How did the Earth come to be? How did the mountains, seas, and life-forms on Earth first materialise? These are questions that are as interesting to scientists and individuals today as they were in 1696 when A New Theory of the Earth by William Whiston was published. Just as some scientists today use current research to explain the mysteries of the beginning of the universe to a general audience in the twenty-first-century, Whiston used the most modern empirical scientific theories of his day, those of Issac Newton, to describe how he believed the Earth and its features came to be formed. Whiston published in English to reach a wide audience and his book met with huge success in Britain, Ireland, Europe, and America. From 1696 to 1744 A New Theory of the Earth went through six editions.
The popularity of the book is evident through references to it by other great minds. Irishman and philosopher William Molyneaux questioned John Locke on his thoughts of Whiston’s New Theory the year it was first published. Locke responded that all of his acquaintances spoke highly of it. Locke’s own personal praise was that
“…he has laid down an hypothesis whereby he has explained so many wonderful, and, before, inexplicable things in the great changes of this globe, than that some of them should not go easily down with some men; when, the whole was entirely new to all. He is one of those sort of writers, that I always fancy should be most esteemed and encouraged. I am always for the builders, who bring some addition to our knowledge, or, at least some new thing to our thoughts.”
Another Irish Philosopher, George Berkeley, brought A New Theory with him to America with an initial view of using it to train missionaries but eventually donating it to Yale library where it was read by Yale president Ezra Stiles. Issac Newton approved of Whiston’s A New Theory of the Earth and, when he took up employment at the Royal Mint in London, it was Whiston whom he supported to succeed him as Lucasian Chair at Cambridge.
Whiston did not write his New Theory of the Earth solely to lay out his own theory based on the new natural philosophy. He opened his narrative stating it was in “…no inconsiderable part of the ensuing Theory, to account for the Creation of the World, agreeable to the description thereof in the Book of Genesis…” Furthermore, Whiston wrote it in response to Thomas Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra published in Latin in two volumes in 1681 and 1689 and their English translations in 1684 and 1690. Burnet based his theory of the creation on Descartes’ natural philosophy with which Whiston agreed until he encountered Newton’s Principia. While Burnet allowed for Divine intervention and religious beliefs in his version of the creation of the world he did not agree with literal interpretations of the Genesis creation story and regarded it as merely a tale Moses told to explain the natural creation of the world in terms primitive people could understand. This leeway Burnet opened allowed for other writers such as Thomas Blount to use Burnet’s scientific theories to support their own Deist or Atheist causes. Whiston wanted his New Theory of the Earth to counteract those who discredited the historical accuracy of Moses’ account in Genesis as a fable, and also those who stuck so literally to the account of Moses that they left no room for natural explanations. Whiston, being a deeply spiritual man, was against the onslaught of Deists and his New Theory of the Earth can be seen as an attempt to prove that science and religion were not conflicting autonomous authorities and that the empiricism of natural philosophy did not negate religious supremacy. Indeed the long title of the text is, “A New Theory of the Earth from its Original to the Consummation of all Things. Wherein the creation of the world in Six Days, the Universal Deluge, and the General Conflagration, as laid down in the Holy Scriptures are shewn to be perfectly agreeable to reason and philosophy.”
The crux of Whiston’s theory rested on comets. In 1577 Tycho Brahe upgraded the status of comets from meteorological events to a new form of celestial body and numerous attempts to analyse this new knowledge followed. The most recent revision of comet composition was that of Issac Newton published in book three of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. Newton surmised that comets consisted of a hot solid core surrounded by a much wider thick layer of vapours some of which interacted with the suns rays and formed the tail. Newton believed that comets were essential for replenishing planets and stars and were crucial for maintaining balance within the universe. Whiston was dedicated to Newton’s work and he incorporated and expanded Newton’s theories of comets, attraction, and motion to explain the creation of the Earth. Rather than rely exclusively on scientific theories, Whiston embedded his Newtonian explanations within the established framework of religion thus allowing one to bolster the authority of the other.
Whiston hypothesized that Earth originated as a comet whose orbit was altered either by direct Divine intervention or by following a Divine design laid out for it. The alteration of the Comet’s path from an eccentric elliptical orbit to an almost circular orbit caused it’s constituency to settle in a number of steps that Whiston correlated to the six steps the prophet Moses laid out in the Book of Genesis. Whiston explains that the change in orbit of the comet meant that at that time a day was actually equivalent to a year in our calendar. Therefore the six days of creation were actually six years.
Image of comet mass.
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:2.)
Whiston paired this passage in the bible to the initiation of change from the chaotic form of the comet to the Earth we now know. Whiston said the denser vapours of the comet settled to the centre and created the core of the Earth. The light that God created in the first day, or year in Whiston’s account, was the amount of sunlight that penetrated through the vaporous mass after the denser and earthy opaque materials had settled. On the second day the form of the comet continued to settle into land and seas. Earthy particles formed dry land which settled on top of and covered the denser fluids and core beneath according to the laws of gravitational attraction of denser and heavier material. The least dense earthy particles settled even further on top and formed the Earth’s mountains. The vapours still left in the clouds rained down and left the land fully fertile and formed small seas. The third day of creation when plants were formed Whiston left to God without applying any new scientific theory. He believed that Divine providence at the time of the original creation had provided within the material of the Comet the necessary ingredients for plants and animals. The fourth day where Genesis states that God created day and night and made the stars would, seemingly, present an obstruction to Whiston’s theory as the celestial body of the comet predated the Earth. However, Whiston overcomes this eloquently. Whiston believes that the heavenly bodies were in existence but were not yet visible from Earth until God made it so. On the fifth day Whiston explains that the necessary material of seeds and little fish originally placed in the comet vapour by Divine Providence were brought forth from the water to create animals as the account in Genesis tells us. On the sixth day however, Whiston said,
“Tho’ ‘tis granted that all the other Day’s Works mentioned by Moses were generally brought to pass in a natural way by proper and suitable Instruments and a Mechanical Process, as we have seen through the whole Series of the foregoing Creation; yet ‘tis evident… That an immediate and miraculous Power was exercis’d in the formation of the Body, and Infusion of the Soul of Man.”
William Whiston’s natural mechanical explanation for the creation of the world did not end on the seventh day when God rested. He went on to explain to explain how another comet sent by Divine intervention obliquely grazed the Earth’s atmosphere along the equator with its tail, depositing enough of its vapourised matter to alter the Earth’s form significantly and began the forty days and nights of rain which caused Noah’s flood in the scriptures. The extra weight of this rain upon the Earth caused the surface to crack and change into the oblate spheroid shape of the Earth. It also added to the gravitational mass of the Earth, altered the Earth’s axis, and changed its orbit to 365 days. In paradise Whiston explained there were perfect conditions but the tilting of the Earth’s axis during the Deluge caused “seasons, winds, tides, and diurnal rotation.” These changes also led to a new 365 day calendar which is why, Whiston explained, Moses described the world being created in six days when in the pre-Deluge world those six days were equal to six modern years.
Comet causing the Deluge.
Edward Worth appears to have been interested in following contemporary thoughts on the creation of the Earth as Whiston’s A New Theory of the Earth appears in his collection along with the first Latin edition of volume one of Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra from 1681 and its third edition in English encompassing two volumes printed in 1697. Worth also owned a critique of Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra by Herbert Croft printed in 1685, and A Natural History by Sir Thomas Pope Blount printed in 1693. Interestingly, Edward Worth’s earliest copy of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica was printed in 1713 and was likely to have been acquired after Worth’s copy of Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth. This could possibly lend credibility to the idea that William Whiston was important in popularising Newton’s work although in Worth’s case we cannot say definitively. Either way, Whiston’s first publication, A New Theory of the Earth, was important in the continuing debate of how the world came to be made and is an example of one of many attempts by individuals to harmonize natural philosophy and reason with religion in an effort to counteract disruptive deist attempts to use philosophy and reason to usurp religious authority during the Enlightenment.
Cohen, I. Bernard, A Guide to Newton’s Principia, (University of California Press 1999).
Desmaizeaux, Mr., The Works of John Locke, Esq., (London, 5thedition 1751).
Force, James E., William Whiston, Honest Newtonian, (Cambridge University Press 1985).
Heidarzadeh, Tofigh, ‘The Reception of Newton’s Theory of Cometary Tail Formation’ in Centaurus 2006 Vol. 48 p50-65.
Whiston, William, A New Theory of the Earth, (London 1696).
Text: Ms Neasa McGarrigle, TCD.by