the extent to which the modern sciences manifested design in nature without explicitly inquiring into the underlying philosophy. However, in developing their accounts of design, the authors developed a range of divergent approaches, including a strong emphasis on designed laws in Whewell's treatise and an idealist account of organic forms in Roget's.

The immediate and lasting success of the Bridgewater Treatises owed much to the choice of authors. They were written by leading men of science, selected by the heads of British science and the church to demonstrate the congruence of the latest findings in the sciences with religious orthodoxy. Skilled as writers for non-specialists, their authors collectively ranged over the newest and fastest-changing sciences, presenting findings authoritatively and accessibly within a Christian framework, albeit with varying degrees of success. That the treatises varied significantly both in style and theology in one sense added to their reputation, since many readers were able to find at least one treatise to their tastes. By contemporary standards, the series was a coup for its unsuspecting gentleman's publisher, William Pickering, with more than 60,000 copies of the several treatises in print by 1850 and new editions appearing into the 1880s.

There was, nevertheless, no shortage of criticism. The somewhat disparate character of the series was seen as a consequence of the desultory and possibly nepotistic handling of the bequest, and some critics considered the whole project to be undermined by the obvious financial interest of the authors. One such was the mathematician Charles Babbage—a leading critic of the Royal Society under Gilbert's presidency—who was sufficiently piqued by Whewell's comments on the religious tendency of mathematics to produce his own unofficial Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: a Fragment (1837). Theologically the authors were generally ill prepared to provide works of great insight. The anti-Christian Edinburgh anatomist Robert Knox (1791–1862) famously referred to the series as ‘Bilgewater Treatises’, and a range of Christian critics was also critical of the inadequacies of the argument from design as expounded in the treatises. Nevertheless, the manner in which several of the authors sought to incorporate the extension of naturalistic explanation within the framework of divine design made a lasting contribution to Victorian conceptions of the sciences. The legacy of this approach is powerfully indicated by Charles Darwin's decision to quote a religious apologia for natural law from Whewell's treatise opposite the title-page of Origin of Species (1859).

Jonathan R. Topham

Sources  

W. H. Brock, ‘The selection of the authors of the Bridgewater treatises’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 21 (1966), 162–79 · J. D. Enys, ed., Correspondence regarding the appointment of the writers of the Bridgewater treatises between Davies Gilbert and others (privately printed, Penryn, 1877) · J. R. Topham, ‘“An infinite variety of arguments”: the Bridgewater treatises and British natural theology in the 1830s’, PhD diss., University of Lancaster, 1993 · J. R. Topham, ‘Beyond the “common context”: the production and reading of the Bridgewater treatises’, Isis, 89 (1998), 233–62